Same Time Next Week? | S1 Ep2 | Jim's Therapy Story
Season 1 | Episode 2
Jim's Therapy Story: Trauma, Chair Work, and Learning to Truly Love Yourself
Jim is an open book, but he hasn’t always been that way. After years of hard work in therapy, he recently decided it was time to share his story. In this episode, you’ll follow Jim’s incredible journey from growing up as a young gay man in Texas, to grieving the loss of several people in his family, to going to a 28-day in-patient rehab center to work through an extremely traumatic experience.
Through it all, Jim has learned what it means to be “open” with his therapist and with himself. As a result, he has incredible insights on going from low lows, to learning to fiercely accept and love yourself for who you are. To say his story is powerful is an understatement.
- Finding the right therapist
- Navigating conflict in therapy
- Fear of authority
- Healthy attachment to your therapist
- Experimental therapy
- Sexual assault, grief, and healing from trauma
- Therapy as a continuous effort
- Learning to love yourself
Michael Shahan 0:01
Hi. Welcome to the same time next week, the podcast where we demystify the therapy experience by talking with people who share their own personal therapy journeys. In each episode, we begin to uncover what therapy actually is, how it works, what helps, what doesn't, and everything in between. I'm Michael Shahan, a marriage and family therapist in Kansas City. Let's get started. Today's guest is my friend Jim. He's a musician, a music teacher, a cyclist and enneagram seven. I'm really excited about today's episode, hope you enjoy it too. Trigger warning: this episode contains conversations around sexual abuse and violence and addictions.
So I've been in therapy since February 2006. For I don't know, it's been a long time, Michael. I've been in therapy since February 2014. That's the answer. And I've had three therapists in those nearly seven years. And the woman who I'm working with now her name is Lawrence. Yeah, I've been working with her for about, it'll be four years this February. And when I, I mean, I saw all the initials, I saw everything. But one of the things that, you know, communicated to me on the front end that she was safe works was that, you know, one of her credentials was LGBTQ friendly. And as a gay man living in the south, I didn't even know four years ago, how important that was going to be for me. But when walking in, and I could talk to her about, you know, my sex life, or my dating history, or my lack of dating history or what I want out of a relationship. And that her, you know, fundamental view of me as a gay man was not one of "Oh, you must be sinful or diseased or broken," but instead to be gay is human and normal and healthy. Like, that was a huge thing for me, because I didn't have that in my first therapist. I did with my second but that just wasn't that wasn't a good working relationship. I so yeah, with Lawrence, her being gay friendly was really important for me. I think also, you know, when you work with someone for nearly four years, inevitably, as much as I as a seven don't want conflict, I just want everybody to have a good time. Conflict is going to come up and and it has happened a couple of times, and she has helped me to navigate that and she has helped me to...
Michael Shahan 2:30
Conflict with her has come up?
Yeah, whether with with her and something that I was like, "I don't like what you're saying right now," or, "I don't like what you're pointing out in me," or "I disagree with what you're saying." Or there was even, I don't even remember the details of it. But it was our last in person session before the COVID lockdowns began here in Memphis, where she said something that was really hurtful to me and and she even acknowledged it. She was like, "I made a mistake didn't I?"
Michael Shahan 2:56
I was like, "Yeah, that one I need to sit with that one." I don't even remember what she said. But what I remember thinking, Okay, hold on, hold on, hold on. I have been working with her for a couple years by that point is like, you know, she's been, like, really safe and healthy for me to work with. And she just owned that she made a mistake. And there's probably some stuff that I can look at, too. And so yeah, so when we got together on video chat, it was our first time to do telehealth. You know, that was the first thing that we could dive into is, "Hey, I don't need to be afraid of conflict even with her."
Michael Shahan 3:33
Yeah, what was it like for you, for her to own her mistake like that? For you to be able to say, "Hey, that hurt." I don't know, I think that's really, really important in therapy. That's a piece that people don't see. Like, the therapist is a human and they make mistakes. And it's okay to say that . So what was it like for you when you saw her hurt, her sort of own around the hurt and apologize?
Yeah, so it was really validating for me. So much of what I've worked on in therapy over the years has been fear of authority figures. And a therapist, especially your therapist, is an authority.
Michael Shahan 4:07
They're an authority figure in the realm of mental health and mental wellness, and you are telling them really vulnerable things about what has happened to you in your life. And so you grant them a lot of power. And so when that person who has that power says "I made a mistake," or I was like, "holy shit, what?"
Michael Shahan 4:29
And that happened in real time. It wasn't, you know, "I thought about what I said two weeks ago, and maybe I shouldn't have said it." It was like, "Oh, I am seeing that what I said to you really hurt you. And I think I made a mistake. I was like, "yeah."
That's amazing. So what was it, is it safe to say that that experience is almost like healing and helpful for you to like that experiential thing of like having that happen in session with an authority figure?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Because, I've been able, I mean, that's been so much of my work in therapy, especially with Lawrence is, when a person who I either see as an authority figure or is an authority figure in my life. You know, when there's conflict with that person I now know, or at least have a set of tools that I can draw from. Of oh, hey, I don't have to retreat into, you know, some boy Jimmy version of myself. I can stand in my adult truth and say, "Hey, this is what I'm experiencing. I see that that's what you're experiencing. Now, let's tackle the problem together." As opposed to, I'm just gonna placate this person, because they're big and scary.
