IN THIS ISSUE

Zombie Seeks Help With Anger Issues: My First Therapy Experience

I first went to a therapist when I was 18 years old because I was a "holy terror," a "piece of work," and a "basket case" or, at least, that's what everyone said

By Robert McInerney, PhD

It's true that you would not have wanted to know me back then. I drank too much, argued with everyone and fought many. Anger, a very nice emotion that often provides excellent clarity, is, when the brim of it is tipped, nothing but a flood of rage. I am, at least, happy to say that I never bullied anyone, in fact, quite the opposite; I defended people whenever and wherever I could, but I have to admit, I longed for a fight and I spoke my mind; it was a way, perhaps, of striking at fear. Those I fought were, sadly, made into the objects of my anxiety. 

Of course my anger was all about anger at myself and it is strange to think that this obvious notion was lost on me back then. I barely graduated High School and I was unloading tractor-trailers and cleaning the warehouse bathrooms for extra cash. While my friends were going to college, I was picking up soggy Penthouse magazines off the men's room floor and cleaning toilets. I went to see a therapist not only because I was angry all the time, but also because I was depressed all the time (you'd be depressed too). You have seen the movies, picture this: a zombie out to destroy the world, but itself dead inside; that was me at 18.

I was not tough, I was a frightened child. I had some hope and that was enough to lead me to the waiting room of my soon to be therapist's office. There I sat full of anxiety. His waiting room was kind of dingy as I recall, not much to look at. There was a white noise machine on an end table with magazines piled on it. Despite the machine's efforts, I overheard a couple arguing in his office. The thrust and parry of their argument made me more nervous. I felt my body tense up. The man's voice must have been booming as I could almost hear what he was saying. The woman's voice was sharp as it cut through the white noise, too, but although she sounded angry, there was also a bit of fear in her quaking tone. Then it was quiet and I heard a calm and gentle character, but I couldn't make out what was being said. The arguing and calm mediation happened again, and again, for about 15 minutes (I came early to my first session because I was afraid I would get lost on the way!).

And so I looked around the waiting room and on the wall was a wood plaque with a poem on it entitled Desiderata (1927/1995). I read it. The last line, "Strive to be happy," perplexed me. Strive to be happy, I thought, aren't we born happy, isn't happiness a God-given right? I mean, I thought happiness was something you were supposed to have, and I didn't have it. Surely I was defective in some way; after all, that's why I was there. Strive to be happy, did it mean I have to work for happiness?

I remember that I liked the idea that it said "strive" and not struggle. Struggling is what I was already doing and it wasn't working. If you are thrown in deep water, rapids, and you struggle, you'll likely drown because you'll flail around for awhile, take in water and that will be it. But, if you strive, which has a calmness, deliberateness and direction to it (i.e., strive for meaning that sustains and nurtures you), you'll likely swim a bit, or float. You'll be fine and you'll be in the wonderful position of being able to help others who are drowning.

Who was this man with this plaque on his wall? It must be important to him, I thought. I read it again. I loved it. I read it one more time; it moved me. Then the door opened. The man (husband?) came out first, storming. I had my head down in a kind of reverence. The woman right behind him, storming out too and as I quickly glanced up, she looked seemingly put upon and tired; neither looked at me. I put my head back down and shuddered for a moment.

I lifted my head. There he was, a short, plain looking man with a gentle face wearing a ridiculous sweater. He smiled at me and with a kind tone in his voice said "Hi." I nodded and muttered something. He moved his body slightly out of the way of the open door and said "Do you want to come in?" His smile, the poem, and his subtle gesture of welcoming me, I realize now upon reflection, allowed me to choose my fate. I asked myself, "Are you willing, are you ready, to strive to be happy?"

Without fierceness or rage, without violence, and, as this story goes, with no regret, I said "Yes." Theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich (1952) says that "Anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage" (p. 39). None of us can withstand anxiety in its purest form, Tillich tells us, but we can strive to be happy when we find the courage to be more alive. In a strange way, it was fear again that I responded to, not with hostility, but with affirmation. I said "Yes" because that ecstatic instant of possibility for change challenged me and it was the first time I was truly brave.

As the years passed I spoke with him weekly. He was always kind, and often insightful. He was a good therapist. In fact, he was a humanistic therapist although I don't think he knew it (Rogers, 1961).

My anger abated, I wasn't depressed and I changed my life. He was by my side through so much: renewed education, changes in career and meeting the best person I've ever known, my wife. Each decision I made, as long as it wasn't born of anxiety, he affirmed with a gentle smile. When he retired he gave me the plaque and it hangs behind me now on my wall.

References

Ehrmann, M. (1927/1995). Desiderata. NY: Crown Publishers.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.