Dr. Phil vs. The Bad Guest

I have a guilty pleasure.

I love watching Dr. Phil.

Yeah, yeah, I don’t care if the internet is ablaze with articles about what a quack Phillip Calvin McGraw is. There’s just something I like about a guy who will look at someone and not be afraid to say (literally), “What the hell is wrong with you?”. I’m also just fascinated with counseling in general right now, even though some of what Dr. Phil does stretches the definition of the word. He does usually offer his guest some type of assistance by the end of the show, and he does seem to genuinely want to help most of the time, even though many of his programs deal with topics that are clearly chosen because of their ability to get ratings rather than providing any type of useful service to the viewer.

When I was sick near the beginning of this year, I gorged on Dr. Phil for nearly a week. You’d be surprised at how dr philmany weird hours of the day and night you can watch the program. It’s like television crack for me. I just eat it up, from the guests who are totally clueless about how messed up they are to the damaged human beings finding hope again to the way Dr. Phil’s eyes look like they’re going to pop right out of his head sometimes. There’s not much I don’t like about Dr. Phil.

Of course, I said not much, which means, yes, there is something.

I was watching the show yesterday, and suddenly a very distinct pattern struck me. Anytime there are guests with opposing viewpoints of a situation, one of them always winds up being the bad guy (or girl). For instance, yesterday’s program featured an incredibly disturbed teenage girl and her parents. The girl would throw screaming, jumping tantrums at home. She was borderline suicidal. Her brother could not stand to be around her. She looked like an out of control child.

As the program unfolded, however, it was revealed that the girl’s parents were possibly even crazier (Pardon the term, but I couldn’t think of a better word.) than she was. They fought incessantly, sometimes abusing each other physically. They screamed and cursed at her. They had attempted to divorce three different times, but were for some reason, inexplicably almost, still under the same roof with each other. It also turned out that the girl actually functioned quite well everywhere else, except around her own family. Dr. Phil’s deduction was that the girl was an unfortunate victim of her surroundings, that her parents needed to get as far away from each other as possible, and that her only hope was to get as far away from these people as possible.

I can’t say I necessarily thought Dr. Phil was wrong with any of his advice, but he may have blurred some lines with his techniques. He actually hugged the girl (whose face was never shown) at one point, which I would think is sort of a no-no for a psychiatrist or counselor to do during a session. More than that, though, he clearly went after the parents. Now, don’t get me wrong; these people were messed up. It was sort of unsettling, though, to hear the audience applauding every time Dr. Phil pointed out how they were screwing up their daughter. I can’t say I liked them, but I don’t know that they needed to be humiliated like that.

This is where my chief problem with Dr. Phil lies: Most of the programs I’ve seen draw a very distinct line between who is right and who is wrong. The older I get, though, the more I’m beginning to realize it’s very rarely that cut and dried. Even in this case, I’m not sure Dr. Phil should have been hugging a girl who was jumping up and down and screaming at her parents when she didn’t get her way. I’m all for finding the root of a problem, but I do not believe there is always a villain in every story. Sometimes “the antagonists” lose their way, too. Should they be marched out in front of a national television audience to be ridiculed?

Of course, even after saying all this, I’ll probably still be glued to the next episode of Dr. Phil I manage to catch. I will probably still cringe, though, every time the audience applauds and someone shifts uncomfortably in their seat because of it. Yes, sometimes people do bad things. I hope more of them will choose a private counseling setting for those to be brought to light, however, rather than facing the proverbial firing squad for all to see.

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Different

A very, very dear friend of mine emailed me several months ago after reading on my blog that I was no longer attending counseling for my depression. I replied that my counselor felt like I had made enough progress to manage my Persistent Depressive Disorder (also known as Dysthymia) on my own, then I joked that I was given a diploma with the words “Not Krazy” written in crayon on it and released back into the unsuspecting public.

She didn’t think that was very funny. I thought it was one of my best depression-related jokes ever, to be honest.

