Normalizing Therapy (Or How To Ungoop Your Noggin)

In the autumn of 2013, I found myself walking into a new season, a season of sobriety. If you’ve followed my work for any amount of time, you know the story, how my inebriation grew from a great pain. (You can read this story in Coming Clean.) You know, too, that I was able to untangle my mental morass of pain and alcohol dependency only by way of a good therapist. That good therapist–he helped me find the road to recovery. For that, I’m grateful.

In these years of different life, I’ve continued to share my story of sobriety and have praised the virtues of therapists. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it ad infinitum: if there are experts in the human psyche, in mental health, pain, or recovery shouldn’t we use them? On so many occasions after I’ve shared my story, I’ve heard from others who’ve failed in their own attempts to unwind their tangled black brain threads, who only found clarity by way of their own therapist.

Last week, fortune smiled, and I was invited to share my story at a local clinic. I gathered in a group room with some of the best therapists and counselors in Northwest Arkansas, and I shared my story of pain, shared how it gooped up my noggin for a murky few years. I encouraged them in their work, told them how a member of their profession helped me live into a new reality. He helped me find the path to true sobriety, a sobriety characterized less by the to-drink-or-not-to-drink questions and more by the to-live-whole-or-not-to-live-whole questions. I could not be more grateful for their profession, I told them, and I meant every word.

These therapists were gracious, and they fielded my honest, rootsy, real confession. Maybe I cried once or twice while I shared my story (sometimes the pain still comes calling). Maybe one or two of them did, too. Maybe I cussed once or twice (pain pulls tears and curses from even the best humans), and not one of them blushed. Maybe I found empathy in the faces of these very human therapists, and in that empathy, I saw the beauty of people who cared about my story, who care about the stories of their clients. I saw folks who carry the hope of stability to folks who’ve gone awonk.

These therapists–they have a calling.

There are those who believe they don’t need therapy, the John Wayne types who six-shooter their way through any issue and come out smelling like gunpowder and Old Spice. Likewise, there are those in the Christian faith (perhaps pastors, priests, and deacons) who believe therapy is little more than applied humanism, that it supplies thin excuses for sin. “Repent and quit,” they say, as if it’s that easy.

Dear Mr. Wayne, Mr. Pastor, Sister Christian, let me be clear: your bootstrapping hornswoggle ain’t worth the bluster that blows it.

Weeks ago, I spoke with a pastor about my sobriety, how it was born from more than a handful of visits to a therapist who didn’t beat me over the head with scriptures on repentance. To his credit, he wasn’t dubious, wasn’t critical of my process. In fact, he showed great deference and support. At the tail end of the conversation, he asked how the church could normalize therapy for its parishioners. I choked down my immediate answer–does the church really think there’s something abnormal about therapy? I muddled out some answer about vulnerability in leadership, about pastors and leaders needing to lead the way to the therapists’ office, which is true. To be frank, though, I failed to give him a clear answer.

I’ve mulled the pastor’s question over, and I think I found my answer in the clinic visit last week. Normalization of therapy (in or outside of the church) happens when we admit that sometimes we can’t sort out our own noggin-goop, our own tangled black brain threads. Normalization of therapy happens when we watch therapists exercise their gifts, flex their empathy, when we participate with them in that process as patients. Normalization of therapy happens when leaders (read: pastors and priests) use their platforms to speak of their own therapeutic experiences, when they admit that they’re no John Wayne.

There’s no magic to normalizing therapy, whether in or outside the Christian faith. There is this, though: go, and you’ll see how normal it is, how magical it is, too.

If you’d like to read more about recovery from any addiction, habit, or dependency, please check out my Recovery Room series. No matter the vice, I think you’ll find something there for you.

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