An elephant was kept at a zoo in a pen that was only 40′ x 40′ square. All day, the elephant would walk the 40 feet, turn and walk back.
The zookeeper was abusive. He would get drunk at night and stand on one side of the elephant’s pen and hit the poor animal with a stick each time he reached that side of the pen. As a result, the elephant always winced when he reached that side of the pen, whether the zookeeper was there or not.
The zookeeper was eventually fired and a new zookeeper was hired in his place. The new zookeeper was horrified when he saw the size of the elephant’s pen. He ordered that a new 400′ x 400′ pen be built around the old pen, landscaped to reflect the elephant’s natural habitat.
When the new pen was completed, the old fencing was removed. The zookeeper and the visitors were disappointed to see the elephant walk 40 feet, wince, then turn and walk back 40 feet in the opposite direction.
So why did I just tell you a story about an elephant?
Because we’re like that elephant*.
Many mental health problems begin with our attempts to cope with bad situations. We build emotional and behavioral defenses which become habits. Like that elephant, we carry imaginary fences in our own minds and behave as if those fences were plain for everyone to see.
I don’t even remember where I heard or read that story. I remember it struck me as profound because it occurred to me that my job as a psychotherapist was to get people to walk 41 feet, just a step outside their comfort zone.
It’s not enough to tell people that there is a world of choices open to them. Our “world” is whatever size we perceive it to be. Some of us have to be shown that we will survive taking that one extra step.
*(Also, because none of my previous books had any elephant stories and the elephants have been complaining.)
Long before I became a licensed mental health counselor, I suffered from depression as a teenager. I was prescribed all sorts of medications, none of which helped. At the age of 16, I bought a book of Gestalt Therapy exercises. Today, I would never recommend self-directed Gestalt Therapy as a treatment for depression, but I wasn’t this smart at 16. I just knew my life had to change.
So I memorized the exercises and did them whenever I could. I even carried a scrap of paper in my pocket to remind me of the different exercises.
Several years later I had a “peak experience.” Some might call it a “religious experience,” or an “ecstatic experience.” You can call it an “emotional and intellectual orgasm,” if you like.
I got it.
All the pieces fell into place.
Everything changed for me at that moment. There was a drastic shift in how I saw myself, others, and the differences between us. I went from the belief that I was a victim of my circumstance to the realization that I had choices and the responsibility for those choices. I went from the belief that everyone was in it for themselves to the realization that we all are connected. I understood for the first time that, if I had lived your life, I’d be more like you and vice versa. I understood that depression was a disease of thought, perception, and behavior, which meant that changing one’s thought, perception, or behavior would change one’s depression.
And I was right.
It’s ironic that I went through my teens convinced I didn’t “fit” in this world, that I would never make any sort of meaningful contribution. But, since that day, life has never stopped surprising me.
Most people who know me as an adult have a hard time imagining me with depression. I’m the opposite of depression. I’m upbeat with a ready smile. I love to laugh and make jokes and tell funny stories. I like people a lot. I’ve met only a handful of people that I seriously disliked. I’m a chatterbox when talking about subjects I’m passionate about. I can be high energy and intense, yet have no trouble relaxing. Even in semi-retirement, I divide my time moving from project to project. I’ve devoted most of my life and livelihood to doing things I enjoy that make even the smallest contribution to this nutty world.
No therapist is perfect for everyone. I tend to focus on a person’s problem and its solution rather than chat week after week like a casual acquaintance in a laundromat. Clients who expect therapists to simply lend a sympathetic ear and gently pat the top of their hand saying, “You poor, poor Dear. However do you manage?” are horrified by me. I’m okay with that. They’re not my clientele. It will soon become apparent to the reader that I tend to be blunt, opinionated, and playful. I also care very much about my clients and work very hard to help them walk that one extra foot.
My favorite professor in grad school, John Twomey, EdD, once told our class, “If you can’t lighten up and play with life, what do you imagine that you can teach people with mental health problems?” He encouraged us to relax and be ourselves during the therapeutic hour.
