Walking by an antique store, looking at the old and discarded yet preserved, I happened upon faded signs with oblique aphorisms: sing though you are not heard; speak though no one listens. Were they antique notions, these calls to action? I was reminded of the Paul Simon song, “Sounds of Silence”, with its eloquent, melancholic reference to “people writing songs that voices never share and no one dared”. This appears to be a tragedy: a post-Kennedy death lament about brightness lost, squashed under oppression, the corruption of secrets. That was fifty years ago. Awakened, pop stars and their listeners found their freedom amid their friendly darkness soon enough, with words and ideas that were shared, because people dared.
Over the last year I’ve been writing a new novel, about a psychotherapist who wonders whether to speak out and be heard. The story parallels my own process, of course: my inner rumblings about my role within the mental health community; the role the therapist has within the community at large. It’s a unique, if ambiguous role, straddled between obligations: the duty to hold private or confidential the disclosures of individuals in a safe, therapeutic setting, unfettered by restriction, so that psychological healing can occur. This duty is offset by a sometimes explicit, sometimes vaguer obligation that therapists have towards the broader public: to protect children and the elderly from harm; to protect the imminently endangered from harm; to educate and/or soothe the countless selves that are depressed and suicidal, or paranoid and abusive, or even murderous. The public wants these selves medicated. Or, they want them locked up. Otherwise, they want them spoken to soon, by people who claim to know what’s wrong, not just what’s true.
And it’s not like it was two generations ago, when seeking a therapist meant finding a shrink who didn’t have a long waiting list, or else it meant settling for the pastor at the local church and asking for forgiveness, if not so much understanding. Nowadays, psychiatrists dispense pills and supervise hundreds of cases, but otherwise leave the detailed talking and listening to others: social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychologists, behavioral technicians; life coaches, certified alcohol and drug counselors, pastoral counselors with clinical education and training; specialists in everything from trauma, eating disorders, autism, to sex addiction—all these conditions that seem to have exploded in frequency. There’s a whole lotta sadness and crazy around, so business is booming, but there’s almost as many types of counselor as there are diagnoses, so not to worry: there are plenty of us ready, willing, and able to listen to the words, hold your secrets…most of them.
See, when I listen to Simon’s words—“people talking without speaking”, “people hearing without listening”, or “but my words like silent raindrops fell”—I consider different meanings, depending on my mood, or the pressure, internal or external, that I feel. Does the singer fear that his words will be punished? That his daring will lead to annihilation? Or does he fear neglect, a narcissistic wounding born of others’ misunderstanding, or indifference? For many who step into our offices, privacy is either a promise or a curse: the office is where the words spoken are kept. The office is where the words spoken are kept. When the session’s over, the frustrated speaker ventures away from the closet and witness, deciding whether to speak further, share in contexts of presumed lesser safety. Meanwhile, the professional has decisions to make: was there anything disclosed that must be shared, or should be shared, for the protection of society? Is there a victim to warn, or a hospital bed to make ready? Should police be contacted? If the issue is less critical, should family members, a partner, or a would-be collaborator be included? Should the individual’s thoughts and feelings be dealt with in isolation, held like a precious gift? Or is there a ‘system’ to attend to, with a village or team ethic invoked?
To varying degrees, people who enter therapy want the same things: to find space and acceptance for their distinctive selves—while reconciling these needs with a need for others’ proximity or acceptance. It’s the strategies that truly vary, depending on the conditions of being in relationship. In negotiating the psychic economy, some people hide in therapy while hoping to not hide in life—hoping that at some point someone will accept them and understand. Some are frustrated soap-boxers, profuse in their disclosures, treating the therapeutic space as a place for treasures to be taken out of the trove, gazed at and pored over, but taken no further. At the end of each hour, those thoughts and feelings, once delicately removed, are returned, ever to be kept safe. For some, words that are spoken mustn’t be retold. For the like-minded writer, the thought-provoking book, nurtured like a precious stone, must likewise be protected, and thus edited. Its original draft/self must be burned, actually, because its words cannot be read. They are raindrops.