The Jaywalker

“Jaywalker!”

This is what my client shouted out her car window as she drove past me crossing the street. I was startled and almost dropped the black coffee I held in my hand and the cigarette I had in my mouth. Like a child caught doing something wrong but still trying to pretend like there is nothing wrong, I smiled and gave a friendly wave back at her as she drove away in her silver Tesla. I then returned to work.

I am the kind of person who crosses the street when and wherever I need to. I just cross. I do not like the idea of being told what to do by two painted lines on asphalt. Crossing in the crosswalk causes me to feel bad about myself. Like I am doing something that I know is not good for me. I often feel no different than a cow obediently following along.

I prefer to jaywalk and will explain why this illegal act is so important for mental health in a bit.

But first….

I didn’t think much more about it for the rest of the afternoon and got lost in trying to help my psychotherapy clients solve some of their unsolvable problems. The good thing about being a psychotherapist is that you can forget about your own problems for a while, pretend like you have none, and focus on someone else’s troubled inner world. I am often surprised when I come home from work and find several problems waiting for me. “Oh, hey,” I say. “I almost forgot about you.”

The following day, my client who caught me jaywalking did not show up for her appointment. Really? This was odd behavior since I had been working with her for over a year. She came to every appointment and would often say that her life depended on psychotherapy. She had no communication with any of her children and lived alone in a large and beautiful home. She was continually unhappy about her life and felt like psychotherapy helped her to work things out and become a better person in her mid-life. I sent her a text asking if she was still going to make it to our scheduled session but did not receive a response that day. Or the next.

I knew that my client had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder by a previous therapist, but I tried not to see her in the light of this diagnosis. Diagnosis helps no one is my general belief. I know that Borderline Personality Disorder causes a person to go from loving you to disliking and being angry with you at the snap of two fingers, but I wanted to believe that our therapeutic relationship was more stable than this. We would work through anything that came up, I told myself. We seemed to get along perfectly well but it is always tough to tell when a personality disorder is present in the room. When I did not receive any response from my text after a few days, I knew that something was wrong. It was obvious to me that she was condemning me for illegally crossing the street.

I realize that many people do not like the idea of being given advice from someone who walks outside of two lines painted on asphalt. A jaywalker has a negative connotation in our much too obedient, rule driven society. Everyone is expected to walk within the lines and those who do not are harshly judged. If I am a jaywalker what other rules do I break? I must be troubled person if I can’t even cross the street within the lines. What an irresponsible professional I must be. My client was a CEO of a large corporation and I knew that she deeply respects rules and expects everyone to follow them. Still I assumed that when she yelled out her Tesla window, “Jaywalker!” she was just playing around with me. A funny coincidence passing your therapist jaywalking in mid-afternoon on a crowded street. I did not realize that her yelling at me was actually an angry condemnation. How dare I illegally cross the street. I should know better. This sort of thing.

I realize that my brain has a tendency to jump towards the worst case scenario. I once had a meditation teacher who told me, “You have the kind of brain that when you walk down the street and you notice a rope in the middle of the street you immediately assume it is a snake. It takes you a few minutes to realize that it is just a rope.” Fair enough. I have done a lot of work to correct this psychological disability but being born and raised Jewish predestines a person to certain amount of self-created psychological duress, which is impossible to correct. The best a person can do is be aware of when their disability is causing them to experience the world in a way which is not true. A person who can’t do this is often called psychotic.

I don’t want to be psychotic. I want to know what I am doing when I do it.

It is possible that my client is not thinking what I think she is thinking. It is possible that not soon after passing me she was in a serious car accident and is now dead. It is odd that she suddenly stopped coming to our sessions and will not reply to my texts but as a person who works with so many people, it is not unusual for a few to every so often be suddenly and without notice recruited out of this life.

I was warned once by another psychotherapist to never work with people with Borderline Personality Disorder. “They will make your life miserable. At first you will think they are the nicest and most interesting people. They will tell you how much you are helping them and make you feel great about yourself. Then suddenly POW!!! When you do one thing that they think is wrong you will be punished.” I have never been very good at taking other people’s advice but now that I am left feeling like I was unfairly judged for jaywalking, I see what he meant.

I’ve had to keep in mind the words of the troubled philosopher Seneca who wrote in exile, “No man is despised by another unless he is first despised by himself.” I obviously have no problem with jaywalking. I enjoy jaywalking. It is my trivial way of saying fuck you to the law-abiding world. I would never want any kind of advice from someone who does not know how to walk outside of the lines. As our society becomes increasingly entrenched within narrow minded laws and mindless conformity, walking outside the lines has become a way to exercise one’s autonomy.

