When I knew I needed therapy

I remember the moment when I realized that I needed to see a therapist.

It was the middle of the night, and I woke up crying. Not a “that was a sad dream and I’m choked up” situation. My pillow was wet and I was sobbing. It was the second time in the space of a week. In the morning, I related the dream to my wife who suggested that I might want to talk to someone.

The dreams were about my dad. In them, he was present yet something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t tell what was amiss until things would slide toward my being awake and then my mind quickly snapping to and realizing he was gone. It was too much.

It was September 2012 and I had lost my father—a very healthy 70 year-old—to a tragic fall a few months earlier in June. I had thrown myself into the busywork that follows tragedy. I was grateful to have some way to be helpful and keep busy. My career has set me up well for dealing with insurance, attorneys, accountants, etc. to help my mom navigate all of the legal and financial implications of my dad’s passing.

Over those first few months after my dad passed away, I received many compliments on how “strong” I was being, yet on the inside I felt like a kid who got lost at the mall.

Now my subconscious was telling me it was time to take care of me.

I’m lucky in that in my family, there is no stigma associated with mental health and therapy. Both of my parents spent their entire careers in public mental health care: my dad as a psychiatrist, and my mom as a registered nurse and director of community programs.

Our circle of friends was quick to recommend a therapist, Steve, nearby who specializes in grief therapy. I jumped into a weekly routine of 50-minute sessions with Steve.

It took me a while to get the hang of it. Steve and I spent a lot of time talking about my childhood, and a lot of “backstory” where I wasn’t always sure where it would lead. He would ask “but how did that make you feel?” and I often had trouble answering. On multiple instances, Steve even pulled out the Feelings Chart for me to point to, to better describe where I was. I had to move beyond the factual account of situations to what was happening within me.

I’ll share one example (among many) of the types of discoveries I had about my relationship with my father through therapy. I only saw my dad cry once. In the mid-1980s, one of our father/son movie outings was to see The Karate Kid, Part II. In it, there is a scene where Mr. Miyagi has recently buried his father, and he is emotional and silent watching the ocean when Daniel comes to sit with him. It’s a sweet little scene in a mediocre sequel, and I looked over as a 12 year old and saw my dad wiping away tears. I doubt I’d ever have the opportunity to recall that memory, and explore the expanded meaning it now carried for me, without therapy.

My sessions with Steve were invaluable. And I now had this new perspective on, and appreciation for, my parent’s life work.

Before therapy, I was in the “that’s too painful, time to quickly change the subject” response to any reminders about my dad. And the reminders are everywhere—direct questions from my daughters about him, his inescapable image in my Photo Stream, the song Release by Pearl Jam, the passing of other big patriarch-types like James Gandolfini and Robin Williams, the list goes on. Now, I embrace those reminders. At the risk of getting too religious or spiritual, those reminders are the way I keep my dad with me going forward. I would NOT have gotten to this place on my own.

Tweaky knee, see a physical therapist. Tight back, try a chiropractor.

Feeling overwhelmed by the grown-up shit that life throws at you, please find a Steve and take care of you.
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