Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.



Happy Birthday to Me II: Contemplate This on the Cake of Woe

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Fashion Icon

(for part one, click here https://respecttheblankie.com/2013/09/20/happy-birthday-to-me/ )

Check out this picture:

It's 1971--do you know where your emotions are?

It’s 1971–do you know where your emotions are?

Pretty amazing, right?

No, no, I don’t mean the fetching haircut accentuating the perfect, potato-esqe shape of my head. That haircut was a dad special a la 1971—the hairdo all of my brothers and I had by dad’s decree. I’m thinking a “1” setting on the clipper.   Quick and easy, nice and tidy.

And, no, I’m not talking about the fashion, although I am pretty damn suave in that dual-layer, v-neck with mock-turtleneck, combo. Or, more accurately, I guess that would be a mock-mock-turtleneck, given that it’s not even a real mock turtleneck, but just the neck and a little bit of the chest of a mock-turtleneck sewn into a shirt. The dead giveaway is that the striped part of the outfit is short-sleeved, and who ever heard of a short-sleeved mock-turtleneck? Right? The dove-gray slacks perfectly compliment the olive stripes sandwiched between the ocean blue stripes that match the mock-mock-turtleneck.*  Still, I’m thinking that this getup would definitely make it into a top ten list of my all-time most fashionable outfits, such is the limited ability I have to dress myself.

No, I’m not even talking about the gift, proudly displayed—that Fisher Price Little People airplane—the red winged version. Pure brilliance of design, down to the weird, yellow plastic string tied to the front so it could be pulled along the ground, the pilot, head flipping back and forth, ever vigilant. Of course, the pilot eventually wanted to break free from the tarmac, and I obliged. The plane today (still in a closet of my mother’s home, or perhaps in a box in the “workshop” of my house) is missing the door, and a chunk of one of it’s horizontal stabilizers, courtesy of a few attempts over the years to see if I could get the thing to fly properly. Perhaps such confusion over aerodynamics is tied to why I became a therapist, and my older brothers went into the “hard sciences.”

Anyway, any other guesses as to why the photo is so amazing? The cake? Well, I did reference it in the title of this piece, I suppose. And it is pretty impressive—home-baked, double-layer, chocolate frosting on devil’s food, set atop a shimmering, crystal cake stand, the candles, playfully askew. But, that’s not it, either.

Are you ready for it? The big reveal?

What’s so amazing about this picture is that it was taken, by my mother, one week after my father’s rather unexpected death. That the picture is so normal, that it fits in so perfectly with the small parade of yearly birthday pictures of all of my siblings and me (all featuring the birthday kid, with a cake and a gift, either posed alone or with that year’s cadre of siblings) is what is amazing to me.

My mother managed, seven days after what I assume was the absolute pinnacle of the sadness and distress in her entire life, with that sorrow still hanging heavily over her and the entire family, to make a cake, wrap a gift, and provide me and our family with some small bit of normalcy. I can imagine my mother just realizing that it was her duty to do so, that she signed up to have kids, and, well, that’s what you do when you have kids…you soldier on and keep things as stable as possible even if everything just collapsed right out from under you.

I have always wondered (and I suppose it wouldn’t take all that much to ask, but since mom will be reading this, I’m sure I’ll get an answer of some kind) if that plane was purchased before or after my father’s death…since it wasn’t until after my father’s death that what would be my first plane ride—out of Nebraska, and on to Oregon—would even be a thought. Was it a gift meant to help prepare me for that trip, or was it merely a coincidence? Was I fascinated with planes at the time? Was it just kind of a cool thing my parents thought I would like? Or was I manipulated by television commercials telling me I wanted that plane?

As a bit of an aside, here’s a Fisher Price commercial from 1972, including the plane, and narration by Dick Cavett. The gentle pitch to parents (although the images would definitely grab the attention of children) is rather quaint now, compared to todays ads telling kids that they MUST HAVE THESE TOYS NOW!!

At any rate, one thing I never noticed in this photo until I scanned it and really looked at it earlier this morning—is that the door behind me opens onto my parents’ bedroom—or what had recently become only my mother’s bedroom.   I can clearly see the same bed that my mother still sleeps in through that open door just behind me.

