I broke up with my therapist this week.
A month ago, when I brought up the idea of stopping my sessions, he said, “I’ve been wondering lately if you’re ready to move on.” Part of me was thinking, Wait, if you’ve been thinking that, why haven’t you mentioned it before? You just wanted to keep collecting that sweet, sweet hourly rate, huh? But I know these things can be delicate.
In this case, the break-up was amicable.
In our last session, he asked for feedback and I said I wished he challenged me a bit more sometimes. He told me it’s common for therapists to hear that from their patients from time to time. It’s easy to say you want to be challenged more when you’re in a good place mentally.
Therapists are constantly toeing the line between challenging their patients enough versus too much. I’m sure there’s this elusive Goldilocks zone where they ask the perfect probing question at the perfect time, but I imagine it’s hard to know exactly how far to push at any given moment. Therapists are human, after all, and are subject to the same fallibilities as the rest of us are.
I had been seeing him since November 2018, when my daughter Em was only five months old.
Em had recently had surgery to place her feeding tube and a more invasive surgical procedure to help with acid reflux called a Nissen fundoplication (it’s a mouthful, I know). Before the surgery, she was projectile vomiting daily. After the surgery, she was doing much better on that front, but we were having a tough time getting her down to sleep in her bed. I was not handling it well.
Too often, I would get frustrated and physically harm myself. It was nothing life-threatening. I would hit myself on the side of my head and I would do it quite hard. There were a couple of times where I could still feel the effects of it the next morning. Is that what a mild concussion is? Don’t worry. I’m okay now and haven’t done it in quite a while.
It felt as if I had a bunch of pent-up tension that would come flooding out in an instant. In a strange way, the rush of adrenaline was energizing. I have an even-keel disposition on the outside, but inside there’s more going on—as there is for most of us. I can’t imagine this is unique to me.
On Halloween in 2018, the day after my birthday, I was in a bad space mentally. So bad that I avoided celebrating Halloween with my wife Allison, stepdaughter Sara, and Em. I booked a flight for the next day to visit my parents in Las Vegas for an extended weekend away from my home.
Unsurprisingly, the weekend trip didn’t magically fix my problems.
When I think back to that time, it feels like it happened to a different person. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of how I handled the situation, but I’m not exactly proud of it either. Back then, I felt the weight of Em’s medical issues and the uncertainty of her future on my shoulders. Nowadays, I feel much lighter.
When I came home the following Monday, Allison gently suggested I seek out a therapist and I agreed it was time.
It’s not like I was anti-therapy. I had seen different therapists off and on throughout the years, especially after getting divorced. And I had found therapy to be generally helpful—minus the one time my therapist was nodding off while I was talking.
In late 2018, though, it didn’t feel like I had the bandwidth. When I was juggling work, my marriage, my stepdaughter, and my baby who needed constant medically-related supervision, spending an hour on self-improvement each week seemed extraneous.
I knew I desperately needed someone—beyond my immediate family—to talk to about my struggles and I needed some techniques to help me cope. I searched for a new therapist and I found a man to speak with this time. I had only done therapy with women before, so I was curious if it would be much different. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t drastically different.
He gave me some techniques to help me manage my tendencies like urge surfing and mantras. Even just talking to him made me feel a little better. The fact that it was a weekly appointment helped because if I was having a particularly tough week, I knew I had that hour carved out on Fridays.
Over time, our sessions transitioned from trauma and family issues to work. I wasn’t fulfilled with my work. Yet it gave me flexible hours and a solid paycheck. It felt great to be providing for my family, especially during the times when Em wanted Allison’s care more than mine and I was left feeling somewhat useless. I was making more money than I ever had in my life. It wasn’t a ridiculous amount, but it was more than enough to put food on the table, do a house project every couple of years, max out my IRA, and save even more for retirement.
Every so often I’d see a blog post or hear some guru on a podcast saying, “money can’t buy happiness, follow your passion instead.” It always felt like a fluffy bullshit line to me and I’d think, Oh, so your passion just happens to be writing best-selling self-help books? How convenient. Okay, money can’t literally buy happiness, but it sure makes it a hell of a lot easier to have time for happy stuff to happen.
Fast forward to just over a year ago, and I was doing some self-reflection about my life and work. I wanted to find something different and creative to work on that could compound over time, even if it was a thing I only worked toward on the side to start off.
I started making writing a priority in my life almost exactly a year ago. Since then, there’s been a marked improvement in my mental health.
When I was considering writing and publicly sharing it, I was conflicted, and I blurted this onto the page in July 2020:
I kind of want to scream right now. I’m so frustrated that I can’t seem to organize my thoughts with this damn project. I want to write something interesting. Something iconic and revered even. I want to be able to set the bar high for myself and clear it and have that feeling of euphoria that I accomplished something difficult. But it’s really fucking hard. I guess almost everything that’s worthwhile is really hard. A good marriage is hard. Becoming successful at anything is hard as hell.
What I’m really afraid of is that no one will give a shit about me. Me. A 40-something-year-old guy who hasn’t done anything remotely interesting in years. At least nothing professionally. Sure, there’s Em being born and the challenges there. But do people really want to hear me complain in my writing all the time, even if it is how I feel a fair amount of the time? It seems self-indulgent.
So, yeah, things were... not great. But I was at least working through my demons on the page.
In our last session, my therapist said he noticed a shift in me after I started writing and publishing. It was good to hear that he noticed what I had felt was true. It’s not that all my issues went away, but the way in which I would talk about my issues became less heavy.
One of the last things he told me was that writing can oftentimes be more effective than therapy. It makes sense. Therapists can’t live in our heads and they only get a small glimpse of what’s really going on in there. We live with the voice in our heads constantly, whereas they only get access to it typically for an hour per week, and what they get is often filtered by our assumptions and tendencies.
It’s fascinating how only thinking about your issues can oftentimes make them worse, whereas plucking them out of your brain and delivering them onto the page can make them better. It’s magic.
Writing has helped me cope with the ongoing trauma around Em’s birth and life-long disability.
It’s helped me to be a more empathetic partner in my marriage.
It’s helped me be more introspective and forgiving of myself.
It’s helped me feel creative again.
It’s helped me feel heard.
Sharing my stories publicly and making new friends in writing communities has been helpful too. And I don’t feel like I’m screaming into the void on Twitter anymore, which is nice.
Yet, without all of you reading and liking and writing comments, I might’ve given up.
Thank you for being here. It means the world to me.
Listen to me talk:
I was a guest on the podcast THE ARENA - Living a Courageous Life with host Linda McLachlan. It was a fantastic interview that had me thinking about all the ups and downs in my life. It was my first time recording with my new fancy microphone and Linda did a great job editing out my “umms” and “ahhs” and “likes”. I highly recommend her podcast for interviews with everyday people doing courageous things in the world.
Thank you to Jason Chen, Rob Hardy, Ryan Williams, Charlene Wang, and Alfonso Guerrero-Villa from Foster for vastly improving an early version of this piece.
If you liked this piece, could you please let me know and give the heart below a tap?
Feeling this, Lyle. A good old clonk in the noggin to set things straight... ;) Also wondering if I should start broaching "exit strategies" with my therapist, even though I want to marry her, even though we're both gay. And already married.
I can definitely attest to the power of writing as therapy. It’s cathartic to get all those thoughts that have been rattling around your head down, and to try and come to some sort of conclusion around them all—even if it isn’t definitive, it’s a step in the right direction.
One additional thing I’ll add. Don’t close the door on the idea of therapy forever. You might decide in 6 months you’d like to talk to them again. If so, don’t beat yourself up and see it as a step backwards. Listen to what you need.