Almost everyone on the planet knows the story of the Magi- three wise men who visited Jesus shortly after his birth bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
We can all use three wise men (or women) in our lives. The modern equivalents are a financial adviser, a life coach and a therapist. The gifts they offer haven’t changed much over the centuries.
Gold is the domain of the financial adviser. Teaching and helping us to plan financial matters and retirement while managing the financial risks along the way.
Frankincense is perfume and is the purview of a life coach. A life coach knows how to “dress up the pig”. A pig is a pig but if you dress him and up and make him smell good, then he becomes the best possible pig. A life coach helps you maximize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses and position yourself for personal and professional success.
Myrrh is oil and is the tool of a good therapist. When the gears inside you stick and you skid off the road, a therapist spreads a little oil and, hopefully, the gears free up and you winch yourself back on the road.
I consider all three of mine to be good friends- especially Lisa, my therapist.
I worked with Lisa for at least 4 years while I struggled with issues unrelated to where I find myself today. Recently, I find myself reaching out to her on a new front and more of the same old shit. The good news is our relationship is intact. Just like old times, she has no problem slapping me for the old behavior and is helping me face my own mortality a little sooner than planned.
Good therapy leads you on a journey of self-discovery and kicks your ass when you get stuck. A good therapist is patient and walks beside you- much like a parent.
Not all therapists are good therapists- therein lies the rub.
My first foray into therapy occurred at 13. It was not voluntary, my parents dragged me there.
Therapy had become a thing and my parents’ social circle had settled on a therapist de jour for all the rebellious boys. Forewarned is forearmed, I had a heads-up from my buddies who preceded me. The therapist was a shock and awe practitioner.
I brought my smuggest, smartass self to the session, determined to maintain my composure at all cost. I could piss my mother off with the same tactics, so I was feeling cocky- the false bravado of a teenage know-it-all.
After a brief introduction which included my parents and their laundry list of my sins (shitty attitude, fighting with my brothers, uncooperativeness etc.). I was left alone to do battle with the asshole.
In hindsight, I understand the guy was a Freudian.
His first question: “Do you masturbate?”
My response: “What do you mean?”
It went South from there.
Instead of a question, he followed with a statement: “I know you masturbate, every boy does.”
His voice was rising and he was red-faced.
I looked him in the eye and made a snarky remark: “Well, I do wear glasses.”
I had him. He was pissed. So much so that he proceeded to get in my face, an intentional violation of my personal space. I knew he wasn’t supposed to touch me, although he allegedly wrestled one of my friends into a closet. Despite my discomfort, I sat in silence, as expressionless as I could.
His anger continued to rise: “You want to tell me to fuck-off don’t you?”
‘That’s what I’m telling you, dickhead.’
“No, I don’t want to tell you anything”.
The rest of the session was more of the same, I refused to rise to the bait. In the end, he conferred with my parents and we left. My parents never dragged me back.
If he told them I was a “normal” 13-year-old boy, he would have been correct.
If he told them I had simmering adolescent rage, he would have been correct.
If he told them to watch out because I was just smart enough to conceal my transgressions and was going to have bigger problems later, he would have been correct.
Upon reflection, the explanation for my sins was simple, a part of the natural order of things. My newly functioning testicles and the testosterone coursing thru my body started the dance with my brothers and peers to establish dominance and strut for the girls. I had begun sparring with the Lion King, preparing for the ultimate battle where I would prevail or be banished from the pride.
The Lion King was not my father. The Lion King was my mother.
My second experience with therapy, at the insistence of the Lion King, was later; somewhere around 21 years old. I left the pride to attend college and I returned for a brief stay in my parents’ home while I looked for a job. The Lion King took exception to my hard partying.
It took a lot of manipulation to get me to agree to see a therapist. Since I was in denial about almost everything in my life, particularly my blossoming drug addiction, I was not prepared to engage at any meaningful level. He was a quiet man and his approach was to create an uncomfortable silence. He was good at it.
So was I.
I’m not sure we said more than “hello” and “goodbye” in our one-hour session. I never returned.
My next adventure in therapy, at age 25, was semi- voluntary, the result of an escalating addiction. My parents and brothers organized an intervention and arranged a 28 day stay in a treatment center in Atlanta. I didn’t know it, but 28 days would turn into 300 days: 45 days in-patient, 180 days out-patient and 75 days “independent” living…but who’s counting.
Therapy, both individual and group, was constant. Even the facility itself was therapy, catering to medical professionals and executives; we slept, ate and played ping-pong together. The approach to therapy was basic; force us to feel something, anything, everything. One common theme in chemical dependence is avoiding or changing feelings. The overarching goal of the program was for us to acknowledge our feelings and learn to cope in a less destructive manner.
