Tuesday, June 24, 2008


One of the interesting things about moving to the mid-west is the reaction people have to the word "therapy." Suspicion (what's wrong with you?), accounts of how unhelpful therapy was for X situation, skepticism (does it really make any difference anyway?), concerns about the money it costs, fears of quackery, and so on. Meanwhile in California, even the therapists have therapists! So yeah, I grew up assuming therapy was for the regular person wanting help, not just those at the edge of despair.

However, I have been to that edge. And therapy definitely helped.

I paged through some old journals of mine last week. An interesting passage jumped out at me. At a particularly dark period in our early marriage (when the ghosts of poor parenting past were rearing their heads in my marriage with Jon), both Jon and I went to therapy every week, individually, to the same therapist. At that time, we were missionaries, returned from the field for intervention. We came crawling home to California with bruises and skinned knees sure that something had to change for me to go back.

I wrote after about nine months into this program of therapeutic support and nurture that I couldn't figure out how Christianity helped hurting people like me, like Jon. It seemed to me that prayer, accountability, reading the Bible, going to church, taking classes about marriage, trying hard to follow the Bible's principles (however I understood them at the time), didn't add up to much in the way of real change in our habits of behavior, nor did any of these address the core dysfunctions that painfully played themselves out between us. In fact, I concluded, therapy seemed far more effective than anything I had encountered in my faith to that point. I admitted on those pages: I don't see how an ideology or spiritual practices actually create change in people. I couldn't see that the Holy Spirit did much of anything and yet we were attending a charismatic church, fully believing in that transforming power.

Perhaps due to my shock at having written such faithless words, I followed up those honest thoughts with, "But I'm sure that it is God behind the therapy that must be healing me."

Still, it felt eerie to read those words last week, over 20 years later.

I'm in therapy again. I call it a "mid-life tune up." It's not exactly that there are such huge obstacles to overcome. Nothing nearly as dire as my twenties when I felt like my world was caving in and taking me with it. Rather, I'm just stunned by the ship-wrecking marriages around me. I'm not stunned as in, "I don't understand." On the contrary, I totally get it! Marriages of 20+ years develop habits and patterns that become wearying burdens, deeply debilitating in ways unanticipated in the 20's and 30's. A feeling of futility sets in, a wondering at the future (how much longer can I do this? why would I keep doing this? I only get one life... is this how I want it to be? can I really forgive him or her for unfaithfulness? and so on).

The prospect of children moving out, leaving husband and wife home alone... well that leads many to the brink too. There's also the sudden awareness of self - like who am I? What did I want? Did I get it? What do I want now?

After my trip to California, it became clear to me that mid-life needs more than energy drinks, trips to the gym and hobbies. I want to be conscientious about the next 20 years... to imagine what it is to thrive, to watch the kids grow up and leave, to pay attention to my choices now so that I'm not unhappy about them later, to keep the relationship between Jon and me healthy and on track.

I've been going for a couple of months now. And I just have to say: I love it. Well, I love it the way you love teeth filling or weeding the yard or throwing up when you're sick. I love the effect more than the process... but I find that the process helps too.

I've begun journaling again (which is why you see less blogging). I've been paying more attention to what I think about and why. I'm 46. Mid-life is real. Mid-life crisis - I want to avert it if at all possible.


SUSAN said...

You are on the right track and I am not sure "crisis" is always bad. It's like filling those teeth...hurts like heck...but sure does wake one up. I am right there with you. In fact, I have a counseling session this afternoon. ;-)


Ampersand said...


rmkton said...

I remember a poignant statement from one of your earlier posts..."apparently mid-life takes no prisoners".

I have used it from time to time because I think it sums it up for a lot of us go through...it seems incredible to me that I was able to go through life in my 20s and 30s so blissfully unaware of my motivations and presuppositions...yet the realities that reveal themselves in mid-life, we know instintively, lead us through a one-way door.

Sentient Marrow said...

Well, I just finished therapy about two months ago after close to two years of it. It WAS helpful but it took me forever to get into that office. I come from Midwestern parents who believe if you go to therapy "it will go down in your permanent record" What permanent record? Do you have a permanent record after highschool? College? Or maybe the CIA or FBI keeps a record about you? OF course, I have a CIA story to tell but I won't right now. Anyway, money was a big reason for this past decade. The only reason I was able to go this time around is because my counselor offered to see me for free. Yes, free. And, that I did view as a blessing directly from God.

