Worse Than Useless

I had mentioned before that three times in my life I have had some reasonably sustained therapy [1]. The first time it happened was between the ages of about five and seven, at a local psychiatric hospital in Plant City, that went bankrupt during my childhood, called the Panos Center. Of all of the times I have ever had therapy, this is the only experience with it that I feel fondly about. It is possible, of course, that hindsight has made it a more pleasant experience in retrospect, although this is seldom how my mind has tended to work. Nevertheless, one must at least concede the possibility that memory, particularly memories going back thirty years to a period where one did not really understand fully what was going on, is not going to be a reliable basis for judgment. Be that as it may, I remember as a child that the therapy was playful and that it was not a very stressful experience. Had such been my only experience with therapy, I might even have a more positive perspective on psychologists and psychiatrists in general, but that was not to be the case. Nevertheless, the fact that I fondly remember at least some childhood experiences of play is a good thing, given the generally harrowing nature of the childhood that I remember and occasionally see in nightmares.

My next sustained familiarity with psychology came as a high school student when I attended the International Baccalaureate Program at C. Leon King High School and chose Psychology as one of my four higher level classes during my junior and senior years. In our school’s program, the psychology class focused first on different schools of psychology, and then on abnormal psychology. Included in such assignments was a self-designed naturalistic observation, survey, and social experiment as well as an intriguing dream journal assignment. For the most part, I found some of the schools of psychology fairly congenial to me personally—I have always respected the insights of Carl Jung that have applied to personality theory, for example [2], have been fond of the humanistic psychology of Maslow and Rogers, and have preferred the big-picture mentality of Gestalt psychology to many approaches. If Cognitive Behavioral Theory has struck me as a bit too cold and Freud I have found to be grossly overrated, and if I have been horrified by the perspective of behavioral psychologists and their reductionist thinking, I have nevertheless found at least some aspects of psychology as a field personally worthwhile in my own self-learning, especially where Christian counseling has been involved [3]. My studies of abnormal psychology were less pleasant, not least because they led me to question the extent of my own sanity, as can often be the case for those who deal with diagnostic manners and have a tendency to think their physical or mental health to be at least somewhat defective, but overall I enjoyed my studies in psychology, and if I did not consider myself to be fit to make them my life’s work, at least I considered the studies to have been time well spent.

My second experience with therapy, in the mid 2000’s, was less pleasant. As I had become conscious of the serious and damaging effects of child abuse, and also of the deep extent of my own depression and gloom, by 2007 I thought it necessary that I take some efforts to improve my own personal mental health, and sought to find a therapist in the area who had competence and expertise in early childhood psychology and its effects. The city of Tampa, in whose metropolitan area I then lived, did not have many of those psychologists, but I eventually found one who had offices near the University of South Florida, where I attended graduate school as a commuter student at the time while also working full time. Without going into too much painful personal detail, or violating confidentiality, the experience did not go well. There was a point, and it came after between eight and ten counseling sessions of 45 minutes in length apiece, where the therapist thought that in order for me to find greater healing and peace of mind that it would be advisable for me to seek the services of a prostitute, since it was her view that more sexual experience would greatly solve my fairly extreme anxiety and personal timidity in such matters. It should go without saying that I found the counsel to be deeply disturbing and that marked an immediate end to the therapy sessions.

My third experience with therapy may have been even more traumatic, if that is possible, although it is also far more complicated. In early 2013, shortly after moving to the Portland area, it was thought necessary for me to attend some sessions with our congregation’s local counselor so that it could be determined whether and to what extent I was a threat to the well-being of the young people of my local congregation. It did not take very long for it to be clear that even though emotional entanglements of an awkward and sometimes even disastrous nature were well within the realm of probability, that I was not the sort of person who was a threat to those around me, and probably far more of a threat to myself. What made the situation awkward were several interrelated concerns. For one, there was not sufficient distance between therapist and patient, given that we are moderately friendly acquaintances who go to church together and have other personal ties. For another, he seemed to lack hope that the difficulties I faced were soluble in this life—he seemed to be of the belief that sometimes everything one does is wrong and that there may simply be no good options to choose from. This did not inspire a great deal of comfort or encouragement as far as I was concerned. Additionally, this man has frequently asked me to sing with a teen and young adult a capella choir in our local congregation, which I have felt has tended to magnify the potential difficulties and stress of the situation, both for myself and for others.

