Thursday, January 21, 2010

How therapy helped

I've mentioned a few times on here that I went to therapy for a while.  Actually, I went to therapy on and off for over the course of ten years.  I knew that I wasn't really happy and was seeking a way to change my behavior.  So I got a recommendation from someone and went to see what I could do.

The first psychiatrist that I went to was a kind old gentleman, Dr. W.  But he didn't really probe much, and I never had a sense of any kind of satisfaction after our sessions.  It was as if he was skimming the surface but what I had was buried very deep. And I wanted to hide it. Interestingly enough, my mother was also seeing him for her depression.  He wasn't able to discern the depth of her mental illness though, did not prescribe any medications, so her depression worsened. One traumatic day, after she had a major depressive episode, I took her to the shrink on call.  He said that my mother needed to be hospitalized and  indicated severe "textbook" biological depression. I never made any more appointments with Dr. W. after that.

My next psychiatrist, Dr. D.,  was a tough fellow who didn't suffer fools gladly.  He was physically imposing. We were about the same height but he had me by a good 30 pounds. He had shaggy white hair and a white beard.  He liked to wear jeans and old sweaters. I remember the first sessions alone with him and how we would sit and stare at each other.  He was good at waiting me out.  I would cave, and when I did speak it seemed I wanted his approval.

He was definitely a father figure for me.  He could fix his eyes on me and know that I was faking a lot.  The group sessions were particularly difficult because I didn't want to talk at first in front of strangers.  But the more that I did, the better I got at not being afraid to speak. He taught me about asking for what I needed, rather than leaving it for the other person to intuit. I remember Dr. D. talking to me about how depleting it was to stuff my anger, how it was okay to let it flow in productive ways such as humor, fantasies, but not through acting it out.  He was the one who told me that I had choices when dealing with difficult people: I could try to "out crazy" them, or I could decide to "leave the field of battle".  He said that if I chose the former then I had best be prepared to spit my anger out in such a way that they would be crushed, and that would be at great emotional cost to me and the other person.  He thought that I would fully "graduate" when I could not flinch and look him in the eye and tell him to "go fuck yourself".  I finally did that, he laughed uproariously, and I felt better.....for a time.

After a number of years though, the same old me was still there and the lessons of humor, asking for what I needed, and choices about how to deal with my anger became a distant memory.  I was back to being simply miserable.  I started going to Dr. D's wife, Dr. D-S,  because Dr. D. had died a few years earlier.  She was a gentle woman who was very spiritual.  She was also seeing my wife in separate appointments.

I would talk to Dr. D-S.  about my emptiness, my feelings of dissatisfaction with myself and my marriage, and she would make some suggestions.  But I can't remember today what the take away message was--maybe just that I needed to try to communicate better with my wife, or that I needed to pursue some hobbies which I didn't really have at the time.  I know that many times I talked about my feelings around my wife's drinking. Dr. D-S.  actually thought that I might have PTSD as a result of living around alcoholism for much of my life. However, she never suggested that I go to Al-Anon.

While seeing Dr. D-S., a friend suggested that I needed to go to Al-Anon.  I talked with Dr. D-S. about it, and she seemed to think that it would be good for me.  My wife started going to AA at the same time. For some reason, Dr. D-S. became uncomfortable with seeing both of us in separate sessions and suggested that it might be better for me to seek help from her therapist.  (There is a bit of irony here).  So off I went to see Dr. H. 

Dr. H. is a psychologist.  She shared a lot of knowledge about alcoholism with me.  She had worked as a counselor at a rehab facility. She talked to me about co-dependency.  I learned that I had poor coping skills for dealing with conflict, anger, and anxiety (see diagram at left taken from Joe's blog Just for Today-Leveraging the Tools of Al-Anon).  We did some role playing so that I could begin to develop ways to take care of myself.  And she was the one who suggested that I develop hobbies and learn to entertain myself, rather than having expectations of others to do that with me or for me.  I really believe that I was at last beginning to comprehend (or at least hear) that I could not control what others did. 

As I got further into Al-Anon, I began to see that much of what I was hearing in meetings was similar to what Dr. H. was telling me.  And after a mutual agreement,  I decided that it was time for me to move away from therapy. 