This made sense to me since, in the mental hospital where I served as an intern, my patients were either emotionally rigid or emotionally vacant. He also encouraged us to interact with clients as we would our peers.
So, from very early on, I worked at keeping my psychotherapy sessions as light and upbeat as possible. Throughout my career, my therapeutic goal was to make not only long-term gains, but also short-term gains. I wanted clients to walk out of my office feeling better than they did when they walked in. I gave myself extra points if they left smiling or chuckling.
My favorite clinical supervisor, Michael Meleedy, LICSW, once said to me, “I don’t think that your success with anxiety clients is due only to all those techniques you come up with. I think it’s you. I picture you sitting back in your chair listening to your clients with that huge grin of yours. You just rub off on people!”
I laughed at that, but I had to admit there was some truth to it, too. Part of my success with anxiety clients was that I was so relaxed and casual I drove them nuts!
I’ll share a favorite example: I was to meet Frau Striktbottom* at 4 o’clock for her initial intake appointment (diagnostic interview). My 3 o’clock client had her hand on the doorknob about to make her exit at 3:55 when she thought of one more thing she wanted to talk about. By 4 o’clock, she was in tears.
Now, I couldn’t just say, “Your time is up. You have to go. I have another appointment.” I listened and helped her regain enough composure so she could leave the office with some emotional stability. It was now about 4:10.
I went to the waiting room and saw this large, middle-aged, matronly woman. Imagine a refrigerator with arms, legs, and a head.
* (Her name was not ‘Frau Striktbottom’. I can’t put clients’ names in print, so I’ll just assign people names that seem to fit.)
“Are you Mr. Cormier?” she said in a tone much like you would expect from the Queen of England asking why the chamber pot hadn’t been removed from her room.
“Yeah, I’m Rick.”
“Do you realize that we had an appointment for 4 PM, and it is now 4:13?” she asked while incessantly tapping the crown of her watch.
“Is it? …Huh! Are you ready?” I asked, smiling.
She followed me to my office and we sat for an hour going through the agency’s standard intake questions. She was a nice lady. She had been raised by people whose idea of parenting was filling her head with rules instead of filling her heart with love. At the end of the session, I said, “Your intake is finished. Now, I can set you up with a therapist who is older, younger, female, whatever, or I’d be happy to work with you if you like.”
She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I wasn’t one bit impressed with you when we met, but, after talking with you, I suspect there are some things I could learn from you. If you don’t mind, I think I would prefer to work with you.”
Four months later, we said goodbye with heartfelt hugs. That Christmas season, she spotted me at an indoor mall and we gave each other a last big hug.
So, yeah. Maybe I rub off on some people.
I decided some time ago that, if I was ever going to write a book on mental health, it wouldn’t a technical and scholarly textbook with charts and statistics to prove the validity of my ramblings. There are thousands of books like that out there. They double as sleep-aids.
If I should sound callous when telling stories of past clients, I assure you I am not. In the course of doing my job, I have known several thousand clients on a very intimate and personal level. I have worked hard to help them. To avoid losing my own sense of self and risking burnout, I’ve learned to step back emotionally, once the work is done. When you step back, you begin to see the patterns and the humor.
My goal is to pass along what I have learned about mental health based on my own experience as a clinician. (Your own experience may differ.) I’ll also share what I hope are some interesting stories.
My challenge is to communicate to you, the reader, in the same way that I would a client in the office, in plain language, an open heart, and with lightness and humor.
This will not be an encyclopedic volume. You’ll find no scholarly footnotes or bibliography. I’ll speak from memory and often in generalities. There are no chapters on ADD, Bulimia, or Athlete’s Foot. They’re not my thing. I will talk about Anxiety, Trauma, Anger Management, Schizophrenia, Depression, and Relationships. I’ll touch on anything insightful or entertaining that I think might be of interest.
Maybe I can even make you smile.
We could all stand to lighten up.