When Life is Overwhelming and Therapists Don’t Get It


If you didn’t believe life was difficult — well, you probably would have given up on this blog long ago. Some of us imitate Sisyphus, the mythical king sentenced to push a bolder up a hill for eternity. Each time he reached high enough, the rock rolled down and he started over.

A few therapists sell you a potential future far beyond anything realistic. They are usually young, naïve despite their years, or genetically disposed to walk on the sunny side of the street. A handful are just lucky. The imagined life on offer is like being next door to a barbecue: you watch the smoke and smell the meat cooking. Your portion, however, will be a plate containing the sizzle without the steak.

Bon appétit.

Other counselors attempt to persuade themselves of reasons to be optimistic. Their effort to salve your wounds also treats their own. Whether self-aware or not, they make noise in the office to mask the bone crunching going on just outside, the better not to hear the screams.

This month I came upon two bloggers who endure the piercing splinters from those broken bones. I did not say “have endured.” Their pain is still alive.

They don’t so much triumph over the travail as persist despite it. Each offers realism over fairy tales, honesty over imagination, and survival over happy endings. This is the brutal truth from their perspective.

Read their posts and weep, but remember, they are still around to speak to you, write for you, and live for themselves and those about whom they care. Each one offers a meaningful life, not a walk in the park. One is a Jack of many trades, the other a Jill of a teacher.

Both are enraged at those who maintain that “everything happens for a reason.” Each finds reasons — not a reason — to persevere despite the things they carry. They do not offer you all the details of what caused the suffering, preferring you to focus on the emotional consequences.

Consolation in life requires acknowledgement of the extent of the injury, not platitudinous minimization. Invalidation of your misfortune by a friend or counselor is the therapeutic equivalent of passing gas. Such people would tell you the end of Hamlet, with bodies littered everywhere, is just a part of the “divine plan.”

We benefit by the presence of a faithful soul who often can do no more than stand by. A good therapist offers this service, not the disrespect of telling you that Prince (or PrincessCharming is in the parking lot waiting for you.

The male blogger is an “adversity and life strategist:” Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason/

The lady is an English teacher: The Lottery/

Witness the pain of these writers. In so doing you will be honoring your own.

The photo is called Melancholy by Andrew Mason (London, UK). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

20 thoughts on “When Life is Overwhelming and Therapists Don’t Get It

  1. Gerry

    I don’t have much to say. I just agree with this post, well I will say that in the worst phases of my depression when it was totally “endogenous” or “biochemical” to the point of my brain just hurting, and any action being impossible, with sleep as the only relief. it was hard to deal with people who said “you just have to me more active” or “just call your friends and you will feel better” Dr. Scheftner who treated me for 30 including last year in Chicago for almost 3 months was one Doctor who never said such things. Somehow through years of experience he had come to understand a true endogenous depression of the worst kind. Of course he was not against my trying to be more active, he did occasionally bring me the New York times. But if I said the next day that I hadn’t read it, he was never critical, just observant. Other Psychiatrists were more perplexed than anything else, but had nothing to offer. At least Scheftner continued to experiment with combinations of medications which always included Parnate.

    Friends were indeed the worst, those who absurdly insisted on bringing me magazines constantly and insisted that I read them, that I should watch a movie in the hospital, or in the case of my cousin, who has always cared deeply for me, she nonetheless managed to frustrate me when insisting that I should just “go for a walk” as if this would cure my depression. Most friends were more distant and reticent about my worst depressions. But those to whom I was closest, because of their own frustration would occasionally insist on my doing things that I was totally incapable of doing. You can never explain what this kind of depression feels like. Some friends insisted to me that they understood perfectly and that they had been through the same….I seriously doubt it. I have inherited at least a couple of generations of really bad genes that are constantly activated under even minimal stress conditions, except that the parnate seems to mitigate this. My mother didn’t commit suicide for nothing. People always say she was schizoid or paranoid, but I really know better. Unfortunately she was treated in Michael Reese with a psychoanalytic approach. I was at college at the time, don’t know if she also was medicated, but if so, it was certainly not with Parnate. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, also died at the age of 45 or so, I asked but was never told what she died of, I suspect she also committed suicide but there is no one left to ask, and it doesn’t matter anyway.

    There is a threshold that I pass through , as occurred in January when I left the hospital where being active, being with friends, etc, does help, but below that threshold there is nothing. Truman Esau was a smart man, but he continued to have Thana Brown try to get me talk about my early childhood, and then he gave me a sodium pentathol injection. Finally he apparently gave up after a month and I was sent to intensive care, which was basically palliative care, where I slept 20 hours a day until my cousin Linda got me transferred to the Rush depression research unit, and I was immediately assigned to Dr. Scheftner. I never read my chart at Old Orchard although it would have been interesting to read Esau´s notes. As you noted and denounced to me, Phil whats his name was apparently reading it five years later when I was on the staff of Old Orchard. Never asked him about it.