Anyhoo, I'd been wondering how the processing of midlife was going for you especially after reading your FB updates. I think, in a way, I am trying to deny midlife. Most of my friends irl are 10 years younger than me so it's hard to 'fess up to it.

jo(e) said...

Oh, you and I have *got* to meet up one of these days ....

iluka said...

Opposite experience for me. "Therapy" was pretty much useless. Religion probably saved my sanity, if not my life. (although my husband would argue that using religion and sanity in the same sentence is a sort of oxymoron). Perhaps religion, because it is sort of crazy, gave me a way of making sense of the craziness, containing it so to speak. So much depends on the therapist, I suppose. Or maybe on the religion.

My first therapy experience was a counsellor I saw through my EAP program. It was after one of my daughter's suicide attempts and bridged the time we discovered that she had been repeatedly raped by one of our best friends. THe therapist was kind but was of the "now, let's just take care of you" sort. When what I wanted was advice on How the F*** am I going to save my daughter and keep my family from self-destructing! Plus, do you know of any assassins for hire? As some of the more sordid details of my daughter's ordeal emerged and I hesitantly told her (because I was having nightmares myself) she once gasped and covered her mouth in shock, and another time actually broke down in tears. Not that I blamed her - it was tear-worthy stuff. Still, You don't go to see a counsellor so that you can comfort them. So I stopped going and started going to church. Why was the priest able to reach down and hang on to me, while I felt in "free fall" with the therapist? I don't know. She, the priest, nevertheless encouraged me to try again with the therapy. So I went to my GP and said I needed a referral to someone a little more heavy-duty. Perhaps a guy - because big boys with PhD's in Psychiatry don't cry. So I went from too much sympathy to no sympathy. This guy did not listen and he put words into my mouth. He was convinced all my problems stemmed from my relationship with my father, completely ignoring my current hell - to which he responded "You don't need to be unhappy. You are making yourself unhappy." I responded, "Could you leave my Dad out of this. He's dead and can't defend himself. And could you explain about that making myself unhappy thing?"

Anyway, after one particularly riveting week involving psychosis, sexual assault, ambulances, police and a lot of blood he said, "OK. I admit this is tough stuff. Do you have any sort of faith or a clergyman you can talk to?" LOL. Well LOL now. Then I was more angry-like.

Kansas Bob said...

I liked this Julie..

"I love the effect more than the process"

..so often religious people put up with things like pseudo spiritual disciplines even though the effects are less than helpful.

I think that healthy therapy helps people connect with their heart and live lives that are true to who they really are. Sadly, many religious people don't understand how unhealthy they really are because they have spent their whole lives living from their heads.

Marriages around here are falling like flies.. I have had several couples come in to my office for "counseling" only to realize that one of them came to tell the other (in a safe environment) that they wanted a divorce.

I admire you for posting this Julie but even more for seeing a therapist.. it will keep you and your marriage healthy.


julieunplugged said...

You know, Iluka, it strikes me that each of us is so different in how we react to religion, therapy etc. One of the challenges I faced coming off of the mission field in a depression was that a 23 year old member of our worship team was raped and murdered just weeks after we returned to the states.

My concepts of things like prayer, God's protection, God's immediacy etc. were overthrown in addition to my personal struggles to correct/bring change to our marriage.

Religion not only did not help, it muddied things - made it hard for me to trust, to know the point, to have ways to make changes real.

I can see how in the aftermath of pain (having suffered it without God) that you might find comfort in a spiritual path, in the transcendent rather than the rational.

For me, I felt abandoned by the transcendent so the rational and emotionally supportive environment of therapy worked real changes into me and provided me with comfort and relief.

julieunplugged said...

Thanks Bob. :)

Steve said...

"After my trip to California, it became clear to me that mid-life needs more than energy drinks, trips to the gym and hobbies. I want to be conscientious about the next 20 years... to imagine what it is to thrive, to watch the kids grow up and leave, to pay attention to my choices now so that I'm not unhappy about them later, to keep the relationship between Jon and me healthy and on track."

Julie, you have mirrored nearly exactly my thoughts about where I am in life, and the goals I have, just a few years ahead of you. Exactly. Well done, you are going to continue to make a great friend, wife, and fellow voyager through life! Keep going.

iluka said...