Not long ago, I told my mother that one of my earliest memories was of going into her bedroom (I believe after being told to leave her alone) and finding her lying on her perfectly-made bed, crying. I asked her why she was crying. I don’t recall that she said anything, only reached out to me and put her hand on my arm, which I had rested on top of the bed. Soon thereafter, somebody—a brother? Some other relative? A family friend?—stepped in and ushered me out of the room, closing the door behind us.

In my mind, the setting for this memory always defaults to our house in Oregon, because that is the only house my family lived in that I consciously remember. But seeing that, in this photo, the bed is covered in a white bedspread, just as it always was in our house in Oregon, it is easy to imagine that same scene playing out here, in the Nebraska house, although to ‘block out’ the scene would require flipping certain elements in different directions. I can definitely imagine that the dining room furniture in the photo here would have provided me with some measure of blockage between me and whoever (may have) told me to leave my mother alone, just as the short distance between our dining room and my mother’s bedroom in the Oregon house would have given me that tiny bit of time to do the same. Nebraska in September (probably more likely) or Oregon in November, it makes sense to me either way.

Getting back to the specific elements of the photo, certainly, other mothers have done the same as my mother did, in similar circumstances, just as other mother’s have fallen apart. Certainly, plenty of fathers have also had similar experiences following the loss of a spouse, and the effort to carry on and keep things stable for their children (or of falling apart). But it’s my birthday, and if I want to tell my mom she did an amazing thing—then I get to do that.

So, happy birthday to me, and thanks, mom!


*Color matches approximated using Ingrid Sundberg’s “Color Thesaurus” which can be found here: http://www.boredpanda.com/color-thesaurus-char-ingrid-sundberg/ .  If you have suggestions for better labels of the colors in the photo, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

When Therapists Attack: Self-Care Fails on the Road to Implosion

Within the past few days, it’s become abundantly clear to me that too many transitions and too many stressors, combined with an inability to engage my deepest self-care strategies, led to some, shall we say, unbalanced behavior.

Really, it was the kind of week where having to tolerate even the smell of flavored coffee, much less the existence of it preventing access to real coffee, was essentially the second-to-last straw in a minor blowout.

It wasn’t until after having about five-and-a-half hours of dead-to-the-world sleep, with no pressing concerns to address on waking, that it began to dawn on me just how skewed I had become, and what the sources of the real stress were.  That is, I can cope with flavored coffee (it’s existence, not me consuming it–yuck!) when I’m actually able to process the big, looming weirdness and stress that comes with the fields I work in.

Even now, as I’m trying to write this, I’m “fixing” other things rather than fully committing to exploring the issue.  I started off by repairing a latch on a coffee container, and then moved to cleaning out the battery compartment of a remote control (a battery had leaked inside of it earlier in the week).  I then rapid-wrote multiple pages of another potential blog post.  So, really, when things are big and disturbing, I engage my rather developed ability to avoid directly addressing or processing things.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten to the point of being able to engage the big guns among my stress-reducers—those that allow near-complete disengagement from the stress—the re-set button to problem solving.  Although, come to think of it, I could probably do that now.

[Right here I wanted to insert a clip of a deleted scene from the movie, Out of Sight, wherein George Clooney and Ving Rhames discuss the joys of taking a hot bath—which would have made sense in the discussion I would have had around said clip, but seeing as I couldn’t find a copy of that clip…anyway, if you know where I can link to it, let me know.]

Still, writing falls into the category of de-stressors—which is another thing that should have been an obvious sign to me that things were off.  That is, I was unable to come up with a single thing to write about until I actually realized what was bothering me (stuff), why (because it was annoying/disturbing), and what I could do about it (nothing, really).  And when I say I was unable to come up with anything to write about, I don’t mean that in a literal sense.  I’ve got plenty of topics.  I just wasn’t connecting with a particular angle or idea long enough to make anything out of any of them.  In fact, I hadn’t even opened a “new” document to get down to work, or scribbled anything in my notebook, or on a scrap of paper that I could reference later.  I just felt dead about the whole concept of writing (aside from pointless Internet political arguments, which are usually one of my most easily identifiable procrastination strategies).

Perhaps the thing most getting in the way of the established stress reduction routine involves changes in my schedule that leave me with less “alone” time, where I am free to do what I want without having to consider the plans of others.  Ultimately, this is a good thing, but in the adjustment phase, a little trickier than I prepared for.