The person who is not continually exercising their autonomy is doomed to struggle with mental illness, often a fundamental symptom of conformity. Therefore, I see it as my responsibility as a mental health professional to jaywalk. It is impossible to conform and have mental health. Conformity to the way of life in our current society creates immense mental health problems. What use am I to my clients if I am unable to do what is best for my own mental health?

As I lay in bed last evening I was thinking that maybe it was the act of jaywalking with a cigarette in my mouth that turned my client against me. I realize that psychotherapists are supposed to be examples of responsibility and health and seeing me cross the street in an illegal way while smoking may have destroyed the illusion all professionals are publicly supposed to create. It is possible that my client could not tolerate seeing me as my authentic self. Maybe it is my fault for being caught with my guard down while out in public. I don’t really know. All this thinking is madness. This is the problem with having relationships with people with Borderline Personality Disorder. Suddenly you are left feeling like you have done something terribly wrong but you don’t know what. They are good at taking the madness that is in their brains and inserting it into yours.

Jaywalking is one of the final ways I have left to protest a society that is all about following rigid and suffocating rules. When I was young I would spend entire days in protest marches but now I do not have the time or energy to do this. I also live in an area where acts of political protest do not exist. So for now, jaywalking is the best I can do to convince myself that some degree of an activist rebel is still alive in me despite living a more professional, suburban, middle-class life. If my client doesn’t like it, to hell with her.

“You are better off without her,” my wife said to me as she sat in bed next to me and intuited that I was still trying to figure out what went wrong with my client. “You are right,” I said to my wife. We turned out the bedroom lights and I placed my arms around her and pulled her into my body. Before falling asleep I thought, I am better off without her. This is advice I am going to take. Just let it go.

 

The Jaywalker. Part One.

The Anxious Therapist

images-1 In a world where a nine-year-old girl accidentally shoots her instructor in the head with an uzi, one human being publicly beheads another and where the “terror” alert in the UK has been raised to severe- I suppose the problem of the anxious therapist is not such an important cultural issue. But the anxious therapist is a kind of conundrum that is a stark commentary upon the times in which we are living.

The psychotherapist is often perceived by the general public as being a professional person who is the pillar of mental health, wisdom and neutrality. A kind of modern-day Socrates. The therapist plays into this persona because it is a luxury (and for some a curse) that their profession affords them. The position they hold comes with a kind of enlightened status, even though most of us know deep down this is rarely ever the case. The therapist is symbolic of a wide-spread misrepresentation that puts into question all of  our perceptual abilities. If we perceive the therapist as someone or something they are not, what does that say about the state of our own minds? After all if we really were able to be accurate in our perception of the therapist, we may no longer elect to pay them for their time. And then who would objectively help us through the struggles that haunt our souls?

The anxious therapist is a threat to the entire sanctity and effectiveness of the healing potential of psychotherapy. I am not telling you anything that the anxious therapist does not already know deep within themselves. They represent everything which is false about the claims that they make. At least this is what we may think at first glance, but as we go deeper into the conundrum of the anxious therapist maybe we will find the opposite to be true.

During a session in the anxious therapist’s office, the client and the anxious therapist sit across from each other. The anxious therapist sits in a reclining chair and the client on a couch or in a chair. As the client talks to the anxious therapist about whatever issue they are dealing with, the anxious therapist is struggling to pay attention. To the client, the anxious therapist appears to be deeply listening, but what appears to be true to the client (even though the client may suspect that something is not quite right) is far from the truth.

The truth is that the anxious therapist is trapped in her chair. Her body is doing incredibly strange things to her, which causes her to be fearing that life could slip away from her at any moment. As the client talks, the therapist is stuck in a hypervigilant and panicked negative thought process. She is thinking about ways that she can excuse herself from the room without losing the client and all her credibility. She is using every fiber of her being to remain composed, despite the ominous feeling that within her body their is something terribly wrong and at any second she is going to lose all control. Without moving, the anxious therapist is enduring a kind of arduous inner work out, which causes her palms to sweat, staining her pants with a salty liquid in the areas where she plants her hands. In this very moment, the anxious therapist is working harder than 99% of human beings on earth to not only remain attentive but to also avoid a complete freak out. Even though there is an unlocked door and the anxious therapist is not confined to her chair, the client sitting just across from her causes her to feel painfully stuck.

The phenomena of the anxious therapist is hardly an isolated one. The anxious therapist has been around for as long as the practice of psychotherapy has. Sigmund Freud is the most well-known anxious therapist. He wrote a lot about the various terrors that he struggled with. Freud would often break out into fits of sweating during his psychotherapy sessions, due to the onset of the sudden fear of dying that would come upon him in his sessions. Freud used a plethora of drugs to try to control his anxiety, but besides having his dog besides him during psychotherapy sessions, was not able to find much relief. This resulted in Freud’s life long struggle with depression.