    • Thanks, Rick. You’ve added a good deal to help others understand how efforts to “help” or often not only fruitless but injurious. Thanks for posting this very personal account.


  2. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing the links to the two posts.

    I was raised in the Catholic Church so I’m guilty of viewing misfortune, suffering, loss and the whole scope of the dark side of life as having a reason, yet unknown, for our spiritual growth. I guess it’s my irrational way of dealing with the inexplicable in life, of lessening the pain and loss.

    At the same time, I grieve and suffer with those close to me and far away who have been dealt a severe blow from which they may never recover.


    • Thanks for saying this, Rosaliene. For me, the most important point in what I wrote has to do with how one responds to the misfortune of others. I have treated some devout Christian patients who, in the aftermath of their suffering, benefited from the world view that there is a divine plan in which “all things work together for good.” Many people find such private thoughts offer them great comfort. I cannot recall, however, a single one who felt better to be reminded of this during the worst part of their catastrophe. To tell someone who has been crushed to buck up, get over it, or remember that it happened “for a reason” serves them not at all. Such comments seem to be made by those who wish to inoculate themselves against the terror of being visited by a similar misfortune, those who are cruel, those who are frustrated, and some who are simply mindless. Unless one of the faithful knows with certainty that such a statement has a receptive audience, it is best to refrain from attempting to provide this kind of “relief.” Just as one shouldn’t say to a friend, “Boy, your hair really looks like crap!” so we should not utter impolitic platitudes no matter how much we might believe them.


      • “I cannot recall, however, a single one who felt better to be reminded of this during the worst part of their catastrophe. To tell someone who has been crushed to buck up, get over it, or remember that it happened “for a reason” serves them not at all.”
        ~ I agree. It would also be terribly inappropriate and insensitive to do such a thing.


  3. Thanks for posting these links. I was especially impressed with Tim Lawrence’s blog post and the core message: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. ” I want to post those words where I will see them every day but most especially on the dark days when someone I love is in pain. Somehow it seems in this culture that you must talk when pain is present. You are supposed to say SOMETHING. Tim effectively demonstrates that to merely sit with a person in pain, saying nothing, yet sharing their grief, their pain, is the most important thing. Check the platitudes at the door, please. Well worth remembering as dark days seem to come more often now than they did forty years ago.


  4. Dr. Stein, I read you avidly and look forward to each and every one of your posts. I love how open and transparent you are, and how relatable as well. I have only commented a couple of times since it is terrible difficult for me to in any way open myself up. I need to say something here which is, for me, unimaginably difficult.

    I had read your link to the one post about grief by the gentleman who says it can’t be fixed. I followed the link to the teacher’s blog, the lottery, and was immediately taken aback by the first paragraph. This is very particular to my circumstances, and please feel free to not publish this comment, nor address it, but I am an adoptee who has in the last five years undergone a journey of immeasurable pain and conflict, a journey which has been extensively punctuated by unresolved grief. That being said, my birth mother also suffered, as do so many in the incredibly manipulative money system that is the billion dollar adoption industry in this country alone. To relegate birth mothers to women who cannot use birth control well? This is, to me, a dismissal that cannot be an understanding of the grief suffering by an entire population of this country. It minimizes and pigeonholes those of us in this world. I can only imagine then, that my own grief from separation from my birthmother is negligible. I am sorry for this rant, but you linked to this, and this distinction, and this portrayal of birthmothers as idiots who couldn’t use birth control methods (and where is the mention of the fathers here, by the way).(not to mention the insane amounts of human factors in the conception, gestation, birth, and relinquishment of children) really only hones in to me judgment and dismissal.

    I really truly love reading your blog, and look forward to your insights and thoughts. I hope this was not presumptuous but I could not read any farther than the first paragraph because I reacted to the definition so viscerally.

    I may be completely wrong. I understand this was about dealing with grief, and I did absolutely love the other article. There is a heap of grief in my world, freaking grief and trauma and all that goes with that. this is about the reference in the first paragraph:

    Dead babies, failed adoptions in which desperately longed-for children are ripped grievously from happy homes by the same capricious women who couldn’t manage simple contraception – these atrocities are calculated and deliberate events?

    Maybe, and this is completely possible that I misunderstand. I’m pretty sure capricious women is not a compliment. Could be me.