I remember only three of the therapists. I resonated with Ellen, the amazon therapist, all 6’6” of her, and Bernard, the petite, black fundamentalist preacher turned therapist. I hit on Ellen early only to discover she was a lesbian. I did not hit on Bernard.
I respected Ellen and Bernard, but I was captivated by Stephanie.
Stephanie was an extremely attractive wisp of a woman with piercing green eyes. She became a therapist as therapy for her own demons which revealed themselves in her countenance. Conversation was easy, enlightening and enjoyable. In our one-on-one sessions her edges would soften, the gates would lower, and the conversation would wander until the hour evaporated. Among other things, I learned she had been badly abused by a series of powerful men and left with a serious pill problem.
If the goal of therapy was to make me feel, I scored a touchdown. Without realizing it, the patient-therapist relationship turned into something else. It began with lunches at Waffle House and continued for months. It’s a good thing Waffle House didn’t rent rooms.
We were playing with fire, about to go down in a blaze of glory.
On occasion, Stephanie’s best friend, a local TV anchor, would join us. I’ll call her Laura. I liked her, but she drew attention and we didn’t need attention. We weren’t supposed to be there or anywhere off campus together. Much later I understood Laura’s appearances were not random, she was Stephanie’s litmus test. Stephanie had been so badly damaged, she needed 3rd party perspective. Laura liked me and I her, right up until the moment she discovered I was Stephanie’s patient, at which time lunch became uncomfortable for Stephanie and me and everyone in Waffle House.
Laura exploded at full volume. I was staring down, but I imagine the diners were looking up as she started screaming: “Are you guys fucking? Oh my God, Steph, you are fucking your patient… you are going to get fired!” and so it went- she was on a tear- I got my tongue lashing too.
The reality was, we were not fucking, we were thinking about fucking.
Stephanie and I never met off campus or in any place we weren’t supposed to ever again.
The Waffle House experience took the fun right out of therapy.
For the next 23 years, I avoided therapy until my marriage was over, my drinking out of control and I was ensnared in an ill-advised relationship. I tried to find a therapist thru friends and my physician. My only requirement was that she be a she. I visited with several and liked none.
In frustration, I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist, assuming a psychiatrist was a sort of uber therapist. I was disappointed to learn she only prescribed medications. Our meeting was brief, and she suggested a therapist she knew.
Thinking; ‘here we go again’, I made the appointment.
At least I was a little wiser to therapy. I knew what styles didn’t work for me and I was fairly certain you shouldn’t try to sleep with your therapist.
I hoped this therapist looked like a troll, dressed like a nun, and was brimming with helpful tips on dealing with the mystery named women. I was lost in a labyrinth of female problems and I was self-medicating. I was in trouble and I knew it.
A couple of days later, I met Lisa for the first time.
Lisa does not resemble a troll or dress like a nun. She is exactly opposite, and I like her immediately. I do occasionally learn from my mistakes and I badly needed a good therapist. First and foremost, I needed an intellectual equal with high tolerance for fucked up behavior. It doesn’t hurt my feelings that she is attractive. In fact, I’m certain she has to deal with assholes like me in social situations, so her perspective is uniquely valid and useful.
What I have learned is I have a great therapist and an even better friend. If that sounds inappropriate, it isn’t. Anyone who can sit thru the day listening to other people’s fears, hopes and sins, is a candidate for sainthood in my book and I admire her. She knows more about me than I do, including my darkest secrets and all of my shitty behavior. Still, she greets me with a smile and I can count on her to make time for me when I need it- the definition of true friendship.
Until I was diagnosed with cancer, we stayed on the same merry-go-round having to do with a pointless and frustrating relationship I was trapped in. We made a few side trips as I was finalizing my divorce and when my parents became infirmed and my father passed but it always came back to a haunting relationship I could not resolve. She figured it out early and tried to warn me, but I wasn’t listening.
At one point, she told me that if I was determined to pursue the offending relationship, she would work with me. That, my friends, is the hallmark of an excellent therapist. Basically, she was saying I’ll support you while you fuck up and I’ll be here to catch you when your dumbass figures it out.
Fast forward to present. Even though we had not seen each other for over four years, she was there for me when my day of reckoning came. No judgement, no I-told-you-so, just support. Ten years of patience with me deserves a gold medal.
I’m a huge believer in therapy in all it’s shapes and sizes but having the right therapist is everything. Don’t waste your time with anyone who won’t give you homework and hold you accountable.
I’m fortunate to have Two Wise Men and One Very Wise Woman who I trust to walk with me on my journey.