Our Time is Not Yet Up
The below essay was published in Next Avenue on December 1, 2021.
December 1, 2021
Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and other world-renowned athletes talk about their mental health issues and remind us that it is okay not to be okay. That is more than okay with me.
It is more than okay, too, that Jonathan, my husband, mentioned on our first date 14 years ago that his psychotherapist was out of town so he could not discuss our meeting and dinner until next week's session. Although it surprised me that he mentioned his therapy so early on.
Jonathan had not revealed much else about himself. A few dates later, I asked him why he talked about his therapy when he did.
He shrugged. "I didn't think it was a big deal. I assumed you are, or were, in therapy and think it's a good thing. And I found you easy to talk to and wanted the evening to end with you knowing more of who I am."
It was not — is still not -- a big deal. I was in therapy when I met Jonathan. During sabbaticals, I had 50-minute hours every few months, sometimes much less often, sometimes more. I still do.
Yes, I think therapy is a good thing. So do some of my relatives, friends, students and colleagues. They mention or discuss their therapy with me, knowing I am a proponent.
Who among us does not have psychological struggles? With our families? Within ourselves?
I was 8 years old when my mother was a patient at Harding Institute in Worthington, Ohio where she got electroshock therapy. My father, older sister and I did not talk much about it with each other or with anyone else. Back then, in the mid-1950s, there was a stigma for having mental issues, particularly among those requiring help.
My stomach used to get all knotted up picturing Mom having electricity in her head. Before and after her institutionalization, when she was home, she was not all there and she saw a psychologist once a week to whom she talked, it seemed, far more than she talked to me.
Compared to my aunts and friends' mothers, who were available and interested in their children, my mother was indifferent to me and my needs.
In high school, I took a psychology course. It intrigued me. I majored in psychology in college and became close with other psych majors, some studying to become psychotherapists and with others already in the field. I discovered that many people I knew were in therapy. People simply with issues. Like me.
At 29, I started therapy for what I thought was a writer's block and would take a few sessions.
Ha! I learned how much I wanted a child.
Terrified of becoming my mother, who had not been the best template, I had much to work out. My first therapist, Mildred, heard me, got me and helped. She reminded me my mother's problems were her problems, that I was separate from her, and not going to become her.
"You'll be a Nancy kind of mother," she said. When I became a mother and compared myself to those who seemed to have it together and be better at it than I was, Mildred would say, "You are a Nancy kind of mother."
I heard her, got her and also became a "Nancy kind of person and writer," gaining the courage and confidence to be myself in in the world and on the page.
Instead of continuing to work only as a hired wordsmith on assignments, I also began writing and selling personal essays on topics I chose: from my truths about having an ill mother to getting divorced and dating to my relationship with my sister and my extended family upon getting married again. And more.
Writing from my heart liberated and satisfied me as it did my readers, who say my essays strike familiar chords and make them feel understood, less lonely. Students in my writing classes became freer and more inclined to open up in their manuscripts. As I got increasingly in touch with myself in my essays and in person, so have people in my life to whom I grew closer.
How comforting to be real and not always okay. How comforting that psychotherapy is available to us all.
At 85, my father became my mother's full-time caregiver. My mom's cognitive impairment coupled with her inability to walk without a walker was difficult for my dad, as was being the person beside her. My regular long-distance calls during which I listened to him, guided him through cooking and shared my news and some laughs were not enough.
My father, a big talker, had never been in psychotherapy. I told him he would really like it, how much I benefited from it and urged him to find someone through his internist.
He did. He had both individual weekly sessions and group therapy. His voice had a new lilt. He said he "loved having an audience who was interested in what he said." He had more energy and looked forward to his sessions.
Other family members and friends are not open to therapy, still feeling in 2021 that there is a stigma to sharing their vulnerabilities, much less having them. My friend with a substance abuse problem, a relative with chronic headaches for which he regularly sees several doctors and a student who cannot hold a job or sustain friendships are among them.
I have a temperamental colleague, who cannot stay with things. She has tried therapy several times, but always quits after a few sessions and still flies off the handle about everything.
I have had many therapists. They have ranged from very helpful to those with issues far more serious than mine and which came out during our sessions. My time with them was quickly up. I moved on.
I now have a therapist whom I do not see regularly. I make an appointment when something arises for which I would like help, when my "not always okay" parts get in my way.
I am grateful that my husband shares my positive feelings about therapy. It continues to help us as a couple, and individually.
At a faculty party, a colleague who was standing close to me mentioned I have good skin for my age. I told her I use sunscreen, moisturizers and have natural oils.
She said, "I think it is because you express yourself."
Yes. I think so, too. I am getting better at it, during my 50-minute hours. And everywhere.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton has written seven books including "Writing From Personal Experience" and a memoir, "Finding Mr. Rightstein," from which she has adapted the play with the same title. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Parents, McSweeney's and other publications. She teaches at the New School, the Strand Bookstore and privately. Read More