I think that whenever something profoundly traumatic happens to us or to someone we love it causes us to re-examine our world view. IN those situations our natural and sane reaction is to leave the world view which has let us down and search for a more robust one. Your world view was one in which God was sovereign, prayers were answered, God protected his own. An experience like that one you describe (which is terrible, there is nothing else to say, I am so sorry) would throw all that belief out the window. Of course, your belief in God was shattered!

My world view was that we don't need God because we can work things out for ourselves, that people are basically good, that most people can be trusted, that when people behave badly it is usually for a good reason and if we just provide them with more support, more love, more money that they will have no reason to commit evil acts - and more myopically, that certainly all the people in my circle of friends could be trusted and that since I was a good person and I was generous and kind to others, there would be no reason for anyone to hurt me or those I love.

What I can see now which I couldn't see when I was really in shock is that some of what I believed I probably still believe to some extent. In spite of the evidence to the contrary I am still, to some extent, a humanist, certainly a liberal and passionately a universalist. There was some truth in what I believed. It was just too simplistic and naiive.

I don't know that the God I believe in is the God you believed in. I don't know whether God answers personal prayers or not; if He/She does it is not terribly obvious and I don't count on it, no matter how desperate I am. God does not protect his own more than others - but actually I find that fair. As one of the counsellors said when I asked Why this had happened to us, "Why, do you think it should happen to someone else, someone else's little girl?" What I find my faith helps me with is a sense that I am not alone. Either God can't or chooses not to prevent suffering, but I imagine that God suffers with us and longs for our healing and happiness. That God gives us tools - through reason, through laws, but mostly through the example of Christ to persevere in the face of suffering and to try and create a more just world. The difference between the pre-Christian me and the Christian me is that I think we need God's help. If I was stronger or smarter or a better person altogether I might not think that. But I am not that person I would like to be and I have faith that God can help me to become closer to the person I was meant to be - even if rationally I think at times that that belief is like Dumbo's magic feather.

I also find that faith helps bring acceptance - not of injustice - but of pain. It transcends reason to allow contradictions and the illogical to be harmonized. It allows me to just accept that things happen that seem to make no sense but that I don't always have to make sense of them. That beauty can be found in suffering as well as happiness. That almost any evil may be eventually redeemed. That forgiving our enemy, rather than punishing him may be the key to justice. And that has given me a hope that my rational secular humanism never could.

Peace and blessings


Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I just wanted to chime in and wish you well in your counseling sessions. I have been seeing a counselor for six years running and have found the time and money well spent. No one should feel ashamed for seeing a counselor and maybe so many people wouldn't need to see a counselor if the world aorund us wasn't so screwed up.

julieunplugged said...

Either God can't or chooses not to prevent suffering, but I imagine that God suffers with us and longs for our healing and happiness. That God gives us tools - through reason, through laws, but mostly through the example of Christ to persevere in the face of suffering and to try and create a more just world.

You are always a font of interesting thoughts and ideas, Mariam. :)

I like the identification with suffering that you lay out as part of what it means to know God - a God from below kind of outlook (much of what Bonhoeffer and other contemporary theologians offer us).

Maybe I'll spend a bit more time on time in a new blog entry. I have some thoughts about worldview and how our life experiences impact how we see. I am glad yo could find some peace through faith after what you've suffered. Truly.

their-mom said...

"I think that whenever something profoundly traumatic happens to us or to someone we love it causes us to re-examine our world view."

Yes, I think this is often true. When I was in the hospital after the stillbirth/accidental death of my premature twins (one died in utero, the dr. broke the neck of the other one in the birth canal) I had to decide if God was sovereign or was I just on the B list that day. I chose sovereignity. I grieved, I raged, I wondered why the crack addict down the hall, guarded by two sherriffs, had had a successful, full-term birth. And yet, there was so much peace and strength and growth that came from going through that experience.

Julie, I am always impressed about how "intentionally" you live life; that seems to be one thing that hasn't changed much about you over the years.

Kate in Seattle

Heidi Renee said...

I heard it called "The Second Journey" instead of "mid-life" - I like that better.

Talk therapy has changed my life. I have lived life with therapy and without therapy, and with is just better. The unexamined life isn't really worth living.

I have enjoyed reading about your second journey. I have come through a huge deconstruction of my faith and beliefs and it has truly changed everything. Thanks for being so transparent.

Watchman said...


I read very few words that have insight like yours do.