Michael Shahan 5:44
Yeah. Which is kind of normally the patterns that you would fall into.
Right. And to describe my therapist is big and scary. It's hysterical, because she's like, five foot six.
Michael Shahan 5:53
Sure. But with you, she is kind of, mentally.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because, well, you therapists know this, like, I, my brain can't make that distinction.
Michael Shahan 6:05
Yeah. Yes, 100 percent.
You mean, physically small in stature. But right now you are occupying a rather large space in my head?
Michael Shahan 6:12
Yeah, oh, I am obsessed with this example that you just brought up right off the beginning. Because I think that's a part that a lot of people don't realize is can be a really key part of therapy that like experiential, relational aspect with your therapist. Not just talking about you and your thoughts.
Right. Absolutely. And I hate that I feel like I've led with Yeah, so me and my therapist have experienced conflict. Like, that's like a, it probably happens maybe once a year.
Michael Shahan 6:44
In that, that big of a way at least.
Right, right. Right. Right. Right. Yeah.
Michael Shahan 6:48
So every week, you don't just like fight with each other?
No, in fact, so when I saw her right before Christmas, we were talking about, you know, so I am a musician, and talking about like a critical voice that's been coming up as I do my music. And she asked me, you know, are you aware of that voice? I said, Yeah, I'm aware of that voice. And she said, Are you working on that voice? And I being a good seven, who navigates the world with charm and wit, said, "Well, Lawrence, it's been a really lovely session for the last five minutes and I'm done. Let me know how much I owe you. There's the door." And we laughed and lol'd and then she, you know, stuck to it. So no, but really...
Michael Shahan 7:25
So able to sort of like not go with your distracting techniques and sort of still laugh with you, but keep you back on track with what's important?
Oh, yeah. So that's the thing with Lawrence, like, she, she's a four. So she loves sadness, first of all.
Michael Shahan 7:41
Ha! Loves sadness...yeah
I told you on our first phone call together that, like she read this passage on, you know, the emotion of sadness in the book. And she ended it with like, "isn't that so great?" I was like, sure, Lawrence. Yeah, that is the opposite. Whatever. So we, we absolutely laugh and we understand each other's dynamics. And yet at the same at the end of the day, and the beginning of the day, like, I trust her to keep me grounded. Not just in my headspace, which is where as a seven, I love to live, I love to talk about my feelings, I can identify them, and analyze the crap out of my feelings. It is Lawrence's job that she does very well, to lead me into my feelings. She knows what my body language looks like. She knows what my tone of voice does when I enter into those feelings. And she provides that feedback. She provides that, you know, "Hey, I'm seeing your body's doing this, or I'm hearing your voices doing that," that I now know what that looks and sounds like too. But she provides that feedback in an instant.
Michael Shahan 8:51
Yeah. And you sort of helped you learn what it looks like for her to even call you out on it and see it herself sort of like, teach you your own sort of way of.. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Yeah, there's been, especially when I was doing work with my, with my family who's still living. I'm sure in this interview, we will talk about the fact that I've buried pretty much my entire family. So grief work has been a massive part of my therapy work. But when it comes to my sister and my brother in law, you know, I've done a lot of anger work of, you know, especially my first couple years with Lawrence. And, they got to the point where I would say to Lawrence, "okay, Lawrence, grab the popcorn, you just said something that triggered some rage. So I'm about to rage in front of you for the next..." And so I felt like I had to put like this parentheses around like, what she triggered as if I needed to communicate to her like, this is not against you...
Michael Shahan 9:48
Almost like you really got to actively take care of her in that moment
I guess. Yeah! And she would roll with that and then you know, I would rage against whatever was triggered, the machine if you will, and we will. And then instead of letting me move on from it, she'd be like, "Let's sit in that like, and what's underneath that rage." And I again, like, I guess she saw in me whether I was ready to enter into what was underneath the rage and the anger or I needed to be led to that, you know, Lawrence, she knows how to, you know, recognize my sarcasm coping mechanisms. And leads me past them.
Michael Shahan 10:36
Yeah, so she sees them and like gently steps you into things that are normally really hard for you to do by yourself. Hard or impossible feeling.
Unknown Speaker 10:48
Right? And at the same time, she doesn't judge. She doesn't like, "Oh, you got to stop with that coping mechanism, you got stopped with the jokes," like she doesn't do that!
Michael Shahan 11:00
Wow, okay. So that's an important part of it for you. Like for her not to stop or judge you for it. But...
Unknown Speaker 11:06
Yeah, because whether she saw that at the front end or not. She knows that this istransient. Like those coping mechanisms are a fast burning flame that, they're here and they're gone. And then what's left is the reality of what I'm feeling in that moment about whatever it is that we're talking about. And I think that's so much of what especially the last few years of therapy has taught me that if I can let my initial coping mechanism, just go, whatever that coping mechanism was, but especially like humor. As a good gay, who's a seven, that's like my spiritual gift. And to say, Okay, so that's what's left, like, what's left is how I'm really feeling about this person, the situation this pain, this joy.
Unknown Speaker 11:53
Oh oh like what's underneath those defense mechanisms. So in her sort of non judging of them, just allowing them to be, but also not allowing you to escape these things that kind of would bring it back to what was really there every time.
Michael Shahan 12:10
Wow, that's cool. I love that so much. I feel so excited. Just hearing about that. That's good therapy. That's really good.