On top of the change in routine, there has been what I’ll call a health concern within the family that is being addressed but is not fully resolved (as if anything ever is).  But we’re in the “looks fine, but let’s just check out one more thing so we can provoke some more anxiety while you wait to see how this turns out” phase.

On the counseling front—people working in the mental health field are bound by ethical codes that make it essentially impossible to openly discuss our jobs, except in very limited ways with very specific people—generally speaking, people who are bound by the same ethical codes.  Over the years, I have developed a way of discussing work with my wife, without really discussing work with my wife, so that I can vomit out all of the really disturbing shit that hits me on a near-daily basis, and move on with life, leaving the clinical concerns where they belong–back in the office.

Because of the way our schedules now synch up, or fail to synch up, there are points in the week where that discharge of emotion and thought that I usually work through with my wife (who patiently allows it without pressing me for details) is not happening in the relatively immediate way that had previously been possible.

So, let’s just say that among the more run-of-the-mill stressors, and in addition to the less run-of-the-mill stressors, something was relayed to me that knocked me sideways, and led me to fixate on [redacted for the purposes of avoiding an ethics violation].

Keep in mind that I routinely speak with people who see suicide as the best possible solution to their problems, and people who have committed heinous acts against other people they should have been protecting.

Despite de-briefing with a colleague who was also aware of the situation, I didn’t realize how much I was carrying the ‘relayed information’ with me when I went on to another work environment—one where flavored coffee has recently become a hazard—one where a malfunctioning printer complicated routine tasks—one where an unusually lively conversational environment led me to (attempt to) stifle many of the extremely dark, sarcastic remarks that are often a part of the purging process that allows many of us who work with disturbing situations to avoid becoming swallowed by that dark void of unholy despair.

Laugh and the devil laughs with you.  Cry and the devil knows he bested you.  Make a sick enough joke, and the devil realizes you’re not worth the trouble (although such jokes should only be made in the company of people who are involved in the same dark field as you, and who understand the devil the joke is aimed at).

At any rate, the stressors of the job with the on-the-fritz printer and the flavored coffee and the enthusiastic conversations, and an inability to productively address some of the simple, usually fixable things that were happening, led to what can only be described as an overreaction on my part to a co-worker asking me to take on something which I felt was not, and should not be, in any way, my responsibility.  Even worse (in terms of sparking my overreaction), the thing I was being asked to address would not have been an issue if the previously aforementioned unusually lively conversational environment hadn’t led to something of a shirking of normal, simple responsibilities.

Now that I’ve done some explaining, although not justifying, of my overreaction, let me say that one of the great things about working with other counselors, which can also be a terrible annoyance about working with them, is that in situations where people are distressed in some fashion or another, they will, first of all, tend toward the supportive, and second of all, tend toward calling one on one’s bullshit—of course, in a supportive fashion.  Wait, I think I left out the potentially annoying part—which involves the voicing of exploratory questions about why one might have behaved in a particular way.  Note that this is only annoying when one does not want to have to, say, be held accountable for one’s behavior and would prefer to just be left alone in one’s asshole-ishness.

I will say I was particularly fortunate to have worked that night with a colleague who frequently has a different take on things than I do, but whom I also feel has extremely sound clinical judgment.  And while I won’t say she identified the specifics of what was going on with me—at least not in one concise interpretation (and to be fair, I had not shared with her a great deal of what was going on in my little world)—she did indirectly prod me to recognize the vast number of adjustments I’ve been making of late, and how much I’ve been minimizing their impact on me.  She also gently kept me accountable to the concrete reality that my overreaction was in no way necessary, and was also damaging not only to the target of my overreaction, but to me as well (most notably because I spent the rest of the night obsessing about it and why I let it happen in the first place).

I was also fortunate to have another colleague remind me that I love my co-workers and have a lot of fun at work, despite the stressful nature of the job.

Looking back a few days later, it should have been obvious to me that I was carrying a big burden regarding the ‘relayed information’ when I found myself unable to discuss it (in a vague, clinically appropriate way) with the colleague I was working with that night.  I brought it up briefly, but used ethical concerns as a way of dropping the subject—when really what was going on was that talking about it, or trying to process it, was provoking such anxiety in me that I just wasn’t ready/willing to deal with it.

I will just say now that I am extremely grateful to be in constant contact with some great people who are pretty amazing at this work, and who can tolerate my faults, but are also willing to help me do what I can to address those faults in a positive fashion.

