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”by