In the field of psychotherapy, a few researchers believe that the phenomena of the anxious therapist is much more wide-spread than is documented. It is only natural that most therapists would not come forward about their struggles with anxiety during sessions with clients. It is embarrassing to admit that during a session with a client the anxious therapist is often struggling with mental health issues much more than her client is. With all the education and training that the anxious therapist has had to go through in order to get to where they are at, publicly admitting their struggle with anxiety threatens to diminish the credibility that keeps them in practice. As a result, most anxious therapists struggle silently through a kind of inner hell from which they see no chance of rescue on the horizon. It is a miserable and unpredictable fate that they have to endure.

But is the anxious therapist really a discredit to the field of psychotherapy? Is the anxious therapist really presenting to his clients as a kind of fraud? Or is the anxious therapist a living example of how a person can struggle through the darkest and most frightening experiences, but still remain calm and composed (for the most part)? After all, in life shit happens and at some point all of us will find ourselves faced with absolute terror. Maybe the anxious therapist is like a shaman because they are silently and energetically imparting the most valuable lesson that a client can learn from psychotherapy: the ability to remain calm and composed in the face of absolute fear.

Personally, as a therapist myself, I believe that the anxious therapist is a kind of hero. In a situation where most people would run to an emergency room or doctor and need to take a Valium or something stronger in order to feel some sense of safety and relief, the anxious therapist silently wrestles with immense fear and physical discomfort while remaining calm enough to continue to engage with her clients without giving much notice (other than the sweat spots on his pants) that something is terribly wrong. This is a skill or ability that even some of the most disciplined meditators struggle to posses.

Most of us are way behind on the current scientific and psychological research into the neurological explanations for anxiety. The scientifically validated explanation for the development of anxiety disorder is that it goes back to the individual’s parents (or primary care-givers) and the psychological and emotional environment that their parents raised them in. It is well documented that a person is not created with a mental illness (mental illness is not genetically pre-determined). Mental illness is created by the environment that the child grows up in (environment begins to have its effect in the fetal stage of development). From a nuerobiological perspective the root of the crippling anxiety that shows up in the anxious therapist’s life can be directly traced back to how she was parented, but knowing this does not make the anxious therapist’s struggle with anxiety during her sessions (and outside his sessions) any easier. All the anxious therapist can do is take full responsibility for her current situation and practice various techniques that can help her navigate her way through the terrifyingly uncomfortable terrain of anxiety. You can not change the roots of a tree, but you can give a tree water, which will hopefully help its leaves to hang on.

It is well documented that Freud’s anxiety often drove him to the edge of isolation and despair. The isolation and despair that he experienced (which he described as a “disappearance of hope”) caused him to often contemplate suicide as a solution. After the potentially life threatening bout of anxiety, which always leaves the anxious therapist thoroughly exhausted, depleted and depressed for days, the anxious therapist finds herself feeling what some could describe as suicidal. The anxious therapist does not necessarily think about ways to kill herself, but feels hopeless up against the anxiety which she knows will soon reappear. Once the anxiety has run its course, the anxious therapist knows that it is only a matter of time before she has to go through it all over again. She knows this because it has been this way for her entire life.

In the end, the most difficult hurdle for the anxious therapist to get beyond, is to accept that no matter how hard they work on themselves, they are not the model of mental health that their clients and profession raises them up to be. The anxious therapist is surviving with a mental illness, that effects their life just as much (if not more) as whatever issues their clients are struggling through. In a profession that demands that the anxious therapist not publicly admit their personal struggles for fear of losing credibility and the luxury of appearing better off than they really are, the fate of the anxious therapist is to feel terribly alone. They live with an inner contradiction that can not be fully expressed in the work they do in the world. If it is expressed, chances are they will lose a lot of the luxuries their profession affords. What pains the anxious therapist most, is that as much as they are able to help their clients to get well, they seem unable to help themselves. Every time the terrifying anxiety returns during a therapy session, they are reminded of just how ill they still are.

For the anxious therapist there is no greater relief in the world than when they look up at the clock and notice that it is time for the session to end. They have made it through the session without freaking or passing out. What a great relief to have not been exposed! But like all temporary rewards, the price to pay for this feeling of great relief is the terrifying and imprisoning feelings that rise back up when the anxious therapist realizes that her next client is sitting in the waiting room. For fifty minutes she must endure all over again the exhausting fight to remain alive.