Oh, and I would also do well to remember this…

Lake control





GRIEF, AMERICAN STYLE, or, I’m gonna sit here and drink until I hear “Raining Blood” so f*ck you!

I’ve lived through a few Facebook funerals now, where somebody I’m connected to via Facebook, but haven’t seen for years…decades even…dies and the news is relayed on their page and often numerous others’ pages.  Or the news intrudes on completely unrelated posts as the awkward grief styles of the American public become all the more public.  I don’t think the American people in general deal with grief well, and my own personal grieving style tends toward an above-average level of avoidance and, uh, blockage.

I’m trying not to go there right now—to the awkward social media grief, or the blockage—even as I’m posting in a social media outlet.  But a friend of mine really did die last week, (and the post I was working on about swearing therapists decided to punch me in the brain, preventing me from working on it).  In some sort of weird and possibly misguided effort to maintain some level of privacy, I’m not going to name my friend here, although not naming him seems sort of like denying any kind of tribute as well as making this post that much more about me me me.

I will say he was a kick-ass guy with a wonderful wife and kids, as well as numerous other beautiful (in the drunk, ‘you’re my best friend!’ style) family members and friends.  I can’t say as I knew him well enough to give even a marginally adequate sketch of his life, but then there are very few people, even some of my siblings, for whom I could provide such a thing.  I have my own small store of personal recollections and connections, which I’m just not going to share here.  But we’ve been down too long in the midnight sea anyway.

I don’t know if keeping his name out of this would be considered a positive or a negative, because I just don’t know how these things work anymore.  Anymore?  Who am I kidding?  Even before “social media” existed, I didn’t know what to do with the various real-world aspects of grief.  Do I call the family?  Do I leave the family alone?  Do I show up on the family’s doorstep, sobbing, Crock-Pot full of chili and bouquet of sunflowers in hand?  What about donations to charities, the family, or…?

As much as we say the grief is about the deceased, ultimately, grief often comes down to “me me me,” especially for those of us who don’t know how to “do grief” or do the funereal etiquette properly.  We can become obsessed with how the death of someone impacts us, and how we are supposed to act in the face of it.   We can become obsessed with whether we are doing the right thing or not, even when nobody is paying all that much attention to us.  I can’t imagine that anybody is sitting around complaining that I have not made it clear that I am aware of his death, or what I intend to do about it.  I’ll show up for the funeral and work that all out there, or in the days after, or…

Me, I don’t do grief well at all.

Yeah, I’m a therapist, and I have completely inadequate training in dealing with death, and more importantly, the living left behind…perhaps all by design.  It’s not my thing.  It’s not anything I’m comfortable with…not that I should be allowed to claim the privilege of comfort at this point in time.  I truly love this man, and his family, and f*ck me if I know what to do with that.

So let’s change gears.  Here’s a little example of how I function in these situations:  Following a memorial service a few years back, I was somewhat mortified when my grief fog began to lift and I realized I’d been wandering around, a forced smile on my face, at seeing people I hadn’t seen in far too long.  The awkwardness of, “Hey, good to see you,” collided with, and perhaps overrode the awkwardness of, “One of our friends/family members died.”  It’s a fine line between grief and panic…grief and meltdown…grief and straight-up weirdness(?).

It seems like grief is one of those things I should have learned or maybe just known, like you’re supposed to know how to change a tire or unclog a toilet (or how you’re supposed to know all those stupid things that are supposed to be part of a wedding).  But I’ve largely managed to avoid engaging my grief skills, in favor of engaging my grief avoidance skills.  My father died when I was still too young to really understand what that meant.  And almost nobody else I know who died since then was really all that close to me when they went, either due to time and distance, or due to design.

I distinctly remember, back in the summer of my 11th year (was it my 11th?  Maybe it’s not so distinct) when my favorite uncle died.  Due to his prolonged illness, I had intellectualized his passing, had closed myself off from having to feel much of anything.  I didn’t want the hurt, so I wasn’t going to have it.  When my mom got the call, I sat on the couch between my younger brother and older sister as the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” played on vinyl, pushing my mind into that song.  My uncle was gone.  I knew he was going well before he left.  “Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years…”

I will also say that in many instances, I kept my distance, which was usually just a matter of carrying the relationships on as usual.  I guess my attachment issues lead me to downplay relationships, to where connections most anyone else would call friendships feel more like acquaintanceships to me.