In retrospect, I can see that therapy prepared me to more fully comprehend Al-Anon.  I was not afraid to share, to open up, to inventory my feelings, or to seek a guide (i.e. sponsor).  And for a minimal voluntary contribution at every meeting,  I have learned some of the best coping skills that anyone could offer--the 12 steps.


  1. YOu are sooooo right-on! Meetings and close sponsorship make for the most reasonable therapy and self-help found anywhere. In fact, if I cannot find an Al-Anon meeting, or my sponsor happens to be unavailable, I tag an AA meeting, and search out a long-timer who is willing to listen to me. Most of the time, just talking about a potential problem to someone helps better than arguing or stuffing the feelings. Most of us (at least I have found for myself) - - - that I can talk myself out of a funk or too compulsive a reaction to something I'm stewing about.

    I use my sponsor, the groups, and the people I sponsor to keep on the 'up' side of life! Heck, why not - - - it's a bargain, and it works!

    Love and Hugs,
    Anonymous #1

  2. wow, great blog. Understanding my codependency has truly added in my Al-Anon recover. thanks

  3. I don't have experience with therapy, but we took Andrew to two different therapists before he was 18 (then we could no longer force him). One specialized in young people. He never received a diagnosis, suggestions, or medication. They just talked week after week till the insurance coverage ran out. One therapist even told me I didn't have it as bad as some of his other clients (I think he would eat his words today...) Anyway, it soured me on the whole therapy thing.

    I'll take my free AlAnon;)

  4. Me too. The weirdest one I had was when I was about 28 and he wasn't much older. I think I was his guinea pig for role-playing therapy. I tried it, me being my mother, then me being me talking to my mother. It was like a really bad B Hitchcock-type movie. The next one recommended Alanon. All is God's time..I guess. And your mom's depression episode..been is tough to be the one with it and the one who loves the person with it.

    Good stuff today..tough, but good.


  5. yeah very interesting post. i tried my fair share of therapists. no psychiatrists tho. Tho I seem to meet more psychiatrists now than I can shake a stick at, and I have yet to meet one that I want to be more like. They have great pay, hours and pensions, but other than that Im not impressed. I had some very disappointing therapists. really lousy in retrospect. whatever. supposedly very good ones as well. I prefer ? senior monk type-people to all the others. they seem to understand people the best and are highly !!! attuned to others. but the amount of transformation i see in AA staggers me to this day. Some transform soooo rapidly. Not all, but some who really have a go at it. I think sponsoring is harder than being paid to be a therapist because its done after hours, on top of work commitments, without an office etc. but thats just my view.

  6. I have had good and bad experiences with therapists. My very first therapist was just excellent and helped me with my anxiety disorder along with a psychiatrist who gave me the right meds and helped me quit smoking. The therapist I see now has specialized in addiction and Codependent issues, but she can be tough on me when I need it. She is much like a sponser I believe and I adore her spirituality. I agree that Al-Anon or CODA meetings are something you can do with therapy and without. I live in a very small, closed minded community so my options for Al-Anon are limited, but I get much of the same feedback from my counselor at $10 a pop. Great post Syd, good to let people see that therapy doesn't make you a weak person or whatever the stigma may be.

  7. Thanks for your post about therapy and Al-Anon. I feel the same way about my Al-Anon meetings and sponsor. I think it can be pretty aggravating finding someone who "gets you" in therapy. It's also great to be able to talk with others about "their stuff" and to feel like it's a two way street and that we're all in it together. It reminds me of the words to a song from a Sober Vacations retreat a couple of years ago, "Thank heaven we're not all crazy--on the same day!

  8. I was in therapy for fifteen months, I chose to end it Nov 2008. Best therapist I ever saw. In my first marriage we searched for therapists to cure our marriage. I am a child of an alcoholic father and a depressed mother who fought physically and verbally and demonstrated their love for my brother and me by beating us. Let me tell you, there was lots of love shown. I like the road you travel through your therapy experiences in this post. I am working the twelve steps with a sponsor in codependency programs. What struck me right away in this post is that you continued to seek help in therapy and didn't give up. I am glad Al-Anon is a help to your being healthy.

