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The Value of Therapy

Too proud to seek out a therapist? Dante says humble yourself, and be healed

That’s a photo from my book signing last night. It’s Your Working Boy next to Mike Holmes, the man who was my therapist during this period, and who is part of the How Dante Can Save Your Life story. Excerpt from the book:

Though Dante tried to pass off his second thoughts about the jour- ney as humility (“Neither I nor any other think me fit for this. And if I commit myself to come, I fear it may be madness”), Virgil knows self-deception and rationalization when he sees them. Dante’s double-mindedness was awfully familiar to me. It’s how I avoided getting serious about God for years.

For some time, when I was in high school, college, and shortly thereafter, I kept God at a distance. I was unsure that Christianity was true, or so I told myself. Some of my concerns were exactly that: reasonable uncertainty over the truth of the faith. But my position of inquiring skepticism was the virtuous gloss covering my fear and sloth. Deep down, I was afraid that Christianity might really be true—and of what the consequences for me would be if that were the case. I would have to change my life. And that was something I was not prepared to do. St. Augustine’s prayer might have been my own: “Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not just yet.”

All of us have something like that from our past (or maybe our present) that we can point to, a situation in which we masked our fear of acting behind a veil of virtue. This is a moment for the pilgrim Dante to be honest with himself, to take unsparing stock of his real motivations, and to conquer his fear. That is an incredibly hard thing to do.

After the rheumatologist’s report, our family doctor and my wife told me that it was time to start seeing a therapist. I did not want to do this. I intellectualized my fear by telling myself that therapy was nothing more than navel-gazing and narcissism.
“You need help with this situation,” Julie said. “You are letting your pride keep you from getting it.”

“Am not,” I said, petulance rising in my voice. “I just don’t see the point in sitting around talking to a stranger for an hour every week about my problems. I know why things are messed up. I don’t need somebody to explain that to me.”

She wasn’t letting me get away with that.

“You know what? You don’t know everything,” she sassed. “What you need is someone outside of the family system to take an objective look at it and help you figure out what to do. And you are going to do it because the kids and I are tired of you being absent from our lives because you’re always sleeping.”

The doctor texted me the name of a licensed Baton Rouge therapist he trusted, a guy named Mike Holmes, who happened to be an ordained Southern Baptist minister as well.

“I don’t know about this guy,” I said to my wife. “Do I really want a preacher doing my therapy? It seems weird to me.”

Standing next to my leather armchair, Julie crossed her arms and fired a don’t-mess-with-me look my way.

“Humble yourself and call him,” she said with buckshot in her voice.

A week later, I found myself in a bland, cream-colored room in a south Baton Rouge office park, sitting on a puffy couch, facing Mike Holmes.

He was not what I had expected. Though he was nearly bald, he was younger than I. His shirt was untucked. He wore jeans, and he talked like a friend you would meet for coffee. I liked him instantly.

Mike listened to my story, asking few questions. As our hour came to a close, I concluded, “My wife says that I’m going to do the typical man thing and expect you to tell me what to do to fix it. And she said therapists don’t do that. I wish you would. It would save us both a lot of time and trouble.”

Mike smiled. “No, I’m not going to tell you how to fix it,” he said. “But what I am going to do is this. We are going to explore all these stories you’ve told me, and look at them to see where you might be misreading the situation, and where there might be room for positive change.

“Here’s what I want you to focus on,” he continued. “You cannot control other people, but you can control your reaction to them.”

I was willing, but still skeptical. As it turned out, humbling myself and going to a therapist was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I had been so full of intellectual defenses against this path, but it all came down to pride. As you will see in How Dante, there can be no spiritual progress at all without humility. None. Zero. The extent to which we advance in the spiritual life is the extent to which we sacrifice our pride.

As you will also see in the book, the Divine Comedy became an intimate part of my therapeutic experience with Mike. The overwhelming beauty of the Commedia broke down defenses within me that might have held out for much longer had I done therapy alone. But Mike also played an important role by building on the insights I was gaining from the poem, and putting them in a therapeutic context, helping me to see how Dante’s wisdom had deep roots in established therapeutic practice. And, as Julie had told me, it really helped to get a pair of trained, professional eyes looking at my personal situation, and assessing it from a neutral, objective, scientifically informed point of view.

Last night at the book signing, I was pleased to be able to introduce Mike in the crowd, and I was in no way ashamed, as I once would have been, to admit in public that I saw a therapist to help me through the roughest patch ever of my life. I think too many men are like I was: believing that admitting we need help is a sign of weak character, even unmanliness. That’s pride talking. I am fortunate too that I had a wife who was willing to stand up to my pride and insist that I get help.

I hope that therapists will read How Dante Can Save Your Life and see that this book, and the Commedia, can be helpful for treating a certain kind of person. To repeat, one strange (and wonderful) thing about this entire experience for me is that had Mike’s therapeutic wisdom come to me as straightforward propositions, it would have been much easier for me to have evaded. I’m practiced at rationalizing things. But the beauty and emotional intensity of Dante’s poem burned away all the thickets within which I was used to hiding. Dante helped my therapist flush me out — and save my life. So, yes, Dante saved my life, but he did so with the help of Mike Holmes, to whom I will always be grateful.

Say, here’s a video that the Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt posted to his Facebook page yesterday when his copy of my book arrived. It’s a short appreciation for the sheer beauty of the physical object:

Rod Dreher’s new book, “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” is perhaps the most beautifully-produced book of the year. Well done, Regan Arts! Can’t wait to dive in.Amazon –> https://www.amazon.com/Dante-Save-Your-Life-Life-Changing/dp/1941393322/?tag=ththve-20

Posted by Brandon Vogt on Tuesday, April 14, 2015