 

 

 

The Twenty-Four Hour Cell Phone Fast

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8:40am: I just woke up from a restless nights sleep. I need to check my cell phone and see if there are any texts that are waiting for me. I may need to return a few of them before I began the twenty-four hour cell phone fast.

8:56am: Just finished returning the three texts that were waiting for a reply. Time to begin the fast. Turning my cell phone off now.

9:57am: My wife just informed me that someone was trying to get in touch with me via text so I need to check real fast and make sure it is not an urgent matter. Then I can resume the fast.

10:52am: I have been fasting for almost an hour now but I really need to check my phone quickly and see if anyone needs me. When I checked my texts first thing this morning a friend of mine texted me a question. I should probably respond. I don’t want him to think I am ignoring him. Just real quick, then I will turn off my phone.

After not using my phone for a bit these thoughts came into my mind while sitting on my couch: What if the things that we carry in our hands and on our bodies either strengthen or weaken us? What if carrying around a radiation emitting cellular device, all day/day after day is actually gradually weakening our vital organs, our immunity, our brain functioning, our bones? What if the “experts” in the field, most of whom are funded by the telecommunications industry, are dead wrong about how cellular phones affect our bodies and minds? What if acupuncturists, natural healers and energy workers are correct when they suggested the cellular phones carried around on the body upsets/disrupts the body’s harmonious energy flow, which causes numerous physical and mental health problems?

11:33am: My phone rests besides me. Because it is off, it looks like a non-threatening, lifeless object. When my phone is off I notice that I feel more grounded, less restless. I feel like I have more time to think and be and there is an absence of the chronic impulse to continually “be in touch.”

12:41pm: I had a strong feeling that someone desperately needed to get in touch with me, so I turned on my phone and there were six texts waiting for me. Six texts from six different people! I called my wife quickly (she had been calling me) and returned a few texts. The moment I returned the texts, I received responses and I had to respond to the responses. Several textual conversations then ensued. I think that the downpour has ended and it is safe to now turn off my phone.

1:34pm: I am sitting down for lunch in a quiet sandwich place down the street from my office. My phone sits on the table besides me. I am not even sure why the hell I need to have it out. The urge to turn it on and check my email and surf around on the internet while I eat my lunch is strong, really strong. I need to just sit here, eat my sandwich and be present (non-distracted).

2:43pm: I need to turn on my phone. This fast is ridiculous. Not practical. I mean what if my wife is trying to get in touch with me?

2:48pm: (sigh) I turned on my phone again and there were four texts awaiting a response from me! Does it ever stop? I responded to the texts and now I need to wait for their response so they don’t think I am rude by not acknowledging their response. This fast is not going well but I do notice that when my phone is off I feel better, calmer, less distracted, more at peace.

3:13pm: Ok, ok………I’m turning it off.

4:24pm: I notice that I have been sitting here reading for the past forty minutes without once feeling like I need to distract myself with my phone. Wow! This is a first.

5:27pm: Just awoke from a brief nap. I fell asleep while reading. When I woke up I noticed my wife’s phone on the table besides me. It was on, so I reached over, grabbed it and checked a few things on-line real quick (New York Times, Daily Beast and a couple of blogs I like to read). After about five or ten minutes I felt guilty, so I put the phone down and got up.

5:56pm: On a regular day of texting I notice that the tip of my right thumb (which I use for texting) is tender and soar as if it had been touching something radioactive. Today I notice that my thumb is not bothering me so much.

9:02pm: I need to check my phone, I need to check my phone, I need to check my phone, I should really check my phone, this fast is ridiculous, just real fast I  will check my phone, real fast, just to see if anyone is trying to get in touch with me, real fast, then I will turn it off and not check it for the rest of the evening.

3:32am: I wonder if anyone one is trying to get in touch with me? Should I check? I wonder what is going on in the world? Should I check The New York Times? Twitter? Maybe I should check real fast.

8:17am: Usually the first thing that I do in the morning is check  my phone to see if I have any emails or texts. I am going to resist the urge this morning. I slept well last night.

8:42am: I notice that when I am always checking my phone, it is because I feel this pressing need/urge to be “in touch” and feel like I am not “missing out” on communications with others. It really is a subtle form of madness. Low level and chronic madness. As a result of not using my cell phone as much, I realize just how fragmented and less private my life has become. I have become more generally distracted and unable to focus for long periods of time (unless of course I am on my cell phone). I’m keeping my phone off for the rest of the fast.

8:46am: Ok, I just need to check real quick.

8:48am: Seven unread texts but I am not going to respond just yet. I will wait until the end of the fast. Turning off my phone and putting it away. Out of sight.

8:52am: One more hour.

9:33am: Where the hell did I put my phone?