Therapy: Gym Training for Your Mind

Jan 03, 2018
Cape Cod

Like many people who find a therapist, I sought help when I was at my worst. I was unemployed and found myself hospitalized after almost losing a limb through my negligence – I’d gotten a foot infection and ignored it until too late. I spent a week and a half in the hospital as they tried to get the infection under control, telling me all the while that I might lose the foot. I came home to face months of recovery. It was then that I told my wife I wanted to die. I said that I didn’t love her or the kids anymore, that I felt useless. I told her I could never feel happy again. I honestly believed it, too.

At that moment, seeing the pain I caused in her eyes and hearing it in her voice, I knew that I had to do something. I only wish, in retrospect, I hadn’t let it go that far.

Looking back on it, the warning signs that I couldn’t solve my problems were all around me.

I had withdrawn from social life with friends and family: I took no pleasure in being around my wife and kids. I’d stopped participating in hobbies I loved. I just wanted to be left alone. I catastrophized everything that happened, especially after the accident that landed me in the hospital. Any setback, no matter how minor, felt like a body blow. A rejection letter to a resume. A coffee mug that broke when I dropped it. One of the kids spilling a gallon of milk from the fridge. Everything set me off into a blind rage.

That anger – that frustration – was born of a feeling of helplessness, a sense that things were beyond my control.

“Dad’s like a porcupine,” one of the kids told their mother one day when I was seething with anger about another challenge. “It’s like his feelings are quills so no one can touch him.”

From our earliest age, society drills into boys’ heads that only they can deal with their problems. Self-reliance is a virtue in our society, and we’re taught that part of being a “man” is being independent and dealing with your own stuff. We are also taught that having emotions – much less displaying­ them – is unmanly, unless you’re aggressive and dominant. Even boys raised in the most progressive households experience an onslaught of gender-based stereotyping as soon as they leave the house – when they go to school, sports activities, or just play with friends.

So, it’s little wonder that many of us – myself included – grow up emotionally disconnected. Without being fully engaged with our own emotions, our relationships with others suffer as a result.  Therapy helped me reconnect with myself – through that process, I was able to connect better with others, too.

Finding a therapist who I wanted to work with was my first challenge, and it’s one that sadly many people never get beyond. Working with my insurance company to find coverage was, of course, the first hurdle. I also knew that unless I made it easy for myself, I wouldn’t follow through, so I looked for one nearby so I wouldn’t have to travel far. Phone interviews and referrals helped me narrow the field until I found a therapist with whom I connected.

The first day I visited my therapist, I didn’t really understand why I was there. I knew I was in trouble. I knew my marriage was in trouble. But it took me a long time to know why I had gotten to this point – unpacking anxieties, blocks to communication and expressing genuine emotional intimacy with my loved ones.

My therapist helped me explore my feelings – good and bad – that’d I’d shut off for years. She enabled me to be present in a way that I had never been before. To be a better version of myself than I had been. To make mistakes, and to forgive myself for the mistakes I’d made.

For therapy to work, you must be invested in the outcome. I walked into that office understanding it was a process that would take time, and it did. We met every week. We’d talk on the phone when I had crises that felt overwhelming. It’s been five years since that day I said those horrible things to my wife, and it’s still an unfolding process.

My therapist has helped me to live a more authentic life than I had before. I have an emotional toolbox that’s equipped me to handle better what life throws at me. I’ve also learned that I can’t control or fix everything, or ignore my problems. I’m a more emotionally available husband, father, and friend as a result. I’m also a lot happier and a lot more forgiving when I make mistakes or when life throws me curveballs because it still happens.

We put a lot of barriers in our way to convince ourselves we don’t need help when we do. Just like you, I put off doctor’s and dentist’s visits longer than I should. Similarly, there’s stigma and fear attached to therapy, and there doesn’t need to be.

The trainer at the gym helps me improve my physical body: Better strength, new muscle groups that I didn’t have before, improved flexibility. Working with a therapist is like working with a personal trainer for my mind.

She has helped me improve my emotional strength, my resilience, my mental flexibility. Like the gym trainer, she’s helped me develop cognitive and behavioral muscles I didn’t know that I had. And just like at the gym, strengthening those mental muscles takes time, takes effort, and causes discomfort in the process. But the result is proving to be worth it.

Guest Blogger:  Peter Cohen

MassMen welcomes Peter Cohen, a guest blogger. Peter is a writer who lives on Cape Cod with his wife and kids. He’s an Apple computer nerd who’s been a tech journalist and an IT manager