So yeah, I so that, if I were to distill what we were talking about, into like, a couple themes. Like what Lawrence is really good at, it's just, I feel like it's almost a cliché on a on a therapist website or a Church's website, for that matter. They meet me where I'm at, but they also move me towards what I really am and who I am.
Michael Shahan 12:42
Wow, yeah. I heard this guy say therapy is...what did he say? A therapist is somebody meeting you with the vulnerability the depths of your vulnerability without invading nor abandoning you. And I love that phrase, like, it's, I'm not going to push and invade, but I'm also not gonna leave and abandon you. So I love that phrase. And sounds like that's kind of partly what you're saying.
Yeah, it definitely does. Because it absolutely fits with, especially pre therapy, what my so called attachment models to friendships were was like, I'm either going to invade your personal space with everything wrong about me. And if that didn't work, then I'm just gonna leave, I'm just gonna abandon like, there's gonna be no room for conflict, there's gonna be no room for growth, there's gonna be no room for patience. It's just, it's so interesting that like, who I was, and how I navigated the world, pre therapy is almost kind of the opposite of what good therapy is, as you just described it.
Michael Shahan 13:45
Yes! Like you. And you're sort of saying I think implied in what you said it sounds like is, is you don't necessarily do that with the relationships anymore as much as you used to. So even experiencing that in therapy allows you to shift your own model of relationships outside of therapy.
Yeah, what Lawrence has said to me on more than a few occasions in the four years we've worked together is what we you know, what happens in therapy is a microcosm of what your life is like in the real world.
Michael Shahan 14:11
Yes, that's exactly what I tell other clients. Yes.
Similarly, I say to my piano students like, "What is a performance other than what you've been practicing this entire time?" You know, what you do in the piano, what you're doing in the piano lesson is just what you've been doing at home.
Michael Shahan 14:26
Yeah, sure. So like what you do in... woo! Sure. So like, to what you do in relationships now, sort of therapy wise is sort of what you did or were taught growing up a lot of times. But the shift is that you can experience it differently with a therapist.
Yeah. Yeah, that's still some of the black magic that you guys do that. I don't need to understand it to benefit from it. There are times when I like leave my therapist's office and go I don't know what just happened.
Michael Shahan 14:59
Ooh, that's the best kind of work, man, that's the best.
And then like, three months later, it hits me. Oh, that's what! Or my personal favorite is. And I've said this to my therapists like, so I came in here wanting to talk about X. And we definitely did not talk about X, because I guess we needed to talk about Y.
Michael Shahan 15:20
Yeah. Wow. I love this. So in this podcast, I think the different people that I interview are gonna have different therapy experiences. And it sounds like your therapist very much is a very experiential therapist. And like, that's, does that make sense? You know what that means?
Yeah. So, yes. In my work with Lawrence, I've, it's been primarily talk based and cognitive therapy. But you know, you bring up experiential. I remember telling you on our phone call a month or so ago that I spent 28 days at an inpatient Trauma Center. Part of my I suppose you should we put the trigger warning, sexual assault? I guess we're going there. Let's do it.
Michael Shahan 16:00
Yeah, if you're comfortable.
I am. So, a huge part of my story is I'm a rape survivor and a sexual assault survivor. And so I went to this very early in my recovery process from that, a 28 day inpatient therapeutic center in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Because if you need to go to the middle of nowhere, Bowling Green, Kentucky, you really are not in a good place. And the great thing about the center is they tell you that. They're like, "We know why you're here, you're not in a good place." And so I was there for, you know, four weeks, it was divided into two, you know, two weeks sessions. And you could stay, for up to 90 days, but after four weeks, you know, we we decided that it's I'm as good as gonna be to go. But a lot of what we did, it was all group therapy. And it was really experiential stuff. So it wasn't just like, talk about your childhood trauma, or talk about your ongoing addictions. It was, whether it was chair work, so me and the counselor would be sitting side by side, and there'd be an empty chair on, you know, across from me. And we would visualize, for example, my rapist and we would put him in that chair. Then we would say to him, I would say to him, I guess I'm 30 years old, 28 years old, you know. I would say to him in my adult self what, you know, I wish I could have said but certainly could not have said as a 16 year old when he assaulted me. And I didn't think like when you say this to people, especially the people who've never done experiential therapy, it really does sound like you know, woowoo black magic. What does this do? But this work lasted for about 30-45 minutes, and we grabbed a wiffle ball bat and bang the shit out of some upholstered block. And it wasn't that the block represented the rapist. It was just I believe, and I know you believe too, that trauma is stored in your body. And it was a way to release that trauma from the molecular level all the way down to a much higher level of my muscles and bones and blood, out. And in doing that work, one, so I am also a trained singer. So when you combine 12 years of repressed trauma that I was blamed for by my parents with operatic baritone training, I got so loud that the group meeting across the hall with two noise cancellers between us had to relocate outside. And the group that was meeting two stories below us who had just shown up to the facility two days prior, had to be comforted by their counselor. "Don't worry, just some guy working his anger out is another day at the bridge we're fine." And that same counselor came up to me afterwards and said, "You did a really good job." And I said because I was really hoarse. "Thaaanks." Because I had yelled at the top of my lungs at the perpetrator what needed to be said that I never could. Which could be distilled into one sentence like, "This was your fucking fault." Like, "You are fucking responsible for this." But I couldn't say that as a 16 year old. And were not told to me for many years. And so when I did that experiential work and, complete with you know, grabbing the wiffle ball bat and beaten up this upholstered block. I couldn't move for three days like my entire body was sore. And you know, you've seen my Instagram I work out. I've lifted weights for years. So it wasn't that I was doing motion that was new to me. It's that I had through this form of experiential therapy, released trauma in such a way that what my body was trying to hold in for 12 years. I finally could let it go. And so what people would like from the counselors to the folks in my counseling group would tell me, was like after that session was done, like the way I held myself was different. I switched from going by my childhood Jimmy to Jim as a result of this work. And the counselors at this rehab center said that's not uncommon, like people come here with one name and they leave with a different name.
