I am a 44-year-old male. I would say I grew up in a functional home with normal, average parents who did their best to raise their three children. We had typical sibling rivalry, but most of the time we all got along. There were no major physical or emotional problems; it was a solid home.
Over the years, I sometimes heard mention of “therapy.” I’ve had friends here and there who told me they were in therapy. I knew of some couples going for couples’ therapy. Honestly, I never really understood what therapy meant! I couldn’t grasp the idea of going to a stranger and telling them all your secrets and then having this stranger make things better. The whole idea of it seemed ludicrous to me. In some small, probably judgmental part of my brain, I suspected that the people who sought out this kind of help must be some kind of crazy, and that therapy was for crazy people.
My wife also grew up in a stable home similar to mine. Of course, nothing is perfect, but there were no major issues going on and everything was pretty much under control. Whenever my wife and I heard of a person we knew who was in therapy, we wondered what could possibly be going on to motivate them to take such a drastic step. The underlying message between us was that we and our family were way too healthy and stable to ever consider the help of therapy. Certainly, we’d never be crazy enough to need it.
Over the past year, my life has taken a detour in some scary ways. My once secure, happy, normal state of mind is anything but. A number of things all seem to be converging at the moment, and I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, with this feeling like my brain is on a carousel, going round and round at maximum speed, and I’m unable to get off or stop the action.
In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on. My job, which I love and enjoy, is feeling less secure to me lately. The powers-that-be have been hiring younger, whipper-snapper types who seem way savvier than I am, not only in terms of IT knowledge, but also regarding how to use social media in a more powerful way, how to network more effectively, and, in general, how to rise to the top among the older employees. Though I’m only 44, I’m feeling old and like yesterday’s news, and I’m frightened that maybe my days at my job are numbered.
Also, my father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I’m having a difficult time dealing with his deterioration, my mother’s reaction, and my own sense of loss. If that weren’t enough, my wife was recently diagnosed with a chronic condition. Thank G-d, it’s nothing life-threatening, and it will be managed, G-d willing, but it’s scary and sad. My children don’t seem as happy and carefree as I remember my siblings and I were at that age. They are moodier and often disagreeable.
I know that nothing I mentioned is as serious as some of the problems I often read about in your column, but when I confront them all together, I’m just not myself. My thoughts and behaviors are compromised and I feel like I need help. I don’t want to burden my wife with all of my fears; she has enough on her plate at the moment.
I guess my question to you is when a person should go for therapy. How do I know whether I should just buck up and deal with what’s going on or if therapy is warranted? Since my wife and I always believed that therapy is only for crazies, how to I tell her that I’m considering it and how do I feel good about going rather than a bit embarrassed and weak? Are there any guidelines that indicate when a person needs therapy?
Though these days I would venture to say that therapy has become quite commonplace — and, in some circles, if you haven’t been in therapy, you might even be considered the odd man out — there is a time and a place to engage in this process. The time and place is different for everyone, and it’s up to you to determine whether it can improve the quality of your life, remove some of the stress that is keeping you up at night, and teach you skills for managing your concerns more effectively.
While some people wait until they are in crisis mode before reaching out to a professional for support, other people like to preempt such a catastrophe and turn for guidance when things are first beginning to brew and feel uncomfortable. It’s far from a one-size-fits-all option and each individual must be self-aware enough to know when it could be helpful.
I believe it’s important for you and your wife to rid yourselves of your prejudices regarding therapy. You need to lose your judgment and naiveté regarding the value of tapping into the help of a qualified therapist. People who seek help are not “crazies,” nor are they necessarily people with extreme insurmountable problems. They are people like you and me, who reach moments in their lives that are sometimes overwhelming and therefore believe that receiving objective guidance and understanding is the key to a happier tomorrow.
It sounds as though you and your wife have thus far lived as close to an idyllic life as possible. That’s a wonderful thing. You are both quite unique and blessed in that regard. The downside to all that contentment and happiness is it doesn’t prepare you to properly deal with hardships. When life inevitably catches up, you don’t have the tools or the proper attitude to handle the worries and pressures. Without needing to dig deep and tap into your strongest self, it’s hard to know what you’re made of.
Generally speaking, when life starts feeling unmanageable, it’s time to seek help. You seem to have a lot on your plate suddenly, and it’s coming at you from all sides. Nothing you mentioned is minor, and, cumulatively, it’s enough to keep anyone up at night.
A spouse can certainly offer the support and perhaps even some solid suggestions a therapist could provide, but so often in a loving marriage, a spouse feels the need to protect the other spouse to some degree, rather than totally burden them with all of their fears. That’s where a therapist fills the gap. Therapy provides a safe place to express your worries. It provides a place to feel heard and understood. It’s a place to learn tools for handling your fears and revising your reactions to those fears. It’s an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of oneself and a place to grow as a human being, in wonderful ways.
If this sounds like an opportunity that you feel would improve the quality of your life at the moment and help you navigate a particularly stressful time, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do a little research and make the call. “Crazy” you certainly are not. On the contrary, you will be acting in a mature, self-loving, proactive manner that will enable you to grow into the man you are destined to be.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.