I was 11 when I was first allowed to ride my bike alone. I’d begged my parents to let me pedal around the lake road where I grew up, but no. I was too young. The road was too twisty. My father was too anxious (a “worry wart,” he called himself). So I could only ride my shiny purple banana bike across the porch or down the lumpy, grassy hill.
Then, in November of 1974, my father attempted suicide. Mama was open with me and my sister when it happened, bringing us to the hospital to see Daddy in a gnarl of tubes during his nine-day coma. She didn’t want him to simply die, to disappear, without our seeing him and knowing what happened. That was Mama: fiercely honest, always direct, and motivated by love.
He came out of the coma and eventually came home, never to make another attempt. Visiting him afterward during his six-month stay of pure talk therapy at a nearby psych hospital, I felt okay but strange. Confused. Discombobulated. Maybe a bit numb. But I remember going to family therapy and gradually, quietly answering the questions being asked, then hearing my answers addressed in compassionate ways.
I remember one specifically: What did I want?
More freedom, I replied. I wanted permission to ride my bike on the lake road in front of the house. My mother had no issue with this, but my father hesitated. This is an image fixed in my brain: The sight of him next to me, gulping back fear. Nudged by the therapist, he finally, miraculously agreed—with the caveat that I could only bicycle in one direction, as the other was a bendy tangle of sharp, blind turns.
Back home after that visit, I grabbed my bike and whizzed down the road. The independence this engendered fed my sense of self and helped me in the years to come. In recent months I’ve posted links to stories about the importance of free play, and I just posted another one, an Around The Web linking to a Washington Post interview with authors of a recent piece in the Journal of Pediatrics (previously highlighted on Mad in America) that emphasizes its importance in the mental-health development of children.
For me, it was huge—giving me a feeling of power, freedom, and joy that filled my chest as I rode and fills it now as I type. So long as it wasn’t snowing, I went out on my little purple beast just about every day, cycling along the waterfront to a nearby state park to buy a Snickers bar and munch it on the beach. This was a small victory but a huge one, giving the confidence to get out and explore. I could be on my own. I could do my own thing. I could just be me.
Two years later, grappling with the onset of adolescent mood swings and still processing my father’s attempt, Mama asked me if I wanted to “talk to someone.” I said yes. I remember the conversation with her better than subsequent therapy itself, which I mostly recall as a series of rote questions I barely bothered to answer. I only attended once or twice before quitting. What lingers most, for me, is my mother’s matter-of-fact-ness in asking. There was no shame. No pressure. No stigma—not from her. Nothing that suggested there was anything “wrong” with me. Just by bringing it up, she was only acknowledging that I might still be hurting and might benefit from speaking with someone outside the family. Again she was being direct, and again she was motivated by love.
When I read about the new research showing youths’ negative experiences with therapy, I wasn’t exactly surprised by the results, particularly when it comes to stigma. I was lucky in that regard. But I was also lucky—paradoxically—to understand, from an early age, that not every therapist is the right fit, and not all therapy is productive. That family session during my father’s hospital stay was a godsend for me, a gift that resonated for years, even decades. But the therapist I saw two years later? Nope. I got nothing out of him.
As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found myself seeking out therapists of different types, different modalities, at different times of stress and loss and grief—some of them deeply helpful. Some less so, including that comically bad Freudian psychoanalyst I saw in Boston who suggested I was in love with him, prompting me to choke back laughter (hey, I did my best). But while therapists vary, and finding one that works can be a process and a pain, I never blamed the concept of therapy itself.
Ideally, it should help everyone in distress, at all times in all situations. Ideally, therapists should ease up on doctrine as they listen to youths in their care, patiently teasing out their stories without judgment, expectation, or the urge to categorize and label.
They should all be like that family therapist I saw as an 11-year-old. I can’t recall his name or even his face. All I can remember is the gentleness of his manner and the calm in his voice when he asked me what I wanted, what I needed—and somehow, I felt safe enough in that space to reply. That moment changed me forever.
—Amy Biancolli, Family Editor
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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