Michael Shahan 20:20
Really? So that experiential piece is so, it's so changing, it can change so much of you to do that. Wow. Yeah. Wow. That's amazing.
And so I haven't done that kind of chair work in years and I haven't felt the need to. But like other forms of experiential therapy that either my current therapist has guided me through like right now I am exploring sobriety, I've been sober for the most part since Labor Day. On the day that Joe Biden was named president elect, I had one too many celebratory drinks and was kind of like, "Okay, now I think it's time to move on from this." But with some of the work that my therapist has been doing is not just talking about it, but like she's had me write a loss inventory, like what have I lost because of alcohol? She's asking me to write this is for our next session next week. Write, a gain inventory. What have I gained through sobriety? She's asked me to write letters to alcohol, which I did and we processed.
Michael Shahan 21:17
So a lot of very practical things that she almost gives you to do outside of session at times, too.
Unknown Speaker 21:22
Yeah, yeah. And so like, that resonates with me, I love to write. I've been keeping a journal since I was a sophomore in college, so nearly 15 years. And so she's leveraging that experience and that strength that I have, to do that kind of work. So it's not just talking about it, but it's that I can, in this case, imagine alcohol as a person. The way that I described alcohol in my letter to it was "You're that friend that I can't hang out with by yourself, because you always leave me to make bad choices." But I guess, but I'm gonna guess, you know, we're gonna hang out together with other people. And, you know, I read that letter to Lawrence. And Lawrence said, so that's what we would call an abusive friendship. I was like, okay, okay. Wow. Okay. Sure. That's what you say, who have a licensure in substance abuse. But okay. What do you know? No. So yeah, that experiential therapy has looked like that. It's like writing grief letters to you know, as I mentioned, earlier, in this recording, like, I've buried both my parents. I've buried all my grandparents. I only have one sister, you know, so writing letters to those folks to say, what can never be said to them in person now.
Michael Shahan 22:46
Yeah, there's a lot of yeah, a lot of working things out. Practically. Yeah. Like, like with the whole that the work you did with your abuser, like this sort of doing things and getting things out, but you can't. Because like, you just can't right now. Because they're gone or they're dead, or you don't know...you don't have access to them right now. And so you don't, but you don't have to wait for like them to change them to say something, you are able to even do things to work through it by yourself through this process.
Exactly. And the wildest thing about doing that chair work and block work with my rapist is that I don't know his name. I can barely tell you what he looked like. I've got vague general descriptions that I feel no need to go into in this space. But I didn't need that it turned out. Like I didn't need to know exactly what he looked like or what his name was.
Michael Shahan 23:37
Did you expect that you needed to before?
I think I did. I think I did. And you know what was told to me by other folks who had gone to the same rehab center, it's called the Bridge to Recovery in Bowling Green. Was that like, you just need to trust the process. They're gonna ask you to do some really weird things. You just need to trust it. I was like, uh okay. I've been doing therapy for four months. What weird stuff can there be?
Michael Shahan 24:00
Well, surprise! Lots of weird stuff, apparently.
Because, by the way, as a seven if I've done it once, I'm already an expert. So any who I, I go and they tell us like, "Alright, you're gonna, you know, visualize this person sitting in this empty chair, and you're gonna speak your truth to this." I was like, "What the fuck is that?" And I like and they told us like, we're gonna take you to the absolute cusp of your rage that we can sustainably do. I was like, I don't even know what that means. And then we did it. And like these counselors, including like this one counselor who is like very pregnant and like this super soft spoken woman who I just thought like there's no way you can get rage out of me. It was like this totally misguided, dare I even say a sexist thought on my part. Like "How could you, this five foot four woman, get me to say what I need to say to my rapist." And you know, she grabbed the block and she was like, "And your rapist did fucking what?" I was like, "What? We're Fucking doing this!" Go ahead, Michael and put the explicit label on this podcast.
Michael Shahan 25:08
Yeah, totally. Sure!
So yeah, like, it really was weird. And I was like, I don't know how this is going to work. And it turns out like, I didn't need to know how this would work. All I needed to do was trust the process and trust the process enough to show up and do what's being asked.
Michael Shahan 25:25
Yeah. Wow. So I think it's part of another question I had for you kind of leading into that. Sort of like, what creates change in therapy? That's a huge question. And so for you, what, I think we've covered that a little bit, I think, but if you can answer that question on its own, like, what, what caused the most change in you, in therapy?
