It’s serious stuff, so call in the experts
Irish Times Health Supplement: Tuesday, 27th March 2012
MIND MOVES: ‘YOU DO know that the Irish are supposed to be immune to this therapy business, don’t you?” I said to her, trying to sound wary rather than nervous.
“Why is it that the only bit of psychology that anybody can quote is from that film The Departed?”
I shrugged. “Because it’s deadly, I suppose.”
“Well, okay. Fair enough. But it’s also untrue.”
I folded my arms. “We’ll find out.”
I was back in for therapy after a gap of two years. The last time I was in was just after starting a course of anti-depressants. I stopped taking the tablets about nine months ago, and since then I’ve started to build on the lessons I’ve learned from depression.
Never waste a good crisis, they say, and I don’t think I have. Certainly I’ve been affected by the whole thing, but I don’t let it define me. If anything, I make use of it, and try to see it as an early-warning system. If I look too harshly on how my day went for too many days in a row, then I know it’s time to change the way I’m doing things.
That’s what led me back to a psychotherapist. It took me a while, because it’s always struck me as such a strange relationship. You can’t really compare it with anything else. They’re the ones you tell stuff you can’t tell a friend or to someone you’re going out with, but you don’t meet them out for pints or talk a huge amount about TV.
There’s a professional decorum about it all, even when the material under discussion is intensely personal. You have a respect for this person that’s close to parental, but the relationship is an equal one: it’s just two people talking.
Therapy is a kind of work, but you’re not quite colleagues. Most work aims at perfection and discipline, but the watchwords of therapy tend to be “flexibility” and “good enough”. It’s the strangest situation you can imagine.
And that’s precisely the point. A therapist isn’t like anybody else. The reason we can’t quite put words on what they’re for is because they’re there to fill the gap that every other relationship leaves out. They help you take care of the things that remain to be solved when everything else is in place.
Being normal means having things to sort out. Actually, I’d go further with that: having a full life means you have things to sort out. If I didn’t think that I could do something every day to improve my life, I can’t imagine I’d have a huge amount of fun. Looked at from a certain angle, everything we do is because things are a bit wrong, or at least aren’t quite right.
Updating the music collection, giving it loads at the gym, even trying to find the right place to go for lunch: it’s all part of that, even when we don’t realise it.
I don’t intend to diminish the size of the work that goes in to sorting your head out, though. It’s a serious business, and that’s why you get a professional in. I certainly wouldn’t trust myself to fix my laptop if it was acting up, same as I’m not going to try to sort out stuff in my life that I’m too immersed in to see properly.
When I’m in a rough place, all I can see is a mess of wires, like when I look at the inside of a computer. A therapist can help you see how they’re connected. That’s not to make it a question of pure expertise: you need compassion, patience and a serious amount of skill to do this kind of job properly.
If this strikes you as weirdly open, it’s because I genuinely believe we all need some form of mental health practice that helps us through the day. Whatever form they take, these practices are about improving our methods of dealing with the world. They are ways through the obstacles that we don’t even notice half the time.
I’m not going to mistake my initial flush of excitement at taking the first steps for recovery itself. I don’t get to make that call, because I’ve chosen to work with someone who will help me get to that point in life. There’ll be good and bad days, same as there are when you take on any kind of job or project, and I don’t know in the morning how each day’s going to turn out.
One thing I do know though, is that The Departed is still a deadly film even if it is off the mark about the benefits of therapy.
Tim Smyth is Youth Ambassador for Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( headstrong.ie)