Psychotherapy is not for the faint-of-heart. Entering therapy is a substantial risk, especially when considering there is no blue print or written guarantee that you will get better. At the same time, it is just as thrilling as it is terrifying, like a sedentary extreme sport or emotional skydiving. Based in art, philosophy, and science, psychotherapy is fierce and a force to be reckoned with, so it still surprises me when patients worry about being judged as weak for stepping up to that level of commitment.
As a licensed social worker and post-graduate fellow, I was recently ask to speak to a group of interns about entering a program for psychoanalytically-informed psychotherapy after graduation. In the spirit of Freud (procrastination), I relied on free association, trying in some way to articulate my experience so far, specifically in my own therapy. I have few regrets about investing in mental health, so I figured that unshakeable belief in psychotherapy would emerge organically, but each time that I tried to hone in on specifics, I became overwhelmed, quickly recognizing that I still wonder how I have made it this far in my own training and practice.
The discussion ended up more like a paradoxical dry heave. Upon offering a blur of anecdotal pieces of my life in training, a frenzied story of blind passion on an empty wallet, one intern chimed in to ask, “So why is it worth it then?”
Touché. Apparently, I did not convey the agony and beauty of no frills health care, just the agony. Standing by everything I said in the abstract, I failed to give the gains their due. How far I was willing to go for my dream to become a psychotherapist did not translate, at least not through the epic saga of waiting three hours to get a pap smear.
With the discussion in the backdrop of my mind, I headed home that night, shifting my focus onto Elia Kazan’s “On The Waterfront” (1954), because, well, Marlon Brando. While indulging in what Columbia Pictures describes as “tender love, terrifying conflict, and exalted frenzy,” I realized that this story is eerily similar to what I tried to convey earlier.
Terry Malloy, played by Brando, is a gritty dockworker and amateur boxer who finds himself a witness and unknowing accomplice to a mob murder. In an effort to prove his innocence, he teams up with the dead man’s sister and local priest, who both encourage him to expose the corruption. In the end, having to choose between virtue and violence, Terry’s ego settles the score by opting for a little bit of both. He testifies against the bad guys, kicks some ass while subsequently getting his ass kicked, and in the end, becomes a bloodied emblem of individuation.
The irony in psychotherapy is that in order to become effectively individuated, the parts of ourselves that we hate are usually the parts that need to be treated with the most dignity, respect, and love. Again, easier said than done. In fact, there is a real jeopardy and violence to the journey inward: an acute emotional pain in picking, peeling back, and agreeing to slowly shed our defenses away. Mistakes are made. Stuff spills out, just like in that infamous final scene in “On The Waterfront” (1954). As our hands, once held in fear, drag slowly down our cheeks, we see that Terry is bleeding, crying out, and swollen in body and mind, yet we don’t turn our heads away this time. We sit closer, finding that we cherish him more, embracing his depth, complexity, and humanity with widened eyes and hearts all whilst silently root for the unlikely hero.
As the parallel processes of my own experience, with and in, psychotherapy seemed to be pressing up against the fourth wall from the inside, gently whispering “duh,” it dawned at me that there has to be something to this whole art imitating life thing. Psychotherapy is made up of people like Terry Malloy, resilient individuals who thrive because they have suffered. Asking for help is an incredible feat of strength, in all its messy glory and, as it turns out, the gain is in the transformation.