And perhaps even worse, my instinct to dull the pain often leads to making jokes, usually sarcastic comments, realizing only after I’ve begun unleashing them that I am saying things that are horrifically inappropriate.  I want to imagine myself, like Superman, realizing a missile has been launched, taking off to steer that missile out into space.  Only, like Superman and the missile, I end up blowing up the Phantom Zone instead, unleashing General Zod, Ursa, and Non, ultimately raining much more hell down on everyone, myself included, than I would have if I’d learned to keep my mouth shut, or to make appropriately staid comments.

I’ll say that right now, I’m trying to do this right.  I’m trying to let myself take this in, even as I am engaging in various forms of avoidance.  I can’t promise that I won’t just crawl inside a bottle for a few days, and then drag myself out, emotions appropriately muddled and washed downstream.  But I’m gonna try to feel this one for real, dammit.

Why I Don’t Hate VH-1’s “Couples Therapy”

I first realized I like Dr. Jenn Berman when, in a session with Flavor Flav and his partner of nine years, Liz Trujillo, Dr. Berman hollered, “Look at her f*cking face!”  Now, some might take issue with a therapist raising her/his voice or swearing in session, especially about somebody’s face, but f*ck those people.  In this case, Berman was trying to cut through Flav’s hyper-defensiveness, and get him to actually pay attention to Trujillo.  And for anyone who viewed the recently-concluded third season of “Couples Therapy,” there is an obvious transition (not in this particular session) where Flav drops the clown act and actually engages with Trujillo, and where she goes from balled up and permanently scowling to opened up and smiling.  The cynic in me says these could all easily be TV editing tricks, but the optimist in me says that I know therapy works, and I hope these changes hold.

I’ll confess that I first started watching “Couples Therapy” (in season three, not having any awareness of the first two seasons) because I saw a few promos and thought it would be easy to do a hatchet job on it for the sake of a blog post.  In one of the commercials, Dr. Berman was shouting down Joe Francis of “Girls Gone Wild” fame (I had no idea who the guy was at the time).  My first thought was, ‘Great, make insecure guys think that couples therapy really is about a therapist siding with women and berating men.’  (And I don’t mean to be overly reductive here, but anybody working in the field who has tried to refer people to much-needed couples therapy will probably have a pretty clear idea what I’m talking about).

But like much of what takes place on the show, to take the promo clip out of context is to fail to see the larger picture of what is actually taking place.  That particular clip involves Dr. Berman asserting herself over an emotionally abusive narcissist for the clinically important reason of ensuring that Abbey Wilson (Francis’ partner) doesn’t have her efforts to overcome an eating disorder repeatedly derailed by Francis’ insistence that he can fix the problem by badgering Wilson into eating.  Whoops…so much for not being overly reductive.

Dr. Jenn Berman acknowledges the awesome nature of this post.

Dr. Jenn Berman acknowledges the awesome nature of this post.

To be sure, if I really wanted to rip into the show, it’s within the realm of possibility.  However, to do so would show a fundamental lack of understanding about how ‘reality TV’ works.  Of course there’s going to be an emphasis on confrontational interactions.  And of course the show adds in exciting/gimmicky activities that fall out of the usual scope of plain, old, in-the-office couples therapy, like excursions to rock-climbing walls, a visit from a psychic, and “expressive therapy” where couples smash things in a junkyard.  Without such catches, attracting an audience to a show about couch-bound therapy sessions would be plenty difficult.  To the show’s credit, though, the field trips and seeming diversions are used as a way of highlighting communication between the couples in order to provide the audience with a clearer picture of how the couples behave than might be evident from therapy sessions, and is definitely more entertaining than watching couples talk about how they communicate.

And despite seeing most of the individuals and couples in some unpleasant/ridiculous situations of their own making, there are still plenty of moments that reveal the core goodness in everyone present.  I actually came away thinking well of everybody, or at least not totally hating anybody, having seen their willingness to accept responsibility and engage honestly in some difficult work in a setting more conducive to fist fights, broken bottles, and thrown furniture than it is to therapy.  Add to that the expectations of reality TV viewers who want blood, and the restraint shown by the cast members on the show is pretty remarkable.