Yeah, I think for me, the thing that caused change the most. It almost sounds so cliché and so simplistic, but it's my truth, as I best know that how to say it. I just had to be open to any possibility possible. That I had to be open to the possibility that I, I was not as responsible for as much of my life as I thought. So for example, like, my dad was an alcoholic. And the classic case of codependency there is like, I'm responsible for changing this man or saving this man. Or I was responsible for causing it. And that was part of my earliest work on therapy was like, I was responsible for this. And I had to be told in 1000 different ways by 1000 different professionals it felt like. Saying, "No, you weren't, there was literally nothing you could do." And I just had to be open to that. And I think I just had to hear it over and over again. When my mother died, my best friend came up to help me clean out her apartment, and my dad was a combat veteran, my best friend is a Purple Heart combat veteran. And when I showed my friend, my dad's combat metals, he finally said, like, "You didn't tell me your dad saw combat. This is why he was the way he was. War fundamentally changes people." Oh my God, that's what my therapist has been trying to get me to understand for the last three years. Just it was finally clear, and just and it just clicked. And so I just I needed to be told over and over and over and over again, like, in that case, like your dad's alcoholism was not your fault. Nor was it your responsibility. Not your fault, nor was it your responsibility, for my rapist. It took years. It was not your fault, not your responsibility, for my mother. I'll never forget the day it was was my very first therapist, and we were about a year in and he goes, You talk a lot about your father and his alcoholism, which is great. You've never talked about your mother. How's your relationship with her? And I go, it's fine. Thanks. nothing to talk about.
Michael Shahan 27:51
Okay, sure. That makes sense. We won't talk about it ten.
My first therapist made a note in his binder, like, "Let's circle back to that later." But yeah, like I wasn't open to talking about it at all. But...
Michael Shahan 28:04
Can I ask you a quick question about that?
Michael Shahan 28:06
When your therapist asked you that, was that there's this conscious like, "Oh, I don't want to talk about it because that's uncomfortable." or was this actually like, had you convinced yourself that it was fine.
I had convinced myself, that was a fine. And I literally believed with in the first year of doing therapy work that all I had to do was resolve all my anger and resentment towards my father. And if I could do that, and like, just do that, then everything would be fine. There was I really, truly believe there was nothing wrong or maladjusted with my relationship with my mother. And it wasn't until, you know, I had gone to the Bridge to Recovery, I had done this 28 days, my last bit of chair work was towards my mother, because the counselors there were like, you need to look at this. And again, it's that theme of openness. Like I was open to the idea of "Yeah, I guess, maybe I do." And it's the one bit of work that I kind of wish I had stayed for two more weeks at the Bridge. Because when we did that chair work on my mother, I was like, oh, oh, shit. Like this is actually far more complicated and it just wasn't my father.
Michael Shahan 29:16
There's a lot more there than you even realized initially.
Yeah. So again, it's that theme of openness and openness on my part led to the long long term work of change. Like I have to be willing to see Oh, oh, oh. So then, when my mother died, it like I by that point, I buried both my parents and all four of my grandparents and I realized there's not a generation above me at all. And it just hit me It hit me in that moment. Like I have to do work around this and I have to do work with I don't know anything about my family at all. Like they were Jedi Masters at keeping secrets. And those secrets they took to their graves. And you know, so I just had to at that point like that forced me to be open with the, with the reality of, I don't know anything. I don't know anything about them, which means I feel like I don't know anything about myself. And being in that like absolute open space of "Alright, Lawrence, I don't know anything about my family." And the thing that led me to work with her in the first place was my sister told me on that very first Christmas after we buried our mother, that we have a half sister.
Michael Shahan 30:36
Oh, wow, you didn't know that before.
Yeah, we have a half sister and our mom was was the one who is the parent. I was like, you know, I gotta go back to therapy.
Michael Shahan 30:47
So that was going back to therapy, to Lawrence.
Yeah, I had, I had taken like a year off break. And I it was needed. But like, that's what started the change, Michael. I just I had to be open, I had to be open that I didn't know as much as I thought I did, that I wasn't as responsible for my family as I thought I was that I, I could only be responsible for myself. And what does that even look like?
Michael Shahan 31:12
Yeah, that seems like a really, at the same time, very freeing thing to realize, but also a very scary thing to realize, and have to let go of the control that you thought you had, like both.
Yeah, because I think up until that point, up until I started working with Lawrence, like I had this preconceived notion of like, I wasn't very affirming of my gay self at that time. And I just thought, like, okay, like, I guess I'll just be the dude who is an adult orphan. And I don't know what I thought I wanted to be when, you know, I'm sure 30, 31 years old, having buried my entire family and leaving, but, uh, you know, receiving their legacy of secrets that my sister and I are still somewhat unpacking. I guess I just over the four years of working with Lawrence, it's like, I really had to learn and still learn. Like, all I'm I can be responsible for is, Jim. And that's both really freeing. And also really scary. Because it may mean that like, you know, one of the big things I learned in 2019 in my work there I I do at one of the things I learned was like, I can't fix people from their shit. You know, which I used to do to try and protect myself.
Michael Shahan 32:41
Wow, yeah, save you from your shit, then I'll be, I'm safer because of that. Right? Wow okay.
But I had to be open to the idea that like, man, I can't do that. That's not fair to me. It's not fair to other people. The only person I can be responsible for is myself. And you know, I'm a grown ass adult, I can take care of myself and think I do a pretty good job of it.
Michael Shahan 33:08
I love that you can even see like, yeah, there's probably times in your life where you didn't feel like you could take care yourself. Because you're still stuck of that old trauma where you couldn't?
