Thursday, November 17, 2011

Get Some Counseling!

10,000 Maniacs--"Don't Talk" (mp3)

Some opening thoughts, snippets from three different conversations, one of them internal:

ME TO A FRIEND: I agree, I think you need to get some counseling about...

A FRIEND TO ME: I think every marriage should attend a marriage seminar every single year. Every kind of marriage.

ME TO ME: I don't really do counseling.

The fact that in the past two days I have found myself both recommending counseling and maintaining no interest in a marriage tune-up myself does not surprise me. After all, like the rest of you, I am, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, "a walking contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction."

If I see a friend about to plunge once again into a pattern that keeps getting repeated, then, yeah, I support the idea of counseling. Otherwise, I'm pretty iffy about it.

I am willing to concede that there have been a few times during my 29-year marriage that likely would have benefitted from some counseling, but the more general pattern of people seeking counseling for everything that ails them makes me very nervous. And not only personally-nervous (since I tend to be a pretty private person), but also societally-nervous, because I see the counseling boom as another potential crutch, like the plethora of prescription drugs that plague our society. Yes, they are a plague.

To complicate matters, my older daughter is headed for a graduate program to become a counselor. I think she will make a very good one; I think that she will do a lot of good. But she will become a counselor in the context of social work, where it is most definitely needed.

No, my concern is about the kind of "I'm depressed so I think I need to go see someone or take something" mentality that pervades our daily lives and mental patterns. Again, I am well-aware of the clinical diagnosis of "depression" and the profound ways that it can take over a person's life. What I'm talking about is surviving day-to-day ups-and-downs in outlook, in marriage, in motivation, in hope for the future, in worries about children, in sex drive, in faith, in the what-the-hell-am-I-doing questions that sometimes hit us in the morning shower. To me, those are things that you work through on your own, or with your spouse or partner, or with your children or your parents or your friends. Period.

I am sorry when someone loses a parent; I lost my mother. But that isn't a circumstance that requires medication. We should be depressed when that happens, we should feel like the rug has been pulled out from beneath us, we should feel forced to reexamine all aspects of life. Our bodies and minds are reacting to a massive physical, emotional, and mental void. We should have to learn how to reinvent joy. Over time. Not artificially produce it.

And I guess I look at marriage the same way. Marriages have rough spots. They're supposed to. They're supposed to because two people are never going to be perfectly in sync. They're supposed to because humans are probably not monogamous beings by nature, and to battle with our natures to try to find our better selves. And so, the idea of a marriage seminar, a marriage billboard, a marriage website doesn't do all that much for me either.

What is a marriage seminar but mass counseling? It's a place where two people with a very idiosyncratic relationship have to hold that relationship up to a) a created ideal and b) every other marriage in the room around them. Yeah, I might go for that once some time. Or maybe I should have already. But every year? Good God, no!

I suppose the idea is, at least in this specific case, some kind of Christian version of "the unexamined life is not worth living." While I agree with that idea on the surface as it applies to marriage, I would also amend it in two ways. First, I am certain that Aristotle meant that as an demand for self-reflection, not as a dictum suggesting that couples work through a workbook or listen to a series of CDs together. Someone somewhere with some other agenda created those tools for, dare I say, a capitalistic purpose. Second, examination requires time and action in between. To take on a yearly marriage check-up doesn't leave enough time for a marriage to actually live. It's like training for sprints, not marathons.

And while I'm mixing metaphors, I'll add this. Marriages are sometimes like wounds. They are raw and open and they need a chance to scab over and heal. A yearly seminar, at least to my thinking, does nothing more than rip the scabs off, the scabs of imperfection. I have no interest in that; in fact, I think it's unhealthy, likely to cause infections. May even potentially be fatal.

But beyond that, a marriage seminar, or any seminar, for that matter, is built on the idea that somewhere out there lies THE ANSWER and that maybe, just maybe, these latest folks pulling into town are holding that answer and will reveal sometime late Saturday night, or even early Sunday for a reasonable individual or group fee. If they gave it out any earlier, everybody would leave. So they've got to stretch it out, tease everyone, and then finally reveal that the answer lies within. Or without with Jesus. Things that people already knew, if they'd been paying attention at all during the previous seminars.

I realize that these notions put me outside the current norms of treatment and drug therapy (unless you count beer) and that you probably think that inside I am a mess of unresolved issues and unfulfilled desires. That may well be true. But if it's something that you think I need to work on, let's meet over a beer or a trip to New Orleans or a game of catch in my front yard. I'd rather talk it out that way. My wife will probably join us. We'll probably want to get something to eat, too.


Daisy said...

I don't completely disagree with you,( a marriage seminar once a year seems preposterous) but I prefer over counseling to over medicating. Out here in suburgatory seems that everyone and their dog takes some kind of anti depressant or anti anxiety med,. GPs and even OBs hand them out like candy. Seems to me that if you need this type of medication you also need counseling so that one day you may be able to function without medication.

Bob said...

Daisy, I do completely agree with you. Prescription meds merely bury the problems. But, as I contend in the post, my biggest concern is people being medicated for situations that don't require medication (or counseling).

rodle said...