On multiple occasions, cast members disengaged from decidedly negative interactions, reserving the right to judge others not on gossip, but on their own interactions with them—Tyler Baltierra walking away from Joe Francis’ cackling excitement at videos of Dustin Zito’s pornographic past being a prime example.  (Weirdly enough, I didn’t see anyone call Joe on the hypocrisy of him mocking a porn performer, given the millions Joe made off of flashed breasts and college-age-lesbian-experimentation love scenes).

At other times, situations cropped up where cast members, drawn into an argument between a couple, would mediate rather than taking sides, working to make the members of the couple see each others’ perspective—as with Baltierra attempting to bridge the gulf between Temple Poteat and Chingy Bailey that opened up each time Bailey powered up his tablet.

Instances occurred where efforts to stir up trouble were met with, dare I say, Socratic challenges to the thinking driving the pot-stirring.  Temple Poteat questioning Joe Francis’ obsession with Dustin Zito’s missing shoes (after Joe tried to draw Temple into complaining about Dustin) comes to mind.

In general, cast members sought out each others’ advice in earnest, and were provided with real support.

This is not to say that there weren’t plenty of instances of cast members making snap judgments or otherwise engaging in self-indulgent tantrums.  Flavor Flav and Liz Trujillo were, as Joe Francis dubbed them, a “side show” for much of the first half of the season, clearly frustrating several in the group.

Joe Francis, in turn, provided the bulk of the traditional reality-show drama for the second half of the season by deeming various people or couples “trash” and whining about people interfering with “the process” and all of Joe’s hard work.  Even when Dr. Berman managed on occasion to break through Francis’ deflection to draw out what is essentially a scared, little, attention-seeking boy, Joe would then appear for his “confessional”—just Joe and the camera—and say something self-important and off-putting, suggesting that his insight is about as substantial and durable as a soap bubble.

And perhaps to the dismay of audiences and the cast, the full story of what was going on with Trujillo and Flav, individually and as a couple, was never fully revealed.   What little bit of privacy the cast members were granted, for legal or other reasons, was perhaps simultaneously one of the most frustrating and most endearing aspects of the show.  Dr. Berman, in deference to good therapy, and in defiance of reality show convention, at least created some small pockets of safe, off-camera and off-the-record space where couples could work out things they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world.

Plenty of other reality show conventions were broken, as well, or at least bent, on “Couples Therapy.”  Even with only a small portion of each episode devoted to showing actual therapy sessions, Dr. Berman gave a pretty good taste of how therapy works.  The audience doesn’t just get to smirk at the cast members’ bad behavior and watch Berman cut them down.  Rather, problem behaviors were identified, explored in terms of the incidents and patterns that contributed to those behaviors.  Then Dr. Berman collaborated with the clients on ways to better address the issues in a productive manner.

For instance, (and to greatly simplify) Temple isn’t portrayed as a stereotypical uptight control freak for the audience to roll their eyes at, but is shown to have ‘control issues’ stemming from a chaotic past, and is challenged to relinquish some of that control and manage the anxiety that comes along with letting go.  Catelynn Lowell and Tyler Baltierra have their eyes opened to how a lack of stability in childhood has led them to cling to each other, and how public pressure has contributed to them making decisions that may not be in their best interest, or the best interest of their relationship.  Heather Marter and Dustin Zito, who were probably expected to have the most salacious content to work through, seem to have put all the tabloid sex scandal crap behind them, in order to struggle with the more mundane, but more relatable, questions of how to make a relationship last.

One could cynically argue that the celebrities and pseudo celebrities on “Couples Therapy” are merely trying to keep themselves in the public eye and make a few bucks.  But even if that was their original intent, most of them ended up violating their “brand”—Chingy by being reflective as Temple says they need to end their sexual relationship if they are not going to have a full relationship, Temple herself by breaking away from Chingy and his greater “star power”, Tyler and Catelynn by breaking off their expected marriage, Flavor Flav by stopping his perpetual performance as court jester and openly weeping at his past failures and current joys.

And certainly if one wants to chastise Dr. Berman for being egotistical, one can find examples to try to build that argument, as when she proudly trumpets the work she’s done to help Abbey Wilson address her eating disorder.  It would be too easy to sneer about Dr. Berman doing nothing more than taking Abbey to a restaurant.  But that would be taking the restaurant scene and Dr. Berman’s comments out of context.  The restaurant visit comes only after a great deal of preparatory work, and is rather a monumental thing, one which Dr. Berman deserves much credit for, along, of course, with Wilson.

