He had just been divorced for the second time. He wanted to talk about it. So he opened the phone book and made an appointment with a therapist whose name seemed friendly.
“And she was very warmhearted,” he told me. “But before the first hour was up, she was asking me if I had ever been physically or sexually abused by my parents. “I told her my parents were good parents. That there was no need to go there. But she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. ‘Do you think you might be in a state of denial?’ she asked me!
“I told her the only thing I was denying was the possibility that I’d ever spend another $75 talking to her. And I walked out of her office.”
This scenario is not as bizarre as it sounds. All over America, thousands of therapists are doing this very thing. Interpreting virtually any form of depression, anxiety, or compulsive behavior as a symptom of what they like to call “sexual addiction.” If it weren’t so widespread, it would be laughable. But the number of therapists practicing this sort of witch-hunt is in the thousands. Possibly in the tens of thousands.
So be careful if you decide to seek psychological counseling. If you choose a counselor trained in this approach, you’ll almost certainly become a victim of it. The therapist you pick might not go straight to abuse in the first session. But he’ll go there. And when he gets there, he won’t let go.
These therapists believe in something called “recovered memory syndrome” (RMS). The idea, simply, is that if you have been physically or sexually abused as a child, you can repress the experience and keep it buried in your subconscious. Through progressive, concerted efforts, a “good” therapist can bring that memory back into your consciousness. The process? Repeated questioning. (“Are you sure you were never abused? How do you know you weren’t and suppressed the memory?”) And if that doesn’t “work,” it’s followed by forced suggestions. (“Imagine that he did abuse you. Tell me what might have happened.”)
I’m not making this up. This is going on all over the country. Possibly all over the world. And to make matters worse, “victims” of RMS are encouraged to confront their abusers. The idea is to “recover your personal power.” Usually, this confrontation takes place at some family gathering — Thanksgiving dinner or a wedding. And usually the accused is a teetering senior citizen — a 70-year-old (or older) member of the family who, till that moment, was enjoying one of the best days of his life.
After the confrontation, the entire family is torn apart. Without witnesses or corroborating evidence, it’s impossible to prove or disprove something that might have happened 40 or 50 years ago. The accused is devastated. And family and friends must then choose sides. (Who do you want to ally yourself with, Grandpa or Cousin Mary?) I know of three people whose families have been shattered by this “therapeutic” approach.
Before you write to tell me how callous and insensitive it is for me to assume that these people are imagining things, let me tell you that I realize it is impossible to know for sure. But recent studies have shown how susceptible the mind is to suggestion. If you keep imagining that something happened to you, it is possible that one day you will believe it. And I have read a very interesting essay on the subject that makes a convincing case that there is no scientific basis for RMS.
Traumatic events DO result in repressed memories. The grisly parts of a car accident or battle experience are usually not remembered. But the events leading up to and after the occurrence ARE remembered. You can recall driving the car and the long, slow skid into the embankment. What you can’t remember is being pressed up against the steering wheel, bleeding. But if you believe the RMS theorists, the entire childhood abuse memory — every second of it — can be blackened out.
A key concept in RMS therapy is the idea of victimization. Victims, they say, are victims not only of the crime but of the guilt they feel about it. Only by exposing the perpetrator to the public and denouncing him can the victim purge his guilt and regain a healthy self-respect.
If you are suspicious of this kind of weltanschauung, you’ll be happy to know that there are at least two forms of therapy that are based on the classical (as in Greek tragedy) concept that we are each responsible for our fate. Even if plenty of bad things happen to us.
One (which has now been dismissed by much of the psychological world) is Behaviorism, which was very popular in the 1970s, when I was studying psychology in college. Popularized by the writings of B.F. Skinner, the Behaviorist approach was to encourage patients to “practice” healthy behaviors rather than talk about unhealthy ones. By practicing what is healthy, they reasoned, the patient gets to feel the benefits of good conduct. Eventually, the good behavior becomes automatic and the symptoms go away.
And that, the Behaviorist would say, is the purpose of therapy.
The second school that advocates individual responsibility is Logotherapy. This was popularized by Viktor Frankl, the late, great author of the book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Frankl’s weltanschauung was existential. It was based on the idea that since we can’t know the essential nature of the universe (i.e. why things work the way they do), we probably can’t assume that specific behaviors are the result of knowable actions. What we can do is recognize that although we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it. (Needless to say, the concept that the individual is largely in charge of his own mental health is anathema to practitioners of victim-based psychology. Just think for a moment how much less dependent the patient would be on the therapist if that were true.)
When a sad or troubled person would say to Viktor Frankl, “I feel like killing myself,” his answer would usually be, “Well, why DON’T you?”
This is not meant to be rhetorical. It is not a condemnation but a request for a search for meaning. Life is often difficult and sometimes downright painful. And when that pain gets almost unbearable, there are two things we can do:
1. Have someone tell us that we shouldn’t kill ourselves — which does nothing to change the circumstances that are causing the pain.
2. Answer the question — which can result in the discovery that there is a good reason to keep living.
I’m not suggesting that you should actually say this to a depressed person. I’m not qualified to know if it will help or hurt. But the idea of challenging yourself, when depressed or in pain, to discover a reason to keep on living — that is an idea that excites me.
Understood this way, “Why don’t I kill myself?” is a question we must all ask ourselves. Why should you — really — put up with the problems and troubles that plague you now or have hurt you in the past? If your life is so full of misery, why should you keep on living?
The path to mental health and a sense of well-being, Frankl argues, must start with the answer to this horrifying question. The way to feel better is not to dwell on your suffering (or dig up past suffering or perhaps even imagine suffering that never occurred) but to figure out why you should keep on living.
“He who has a why to live for,” Nietzsche said, “can bear almost any how.” That’s what Frankl discovered as an inmate in Nazi concentration camps, where he was subject to the worst kinds of physical and mental abuse and where his chances for survival were only one in 27.
“Man’s search for meaning,” Frankl says, “is a primary motivation in his life. For one person, the meaning might reside in his spouse and children. For another person, it might be in work or charity. The “meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning in life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
And here is where Logotherapy and addiction therapy come together again. Putting aside the dubious veracity and damaging effects of RMS, the effectiveness of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program is undisputed. AA, as you may know, is based on a very definite, very monotheistic idea about the meaning of life. Without that core belief, AA counselors will tell you, the drug or alcohol addict will have very little chance of permanent recovery.
It’s all about meaning — our unique, individual need to have a purposeful life. So the next time you feel down or anxious, take a moment to collect your thoughts. Then ask yourself, “Why don’t I just kill myself?”
And come up with a good — and very definite — reason not to.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]