Despite my at best uneven experiences when it came to the field of psychology, nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that this field views itself as being of the utmost importance in encouraging and fostering mental health. And, to be sure, there is a great need both to recognize ways in which mental health can go disastrously wrong, but more importantly, what good mental health looks like. If psychologists and therapists have not always succeeded in encouraging good mental health among those they help, there are at least a few good reasons for this. For one, the field of psychology has a highly developed theoretical framework without having a highly developed understanding of the brain, the mind, as well as its individual quirks. Like many aspects of health and nutrition in our contemporary world, knowledge of psychology has been hindered by theoretical and worldview concerns, such as a hostility to spiritual and moral excellence, as well as a certain obeisance to political and cultural trends of a harmful nature. Anytime a therapist feels comfortable advising a patient to break the laws of God and man in order to pursue the fulfillment of frustrated longings for intimacy, there is clearly something deeply amiss. Fortunately, my experiences in reading and studies of the field have been far more enjoyable; it is only when matters have gone from the study of general patterns and trends and gone to the far more thorny and difficult matter of trying to improve my own personal life, to increase the success of intimacy, to reduce difficulties with others, and to banish the continual presence of anxiety and even alarm that the field has been a dismal failure in my own life.

Nevertheless, the abuse of a field and its frequent operation under faulty worldviews does not mean it is a field without worth. On the contrary, it just means that such a field requires great care and attention if it is to operate most effectively. No doubt a great deal of my own well-being, to the extent that it can be argued that I enjoy a high level of mental health, is due to close attention to matters of mood and psychology. Some of this involves matters of eating and sleeping and exercise, for out of fairly basic behaviors a great deal of our own well-being depends. Additionally, the search for self-knowledge and the concern for other people often involves knowledge of and attention to matters of psychology. If we are truly well-adjusted people, in a decent and moral sense, our behavior will not seek to cause distress to others, and will be attentive to feedback from others, so that we are able to avoid, at least to the greatest extent possible, causing unintentional offense. If we are not perfect in such matters, we should at least strive to become better and grow in them.

Of particular interest to me personally are therapies that involve personal interests of mine. For example, the use of writing and music as therapy is something that I have long explored as an avenue of encouraging my own mental health, even if creativity carries with it the strong risk of misinterpretation, as has been known to happen. Additionally, I have found in the enjoyment of plants and the pets of others, or riding horses, a great deal of therapeutic value. If my own busy and somewhat nomadic lifestyle has made it difficult for me to feel comfortable with having pets, I do enjoy the greater peace of mind that result from being in nature and being surrounded by fellow creatures, so long as they are well-behaved and not personally hostile to me. Since this is the case most of the time, I have found such activities to be enjoyable, even to the point where at some point, if resources permit, I may devote some time to gardening or animal husbandry as a result, even if it is a bit too much like the sort of activities many members of my family love. Perhaps that is a sign of healing, in that the activities that family members enjoy are no longer horrifying simply because they were done by others. Perhaps someday this will be the case with activities like photography as well, outside of the few times I have enjoyed vanity photography sessions which have felt far more comfortable than most of the photography I have been involved in thus far. There are obviously some areas where healing has yet to come.

At any rate, even if my own personal experiences with psychology have often been worse than useless in that they have actually made my life more difficult and less encouraging than they would already be, I have viewed this not as a sign of uselessness on the part of psychology as a field, if it was properly conceived, but rather as a sign of the incompetence of the people who have failed to help me, and as a sign of the difficult task of psychology given my own personal background and context. No doubt the fact that some of my friends have been attracted to psychology, a task I have sought to encourage them in where possible, has been a testament to the fact that even with deeply imperfect skill on the part of many practitioners, the field itself still retains an attraction for those who see the promise of encouraging the mental health of others, after first having understood and improved their own mental health. Perhaps that is the biggest promise of the field, in that we can first seek to help ourselves, and then, once we have helped ourselves, we are able to turn around and help others as well. Among the best results of our own growth and improvement is the corresponding increase in our ability to help others out. And is that not at least a large part of what makes life worth living in the first place, and that makes people devote their lives to counseling and encouraging others to the best of their God-given abilities? Perhaps we are not so different after all.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/a-telltale-heart/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/accident-report/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/pieces-of-me/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/suffer-the-children-tears-for-fears-and-musical-therapy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/book-review-many-faces-of-ptsd/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/ordinary-magic/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/remember-that-you-are-a-child-too/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/a-week-to-remember-a-week-to-forget/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/you-have-the-right-to-remain-silent-but-not-the-ability/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/broken/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/book-review-please-understand-me-character-temperament-types/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/31/book-review-please-understand-me-i/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/book-review-bearing-the-unbearable/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/book-review-safe-house/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/book-review-still-restless/

http://breakingfree.ucg.org/content/book-review-threshold-hope

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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