Listening With a Third Ear: The Good Therapist

The Good Therapist           “When I walked into his office for the first time in early 2010 I met a psychiatrist who was listed as one of ‘America’s Top Doctors’ in airline magazines. I’ll call him Dr. Dangerous.”

So begins Chapter 24 of John Saunder’s book, Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, co-authored by John U. Bacon. This is a memoir that takes the reader into the soul and being of [his] struggle with depression that includes insights into some of its sources, collateral damage, and its treatment.  He’d suffered and struggled with severe depression most of his life, a decades-long bout with feelings of worthlessness and despair so compelling that it almost cost him his life.

It is not only a transparent and courageous account of the life of a man who suffered a burdensome if not debilitating mood disorder, but a reminder for me, a psychologist, to be vigilant, mindful, and attentive to all that clients bring into my office. His story is also an invitation for the reader and professional to “…come behind the façade of my apparently ‘perfect’ life as a sportscaster, with a wonderful wife and two healthy, happy adult daughters” into a world of suffocating pain and darkness.

The pain and suffering is palpable as the author vividly recounts his pursuit of work, women, drink and drugs to mute the ever-present depression and the effects of childhood isolation, abandonment and abuse. We also sense his relentless, though at times tenuous belief, that hope for a better life is attainable, one free from feelings of worthlessness and despair.

I read his story because I was curious about a man I’d often seen and heard on various ESPN broadcasts, an intelligent and articulate man whose presence caught and warranted my attention and listening ear. I reread passages, thought about his words, imagined being his therapist, and wondered whether I was bringing my best to the suffering clients who invite me into their lives—or was I at times a lesser version of “Dr. Dangerous”?

I revisited chapter 24 where the author continues his description of the 2010 consult and subsequent sessions with Dr. Dangerous: He was “in his late fifties with a world-weary, smug expression that never changed…while rarely making eye contact he asked me if I was thinking about hurting myself…how I was sleeping…Dr. Dangerous increased [dangerously so] my medications…looked bored…said nothing…confined his answers to a grunt or occasionally a condescending smirk.”

These are not traits that characterize my approach or relationships with clients. While attending to the client’s narrative, his or her unconscious as well, I’m also monitoring my own internal response to that material, the private wounds and scars of my life experiences. Being aware and acknowledging them prevents Dr. Dangerous-like expressions of indifference, hostility, and projection into the therapy setting.

The gentle art of psychotherapy isn’t always practiced with respect, courtesy, tolerance, and considerate kindness—but it should be. The professional sitting in his chair in a patronizing posture, acting bored and indifferent, prescribing medication that satisfies his need for a “quick and easy” fix rather than discovering a lasting solution is at a minimum unacceptable, but more likely unconscionable.

John Saunders takes responsibility for not being more pro-active [firing the therapist], being informed, and questioning his therapist’s technique. “Sometimes I’d walk into Dr. Dangerous’ office feeling pretty good,” he writes, “and I’d walk out feeling depressed.” During this six-month-long experience he admits to never asking why. And the likelihood is that the therapist’s unprofessional, if not dangerous, behavior added to Mr. Saunder’s feelings of abandonment and worthlessness, and the depression as well.

Psychotherapy is an arduous, complicated journey marked by surprising insights, plateaus when nothing seems to be going on, and episodes of heart-breaking sadness—like life itself. Except that it should be undertaken, and hopefully mostly is, in the “embrace” of and in partnership with a professional listener, trained to be a companion who, regardless of the circumstances, communicates his or her unconditional presence in respectful silence, bodily attentiveness, and verbal engagement.

To do less is to leave an already lonely and isolated soul more deeply immersed in the despair of loneliness and isolation.

Frederick Buechner’s description of depression grabs at my therapist’s soul: “To be unable to occupy yourself with anything much except your state of depression. Even the most marvelous thing is like music to the deaf. Even the greatest thing is like a shower of stars to the blind. You [the depressed one] do not raise either your heart or your eyes to the heights because to do so only reminds you that you are yourself in the depths.” John Saunders left treatment with Dr. Dangerous, and found other healthy avenues into a better life, including caring therapists and AA. The abyss began to feel less suffocating. John Saunders found relief, but tragically died of an enlarged heart and complications from diabetes before his memoir was published.

Worthwhile and valuable moments occur in therapy when I’m in the client’s world but not of it, and likewise when I’m cognizant of my own inner world but not immersed in it. Being attuned and intuitively connected to my own unconscious (listening with a third ear) is what makes for a successful therapeutic experience. We who practice this gentle art must listen to the stirrings in our souls as we attend to those being revealed by our clients.

In the flyleaf of the book’s dustjacket John Saunders states: “I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am truly grateful. But none of those things can protect me or anyone else from the disease of depression and its potentially lethal effects.”

Thank you, John, for being courageous and tenacious in your journey with depression, an unrelenting mood disorder, and the search for relief. Your story reminds me to be present with those who invite me into their lives, to provide a safe haven, a secure space free of danger.