I’ll never forget something my last counselor said before we stopped meeting: “Be as persistent as the disorder.” What he meant was, dysthymia-by-nav-sandhar-sourcesince depression was something that had dogged me for many, many years, it wasn’t going to vanish overnight. In fact, it might never go away entirely, so I would have to be persistent in practicing the techniques I had learned to keep it at bay. What he was saying made perfect sense, so I committed the saying to memory: “Be as persistent as the disorder.”

A funny thing happened after a while, though. I didn’t exactly forget everything I had learned, but I started to feel, well, pretty normal. Since I was rolling along so well, I began to get lax about some things. A bit of anxiety here, a negative thought about myself there, a doomsday scenario forming in my mind every now and then… Nothing to worry about, though, because I had learned what I needed to.

Right?

I’ve come to a realization over the past week or so. I … am … different. I don’t process information the same way a non-depressed person does. If I’m not careful, my emotions get away from me and I do stupid things. Then, instead of forgiving myself, I beat myself up about what I did. I need to pay attention to how much sleep I get at night and how often a week I can exercise. I need to head off negative self-perceptions before they sabotage me.

And I need to do all this every … single … day.

I’m not saying any of this to garner sympathy. I’m saying it because I’m beginning to realize there’s no shame in being different. Some people have to watch what they eat more than others. Some people are allergic to cats. Some people can’t go near a bottle of alcohol. I have to pay attention to what my brain is trying to tell me. If you’re in the same boat, you’re not broken or defective or stupid; you’re just different.

So I guess I need to start living a bit differently than I have been. Which means I need to get back to what’s normal for me. This could get confusing. I suppose I need to be persistent.

Counseling, Abandonment, & God

I have only one sibling, a brother who is seven years younger than myself. As a result, I have no idea what it’s like to have a sister. At times, I’ve described certain women as being “like a sister” to me, but in actuality I have no idea if they’re like a sister to me or not. I just knew we got along well and I never wanted to date them.

It’s sort of odd, then, that I now have two sisters-in-law (Or is it sister-in-laws? I’m never sure what’s correct.). I mean, they’re not my sisters, but they’re technically a part of my family now. In fact, one of them is not even married to anyone related to me, except that he’s my wife’s brother, who is sort of my brother because we’re in-laws. I guess that makes her my sister-in-law by in-lawness … or something like that.

One of the unexpected results of my first writing about my depression online was the number of people who sent me messages about how they had dealt with issues of their own. One of them was my sister-in-law (the one married to my brother-in-law), and we’ve compared notes a couple of times since then concerning our different experiences. One day we were discussing feelings of abandonment, and I remember thinking, “Eh, I’ve never really dealt with that too much.”

Apparently, I thought wrong.

For the first time in my life this weekend, I watched the movie Good Will Hunting. Remember the scene where Robin Williams’ good will huntingcharacter finally gets sick of Matt Damon’s character screwing around and kicks him out of his office? Welcome to my counseling nightmare. Somewhere inside me, I am convinced that one day I’m going to tell a counselor something so bizarre and frustrating that he or she will throw up their hands and say, “Whoa, dude. That is jacked up. I’m not sure I want to work with you anymore. Take a walk, and come back when you’re serious.”

Upon further inspection, however, I’ve realized my fear of getting “kicked out” goes beyond the counselor’s office. One day, I’m probably going to do something someone can never forgive me for. Or I’m going to mess up a relationship so bad a person will never want to speak to me again. Or I’ll alienate a family member to the point I never see them anymore. In my mind, these are not possibilities; they are inevitabilities. The only questions that remain are how am I going to do it and when is it going to happen.

As can be imagined, this has affected my personality just a teeny bit. I can be ridiculously non-assertive. I’ve hung onto relationships way longer than I should have simply because I didn’t want the other person to leave. I’m very shy, mainly because I’m pretty sure I’m going to say something stupid and embarrass myself. I don’t want to bother anyone, which, ironically, has probably actually caused me to have fewer close relationships in my life.

Where it really shows, though, is in my relationship with God.

