When I was in IIT Kanpur, students thought it fashionable to read Sigmund Freud. Perhaps it was the allure of the unknown. Just like they read Kafka, Pirandello, and T.S. Eliot, reciting lines to his famous Love Song of Sir Alfred Prufock, they quoted from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.
So when someone gave me a copy of Psychoanalysis, I read bits and pieces of it. Looking back, I can’t say I understood anything, but I was driven by a desire to know psychology because my mother had suffered a nervous breakdown when I was 12 years old. Discussing even the possibility of psychological and mental illness was taboo in India then; perhaps it still is. No one, not even my mother’s sisters or her mother, acknowledged that she needed help. My father did take her to a psychiatrist, but I am not sure how advanced psychotherapy was in India in those days.
So psychology became the Holy Grail to me, an elusive subject, which, if only I could get a grasp of, would restore my mother to normalcy. I pored over tomes on psychology in the IIT library. I purchased the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the famous DSM, the bible of the psychological profession, after coming to the United States. I tried to figure out the exact ailment my mother had suffered from. If only my mother had received the right therapy, I thought, she would have been cured.
Years later, after suffering from a miscarriage, which happened to be the climax of a series of tragedies, I wanted to seek out psychotherapy. But I did not know how to go about it. I was told there was an Employee Assistance Program at work, and I contacted them. But on the day of the appointment, I felt so overwhelmed with grief and sadness that I could not imagine putting my pain into words. I simply did not show up. This happened several times. I just did not trust someone else to understand what I felt. One day, finally, I visited a professional recommended by a friend. She turned out to be a young, white female with little life experience and no comprehension of my context, my angst, my history. I simply cried in front of her and did not make it to the next appointment.
Eventually, I did go to another counselor. I discovered Freud had long been discredited because of his misogyny. In fact, therapists did not follow any theory or method whatsoever. Therapy in California was a hodgepodge of listening and advice, with little coherence. I continued with my sessions, nevertheless, simply because I did not want to burden my friends with my problems. All the doctor did was listen, year after year. Looking back, I can’t say that he provided an iota of analysis, or insight, or philosophy, or guidance.
I have heard many immigrants say that they would never go to a therapist. I can understand why. Perhaps they feel the therapist cannot understand their cultural framework. One suggested that psychologists might be even crazier than normal people!
But my biggest complaint about the therapists I have seen so far is that they just weren’t very smart. To look into someone else’s soul, to surmise what plagues them, to understand what makes them who they are, to solve their problems, requires nothing short of genius. Or, at the very least, brilliance. Could it be that smart people, as a rule, don’t seek psychology as a profession? Perhaps they become lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, financiers, even writers. I’ve heard that people who become psychologists are often drawn to the profession by their own experience with mental illness. This may equip them with empathy but what about analytical ability?
Therapists in movies fare far better than therapists in real life. Take the psychologist in Ordinary People. He is available to his teenage client day and night, and actually ends up getting to the bottom of the youth’s trouble. The show Sopranos had a great therapist in it too. But none match the quintessential therapist in the HBO show In Treatment. After watching Season Three, I told my friend, “If I found a therapist like that, I would go to him.” Gabriele Byrne is empathic and complex (and handsome, of course!) He pushes the boundaries of his profession, making himself available to his clients beyond the call of duty. Unlike real life therapists, he pushes no drugs on his patients, but actually believes in curing them with analysis. But best of all, within minutes of seeing a patient, he is able to pinpoint his or her problem.
If only real life therapists were as smart, incisive, and insightful!
Alas, the reason Gabriel Byrne’s character is so effective is because he is a creation of a writer’s mind, not a product of the psychological profession. Like all reel heroes, psychologists in movies are smarter than psychologists in real life. Maybe writers of movies are smart people who do their research, who perhaps know more about psychology than psychologists do!
Instead of making me long for therapy, In Treatment has made me see the flaws in modern day psychotherapy. Gabriel Byrne’s therapist himself points out the shortcomings of his profession, saying that ultimately it is the relationship between therapist and patient that causes the healing, and not the analysis. The biggest problem with therapists today is that they have no philosophical, spiritual, or moral underpinnings. But unless you can evaluate your existential dilemma within a set of philosophical tenets, how can you get a grip on it? Ultimately, one is forced to adopt the attitude of a Hindu mystic or a Buddhist monk; one has to adhere to some broader spiritual premise to make sense of disappointment, loss, illness, aging, and death.
It is this philosophical framework that the modern day therapist fails to provide. Instead, he caters to platitudes like, “Love yourself,” or “Ask for what you want.” Yet, the more we seek the fulfillment of our own desires, the less we attempt to live for others, the more we shirk from giving back to the universe, the emptier and sadder we feel.
Recently, I joined a meditation group in which we read treatises like theBhagavad Gita. We ponder other spiritual and philosophical texts. When I see my suffering in light of the words of the great sages like Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda, Lord Krishna, Theresa of Avilla, and St. Francis of Assisi, my burden suddenly lightens. When I view myself in the context of broader humanity, my worries become insignificant.
When I live for others, the joy in my life multiplies.
So I have decided to see psychotherapists only on TV. And like many people today, I have resolved to reduce my angst with philosophical and spiritual methods.
Psychotherapists take heed! Your livelihood may be in danger!
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com