I wasn’t crazy about my last therapy session.
Recovering from a really severe bronchitis that triggered a flare in my Lupus, I’ve had a really tough couple of weeks. As a temp, I have to work or I simply don’t get paid. I don’t care for my job, a “dues paying” type situation that I specifically went to school in hopes of avoiding, and when you put health problems on top of that, it goes from being unpleasant to just short of unbearable. I bear it because I really don’t have a better option. You have to survive, and so, as always, I do. Sadly, my current therapist didn’t pick up on that right away. I don’t know why I thought she would. She comes from privilege. She’s young – younger than me, pretty, and I get the sense that her family and friends are reasonably well off. (She got to watch the Pacquiao / Mayweather fight in Las Vegas, with the accompanying party atmosphere, and while she didn’t have ringside seats or anything, nobody I know could ever afford to do that, even my hardcore boxing enthusiast friends.) So when we began our session, and my tone of voice was off, instead of picking up on that and fishing for what was wrong, she gave me what I consider the worst advice you can give a person whose mother died of breast cancer when he was twelve after being abused by his father, and who then subsequently developed an illness that nearly cost him his life on several occasions, all of which she is well aware of. Who is nearly forty, complains to her constantly of loneliness, decided to pursue his hopes and dreams, got close, and failed at every turn.
She told me to smile more.
The absurdity of that advice reminded me of my prior therapist, an old, Israeli woman who, as a matter of policy, didn’t normally see clients my age. She teaches at one of the biggest and most prestigious private universities in the state, and is known for being the Licensed Clinical Social Worker who trains other Licensed Clinical Social Workers. Most of her clients come from Cedars-Sinai, the hospital to the stars, and are very elderly or terminally ill. My case, however, is unusual – few men develop Lupus, and even fewer do so while in their teens. Then again, if you look at my life as a whole, few people ever do any of the things that I’ve done or have experienced any of the things that I’ve experienced, good and bad. So when my case got really severe, the LCSW at my dialysis center decided to call in the big guns, and she agreed to see me. Of the many lessons she taught me, one that stuck was the idea that “happiness” is overrated.
“It’s like this,” she used to say. “You have your good days, and you have your bad days. The goal of life is to have more good days than bad. Not to be happy.” It was a powerful lesson that has guided me through many dark times and kept me going. And I wish my current therapist understood that. She doesn’t, however, and like I said, probably couldn’t, having come from where she came from and having the life she’s had. But as our conversation continued, I remembered that in life, not only do you weep alone, but people expect you to. The world does not know I am as sick as I am. The world does not know that I’ve suffered as I’ve suffered. All they see is what I present them with. And if that’s anything less than positive, that’s what they’re going to think.
Unless I tell them otherwise.
See, just as not every day is going to be sunny, not everybody I meet is going to understand me. While I expect more from my therapist, because she’s known me a long time and is trained it being attentive to my moods, generally speaking, being reminded that even the best of us can fail was a good lesson in being careful with how I present myself, and how while happiness is overrated in the grand scheme of things, it matters a lot to other people on the day to day. So I asked my therapist, after I got my frustration with her out how I should behave if I’m really not feeling up to it. Her suggestion was to be honest about how I’m feeling. Let the other person know that I am not feeling well, be polite, and if possible, leave the situation. If I have to see them again, revisit the interaction when I feel better. I thought this was good advice, though not really an option that’s available in a paid therapy session. While it is true that people expect you to be positive, they also know that everybody has good and bad days if you remind them of that. Just make that clear rather than react out of how you’re feeling, because if the other person doesn’t get where it’s coming from, their opinion of you will come from the unhappiness that you present to them. It’s a subtle point, admittedly – feeling bad and letting others know rather than acting badly. And yes, it is more honest to just be yourself, strictly speaking. Context is important too, however, and the you that you present without context will become you to that person and anybody they tell about you if you don’t provide it. Again, my current therapist has no frame of reference for how it is to be as sick as I am or to go through what I’ve been through like my old therapist, who dealt primarily with clients with end of life issues, did. If I give it to my current therapist, however, as a human being, she gets it. Because she has bad days too. So while happiness is overrated, reminding others of why can help them see that too.
(Just smiling doesn’t 😉