It’s hard to live with a God you’re half-expecting to just throw up His hands and leave you one day. That’s how I’ve viewed him for a lot of years, though. Surely I was going to trip and fall enough times that I would wear out His patience. I’ve seen a lot of people use grace as a license to do pretty much whatever they wanted, so I guess over time the word sort of lost its meaning for me. Why would I need to “fear God” if He didn’t have a hammer He was ready to bring down on me? To repeat a phrase I’ve used about a million times before, “I know God loves me; I just don’t think He likes me very much.”

It was a revelation to me last year when, on a day I was incredibly late to a counseling appointment, the counselor I was meeting with didn’t get mad at me. It was a revelation to me this week when my wife chose to forgive me for a massive sin I had committed against her. It was a revelation this weekend when a good friend of mine dropped what he was doing to take a phone call from me. And it’s a revelation to me every day that God has allowed me to live 40 years on this earth without striking me down with a bolt of lightning.

Living without the fear of rejection must be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, I know about as much about that as I do about being a brother to a sister. Maybe that’s why I have sisters-in-law … sister-in-laws … whatever.

The Drugs We Crave

You’ve heard it before. You’ve been driving somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, be it to catch an early flight or to work the ufoearly shift at your job, and started scanning the radio dial. You flipped past some music, but somehow that just didn’t seem appropriate. You wanted something more subdued, more relaxing, so you began to seek out the talk radio stations. And that’s when you found it – that program that discusses UFOs as if they are a totally real phenomenon.

For the record, I have a difficult time believing in life on other planets coming to visit ours. I just don’t think they could have done it without some type of definitive proof being captured by now. In this age of leaks and the internet and satellite technology and who knows what other means of making sure nothing ever stays a secret for very long, it’s impossible for me to believe not one concrete piece of evidence exists to prove the existence of UFOs. True believers, you may begin spamming me now at your leisure.

At any rate, I came across one of these programs on my way in to work this week, and perhaps out of a desire to be entertained or a need to shake my head in disbelief at something to stir myself awake, I began to listen to it. The program I’m referring to is Coast To Coast AM with George Noory. Noory’s guest that morning was Dr. Peter Breggin, who, according to the Coast To Coast website, is “a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and former full-time consultant with NIMH who is in private practice in Ithaca, New York.” What held my attention on this particular morning was the topic of discussion – the suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams.

dr-marvin-monroe-7Now, I know nothing about the validity of Dr. Breggin’s credentials as they are spelled out on the website. He may as well be Dr. Marvin Monroe from The Simpsons for all I know. Regardless, he was bringing up some very significant points on this particular morning concerning Williams’ death. For one, he pointed out how cruel and difficult the manner of death seemed to be. The method Williams chose to end his own life was not an easy one. He also mentioned how Williams’ years of drug and alcohol use could not have been beneficial to the activity in his brain.

And it was then, in the middle of this unusual forum at an ungodly hour of the day, Dr. Breggin said posed a question that made as much sense as anything I’ve heard in a long, long time: “Why do we always crave the drugs that are going to lead us deeper into depression?”

Dr. Breggin was referring to drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines, to name a few, but he could have been talking about a great many things we wouldn’t consider to be “drugs.” Pornography. Affairs. Excessive use of the internet. Self-pity. Hours upon hours of playing video games in darkened rooms. Promiscuous sex. Many people might look at this list and say, “Look, I don’t see anything wrong with any of that. Those things are part of my life, and I feel perfectly fine.” Maybe so. To many, though, any one of these items could have opened a portal to the dark world of depression.

The fallen part of us chases these things, though. We see sin, and we know its consequences, but so many times we charge after it anyway. Then the guilt comes pouring in, and it can only take us down, down, down. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Dr. Breggin didn’t know it, but he was describing the sin nature in all of us, the desire to do the very things we know will destroy us.

For the apostle Paul, the only deliverance from this kind of behavior was faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the only deliverance for me. It’s the only deliverance for you. Cognitive therapy, counseling, psychology… These all have their place, but they cannot deal with the issue of sin. Only the grace of God can do that. I may doubt the existence of flying saucers and strange visitors from other planets, but I do not doubt that.