    And normally I do not throw my hat into the ring.

    I have been rejected twice by my birthmother, but I know that she struggled a lot, and was also emotionally manipulated and carried the demons of that to this day. As do I. My loss is enormous, and I am only beginning to approach that grief.

    Thank you so much for your sight and you insights. I learn from you every post.


    • Thank you, KK. No need to apologize. Your pain speaks for itself — eloquently. In posting the links, I did not mean to suggest my agreement with every point the two authors made. I certainly do not stand in judgement of the universe of unintended pregnancies, etc. Perhaps the author of the “Lottery” post will respond to your concerns, either here or, on her site (if you share your concerns there). I appreciate your courage in commenting as you have. I regret that I have inadvertently caused you pain myself.


    • My blog is a space I created to deal with my own grief and trauma, which has been substantial and shattering and includes a “dead baby”, as you quoted from my post. The post comes from a place of deep anger and wasn’t one I expected to be shared beyond my small community of other people traumatized by infertility. Please bear in mind that I am coming from a place in which adoption has been cavalierly shoved in my face as the thing I’m supposed to do now by many people in my life and which I might consider were it not for the abusive system you mention. I don’t really want to elaborate much on my perspective because you are highly sensitized to the issue by your experiences and I don’t feel I can be candid, but it stems from resentment, from the pressure to subjugate myself to participate (and fund) such a system, from the injustice of the dynamic for a person whose losses have occurred in spite of doing every last responsible and meticulous thing a person could do, all of which has very little to do with adoptees, the most innocent party in the ordeal. Peace to you.


  5. I would really want to print this post out, and the one you linked to – “Everything doesn’t happen for a reason – for my therapist to read.


  6. Interesting – reading my own post with some distance from the bad news about an old friend, it sounds so angry. I’m surprised you featured my ranting! Very flattering, and glad there is a voice (like yours) who is not shoving the meant-to-be crap down the throats of the suffering.


    • Thank you. I hope KK (Next in Line) reads your comment, A.


      • I responded. I’d be lying if the reaction didn’t inspire me to password-protect my blog.


      • Then I owe an apology to you, as well. As I said to KK, it wasn’t my intention to cause you any trouble. I thought your writing was powerful and underlined something important to say, something you felt in the most personal way. You and KK have enough pain not to require me to add to it even a little. Be well.


  7. A very interesting read Gerald, not just your own blog but the links to the other two authors. I agree with the uselessness of these so called religious platitudes that are somehow supposed to bring comfort but really can be especially cruel to to people at a point of incredible loss and pain. Eg telling a parent who has just lost a child that ‘ God needed another angel in heaven’ or that it was some predestined plan that God had in mind for some one. I myself have been at the recieving end of some of these messages as to why I suffered abuse as a child ( I wont go into them). Despite this and despite the fact that my abuse happened in a ‘ religious household’ I still have maintained my belief in a creator or ‘God’. Ive learnt to that alot of these platitudes dont come from God or the bible but are simple minded comments that are somehow meant to explain and in alot of cases brush away and deny the incredible pain and suffering that so many face. Life is hard and very complex and coping with the day to day reality of suffering can be completely overwhelming. Whether someone is religious or not suffering is indiscriminate, what I’ve read in the bible says that ‘time and unforeseen events befall us all’ and also that ‘man has dominated man to his injury’. This was not part of some divine plan that God wanted for us, its just a fact of life. What is truly comforting and to me the real comfort that comes from God is the healing that comes from human connections,as was stated to just be with someone in their pain as one scripture says to quote Proverbs 17:17 ‘ A true friend shows love at all times and is a brother who is born for times of distress’ . Whether someone believes in God or not that is the most powerful and truly comforting thing you can give someone in their suffering. ‘ Just help them feel that they are not alone.


    • Well said, Claire. As I suggested in my response to Rosaliene, it is easy to confuse the theodicy question (how can bad things happen to good people if there is an all-good and all-powerful god) with the question of people who offer religious platitudes to “comfort” others who will usually be left uncomforted if not injured by such talk. I treated mostly Christian patients, but many of Jewish faith, and a significant number of Muslims. Those who had strong faith often were better for it, although there were also some who used the Bible as a blunt instrument to do harm to those who were “different,” justifying themselves in moral terms derived from it. When approaching someone who is suffering, I can only say that offering concern in a steadfast way and (if the individual permits) listening to his acute grief is usually the best one can do. Time does the rest of the work that can be done.


  8. Great post,as always, drG. I have been trying to find a post that you wrote sometime ago about the cllient therapist relationship… something about weaving fabric. Can you send me the link, please?


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