I'm a terrible listener. I'm always trying to give advice when no one wants it. When someone starts talking politics, particularly on education issues, I immediately start lining up counterpoints in my head instead of actually listening to what the other person is saying.
So with Thanksgiving approaching, I was trying to think of someone to thank beyond the people I usually thank -- my parents, my partner and my friends. I realized that there is one person to whom I owe much, and I have never properly thanked him because it's not very kosher to talk about in public. Today, instead of writing about education or politics, I'm asking everyone to go thank their therapist, or to go get one if you're too damn scared.
Discussing mental health treatment in this country is more thou-shalt-not than a CIA sex scandal. Acknowledging it directly conflicts with our American individualism -- the idea that there are chemicals and traumas and circumstances that cannot be "conquered" through willpower alone.
A few months ago, I attended a workshop where we had to listen, in silence, to another person speak for three minutes. We weren't allowed to nod, or smile, or chime in with our own experiences. The premise for this work was that most of us spend our lives wandering around trying to find someone to listen to our stories. We are engineered to share -- the latest work debacle, the new family addition, the goofy dog photo. Our social network titans figured this out before anyone else -- that we would rather let our whole lives be known to the world than suffer in silence. But we know that Facebook is not the place to achieve catharsis -- though some people certainly try!
Therapists listen when no one else does. Practitioners of talk therapy recognize that it doesn't take a medical degree to know that many of us spend our lives feeling as if no one is listening, as if we are all shuffling along in our private universes. And yet we treat our therapists, and mental health professionals, as though they were our secret shame. The persistent stigma attached to mental health services continues to damage our national health.
Acknowledging to a friend that you even have a therapist is almost a "coming out" moment. In fact, my therapist was the first person to know about me. Without him, I wonder if I would have made the transition to adult life so much more easily than the other Southern gay men I met, who descended into depression and despair. There were no marriage victories then, only headlines of defeat. I wonder if I would have been able to sustain a lasting relationship, or to learn how to trust other people, if not for him.
The therapist-patient relationship I had took many, many years to develop. Even after years of knowing him, there were still many wasted sessions when I talked about the weather, too afraid to make any part of myself known. Since moving to Massachusetts almost five years ago, I haven't had a therapist. I hope that I will have the courage to find one if I need help again.
The sad fact is that, as a country, we have decided to ignore mental illness. According to our policy of neglect, homeless people are homeless by choice. Long-term care barely exists since we devolved everything into "community centers," which also really don't exist. And when we're suffering from personal problems, we don't turn to therapists the way that we turn to other doctors -- we turn to self-medication and self-loathing, and we retreat. We systematize dysfunction. We accept that our problems are our own and no one else's, and we refuse to ask for help. To admit "weakness" is to refute American exceptionalism.
I hope that we can move past this 19th century worldview. We should start referring friends to good therapists, unashamedly, the way we would refer them to a good dentist. For now, I thank my own, and hope that others find their own path to wellness, no matter what anyone else says.
For more by Adam Kirk Edgerton, click here.
For more on mental health, click here.