Out Of Tune

guitarThe gentleman you see in the picture there is Mr. Dan Knowles, luthier of stringed instruments, picker of banjos, and, in this instance, re-stringer of 12-string acoustic guitars. The guitar in the picture is mine, a 12-string Alvarez of unknown year. I acquired it in a trade involving an Oscar Schmidt acoustic 12-string, a Yamaha Pacifica electric guitar, and a 15-watt Crate amplifier. The sound and playability of the Alvarez is superior to the Oscar Schmidt, but it does possess a slight kink: It doesn’t seem to want to stay in tune, hence my trip to Knowles Stringed Instruments this afternoon.

There’s a word in the vocabulary of guitar players that has been known to cause many of them to go insane. That word is intonation. In short, it means accuracy of pitch, but the maddening thing about intonation on a guitar is it can change depending on where you are on the neck. For instance, your guitar may sound perfectly in tune when the strings are open (i.e., not pressed down against the neck), but they may sound slightly off when you fret a note in a certain position. Even worse, there are any number of factors that could cause this problem – tension on the neck, a bad bridge, worn-down frets, etc., etc.

To someone just listening to a guitar being played, poor intonation may not even be noticeable. To the person playing the instrument, though, it’s like a nagging house fly buzzing around their head. It sticks out like a sore thumb whenever a sour note is hit, and it can throw a musician totally off in a performance. The irony is that the performer may be the only person aware of the problem, but it puts them as out of sync with their audience as the slightly sharp or flat note is to the rest of the guitar. They don’t want to stop and point it out, though, because that would be even worse than just bearing the problem.

As human beings, our intonation gets off sometimes. We don’t want to tell anyone, though, because that would ruin the performance. They don’t seem to notice anything is wrong, so we feel we can’t expose our imperfections to them. There are few things worse in life, in my opinion, than being unable to confess a burden – whether it be depression, addiction, guilt, regret – to anyone. The longer it festers, the more it puts us out of tune … so to speak.

I had the advantage of being able to take my guitar to someone as skilled as Dan Knowles to correct the problem I was having with it. So many times, though, either because of pride or shame or stigmas against counseling  or any number of reasons, people don’t take their mental and spiritual issues to someone who can actually help them. They want to keep the performance going even though they know something is not right. What they really need, though, is someone skilled enough to repair their intonation.

Of course, as luck would have it, once a tuner was put on my guitar today, every string read perfectly in tune up and down the neck. I could have sworn the intonation was off, though, and I’m glad I had it checked out, if for no other reason than to convince my ears they weren’t hearing what they thought they were hearing. I’ve read that one of the charms of the sound of a 12-string guitar is that it’s never actually perfectly in tune anyway. Maybe people are the same way. If we were all perfect, this would be a pretty dull show, don’t you think?

It’s Only One Day

I still remember very clearly my first real “breakthrough” moment once I began undergoing counseling for depression. I was fortunate enough to be able to utilize the psychology office at the local university for this counseling, and my once-a-week appointments were usually scheduled for not long after I got off work for the day. Since the office was not set up to accept credit or debit cards (Dave Ramsey would hate me. I hardly ever have real money on me anymore.), I would either have to bring cash or a check with me. I was glad the student center on campus had an ATM from the bank I use on the premises, because I could duck in and get the money I needed on the way to my appointments.

As many of us know, though, the time your shift at work is supposed to end and the actual time you get to leave can be two very different things, so I found myself hurrying like a madman to reach many of my sessions on time. To make matters worse, the ATM I mentioned might have been the slowest one ever made, and I found myself nervously drumming my fingers on top of it on numerous occasions as I waited for my transaction to complete. Combine this with the time it took me to trek across campus, and the perfect recipe existed for me to run late for an appointment.

Not long into my counseling journey, I arrived on campus much later than I intended to on the day of one of my scheduled bad daysessions. As I stood waiting for the ATM to spit my money out, I glanced up at the clock on the wall and realized I was going to be late. If I was too late, the session would be cancelled altogether, and if I was only slightly late I would just lose time that week. Obviously, neither idea appealed to me, but I knew one of those two scenarios was going to play out on this particular day.