Yeah, you know, like, when you let me make...I feel like we put like the mosaic pieces of my therapy journey out on the table. Let me kind of start putting them together. When you when you grow up gay in South Central Texas, and you're the only gay person that you know, for the first 21 years of your life. And in those first 21 years, you're growing up with an alcoholic father, whose mother enabled that and you're raped at 16 years old on the family vacation, and your father, drunkenly blames you for it. And then your dad dies when you're 22 years old. Yeah, at that, you know, I spent the entirety of my 20s thinking like, I'm lost, like there's,
Michael Shahan 33:59
How could you not be? With all of that?
I was handed like this shit hand of cards, and with from a shit deck. And there's no way that I don't I genuinely felt for throughout the entirety of my 20s after that being my childhood, like, I don't I don't have the means to take care of myself. I don't have tools. I don't have the means. And I also don't trust anybody else to do it for me, and yet I'm desperately needed.
Michael Shahan 34:29
But I can't do it myself. And I need Yeah, wow.
So I feel like the first three to four years of my therapy journey was learning to say, "Yeah, Jim, you were dealt a shit deck of cards." And then the last three to four years of my therapy journey has been, "But you can take care of yourself."
Michael Shahan 34:49
Yeah, to even like believe that. And then in turn, and then learn how. Right I don't think you, I don't think you could let yourself learn how if you didn't believe in the first place. Is what I think at least. For you, what caused you to reach out to a therapist in the first place that your very first time ever I want to go see a therapist or I need to go see a therapist. Like what was that for?
Yeah, okay. Oh, yeah.
Michael Shahan 35:14
Where was your head at?
I referenced a best friend. His name is Ben. So let me tell you the story of how me and Ben got to be friends. So this was fall of 2013. Ben was working as a young adult pastor in Austin, Texas at the time for a church and I was here in Memphis, and he was working for an evangelical church. And I was working kind of in the evangelical context in a parachurch ministry. And these are, you know, I was on Twitter. I had my social media empire back then. And all I do now is Instagram. But so somebody had retweeted this guy named Ben Sledge, that, like Ben said, "We, as evangelical Christians need to be better neighbors to our gay friends." I was like, I'm a gay person, I would like to be better neighbors. So I ended up following this guy, Ben. And Ben posted a sermon that he gave on suffering. And normally when white middle class straight men talk about suffering, I just roll my eyes. But you know, part of Ben's life is that he is a Purple Heart veteran. And so I was like, well, he probably knows about suffering. He's a Purple Heart vet. So I emailed Ben, this is fall 2013. It's really long email of like, my life is just in the pits. And like, I'm, like, horrifically addicted to pornography. And other, you know, I would not have said that I had a drinking problem at that time. Probably, if I were to have an honest assessment. I was, I can look at pictures of myself and say, Yeah, I definitely wasn't eating and drinking well at all. But I just wrote in like this really long email like I am destroying myself. And here's like this, you know, two page email, tragic story of what has happened in my life up until this point. And Michael, I don't know why I reached out to him. Other than I was just like this, Hail Mary desperate move.
Michael Shahan 37:11
And I don't know what I was expecting from Ben except may an email of like, "Well, thanks for writing. You know, if you need anything, write back, I'm praying for you." Right? Like that standard response. Well, that's not what Ben did. Ben wrote his own two page email back.
Michael Shahan 37:28
And invited, like, I want you to stay in touch and all that. So over the fall of 2013, and Christmas holidays, like, I was just telling him more and more of my story, and it was January of 2014, that Ben finally said, "Yo, you need more help. And it cannot be me. And I don't know what that looks like for you. Here's a few options for you to think about. And therapy was one of them." I was like, well...
Michael Shahan 37:54
What was it like to hear that from him?
I was like, You don't know me?
Michael Shahan 37:58
Absolutely, yeah. But there was also like, because I am a seven right? There was also like, that's it! That's the answer that's gonna fix me.
Michael Shahan 38:06
This is the thing like finally fix it all!
I'm gonna go to like six therapy sessions, and it's gonna be great. Thank you. Seven years later, yeah. And far more than six therapy sessions. So I went, you know, my first first therapist, you know, he was good for the first couple years. He was the one this first therapist, his name was Dr. Ted, Dr. Ted referred me to the rehab center that I went to in Kentucky. And interestingly, when Ben and I finally met, okay. So Ben is a Purple Heart veteran. I'll just text you a picture of him. I mean, he is covered in tattoos. My squat PR is his bench standard. And I hate that. He's a metal head. And like he, you know, like the Christmas card that he sent me this year is basically him in his tactical gear saying, like, "Have a happy COVID Christmas, we're preparing for the apocalypse." And I love that dark humor. But so Ben, when I like when I finally meet him, I give him the full blown like, this is what my therapist is recommending that I probably should go to rehab. What should I do? He closes, folds, his arms, his biceps are the size of my quads. And he says, "You're quitting your job and you're going to rehab. Do you understand me?" And when a man who's probably killed people in combat tells you that there's really only one response you have, which is, "Yes, sir."
Now, Ben, I'll never forget this. And I've told him this. Like, he put down money for me to go, W He didn't front the whole thing. But like, that's out of his own pocket out of his own pocket. Like he's like, go like, I really want you to go, and some other people step forward with with money as well. Like it was just this wild event that even the folks at the Bridge to Recovery said, like we've never seen anything happen, like what's happening with you, which just means that you're supposed to be here. So yeah, what got me in the therapy was desperation.
Wow, just like, I don't know what to do. I'm lost.