  9. I have been in theropy most of my life.Meeting are important to me they help me be stable.

  10. It's all connected for me. Therapy/Recovery Program...without all of it who knows where I'd be, certainly not here.

    GREAT POST AGAIN SYD, so clear, so concise.

  11. Interesting post. I had therapy for a couple of years as a teenager, but I don't remember much benefit from it. And I've paid for lots of therapy for my daughter.

    It's amazing to me how seldom the therapists I had experience with asked for or suspected substance abuse, in my case or my daughter's. My own therapist insisted to my mother (who knew differently) that drugs weren't a problem for me.

    It also amazed me that the advice I got from therapists in my daughter's case was completely counter to Al-Anon principles. Yet, I think my going to Al-Anon has helped both of us far more than any of the counseling. All for a $1 voluntary contribution per meeting. What a wonderful program.

  12. I think I'm a few over you - off the top of my head, I think I had 6-7 across my life and my experience was much as yours. To over-simplify, they all helped me to better understand my problem. The solution I found in AA.

    A different road than yours but it was great to hear of your experience.

    Blessings and aloha...

  13. thanks Syd really enjoyed you post.
    I also went to many mediocre therapists but maybe this is all I could hear at the time. One therapist though was and incredible individual and very loving and caring person. I shall never forget him and his work with myself and others in the group therapy. In Alanon I am able to be there in my skin when for many years I was flying above my body trying to find a place to land in myself.

  14. I saw the chart and immediately thought of my oldest daughter. I would love to send it to her because she struggles so hard still with being a child raised by me. I'm just afraid it would piss her off.

  15. I have been in and out of therapy most of my life. Actually, I just started again, but this time with a spiritual counseler. I've done amazing work in the last 4 weeks. It's the first time in my life I feel like thereapy has helped. I love your blog Syd, thanks for everything.

  16. I went through therapy awhile ago, during a difficult time. It helped a lot.

    Love, SB.

  17. often we need input from many different avenues to end with the one that works.

  18. The therapist I first "interviewed" with I would have stayed with, except that her schedule couldn't accomodate my work schedule at the time, so she referred me to the person I started to see and am now seeing again.

    Then, when we decided on couples counseling recently my therapist recommended the first woman to me, so we wound up with her as our marriage counselor.

    I like my therapist b/c she is a peer, and I could see her as a friend in my social circle under different circumstances. I can swear in front of her, and nothing I say ever gets a rise out of her. I threw a pillow at her once. I've yelled in her office. and she seems to always ask me the right questions to get me thinking deeper about things. and she reminds me to breathe.

    I'm suprised any therapist would see both parties of a couple separately, that seems odd.

  19. Syd,
    What great post. Just what I needed to hear today as I sit in the hospital with my almost 87 (tomorrow!!) year old dad (one of my qualifiers) When my folks moved to a Life Care center in my town to be near me it created a great need in me to seek therapy. I believe God sent me to the therapist that I was meant to see (found her in a local magazine article) and it was on her advise I went to Al Anon. She is an Al Anoner too! It has been life changing.

  20. Therapy is SO important and it's really helped me out as well. A lot of people are hesistant to go for financial/time reasons so I wrote a post about that on my blog called "10 Reasons to Sit on the Couch". Therapy really can be a life changer!

  21. Good post, Syd. I've been seeing the same therapist since 1980. I took 7 years off, in the late 90's-early 2000's but went back in '05 when my brother was dying. My therapist strongly suggested to me twice in the past that I might want to give Al-Anon a try but I never heeded (denied hearing) his suggestion until almost 4 years ago when. at an AA meeting with a friend, it suddenly and powerfully became quite clear to me that I was indeed powerless over Alcohol and I wanted Serenity. I saw my therapist the day after my 1st Al-Anon meeting. He was surprised that I'd given up my denial and quite pleased that I'd finally figured out for myself something he saw as being important. I continue to see this man but now consider him more of a counselor than therapist.

  22. Therapy helped some but I did more work in Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings and Al-Anon meetings than I ever did in therapy. Many therapists have their own codependency issues and if they haven't dealt with their own issues, they aren't much help with their clients either because they can't take you where they haven't been themselves. Maybe I shouldn't say "can't" as much as "won't".


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