I don’t recall exactly what had been going on in my life that day, but I can tell you this: No matter the circumstances, that particular instance of tardiness was going to be my fault. Even if it wasn’t, I was going to make it so somehow, and then the stage would be set for my entire line of thinking to go completely off the rails. “I’m late again. Why am I always running behind? What is wrong with me? God, why did you make me this way, where I can’t even manage to get to an appointment on time?”

And then, suddenly, as if a switch of reason flicked on in my brain, I looked up at the clock again, saw the time, considered the events that led up to that moment, and thought to myself, “It’s only one day.”

I was going to be late, no doubt about it. Instead of this particular misstep being thrown onto the pile of regrets and condemnation in my brain, though, I somehow realized it wasn’t going to affect my tomorrow, didn’t have anything to do with my yesterday, and would resolve itself in my present. It was as if I had figured out how to isolate that moment and let the frustration of it go. Maybe best of all, however, was that I didn’t feel as if God was going to hold it against me or was disappointed in me or had caused this to happen to punish me somehow.

Matthew 6:34 instructs us to “not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” because “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” It’s just one day. Because your today is dark, it doesn’t mean your tomorrow has to be. Yes, things are not going as you had planned, but that doesn’t mean they will always not go your way. I’ve gone back to that ATM moment in my mind several times since that day, and those four words that flashed through my brain have become a sort of mantra for me. I hope they offer something to you as well.

Ironically, I’m finishing this up a few minutes past midnight, which means I’ve already broken my vow of posting something every day. Doesn’t mean I’ll miss it again tomorrow. After all, it’s only … well, you know.

 

Long Time Coming

I’ve been putting this off for a while now. I knew I was supposed to do it, but I didn’t want to. I’ve been piddling around on my other blog, hoping the idea would go away, but it kept getting stronger. My complete lack of qualifications and my persistent fear of not being good enough did not seem to matter to God. I needed to do this, and He wasn’t going to let me rest until I did.

I feel I should begin by telling you what I am not. I am not a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. The only degree I hold is a Bachelor of Arts in English/Professional Writing. I am not a counselor or a pastor or even a Sunday School teacher. I am not getting paid to do this. And, perhaps most importantly, I am not a perfect person or some kind of “super saint” who is here to tell you what to do.

depression-300x336Here is what I am. I am a 40-year-old husband and father of five who has wrestled with depression for as long as I can remember. I have been diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder (formerly know as dysthymia or dysthymic disorder). I have been through counseling, and I currently take an antidepressant every day. I am also a Christian who struggled for years with the notion that my salvation alone was supposed to make me immune to things like this.

Depression in the life of a Christian is a tricky subject to broach. For one thing, its very existence in a believer’s brain seems to contradict a lot of what the Bible says about joy and peace being ours to claim. It can also be extremely difficult to figure out who is actually suffering from it, who is just a little down in the dumps, and who is using it as a crutch or an excuse to mope around. Throw in the fact that the great majority of people in churches know little to nothing about depression, and you’ve got a recipe for massive amounts of misunderstanding, hurt, and denial.

Perceptions of depression outside of the church aren’t much better, although for slightly different reasons. Whereas a Christian has prayer, the Bible, and the fellowship of other believers to fall back on, those who are not saved are often left with a somewhat more vague hope. They know they need to get better, and there are some great therapy techniques out there to help them achieve that, but eternal peace seems to be largely absent. Victory seems less possible than just gritting your teeth and getting through another day.

I began to feel a desire to write about depression from a Christian perspective, and I’ve done a little of that on my other blog. It never felt like enough, though, and since I didn’t want the other blog to become all about depression, I only wrote about it sporadically. The vision, however, was growing larger. I’ve been pecking at a book idea for a while now, but I felt as if God was pushing me to do something more, something more interactive. I’ve been on the run from this blog ever since.

My goal will be to publish something daily here pertaining to the subject of depression (or other mental disorders). Everything here will, hopefully, be filtered through a Christian perspective. I’d also like to open things up to guest bloggers and those with their own stories to tell. Who knows what else might happen here. I’m just hoping it doesn’t flame out entirely within the first week.

So welcome to Lights In The Darkness. Feel free to leave me a comment about what you might like to see here.