It all depends on the goal, doesn't it? I'd agree that something like a marriage seminar should not be done for "medicinal purposes". People attending a marriage seminar should feel strong in their marriage, and be willing to except those 3 days should be giving food for thought, rather than solving a problem. Unfortunately, often both the presenters and the attendees expect it to be much more.

True counseling, however, is totally different, and if used properly I don't see how it could ever be a bad thing. Regular meetings over a period of time provide one more avenue of exploration.

I see it as is similar to a kid visiting a teacher every week to discuss writing. Ideally, the teacher and student have a constant dialogue, with the teacher helping the student find his own voice. The teacher doesn't tell the student what to do, but instead helps the student think about things that hadn't occurred to him.

Billy said...

Deep and debate-worthy stuff in your write-up and the comments. I wish everyone were as bothered by our societal over-medication. As for counseling -- alone, as a couple, in large groups -- any reasonable person should be skeptical, but I have to think Bob Newhart didn't completely waste his time from 1972-1978.

cinderkeys said...

Seems like most people aren't skeptical at all. I like reading advice columns, and one of the most common throwaway pieces of advice is, "... and also, get some counseling."

I don't have anything against it. It's just ... people throw that out as a solution without any thought to what goes on in counseling. You see someone, and then a miracle occurs, and then you feel better. Some discussion of the actual process would help.

Sara C said...

I'm glad I didn't post yesterday when I was livid because rereading your post makes me see more clearly the emphasis you put on the marriage seminar, which I, too, am skeptical about.

Here's the thing, though: you didn't limit your conversation to that element; instead, you actually compare counseling to a crutch. To be frank, I'm still pretty ticked about that, and it is not merely because I'm married to a counselor.

Counseling is never a bad thing. Really. A skilled, practiced counselor will help, even if the help needed is to show someone that he/she doesn't need counseling. Undoubtedly, there are bad counselors out there, just like there are bad teachers, bad doctors, and bad hairdressers. But the good ones will always help and never hurt.

Beyond just my opinion on the subject, let me offer these two points of scientific support:


Finally, let me just say that your suggestion that someone should work through his/her problems with a friend or spouse is just uninformed at best, dangerous at worst. A talk over coffee, even with a trusted friend, is not the same as having a relationship with a trusted counselor. The two are just dramatically different things. Most of the time, if folks could talk about the issue with friends or family, they would. It's those times when those around you are too close to the issue or too close to you or too involved in their own lives and troubles when you need someone separate to help. I'm married to a counselor, and I never would expect him to counsel me if I had serious troubles. It's not his job. I would expect him to love, support, honor, and help me, but not to counsel me.

Bob said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob said...

Sara, I appreciate your loyal readership and your thoughtful comments here. I tried to keep my comments in the first person to make it clear I was only representing myself and to make the careful distinction between clinical diagnosed that re quire counseling and treatment and what I consider to be an over medicated/over counseled society.

That being said, the reality is that conservatively 95% of the worlds population has neither access nor inclination to counseling meaning that like me they rely on other viable solutions to getting through daily life.

troutking said...

I've never had counseling (not necessarily because I don't need it) but it's hard to imagine that for most people in most situations there is a better tonic than time spent in the company of people who care about you, be they friend or family.

cinderkeys said...

If I had to choose between friends/family and counseling, I'd choose friends/family hands down. But it's not really an either/or kind of thing. The people close to me are great for support and occasionally advice. Therapists are, in theory, better at acting as an emotional sherpa.

Bob said...

As much as anything, I think it's a generational thing. Sara's husband is, indeed, an excellent counselor. But we had no such person in my large, suburban public high school in the 1970's so that was never where we looked for comfort. We looked to each other. The paradigm has never shifted for me.

Billy said...

As a psychology major, I have respect for the science and potential value of counseling and therapy.

But how do we judge effectiveness or value on these matters? The suicide rate hasn't budged in 60 years, but counseling has skyrocketed, as have pharmacological solutions.

So, for all the extra talk, and for all the extra drugs, I'm not entirely convinced we're an improved version of our former selves, mentally speaking. Physically? Sure, we're bigger stronger faster tanner, but I'm not necessarily seeing the same kind of thing mentally.

However, because it's not like therapy and Lithium are the only change factors of the past 60 years, it's wildly unfair lay all lack of improvement at the feet of psychology.

What I'm sayin' is, it's really hard to know how truly effective counseling in the large picture has been. I might be a believer, but it's hard for me to get too upset at unbelief in this case.

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Russell Dill said...

Getting counseling somehow has this marked notion in the society that it is for people who “badly need help.” I guess that’s why some people prefer not to have them, because they are somehow afraid of what society might think of them. I don’t completely disagree with you because I am a private person myself. I don’t like opening myself up to people so much because I always think that I can handle things on my own. However, there are some people who aren’t as emotionally or mentally stable as us so some matters like an unhealthy marriage, the death of a love one or other depressing situations have a different impact on them. This is when I think that they need a professional’s help to let them cope with their problems. I wouldn’t like to see it as a “medication” either but rather having a second unbiased opinion.

Russell Dill

Bob said...

Russell, thanks for your insight. I've had my eyes opened some on this one.