 

Photo courtesy of “Practical Recovery”

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11 Comments

  1. JoAnne Kurman

    When I reached out on the phone in 1990 to the psychologist who ended up becoming my beloved therapist, I shudder to think if the person on the other line was a Dr Dangerous. Most of us are scared and vulnerable walking into a therapist’s office for the first time and if you are like I used to be, I thought “they” knew best since they are the doctor. I was blessed with a caring, patient, present therapist but that being said, it still took me eight years to completely trust her with my Self. I’m sure glad I did. Along with AA, she helped me heal and put Humpty Dumpty back together again, whole, but with an awareness of Self I had not known before.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      JoAnne,
      We assume the “doc” will be the good parent with a listening ear and our wellbeing the priority. That’s not always the case, and John Saunders, like you, found someone for whom that was the priority. You’ve been a courageous “traveler,” who seeks health and wellbeing for her mind, body, and soul–Humpty Dumpty, cracked and weathered [like the rest of us] is back together!
      Cheers to that,
      Roger

      Reply
  2. Colette

    How fortunate for those who seek your counsel that you engage in the gentle art of psychotherapy with an attentiveness to the multifaceted aspects of the experience. You offer an open heart and listening ear with a sensitive and crucial awareness of your own inner connections and responses raised by the vulnerabilities and emotions being shared with you. Each individual presents a unique story and quest for finding peace of mind, heart and soul. It is a blessing that John Saunder’s story was published after his death to provide an important perspective for counselors like yourself, continuing to learn and grow in your compassion and ability to listen to the “stirrings in your own soul,” as you offer hope to those who come to you for help in finding their way. I believe God is there working with you and through you and your gifts as a therapist.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Colette,
      Thank you for your kind thoughts. I’ve always thought, with some episodes of doubt, that I’m the fortunate one to be invited into others lives. My first experience as a “therapist” occurred when the prof for whom I was a TA asked me to meet with an out of work man who was my age. We met at a bar, sipped our beer while he talked about his broken life. The next time we met was on a park bench. He expressed gratitude and insisted I accept the only means of payment he had–a dime bag of weed. All I did was pay for two beers and listen. The privilege continues to this day although the reimbursements are quite different.
      Roger

      Reply
  3. Alan

    This is an important reminder that we all can offer the gift of “presence” which is most needed in our connected yet disconnected world

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Alan,
      You are spot-on. Being present is more difficult now than before, and as such more necessary. I know you offer “presence” to others–me included–, and they respond in kind as the distractions and allure of disconnection challenge all of us. This website can be seductive and distracting beyond it’s value–thank you for the reminder to stay connected but in so doing not disconnected.
      Sincerely,
      Roger

      Reply
  4. Ted

    Is a component of the “third ear” not compassion – the feeling of deep sympathy for the other combined with a desire to alleviate their suffering? As a care giver myself, I was probably at my best when I thought primarily of what my patient was going through; and at my worst when I was mainly concerned with how I was going to see everyone in the ICU or the clinic in my limited time. We have to nurture our compassion for others. “Dr Dangerous” may have at some point lost some of his ability to be compassionate to both his detriment and to others. And I want to emphasize that this harmed him as well.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Ted,
      Thank you for these poignant thoughts. Yes, compassion certainly coupled with the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and a Rumi, Psalmist or Mary Oliver poem to make our struggles possible. Deep sympathy and the third ear probably gave you that in the ICU, and in life–under pressure and in quiet moments. Perhaps Dr. Dangerous lost his way in this, an understandable side-track, and certainly one that harmed him whether he know it or not. You and I know how easy it is to get side-tracked, and how difficult it is to “nurture our compassion for others” when distractions tug at our souls.
      Thank you, Ted,
      Roger

      Reply
  5. Bill Doulos

    I have often been concerned that my expertise in counseling others is not based in my academic studies but in my life experience. I am not by training a “social worker” or a “therapist” or even a “counselor.” I believe I have some instinctive gifts and I know I have decades of experience. I am an addict in recovery, counseling addicts (in and out of recovery) and their families. I am thrust into counseling situations all the time. My gifts are being a good listener and being compassionate and, especially since my own bout with addiction, being empathetic. I have no illusion that these are sufficient. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am in way over my head. If I had it to do all over again I would have taken a different academic track–less theology and more psychology, less the Ten Commandments and more the 12 Steps. But theology and the Bible have been an immense help to me and to my career. At the age of 74 I am just going to plod along, hoping and believing that I am doing more good than harm.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      My oh my, Bill, and this from my beloved friend who has “boots on the ground.” Yes, listener, addict, theologian and counselor, translator of the Ten Commandments and 12 Steps into real-time “stuff,” social worker and prayer, risk taker thrusting himself into the abyss where most of us won’t go, gifts in abundance–and offered then some, over your head (aren’t we all?), empathic and steadfast, a thinker who plods [and soars] and a lover of those lost who clings with hope and belief that he is “doing more good than harm.” Bill, please at 74 keep plodding, inspiring while casting aside illusions that you’re sufficient, and just be Bill, and thank you and God for that.
      Roger

      Reply
      1. Bill Doulos

        Thank you for the too-kind words, Roger.

        Reply

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