It had been a long time since I last went to therapy. Six years.
Long enough that I had started talking about therapy in the past tense. Telling people “In my twenties, I went to therapy for 5 years…” as if I had earned a degree in my own mental health.
But then I got stuck again. Stuck is the medical term for Nathan not being able to move past a certain situation or issue.
I had slid into my early thirties with relative ease. But suddenly I was coming up on my 33rd birthday. Somehow being almost as old as Jesus seemed heavy to me.
Then it really started to hit me that I wasn’t in my 20’s anymore. “I have a wife, a mortgage, I have a career.” And suddenly I couldn’t stop asking myself what I wanted out of the next phase of my life.
What was my family gonna look like?
What did work/life balance feel like in my thirties?
Is my writing going to be a hobby or something more?
And my thoughts turned into conversations and pretty soon it was all I talked about. I found myself having the same conversation over and over and over again. My friends had begun rolling their eyes as I peppered them with the same questions “What do you think I should do about…?” Tired of giving the same opinion, getting frustrated that I kept asking.
Then I started polling random people in grocery store lines about their life choices. Trying to get a sense of what “the people think.”
And with each conversation my anxiety ticked up a notch. I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t find any advice that seemed to sink in.
Finally my wife mentioned going back to therapy.
Back to therapy. It sounded like a punishment.
“No, I’m fine.” I tried to convince myself. “It’s not that bad.”
Part of my apprehension was the shape I was in the last time I went to therapy. I was a mess.
I was 22 and having trouble getting out of bed, having panic attacks almost every day, and my mind was a fractured mirror shooting off into a hundred destructive directions.
In many ways it was easier to go to therapy the first time. I was the classic therapy case. Young man in his early 20’s graduates after reading philosophy for four years. Then lands a 9 – 5 job and falls apart in the “real world.”
For some reason it was easier to go to therapy when I was clearly self-imploding. I’ll admit part of it was desperation. I was tired of feeling shitty. But part of me was more comfortable going to therapy because somewhere I had picked up that that’s what you do when your life falls apart. I knew that story.
I’d seen “What about Bob?” a thousand times
I didn’t want to be reprising the role of the mentally unstable male who checks himself in, but I knew the role.
But this time around I was reluctant. I wanted to sort it out myself. By all accounts my life was going great. Sure I was interrogating total strangers about huge life decisions…but I wasn’t having panic attacks. I was still happy. Most days I would give my life an 8 out of 10.
But my lack of clarity around the next phase of life was taking up waaaay too much of my free brain space.
So why was I so reluctant to go see my therapist? It wasn’t the money – although I appreciate that this is an expensive venture – I was prepared to spend the money.
On some level, I knew that I was embarrassed. Of what exactly – was hard to put my finger on.
But as life so often unfolds, at the same time I was wrestling with going to my therapist I was also deep into Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. And maybe it was me constantly trying to avoid making an appointment, but suddenly I deeply empathized with Harry Potter dreading having to go deep into his own past with Dumbledore and Snape.
And then I started to realize that Harry Potter was basically in therapy. Going to the professors’ offices to learn about how his family history shaped his life. Learning how to silence the negative voices in his head. Trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult. Trying to understand how his choices affected his life and the lives of those he loved.
After Harry Potter, I started to realize that all my heroes went to therapy.
Luke Skywalker going to Degoba to train with master Yoda.
Amidst all the Jedi mind tricks I completely missed the psychological training going on. He isn’t just training to fight. Yoda is teaching him to face the fact that his father is Darth Vader. And Luke’s little green therapist is forcing him (pun intended) to acknowledge Luke’s deepest fears of becoming his father.
Luke Cage hiding out in the barbershop until Pop’s tells him that he can’t hide out.. That Cage has to use his powers for good – despite his fears about going back to prison.
I’m pretty sure the reason I kept missing the substance was because of the setting. My heroes training didn’t happen in a therapist’s office. They were getting pep talks from coaches in the locker rooms or deep thoughts in between training montages.
Traveling to train with a wise teacher is embedded into most of the great stories. In his work The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Carl Jung calls it the meeting with the mentor.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not equating coaches and kung-fu pep talks with therapy.
I am saying that realizing my heroes had to talk to someone before a major life transition helped give me a little more confidence about going back to therapy.
It helped me see that taking time to reflect and mentally prepare myself for the next phase was an essential part of living fully. If I was going to make a difference in the world, there were going to be times when I had to retreat and work on myself.
It helped me see therapy as a leveling up. Moving from good to great. From Padawan to Jedi.
So I made the appointment. And for the weeks leading up to the date I kept repeating my new mantra. “Heroes go to therapy. Heroes go to therapy. Heroes go to therapy…” until I was finally sitting in the waiting room outside the door. On the same chair I sat in 6 years ago when my life was falling apart.
And my therapist opened the door with a smile.
I walked into his office and sat down on the couch and he asked the familiar question, “What do you want to talk about today?”
“I want to talk about life in my thirties,” I smiled back. “I just want really want to get it right.”
And guess what? We had four amazing conversations in his office and suddenly I had a handle on where my anxiety was coming from. Feeling a lot more ready for…at least my mid-thirties.
And if you found your way to the bottom of this article – chances are that you or someone you care about has a complicated relationship with therapy. And maybe you have a Yoda-like mentor or friend in your life. Someone who has committed themselves to be your confidential personal life coach. Someone you can be totally honest with about everything– from your career to your deepest fears. If so you are seriously blessed. But if you’re like me,
a licensed therapist.
For some of us, four sessions might be enough to get back on track. But other times in life it might be months or even years – real lives don’t have training montages. But real life does have heroes and maybe someday we can be one of them.
And if you get nervous or embarrassed, take a deep breath and repeat after me, “Heroes go to therapy. Heroes go to therapy. Heroes go to therapy.”