The Joys of Being a Mental Health Therapist....

So, before we begin, I should probably clear the air of any vague, ominous rumblings. It is true that I am a therapist. No, no. Not one of the cool, hip, desirable kinds of therapists. I’m not a physical therapist, for example. That’s a great, interesting job for most Americans. Tell someone you’re a physical therapist and they know immediately that you’re intelligent and wealthy and fit and probably have interesting things to say about the human body, and interesting stories to tell about all the fun people you meet and make to do fun, interesting things as you help them to, say, walk again after a terrible car accident. And, no, I’m not even a speech or occupational therapist, both of which occupations evoke sympathy and admiration, as people realize you’ve dedicated your life and craft to improving the lives of those who have been dealt some difficult hands, either via nature or because of plain bad luck in life.

No, I’m none of those. Instead, I’m a “mental health” therapist. In real life when I tell someone my profession, one of two things happen. Either they nod, smile painfully and slowly try to inconspicuously back away, or they nod, smile painfully and force themselves to ask me one or two follow up questions. Of those follow up questions, the most common is, “You’re not psychoanalyzing me right now, are you?” But when they ask that one, they’re not asking it as a joke. Their eyes are desperate. They want to know for sure that you’re not identifying their mommy and daddy issues simply by the way they asked about your profession. Am I going to identify their commitment issues? Their insecurities? Will I point out that the impetus for all of their life decisions has been a Sisyphean effort to prove to themselves that they’re better than their older brother, Jim, who owns two car dealerships and blows too much money on call girls and blow on the weekends, because he too has some twisted things motivating him?

If I’m in a shitty kind of mood, I usually respond by simply looking the person up and down and saying, “Interestingggg…” and then walking away without saying anything else.

But sometimes, if they’re really masochistic, the person I’ve introduced myself to will eventually ask me about an interesting client I have experienced.

“This is good,” I think to myself, when it happens. “I’m a normal, boring human being. This is small talk. This is what small talk feels like. They have not run away in fear, and I will respond to their graciousness with grace of my own.”

But the fact that the person has neither backed away slowly and disappeared for the remainder of the evening, nor asked with eyes bulging with fear whether I’m psychoanalyzing them, makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to respond. They want an answer, dammit, and you’re standing there looking like the weirdo therapist geek you are. SAY SOMETHING.

In my desperation my perpetually socially malfunctioning brain always goes to the two dozen or so clients who I’ve known whose stories are really fucked up. So I often end up saying something like:

“Well, once there was this one guy, and he told me about how, when he was growing up, his father used to rape both him and his brother. And, how, one day his brother finally got tired of it—and this was when the siblings were both already in their late teens, mind you—so, but the brother got tired of it and murdered their father by stabbing him in the throat with a pair of pliers. And then he said his brother got out of prison some years later and completed suicide a couple of weeks later and my client was the one who found the body hanging from the ceiling. But the story was so obviously…just…too much… and I didn’t really believe it. How could I? So, I googled it, and actually, I found out the guy didn’t even tell me the whole story. Apparently his brother didn’t just murder the father, he chopped up the corpse and ate some of it himself, secretly served some to his brother, my client, by hiding it in various dishes, like chili and spaghetti Bolognese, and fed what was left of the body to some dogs they had been taking care of on their property.”

This is my life. This is what I deal with. These are the stories I hear. I don't work with mere neurotics. I work with people who have had profoundly shitty things happen to them. I have heard stories that should keep me awake at night, and make me question the mere existence of existence more than I already do. I have met and worked with people who are the most inspiring people I know just for the fact that they are still alive and still trying.  

The moral of all this being, my definition of “interesting client” is generally gargantuanly different from that of the person who was brave/dumb enough to ask a professional therapist about an interesting client they have had.

So, no, I am not one of the cool therapists. I am one of the weirdo creepo therapists who’s always trying to mind-fuck everyone else. That’s what people think of me. And I’m not even rich. I don’t own a private practice. I’ve spent my entire career working in the “public sector” where I’ve made a  yearly salary of between $36,000 and $52,000 since receiving my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in 2011.

All of which is a roundabout, long-winded (get used to it) way of saying that sometimes being a therapist sucks. No, I’m not psychoanalyzing or trying to mind fuck you people all the time. I’m just a normal person. I have my own hopes and dreams and desires, and they don’t include me spending my free time identifying all the deeply buried, subconscious or semi-conscious reasons why you’re all so messed up.

And let’s get something straight here, you ARE all messed up. But it’s ok. So am I. So is everyone. So are Oprah and Deepak. So are Eckhart Tolle and Tony Robbins. So is any other self-help guru du jour. They’re ALL messed up. You’re messed up. I’m messed up. It’s just a clusterfuck of fuck ups.

That’s actually one of the things I like about being a therapist, though-- exposing this deep, dark, hidden truth to clients. This is life, and nobody gets out of it unscathed. NOBODY. Whether your brother murdered your rapist father and fed you chunks of his cadaver, or whether you’ve had a rather uneventful life, you’re not a perfect person.

To see the cloud of anxiety disperse from the face of a person who hadn’t yet realized this truth is addicting. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to do the job, despite the fact that it makes me a social leper, and a not particularly financially secure one at that. Because we’ve all been fed the lies. Every society lies to its inhabitants. But some lies are more useful, and less painful, than others. For example, in the   The lie in our society is that everybody else has it all figured it out, and you’re the only messed up person, that’s why you’re so unhappy. Not only that, but you deserve to be unhappy, because you’re the moron who hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s a painful, not very useful, lie.

The old cliché is that the “truth shall set you free.” I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. The truth is a sonofabitch sometimes, let’s be honest. It’s often a weasily, slippery monster that’s often stronger than we can imagine. The truth is hard to wrestle with sometimes, and it often gets the better of us.  But the truth does at least gives you some genuine options. It also has a tendency of putting things in perspective. Why fret so profoundly about your divorce, when the truth is that you are merely an imperceptible little microbe on an insignificant little planet in some little nook of a galaxy that is only one of Billions, perhaps even infinite galaxies, in a Universe that may be one of infinite Universes. That’s a big, mean, violent truth that often gets the best of us… but it also puts your divorce into some perspective.

With all that said, I won’t go so far as to say I’m bring you the Truth. I would never be so presumptuous. And, besides, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my 33-years on this planet, it’s that I’m stupid. I’m a certified moron. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can hardly wrap a Christmas present, much less assume to hold onto any kind of capital-T Truth.

What I am offering, however, is my experience, and the lessons I’ve taken from those experiences. Perhaps they will be useful for others, perhaps they won’t be. But I feel compelled to share them, so share them I must. Maybe it’s because, at the very least, I know what it feels like to know one’s self to be a dullard and a rube and to be totally at ease with such knowledge. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say I’ve learned, to some middling degree, how to use my naivete and ignorance to my advantage, and maybe that’s what I’m offering here—merely a hope that others are on this journey too, and maybe aren’t so interested in doing it alone.


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