I could have saved the $40 insurance co-pay by taking the advice of this cartoon and letting our dog make me feel better, instead of going to my first Salem Health counseling session.
But after seeing Wayne Halle, a MSW counselor, I'm convinced that I made the right decision to take my problems to a human, rather than a canine.
I was referred to Halle in late December after I told my family physician that I found a recent glaucoma diagnosis to be more than a little disturbing, especially when layered on top of a couple of other annoying health problems that I have.
However, early on in today's initial session I told Halle that since it took about ten weeks to get an appointment with him, now I wasn't as worried about my glaucoma.
Of course, I quickly said that I have other concerns.
This was after I noted that like Halle, I too have a MSW (Master of Social Work) degree, as does my wife, a big difference being that soon after I got my degree, I realized that I wasn't really cut out to be a social worker, which led to me getting a job in health services research and then health planning.
My main takeaway from the 50 minutes or so I spent talking with Halle was how good it feels to be listened to attentively. That's why, when we were making plans for a second session, I told him, "I feel like you heard me."
Which isn't surprising, given that's what counseling/psychotherapy is largely about. It's also what everyday conversations should be about. Often, though, we're guilty of paying as much attention to how we're going to respond to the other person, as to what they're saying.
At least, I'm guilty of this.
So it was refreshing to have Halle ask good questions about the difficulty I have in coping with a bladder that, as I like to put it, went on strike about five years ago and hasn't gotten back to working normally.
(Smooth bladder muscle, unlike regular muscle, doesn't recover when it loses its tone and becomes atonic, unable to properly push out the pee.)
I explained that one of my mental health concerns is a strong feeling of regret that I both failed to recognize warning signs that the prostate problem which I knew I had was morphing into a bladder problem, and also that when I had a urinary retention episode (unable to pee), I delayed seeking treatment, wrongly feeling that the problem would resolve itself.
Halle zeroed in on the key issue.
"So tell me," he said, "before this happened, how many times in your life had your bladder stopped working?" "Um, none," I told him. "How then," Halle asked me, "could you have known what was going to happen, since you'd had no experience with it?"
Bingo. This interchange alone would have made the session worthwhile. My regret immediately lessened.
I'd had similar thoughts, but since the thoughts came from my own mind, they didn't have the impact that Halle's words did. Meaning, I'm kind of immune to my own bullshit. My mind is continually churning out ideas, some of which make sense, and some don't.
This is the problem with being your own therapist, something I alluded to in talking with Halle.
I told him that I have countless (almost) books about meditation, mindfulness, neuroscience, and such, many of which have good tips for dealing with anxiety and worries, of which regret is one manifestation. But it's difficult for me to break out of deep mentally unhealthy patterns on my own, since this is akin to me lifting myself off of the ground.
Someone else can do this, because they can use their legs and arms as leverage to raise me up. I, though, am stuck when I try to do the same thing.
This is the beauty of a skilled counselor like Wayne Halle. Within a few minutes of meeting this perfect stranger, I was telling him things about myself that I'd shared with only a couple of other close friends and relatives.
Such is the power of unconditional acceptance in a therapeutic relationship. I felt like the ideas and feelings I was sharing, though naturally familiar to me, since I was speaking them, had a special power when directed at Halle's welcoming and non-judgmental ears.
Somehow that made my concerns seem more manageable -- given that a stranger was listening to me with calm acceptance, unlike the often negative reaction I have to my own thoughts and emotions.
Which is damn strange, really, how I can be harder on myself than other people are with me. Anyway, I look forward to my next session with Halle, which won't be for about another month. (Salem, like most places, needs more mental health professionals.)