Yeah, I'm lost I don't know what to do, and like the Wiley boy seven charms have finally stopped. They don't work anymore.
Wow like sort of like the things you've done to cope before are no longer working. Wow, yeah.
Right. And it took a literal strong man to strong arm into what I needed to do. You know, I am a stubborn son of a gun. But I'm really glad that I went. And I tell people that I am alive today because I went to a 28 day facility in Bowling Green Kentucky because a man who didn't know me yet except through emails at that point, took a huge risk and laid it out there, like, you need to go. Like, if you don't go I'm really worried about what's going to happen to you. And Ben has told me that sense. He said he was really scared to tell me that.
Yeah, he said, "I..." So he's a 3, so he's all about the hero image. And so, I think he was worried that I would push him away and that would be the end of it. And again it's that theme of openness. He has, Ben has zero reason to hurt me. He has zero reason to do wrong by me. He really must be seeing something that I can't see. And so I went. So like I said, I am alive today because I took a risk on this 28-day rehab program. And not just like, I came home summer of 2014, fixed and healed 28-days after I checked in. No no no no no. Those 28 days in rehab kind of just gave me the tools to actually do the work that I do now.
So like, it sort of set you up. It gave you the tools you needed. Sort of set you up to continue healing and growing.
Right, the name of the center is actually the solution. It's called "The Bridge to Recovery." It's not the place where all the recovery happens.
Right, it's not called "the recovery."
Right, it's like this is the place we're going to bring whatever traumatic thing that brought you here. To, "Okay, we got the real hard shit done that you needed to be here to do. Now you're going to go on to keep doing the work. And that's the thing, like, I can't imagine my life being one where like, I don't see an end to therapy. I can see, and I do this every year, I like to take 6 weeks off of therapy every summer. I like to let it settle and what not. And Lawrence and I talk about what that looks like before that starts. You know, I book a session to talk about what it looks like before I leave that session. I can't image a point where I say, "I am done with therapy."
Which actually, it sounds like, people say, "Why am I not healthy, physically? I used to work out all the time but it's been two years, but I don't do it anymore. But why don't I feel physically healthy." And like, that would be weird to hear. People don't say that. But people say like, "I went to therapy a few years ago for a while and then I stopped and now I don't understand mentally what's wrong." Like that seems like, "Oh yeah, what is that?" People don't realize it takes continual effort to stay physically healthy and people don't realize that about mental health. It takes continual effort of some kind.
Yeah. I have an old mentor that, the image that his therapist gave him was like, tightening the lug nuts on his tires. Even if you think you've seen it all, you still have to come back and rotate those tires.
Yeah, which people don't realize that about therapy at all. Which leads me to one of my last questions which is, what surprised you the most about the therapy experience? Because we all have different perceptions right from the media or pop culture. What surprised you about your experience with therapy the most, as a whole?
That it, um, gosh Michael. I'm just going to start talking because somewhere in there is an answer that I know is there. When I started working with my current therapist, Lawrence. It was because, Oh my God my sister just told me about my half-sister and it was another one of those things. Like I just needed another 6 sessions around that. So I think one of the biggest surprises was that it wasn't like that...but that's not my answer. I think that one of the biggest surprises that I got out of therapy was that I learned...You know, I'm a 7, I'm a gay man, and I'm a Leo, so I love everything about what I'm getting ready to say. I think one of the biggest things I learned is about just how fucking awesome I think I am. And I don't mean that in a conceded, selfish way. I mean, when I look at what I've been through in my life, I really genuinely probably shouldn't have made it. And there are plenty of people who, and it's been made clear to me by counselors over the years, that there are kids who have been sexually assaulted as youths and they just don't make it. Whether it's, they die or they just don't make it. But between that and growing up in an alcoholic home as the only gay boy that I knew for the first 20-25 years of my life. And being told that who I am as a gay man is disgusting and an affront to God and unnatural, and an abomination, I think the best I hoped for when I started therapy 7 years ago was, "I hope I can kind of coast through being miserable but with a pulse." But now that I'm in a home, who's the name on the deed is my name. And there's a studio in this house with a baby grand piano and a couple percussion instruments. And students come in and out of this house (now wearing masks, thanks COVID), seeking piano lessons...You know, I have a family of friends who I count as brothers and sisters and surrogate parents who fill a lot of the gaps that my own family left. When I think about, I don't need someone to rescue me, but I do need support. And I have, I'm not going to say NO problems asking for it, because I'm still learning how to ask for what I need. But I do so with a lot less guilt and anxiety. I think for me the biggest surprise for me in therapy is, I met myself. I met the real Jim Cornfoot. I can almost picture the therapy session when it happened a couple years ago. Not only did I meet that person, I really fell in love with that person. I did not think that would happen. I think the biggest surprise and gift to me is I can love who I am on my own terms. In a way that isn't being exclusionary or a jerk to other people. But in a way that honors true friendships and meaningful relationships.
That's such a cool answer. That's amazing. I think that's what sort of became very evident to me when I first met you. I think that's what stuck out to me. I didn't put words to it until you just said that.