Overall, even in the unreal context of reality TV, Dr. Berman’s show is arguably much less damaging to public perceptions of therapy and therapists than is the average movie or TV show with a therapist as a character.  Such fictional portrayals of therapists often show them as oversexed, overpaid egomaniacs who go about uncaringly inflicting damage on those they are supposed to help.

In contrast, what Dr. Berman does on “Couples Therapy” is manage to sneak some actual therapy in between the egos and the outings.  Ideally, viewers will see through the distractions to get a glimpse of real, honest-to-goodness therapy playing out.  And at the absolute worst, Berman may get some less discerning viewers to attend couples therapy in the belief that they’ll get to smash car windows and go bowling, which isn’t all that bad if the therapists they end up with can get them to buy in without all that excitement.

Ultimately, I was so appreciative of Dr. Berman’s ability to get some snippets of real therapy on reality TV that I’m not even going to say anything mean about her distractingly sparkly and otherwise spangled collars—which are kind of weirdly cool.  And everyone respects my fashion sense.

We-ness and the Fog of Buts

Therapists often get caught up in trying to find unique ways of expressing fairly common ideas.  On the one hand, this can be a great way to get clients to recognize a simple truth by, for example, visualizing it in a new way.  On the other hand, expressing an idea with some catchy, novel phrasing can have unintended consequences, frequently making the idea or its expression off-putting or even comical.

A short while back, I was watching a video feed of a seminar where the speaker, discussing elements of couples and family therapy used the phrase “we-ness.”  The first time he said it, I was jarred out of my passive viewing of the seminar.  Did he just say what I thought he did?  I scanned the image of the PowerPoint slide projected on the wall behind the speaker.  There was nothing there that could sound like what I was relatively certain I had heard.

Now, for those of you who don’t immediately recognize the hilarity of the phrase, say it out loud.  If that doesn’t work, take a moment to have any eight-year-old read the word, and check his/her reaction.  If need be, ask them to follow up with an explanation of what is so funny. 

For the non-eight-year-olds (and those completely out of touch with their inner-eight-year-olds) who might be reading this, “Weenis” or “wenis” is one of those ultimate insult-sounding non-insults.  It combines “weiner” with “penis” yet doesn’t actually mean anything ‘dirty’ at all.  Depending on the source, some claim the word refers to one’s elbow, or the skin of the elbow.  At any rate, it’s one of those words you (or your eight-year-old self) could say again and again, even with adults around, as you protested that you didn’t say anything wrong.  “All I said was ‘weenis.’ That’s not a dirty word.  I don’t know why he’s so mad that I called him an elbow.”

The seminar speaker used the phrase “we-ness” again, but clarified by contrasting it with “me-ness,” which I suppose could be confused with “meanness” to those of us using actual words.  The we-ness/me-ness (weenis/meanness?) divide essentially means that members of couples or families have to recognize their connection to one another, and make decisions that are mutually beneficial, not get caught up in their own individual  and frequently selfish needs.  A quick “Google” search led to the knowledge that “we-ness” is really a ‘thing’ (pun intended?) in certain therapy circles.  Or perhaps it’s some sort of maturity test for couples.  If a therapist uses the phrase and gets no giggling reactions, the members of the couple are mature—or perhaps not paying attention.  If the couple has a sudden, jarred reaction, they weren’t paying attention, but now they are, if for no other reason than to wonder what the hell the therapist just said.

But the phrase immediately got me to thinking of other botched ways people could present concepts.  The following night, I was discussing with a client how she was closing herself off from each possibility of how to resolve a particular issue by saying, “yeah, but…” or “I could do that, but…”  For each route she could run, she was predicting a negative outcome, so refusing to even try.  There are plenty of clinical and non-clinical ways to explain this kind of thought pattern, and I used one of those go-to explanations involving cognitive distortions and how to get past those, but it occurred to me that I could have engaged the following explanation, perhaps to much more memorable effect…

We are always and forever at the intersection of many roads, like at the hub of a wagon wheel, forever faced with the option to go down one road or another.  Even when you have nothing pressing to do, there are all kinds of roads…read a book, take a bath, watch a TV show, clean out the closet…  It is only when we become aware of a decision we have to make that we really begin thinking about the roads.  The more important the decision, the more deliberately we need to consider the roads.  But also, with the increasing importance of a decision, the more likely it is that we are going to cloud that decision with doubts, fears, or paralysis of some sort, the more likely we are to mentally block some of the options. 

