By Jordan Hansen
What if nothing is wrong with you? What if my favorite part is the part you think is broken?
I am a therapist. I love my work. I don’t think there is much wrong with the people I see. At least not in the way they think there is something wrong.
I find that the biggest struggle for most of the people I work with is that they are unable, for a variety of reasons, to be the only thing they are capable of being: Themselves. Not the façade-appearing-authentic that most of us cultivate as if our life depended on it. Not in the cliché, saccharine, eyeroll-inducing sort of way that we are used to either. I’m talking about the inimitable, kind, ferocious, authentic, at-ease way that we come by through sweat, tears, courage, risk and connection.
This is the journey of a person who only felt comfortable as a woman, in feminine clothes in makeup, in a small town, as a teenager, with all eyes identifying her as a man. This is the journey of the person attempting to live life without the protective shield of chemicals, bombarded by a harsh, vicious perception of human existence, tempted by the ease that comes with that first shot, hit, drink. These are the people who feel that their lives depend on producing authentic work and finding meaning, and yet can’t get themselves to put pen to paper or pick up their instrument due to some vague fear or anxiety. These are the journeys of those who feel they have no right to their pain, as if their life was too good to experience existential terror, the horror of solitude or the pain of self-loathing. Pain combined with judgment is potent. There are many who, seemingly without cause, are drawn to anxiety, depression, chemical use. We often find through our work that there is a piece of them beaten, forgotten, buried, neglected. This is what we look for, together.
The trick—under all of the techniques, pedantic jargon and fancy terms that can take the life out of therapy—seems to be to find truth. And the truth (as I see it today) is that we are really weird creatures flying around on a weird rock, doing amazing, beautiful, awe-inspiring things. We are busy finding secrets in others and ourselves, and if we are able to have some idea of what we are meant to do and connect with our people and the universe around us, we can feel better. If we can find safety in our world while being the true, distilled, unadulterated, authentic people we know we are, we can find something like happiness. Even if our entire experience seems to have conspired to convince us otherwise.
I am invested in the scientific and clinically-measured approaches in my field, but I embrace them while anchored by belief in the ecstatic weirdness of the deal. Why does driving around listening to music with the windows down, heat on, music up, on a sleepy Minnesota night feel the best? I’d like to see a peer-reviewed study on the therapeutic effect of a drumset or the length of sobriety achieved both with and without an 808. Drum machines for everybody! Medication saves lives, but maybe we should mandate that it be paired with musical recommendations for specific diagnoses.
Anxiety? Mazzy Star, Sigur Ros, Spiritualized
Depression? The Funky Meters, tUnE-yArDs, Os Mutantes
Or maybe we lean into the turn?
Anxiety: Aphex Twin, Death Grips, King Crimson
Depression: Bill Callahan, Elliott Smith, anything off Beck’s Sea Change
I want to ask for $9 million to design and execute a study to finally determine why cats are helpful for anxiety and dogs seem able to pierce the fog of depression.
So many other questions too, like ...
If I imagine motivational readings in Mavis Staples’ voice, will they be more effective? Why do the hugs at NA meetings and the laughter in AA meetings feel awful and amazing at the same time? Why can’t I write the same affected stories I used to? Will she/he/they still like me? Why do new songs feel so terrible and amazing to make? Is quitting my job to knit an appropriate reaction to crippling anxiety from a “real” job? What is a real job? Did I dance without arms when I was drinking, and if so, did I enjoy it as much as when I am able to dance alone? How do I feel comfortable dancing? Without substances? While using my arms? What do the arms do while dancing? Will I ever be OK being me? Is there another way? Why do I STILL feel terrible, even as I get better? If you hold a drink, that is normal. Maybe adding something in the other hand would work. Or, is holding two things too weird? Can I write a blog about being a therapist and how great it is without thinking I am a fraud and contributing to some sort of in-crowd exclusion that I feel myself judging, like I would judge anybody who wrote about Bill Callahan …
There are times when I want to recommend people to people.
“Hey. There’s this guy, Bob. He owns a coffee shop. He is kind and rad and will tell you that we are all lucky to be alive and that he loves you. See him and then meet with Laura. She’ll get you fired up to be alive. She really lives, that one. A jolt out of the doldrums when you need it.”
Add it all up, and a treatment plan might look like:
- Drums – hit hard (or soft) daily/as necessary
- Look out some windows for at least a half-hour each day (bus windows very effective; also looking at anything like crowds, clouds, rivers or trains)
- Hang out with cats (dogs, or even children, can be substituted as needed)
- Tell people about the super shameful thing that you think is unique to you, but is in fact universal
- Listen to Lizzo or Jenny Lewis when negative self-talk occurs
- Talk to rad people
- Dance (exercise in other less-fun forms can be substituted)
- Don’t beat the hell out of yourself when you sleep too much, drink, cut yourself, or have a panic attack
- Find nice people, and do nice things for them
- Find what makes you you, and hit it hard
This is the work of therapy. It is so much bigger than what happens in my office, but what happens in my office is meaningful. When those of us who feel broken show everybody what it looks like to be broken, everybody gets to tell us that we’re f---ing amazing and that their favorite part is the “broken” part. We get to find out why we are here and what makes us special and useful. Sometimes, we find out that the thing that made us hurt—the thing that we thought was useless, futile, random—is actually the thing that makes us uniquely useful. We find out there is something we have always been that we didn’t know about, or were too afraid to embrace—something that makes us us.
If you are hurting, find a therapist you love. Find music you love. Try to read books you love, meet people you love, love people who love you. Don’t stop until you find them. Acknowledge the pain, and hold it close when you need to and loosely when you should. Listen when the people who love you say that you are lovely and that, despite your best efforts, you have no idea how to accurately gauge your worth. Let those who love you decide. When in doubt, find a person to help, be vulnerable, listen to the little scared, squeaky voice inside you that knows the kind truth. Love that thing. Dance.
Jordan Hansen, MA, LADC, LPC, is an experienced clinician, speaker and writer focused on integrating the science of cutting-edge treatment modalities with the wisdom found in peer-supported approaches to recovery. His approach is based on authenticity, interpersonal connection and a steadfast focus on person-centered, evidence-based interventions. His experience within residential, long-term and outpatient levels of care is informed by his background in journalism, vocational counseling and nonprofit management. Areas of recent focus include assisting in the design and implementation of Medication-Assisted Therapy for opioid addiction, policy work with the MN state legislature, distribution of naloxone kits to local opioid addicts at risk for overdose, and artistic and literary efforts aimed at sharing his experience with long-term recovery from addiction and mental illness.