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My Life As a Mental Patient (or, Therapy Is Good!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 23:04 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Click to view largerPeople seek psychotherapy for any number of reasons, which generally fall into one of two categories: a diagnosed mental illness, and situations the patient feels the need for counseling to cope with. Sometimes the line between those two categories blurs. The effects of mental illness may create difficult situations. Mental illness may make otherwise normal situations seem like problems.

Not all people who seek therapy are “mental patients.” I use that phrase in the title of this post as an attention-grabber. Although I have been diagnosed and treated for a common form of mental illness that has been in remission for several years, my first foray into the world of psychotherapy took place when I was a young child.

Shortly after my seventh birthday, my brother died of acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that is now highly curable in children but was almost always fatal 40 years ago. I am the oldest in the family; he was 16 months younger than I. This Saturday would have been his 44th birthday.

Kids seem resilient, and indeed I was outside playing with neighborhood friends on the warm summer afternoon after brother’s funeral. Less than five months later, I went into the hospital for tonsillectomy and adendoidectomy surgery. Except when under general anesthesia, I didn’t sleep during my admission. I didn’t like hospitals; they were where children went to die. After I went home, the nightmares started.

My father had a golfing buddy at the time who was a child psychologist. Dr. Rosenblatt agreed to see me. There was nothing wrong with me per se; I just needed to talk about things that I didn’t even know were worrying me. He got me talking, first to him, then eventually to my parents. And after several visits over a few months, that was that.

Many years have passed since I dipped my 7-year-old toe into the psychotherapy waters. I no longer have nightmares about things that worry me because I deal with the worry when I’m awake. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need help dealing with life’s challenges from time to time. So after a break of a few years, I spent some quality time last evening with the therapist I have gone to off and on for several years dating back to my depression diagnosis.

This is a different kind of psychotherapy from what I’ve had in the past, when I either had to figure something out or get through an illness. Last night, I talked about an issue over which I have no control. I am crystal clear about my feelings. There are no revelations to be had. I just needed someone to listen to me and then ask, “So what do you see as the options for dealing with this?” The possibilities are simple: either try not to think about it and pretend it doesn’t matter, or roll with the punches. It’s an easy decision. I have never been good at sweeping my emotions under a rug, so I chose plan B, to cry when I felt like crying, mull over every possible path my life could take when I felt afraid of uncertainty, and fantasize occasionally about what I would like to happen when I want a brief respite from sadness. What my therapist did was tell me that it’s appropriate to cry, normal to mull, and not harmful to fantasize occasionally.

Sometimes, the benefit of psychotherapy is simply to validate what you already know.

Categories: life
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