I recently discovered free software on my laptop that would allow me to create music, videos, and images. I was excitedly telling a friend about it, explaining how I could record from a keyboard, add instruments, compose melodies, etc. As I waxed poetic, she said, “Or you could just get a CD.”
When I began my therapeutic journey more than forty years ago, Freud was in vogue. My first therapy experience was psychoanalysis once a week, lying on an honest-to-God couch and free associating.
How’s that for a conversation stopper? The only way to top that is to announce that you have worms. People often get very nervous about mental illness. They think it means that a person is “crazy.”
Imagine that someone has received a blow to the head somehow – an accident at work, a fall at home, perhaps – somehow the person’s head was struck hard enough to injure the brain. Now consider what would happen if this injury affected the person’s behavior, causing him to act in a bizarre or irrational manner. Those who knew of the injury would feel compassion. Poor guy, he can’t help it, he has an injury to his brain that causes him to act that way.
When I felt suicidal, I called for help. I came to the hospital and was admitted to the psych floor. Once again I was on a locked ward because of depression. After all these years, after all the therapy and medications and efforts, I was still at a place where I needed to be confined.
Electroconvulsive Therapy – “ECT” for short, often called “shock therapy” – the stuff of horror movies. Some demented doctor has his helpless patient dragged off to be cruelly zapped. In the movies it’s seen as torture; in my experience, it brought relief.
I am weary. I’ve been struggling with this for forty years. I gave it everything I had. I have nothing to show for my efforts.
I am able to afford therapy because I receive it at a teaching hospital. They offer reduced rates. The down side is that as the interns complete their course work and other requirements, they move on. That is what is happening now.
That is the title of a book about the inmates of a mental institution – who they were, what became of them, based on the institution’s records and the luggage the patients brought with them and never retrieved. There is a website that gives some example images and biographies.
I have learned a great deal from my cats. Some of these lessons were about love.
Growing up I lost the meaning of love. My parents’ love was conditional and harsh. They often prefaced severe punishments with the words, “We’re doing this because we love you”, leaving me fervently wishing they loved me less.
When I told them I loved them, they’d tell me that if I really loved them, I’d be a good boy, I’d do this, I wouldn’t do that. This left me seriously confused. By the time I reached adulthood I was convinced that I was somehow emotionally stunted, unable to feel true human love. I didn’t know what love was.
Despite this, I never lost the ability to love. I loved people, I loved cats, I felt love as well as anyone else. My heart wasn’t confused, only my head.
Once in therapy I was struggling to explain that I felt some sort of thing about my cat, and she seemed to feel a similar thing for me. The word ‘love; never even occurred to me. As I struggled to find words, my therapist interrupted and said, “You love her, and she loves you. It’s that simple”.
I was dumbfounded. I knew it was true. I suddenly understood that all throughout my life, that emotion I felt was real, genuine love. Far from being a cold, unloving man, I had always been deeply loving. I just hadn’t understood that this was love I was feeling.
I feel a sense of loss and sadness over a lifetime spent not knowing about love, not feeling I had a right to claim I felt it, refusing to say what I thought was a lie – and causing hurt because of that. And yet I am grateful to know that despite everything, I am and always have been a deeply loving person.
My cat taught me another lesson about love. She has always been affectionate, often giving me unsolicited (and sometimes unwanted) kisses. Once as she was waking me up with such loving attention, I felt saddened to think that I didn’t deserve such love, “if only she knew what a loser I am.” But then it occurred to me that this little cat didn’t love me because I deserved it, or because I had done anything to earn it. She just loved me. I understood that she loved me for no better reason than the one I had for loving her – which is to say, for no reason. I love her; she loves me. It’s that simple.
So it is with people. I don’t love the people in my life because they deserve it, or have done anything remarkable. I love them because that’s what I do. It’s what people do, if they’re not afraid of being hurt. Love isn’t some mysterious, special emotion only a few rare people ever experience. It is what we do, whenever possible.
And I learned that from a cat.