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Even In Paradise, Everyone Needs To Heal Something, Especially The Seemingly Invincible

Columnist Timothy Tate, a practicing psychotherapist in Bozeman, writes about "distress" accompanying radical change in mountain communities

Mountain towns cast their own shadows. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
It was only a quarter century ago when James Hillman and Michael Ventura co-authored a book, “We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World Is Getting Worse.”

Flash forward to August 2017 with The Sun magazine featuring an outtake from an interview with Hillman on the question of whether psychotherapy works:

“What one feels is very important, but how do we connect therapy’s concerns about feeling with the disorder of the world, especially the political world?” Hillman asked. “As this preoccupation with feeling has grown, our sense of political engagement has dropped off. How does therapy make the connection between the exploration and refinement of feeling, which is its job, and the political world--which it doesn’t think is its job?”

If it isn’t abundantly apparent, we live in a time of profound disconnection between doing things that are good for individuals and the feelings we have, and how those translate into things that are good for our communities and society at large.

There is a lot of venting going on in politics but very little reflection on what’s really behind the catharsis. I’ve learned as a therapist that one of the gifts of listening to clients is that, when the magic happens, they begin to better hear themselves in ways that ring true. Many politicians today seem to be suffering from tin ear.

Nationally, American society could use a series of mass therapy sessions. Collectively, we’re becoming increasingly incapable of having the kinds of conversations that form the essence of individual introspection. We see politicians not only refusing to hold town hall meetings but by their actions they appear to be running away from holding them.

Far more folks than you think are in therapy.  As many who identify as Democrat as Republican. Yet therapy still remains kind of a social taboo to admit publicly, the admission that you’re having sessions to help maintain one’s mental health.  Even Montana’s new Congressman Greg Gianforte, as part of his plea agreement for body slamming a journalist, was forced to undergo classes in “anger management.”  Will it result in him becoming the new paragon for civility in political leadership?

When I began my psychotherapy practice in Bozeman in 1983, there were four other practitioners listed in the phone book. Now there are over 150 under the “counselor” heading alone.

Granted, part of this could be explained by the fact that Bozeman, Montana has experienced robust growth over the last 34 years. Categories of commerce and the range of professions in the community have expanded, just as they have in Jackson Hole, Cody, Livingston, Idaho Falls, and Red Lodge among the many towns dealing with an invasion of newcomers.

Whether or not growth is perceived as cancerous or destiny, or a simple effect of population migration, the truth is that more of us need help in adjusting to rapidly-changing landscapes and communities less familiar to us than when we first fell in love with them. I witness it firsthand every day. In mountain towns where expectations of leaving dysfunctional pasts behind fall short of reality, the need people have to talk to someone is especially acute.

But what type of help is it that we are seeking?

The recent murder-suicide by a veteran Bozeman police officer who apparently killed his wife and then himself underscores what is at stake. Community stresses can take a toll even on those who are in positions to serve the community. What is at stake is a convoluted agreement we have silently made that goes something like this: “I can and will handle distress in my life on my own.”

Notice I used the word “distress” and not “stress”. On the slippery and sliding scale of factors that yields a stress-related condition, our baseline of what represents  “ordinary reality” has moved from a once romantic version of America, like that in Norman Rockwell’s painting of a Fourth of July parade, to a more complex demanding scale of interpretation.

Society and the pressures associated with it are indeed far more complicated than in settler times when the primary focus was on survival. I’ve noticed changes in the kinds of challenges people confront and, accordingly, I’ve watched the science of psychotherapy continue to evolve in response to it.
"The idea that therapy is only for 'disturbed people' is like saying sick fish are to be blamed for swimming in toxic water."
The urge to seek refuge in a static ideal of perceived normalcy trumps reality, which at best is a wiggly proposition anyway.

The other day on my walk back from our local community food co-op to my office, I saw a man whose eyes were familiar to me. Not much else about him was since the cane resting against his frail leg and his gaunt face did not match my sense of this once robust man.  Now 75, he looked haggard, worn out.

I am prone to having impromptu visits with people on Bozeman’s Main Street as a way of engaging community members in a more meaningful way. Indeed, the story this old soul shared rolled out a nightmare of medical misdiagnosis and botched cardiac procedures resulting in respiratory distress. He paused in his narrative to ask, “You know about the Four Agreements book don’t you?”

To which I replied, “You bet.”

He then went on to say that the fourth agreement refers to the vital importance of breath. “Losing my breath is the worst,” he said.

In our time together we touched that silent space vibrating between acquaintances in close contact. It involves coming together without fear of revealing vulnerability. It means shedding the shells of invincibility, which a lot of people in mountain towns wear around, especially in their younger years.

If being who we are, without putting on airs or automatically putting on the stoic’s mask, is not therapy, I do not know what is. Contrast this encounter with a comment from a woman in my practice who loves to walk her beloved dog on our delightful trail system.

We were fretting about the hectic directionless pace that has overrun our town, hearing screeching tires, honking horns, and vulgarity shouted at the North Church and Mendenhall corner. There, my office with its Blue Door sits across from Hawthorne Elementary School. She expressed how trails and hikes were less and less solitary, saying that, “You know the new younger go-getters calling Bozeman home who I meet on the trail? They look right through me and don’t say a word.”

Is this because the new young go-getters come from places where pleasant exchange with “strangers” doesn't happen or does it involve homegrown young people who are not as good in offering niceties as those of previous generations?

Therapy is a word derived from the Greek word therapeia, which means healing. We are all dealing with pain of some kind. No one gets out of this life without needing to heal something. The challenge we face together is broadening, deepening, and embracing the sense of what healing means.

The private conversations that take place behind The Blue Door is a strategy session on how to activate healing in community, be that at the individual level, family, neighborhood, region, country, or global.

The idea that merely clarifying feelings—just acknowledging that stress or distress exists is enough—is long outdated. The idea that therapy is only for “disturbed people” is like saying sick fish are to be blamed for swimming in toxic water.

The rules that govern the profession, which say that a therapist is not to acknowledge a client in public, is like saying my honest self does not exist. In fact, it cuts against the very norm of behavior in a relatively small town and it presumes that two people should pretend the other does not exist.

Hell, if I followed that guideline I wouldn’t be talking to the most creative, intelligent, inspired folk in town!  Yes, read into that what you will.

Mountain towns are highly-charged places, floating along on the myth that simply by living closer to spectacular landscapes we automatically become more perfect people. But that is a fallacy. Indeed, reflect on this: what good is having a perfect body and supreme fitness if it’s not attached to a thoughtful, compassionate, healthy mind?

All of us have various kinds of mental wounds we carry forward even into the places we call paradise.

Know this: Healing is a radical act, not a private affair. It does not happen only in session behind The Blue Door; the biggest part of “getting better” involves the preponderance of time spent out in the world where we all must deal with ourselves and each other.

If we are to heal ourselves, our ecology and our country, then we might want to speak like we do behind closed doors in our daily life, naming the beast for what it is—infatuation with self-importance better known as believing we are the center of the universe.

Yes, we might want to believe the sun shines only on me but we live in a world where no one escapes the shadow of eclipse.
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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