You know, December-January is my most introverted time of the year. And yes, world, sevens can be introverted. It doesn't happen often, but it does. And I'm getting ready to do my annual retreat in a couple weeks where I go and set my goals for what I want. And it will be an interesting process to try and set goals after this pandemic. But, what is coming up, and what I've told my closest friends and what I've told my therapist, Lawrence, is that I think 2021 is when I start sharing my story. I mean, you invited me on. I've been invited onto two more podcasts with story-telling elements. But most importantly when I told my therapist that I think I'm ready to tell my story, she said, "I think you're ready. And you know when he therapist you've been working with for almost four years says, "I think you're ready to start telling your story." I don't take that lightly. And it's not like I need someone else's permission to tell my story. But it is really empowering to know that a professional who has seen the darkest corners of my story and who I am and why I would want to tell it, is saying, "You are coming at this from an authentic place." It's not a wounded place or a coping place. But it's a, "You're ready." So I guess that's another element to your question of what's the "Surprise." It's the ability to tell my story on my terms for reasons that are authentic and genuine.
Wow. That's amazing. I love that answer so much. Can I ask you another question?
You sure can
So, last question would be, if there's anyone out there listening who's thinking about going to therapy for the first time who's never done it, what would you say to them?
I would say, what was said to me when I was thinking about going to rehab. I was the one who brought up to my first therapist, "Hey, I have some friends that have gone to rehab, what do you think?" And he said, "If you're thinking that it's for you, you already have your answer.
So I would say unto your listeners...If you are thinking about going to therapy, there's your answer. And there are a lot of options out there that you, Michael, I'm sure are a lot more qualified to say what those are. But truly, I mean that, if you are thinking out there, "I think it's time to go." Then, start doing some research, book a few introductory sessions. Finding a therapist is sort of like dating, or so I've been told, I don't do dates. Well, I've been on a few dates I've never been in a dating relationship. But you really do have to like, find the right person.
Yes! Yes, and some people out there think that's not an option and it very much is. Vet your therapist! Try different ones. If you don't feel comfortable, don't go back. That's okay.
Yes! Like I said, I've seen three different therapists in the city of Memphis and the third time was the charm. And it's not to say I didn't get anything out of the first two. I did. But yea, I would say go. Go with an open mind and say hey, therapy might be right but this person may not be the right one. But also go with, "Hey, you're probably not going to get the right answer after the first session. Give them like, two or three. I would say, to your listeners, be selfish. If you need a therapist who is a woman, go see a woman! If you need a therapist who is queer or queer-friendly, then make sure that's not just a suggested component. Make sure that's an essential! Going forward, if the need came up that I needed a new therapist for any reason whatsoever, it will not be recommended that that person is LGBTQ friendly, it will be essential that that person is LGBTQ friendly. Let that be the first lesson in asking for what you need which is be selfish and be like, "Hey, if you're not XY and Z, I'm not even considering it." Which, at the end of the day, you're trusting this person with the most intimate portions of your life. So you need to be safe as you define what safe is.
Yes. Man, I love that. When I first started with a new therapist a couple months ago I didn't like her. I found myself getting frustrated with her and getting angry with her and asking myself, "Why don't you know me fully all the way yet? Like, what is wrong with you?" And I realized afterwards that that's kind of embarrassing. And she would give me advice and I'd be like, "That's not what I'm coming here for." And then the second session I remember thinking, I'm not going to tell her I'm upset. I'm just not going to reach back out to her. Which might be okay for some people. But for me, I've always told my clients, if they're upset with me at all, I want them to share that with me. So, I can't just ask my clients to do something that I don't do. And I told her, I was like, "Here's what made me angry last week and what wasn't helpful." And as a 9, I cried through the whole thing and I couldn't look at her, for real. And it was incredible. I think she's amazing. She thanked me, which was one of the wildest experiences of my whole life. Like, you're supposed to hate me.
Or like fire you as a client.
Yeah it was supposed to be all my fears! It was selfish to say, here's what I want from this and if you can't give it to me then we can't do this. Was the best thing that has almost ever happened to me in my own therapy experience.
Exactly. I say to Lawrence, "Is this the thing that is going to get me fired? Is this the thing that is going to make it where I can't be your therapy client?" The day I knew we had crossed over that anxiety pattern was when she met my bullshit with the same. She said, "Well yeah actually, I have the padded wagon out front with a straight jacket." And I was like, "What?" And she goes, "I'm joking, Jesus Christ, this is absolutely the right place for you.
But it's that shame that's like, this is going to be the thing that makes her fire me. It's that shame that shows up all the time with therapists.
Yeah, and I think that so often, I don't know if this is me double-disintegrating to a four. Seven to one to four, um, that like, "I am so unique, there is no therapist that will ever understand my problems at all, like Oh my God." I think that was another surprise was that therapists are like, "You're just a normal human like the rest of us." Like yes, your problems are real, your problems are significant, your pain and trauma is deep and it needs to be addressed, but it's not so deep and it's not so unique to you, that...
It's very much a shame narrative that like, "I'm so broken, nothing can fix me anyways."
Right, and that's what I had to...I mean it took 6, 7 years including in a 28-day inpatient living it 24/7! So let's just say in actual therapy time, 10 years, to say "I am really fucking awesome. But I'm also just a schmuck." You know? And that's okay. It's actually a good thing that I'm just another guy. I'm just another person trying to figure out life. Like you, and like the rest of us.
This has been fantastic, I've loved every second of this. Thank you so much, I appreciate you being on this.
I'm really grateful that you asked me to do this.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Same Time Next Week, please feel free to share with your family and friends to help support the show and help us in destigmatizing therapy. So, same time next week?
Transcribed by https://otter.ai