Now, each time we look down a road, we have the option to take that road, or to consider that road as one among many choices.  As long as we have not closed that road off, the path is clear.  But as soon as we shut ourselves off from a possibility, as soon as we say, “I could take that road, but…”, we have decided that that road is no longer a possibility.  It becomes obscured, cut off.  A fog settles on that path, blocking your view, a fog you have place there with a “but.”

Each road that you look down and say, “I could do that, but…” becomes yet another road, obscured with the fog of a but.  This road gets a but so it becomes fogged.  That road gets a similar fog of but.  That road gets blocked by but fog as well.  Pretty soon, we find ourselves standing at a hub that was once a center of possibility, but is now just a point from which we cannot see anything.  We are at a point of loss and confusion, surrounded by the fog of buts.

Now that we are all fogged in by buts, though, we need to remember that fog is not permanent, fog is not solid, fog can be lifted.  We don’t even have to commit to a particular path to lift the but fog from that path.  We just have to shut down the but.  Shut down the but, and the fog will lift.  The path will become a possibility again.

Certainly some paths will be better suited to our goals and needs.  However, it is much better to consider the pros and cons of each decision, leaving all of our options open so that we can make an informed choice, rather than fogging ourselves in with a bunch of buts.  

Therapists’ Therapists

It’s a well known fact that a majority of people who go into the field of psychology do so because we—I mean they—are self-absorbed and trying to figure out why they are such human train-wrecks.  They self-diagnose, bolster their negative behaviors with justifications born from that self-diagnosis and then set about diagnosing everyone else and recommending therapy, all while avoiding engaging in therapy for themselves.

To help compound the failure of future mental health professionals to seek much-needed help, grad school programs for such people often fail to require that students engage in even a minimal amount of therapy.  There are roughly 12 billion reasons why this should be a requirement, and essentially only one reason why would-be-therapists reject the idea that they should get therapy: “I don’t need it.”

But therapists and would-be-therapists arguing that they don’t need therapy, is like meth-heads arguing that they don’t need dental care.   It’s the voice of fear, not confidence.  Or if it is confidence, it’s confidence born of meth—at least for most of the meth-heads, and a few of the therapists.  It’s saying ‘I’ve messed around in my stuff enough, and don’t need anybody else poking around in there, because Lord knows it could all come crumbling apart like that bust of Martha Plimpton I made out of things I picked off my scalp, after I forgot to mist it for four days running.’

And, really, if a student is going through a Master’s program to become a therapist, and doesn’t have at least one or two experiences that frighten/disturb that student into recognizing her/his need for therapy, that student is either the most together person ever, or has built up such impenetrable defenses around his/her frail psyche that she/he is probably in danger of eventually dismembering, freezing, and eating his/her clients bit by bit—either metaphorically or for reals.  (Or else the student is just in a really shitty program where he/she never actually gets challenged to explore much of anything about her/himself beyond early childhood experiences that contributed to his/her preference for natural fibers over synthetics or vice versa).

A large number of mental health professionals, and people in what are dubbed the ‘helping professions’ have a sense that they need to exude confidence, avoid negativity and doubt, and just generally have, or appear to have, their crap together across the full range of life activities.  Any admission that such is not the case can be looked on as an admission that one is not fit to help others.  The big twist, of course, is that if one can’t admit when one needs help, and stop trying to fix everything for everyone else, one really does start to lose the ability to be effective at providing help for anyone, oneself included.

As a confession of sorts, I am not currently seeing a therapist—not because I feel I wouldn’t benefit from it, but because I like to pretend I’m together enough to recognize when I need to seek help, and also because I kind of like the idea of seeing what would happen if I let everything just completely go to hell.  On top of that, I am what I would call ‘therapy-resistant.’  I approach therapy like a jealous magician watching another magician’s show—noting the ‘re-directions,’ and countering with an extra helping of defense mechanisms—‘Just try and abracadabra your way out of that underwater straitjacket, before my Buick hits your milk can, buddy.’  Okay, I don’t really own a Buick.

But, what the hell—I was trying to say something about the problem with therapists not actually getting therapy, and then presented myself as an exhibit to bolster that argument.  But don’t worry about me. I’m completely together.   And I like cotton more than rayon.