If you have ever suffered from clinical depression, chances are that you have undergone psychotherapy. Today, my musings will focus on the mysterious, intimate relationship between therapists and their clients in dealing with depression.
I guess you could say that I’m a veteran of therapy. I first started going during my last year of law school. This fledging attempt at “getting better” didn’t go so well. At the time, my therapist was focused on helping me to recover from being raised by an alcoholic father. Depression wasn’t even part of the conversation. I was high achieving, but broken in some fundamental sense. I really didn’t know who I was or how to be myself in the real world. So, I pretended a lot.
I pretended by learning how to please others. Certainly, getting good grades was part of this basic formula. My mother and professors were certainly pleased. I loved learning, but getting good grades was more than that. I began to envision myself as a “success” and needed high grades to build on that identity. Good grades would take me places, I thought. They eventually took me to law school and my new identity, after passing the Bar Exam, as a member of the legal profession. I wasn’t just Dan, I was a “LAWYER”; an Esq. par excellence.
After becoming an attorney, I saw a therapist off and on. They helped, but not in any enduring way. Years went by and I still felt that same sense of brokenness that I had when I first began therapy over twenty years ago. I would bash myself with these critical questions: “Why can’t I get myself together after all these years of therapy? Why can’t I figure all this out?” These questions would haunt me for a long time. Little did I know that most people with depression struggled with the same misguided ruminations.
Psychologist James Hollis once said that the quality of our lives is driven by the quality of questions we ask ourselves. Depression warps this questioning process. The questions our melancholy ask of us are dead ends even though we don’t see them as such while we are engaged in such self-assessments. A common lament: “What’s wrong with me?” What good comes of this question for someone with depression? Its focus is actually part of the illness and not a legitimate route out of it. It often compels us to make up a list of “Things to Do to Fix Myself” never realizing that we don’t need to fix ourselves so much as compassionately face ourselves.
I’ve had the same psychologist for the past three years. His name is Jerry and he bears some resemblance to Freud with his grey beard, don’t you think?
He’s an Italian guy from the Bronx and a professor of psychology at one of our local universities. I often waffle about how much can be accomplished from seeing a psychologist once every week or two. But I am often surprised by the sustenance that I draw from Jerry, often in unexpected ways.
In my own depression, I found that I would often try to run away from the suffering of it all. Alternatively, I would perpetuate it with negative thinking and unskillful behavior; I would literally step on the melancholy gas pedal.
The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote: “The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help the client acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering.” We need to face our depression and perhaps learn that it won’t destroy us; we need to learn (yes, it is a skill you can learn) not to run from it or keep feeding it. Jung’s wisdom was echoed by another renowned analyst, Helen Luke: “The only valid cure for depression is the acceptance of real suffering. To climb out of it any other way is simply laying the foundation for the next depression.”
Recently, I went through a painful episode in my life. I was telling Jerry about my best friend, Steve, and said, “He told me that he will always be by my side 24-7.” Jerry sat across from me with his wise eyes and paused. He then said, with a sense of weighted authenticity, “Dan, I too will stand beside you and be with you at all times.” The intimacy between us during that 10 second exchange was profound and stayed with me for a long time. Can someone you see for 1 hour truly care about you in such an intimate way? Yes.
It can’t be faked, however. Maybe that’s part of the chemistry of having the right therapist and it’s a different equation for everyone. I believe that it’s critical to have a therapist as our ally in our recovery from and management of depression on a consistent basis. I believe consistency is important because people with depression often come from families where consistency was sorely lacking; they may not even have much it in their present lives. Even if they do, it most likely needs shoring up.
In a loving way, let go of the questions that only lead you down depression’s dead ends. Therapy is not only a questioning of negative habits that fuel depression, but a replacement with questions worthy of you. In short, they are nothing short of the Great Questions: “How can I bring more meaning in my life? What are my greatest passions in life?” It is only by facing and being present to the pain of our depression that we can learn to let it go and live out the great questions of our lives.