“Is it a book?” “It looks like a W.” “Are those robot boobs?”
These are the types of questions I get all the time about this tiny tattoo on my forearm. In the past, when I would get questions about this tattoo I would get a little cagey. Tattoos tend to be personal, but this one, in particular, is also kind of embarrassing. I mean, I got a “half-pipe” – not the skateboard kind, like a literal pipe split down the middle and laying open – permanently inked on myself because of therapy. It could be seen as the ultimate Hollywood douche move, what’s next? The Bulletproof Coffee logo on my lower back? But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Today’s post isn’t about design, and there’s not a throw pillow insight. Instead, you’re stuck with me, Brian Henderson. And yea, today’s post is all about therapy. Or my experience with it at least. There are a lot of disclaimers I get to about this a little further down, but if mental health or therapy isn’t something you’re ready to read about this morning I promise the design content will resume next week. On the other hand, if you or someone you know has ever been curious about therapy (especially if that someone is a guy), then keep reading.
Back to my foreman… I got this open pipe tattoo as a reminder for myself. In hindsight, I wasn’t prepared to explain its personal meaning to the entire world when I first had it needle poked into my skin, which was an oversight on my part. It’s pretty abstract, so of course, it’s going to draw some questions. But the more I had to explain why I got it and what it meant to me, the more I noticed that people related to my story. The follow-up questions became less about me and more about the question-asker themselves. And it all made me understand that depression is much more universal than I had ever thought. Now, when I describe my tattoo, I’ve now got a pretty succinct explanation that doesn’t come off as pretentious or preachy (I’ll explain in a bit). More often than not, a question about my tattoo gets people talking about how they relate to it. Which is what I hope this post can do too.
First off, I’m aware that therapy or the general topic of mental health can be a triggering subject for a lot of people. I want to start by saying that this is not meant to be a prescription or cure-all suggestion. Nor is it meant to speak down to anyone or come off as “holier than thou.” It’s only an account of my personal experience with therapy in the hopes that it may spark some conversations out there for someone who needs it.
Second, I’m writing this purely from my perspective as a hetero, white male; and I’m sorry if that doesn’t feel as inclusive as it should, but it would be crazy for me to try and write about therapy from anyone but myself, from my perspective. And if I’m being honest, I think there’s a lack of dialogue about why straight white men don’t go to therapy, when we seem to be the group that is doing a majority of the damage out in the world. We aren’t addressing our emotions. Controversial, right? Fun? Hopefully. I’m wading into waters that I’m not an expert in, so take this all with a boulder of salt…
In my experience, not a lot of guys go to therapy. Even though a lot of us probably should. Why? Well, it’s been written about, talked about, studied… and it seems cliche at this point but I think it has a lot to do with the way we’re raised as boys. The same life lessons that can be wonderful about self-sufficiency and toughness (which I honestly do think are important in raising both boys and girls) are the same lessons that kind of crush us later in life. We’re trained from an early age that we should fix our own problems, be an island, and that showing emotion or asking for help is a weakness. Talking to your buddies shouldn’t go any deeper than conversation topics like whether Captain America would be a better quarterback or pitcher (for the record, I say quarterback). So we compartmentalize our feelings and keep them as something only to be dealt with alone, in a vacuum. We are the only ones that have the expertise to deal with our own feelings and emotions. The idea of talking to someone else, let alone a stranger about our feelings? Are you kidding? For guys like me, that seemed utterly insane. But I ended up in therapy, with a stupid tattoo on my arm. And it changed my life.
Now you may not know this, but I’m not actually living the life I should be right now. I should be the lead actor on a wildly successful sitcom, making millions of dollars, living a life of fame and fortune. At this moment, I should be making a witty zinger at a dinner party about how I can’t find space for all my acting awards, and how I’m thinking of melting them all down to make a giant statue of myself holding an award. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now. Or at least, that’s what I had been expecting for myself since I was 18 years old. I, like so many people out there, have been fantasizing about my ideal life since I was young. But, like 99% of the world, I did not come close to achieving that “ideal” life. When I realized that my “ideal” life wasn’t my exact trajectory, I did not have the tools to deal with the heartbreak. And all of that brought me very close to ruining my whole life. Here’s how it went down…
Emily and I moved to New York right after college, and I went to grad school for acting at NYU. It was an insane experience – not only was it super exclusive (only 18 people are accepted a year), but it was super intense (all acting, all day, every day, for three years). I was already a pretty cocky guy, but getting into this program blew up both my ego and my expectations for myself. Oh, and it’s where I swung naked on a trapeze in circus class. You know, for art. At the end of my training, I was ready to conquer the world of acting, just like all the famous alumni before me. In fact, I was going to be bigger than them! I mean, do you think that Billy Crudup ever flopped his little billy around on a trapeze?! WELL, I DID. I was gonna land the best agent, get on Broadway, get my own TV show, and take over the world.
None of those things happened. Except for the Broadway thing, in a roundabout way. After doing a bunch of theater in New York, I got an understudy job on a Broadway show. And it just so happened that it was for one mister Johnny Galecki (Name Drop!), who had to take time off to go shoot the pilot for a new show called “The Big Bang Theory.” I got to go on for him and perform on a Broadway stage for a while, which was a dream come true. I still think about those magical nights. Getting to perform for 1,100 people who were wishing you were Johnny Galecki? Magical.
But back to my “failures” – One night I was confidently speeding past tourists in Times Square, to my IMPORTANT ACTING JOB, with my black wool peacoat’s collar pompously popped up (because even though the snow had started to melt into slush, it was still cold enough to look like a brooding artist). I impatiently rounded a large group in a crosswalk, threw a “Locals Only” smirk back at them, then tripped and fell into a huge puddle of brown slush that had gathered at the foot of the opposite sidewalk. My arms were up to the elbow in wet gutter-sludge and whatever had floated downstream from the Bubba Gump in Times Square. The whole group of tourists gasped. I popped up as quickly as I could, tried to make a funny quip, couldn’t, then probably made a sound like “Pshhh…” and ran off as fast as I could.
And that is a precursor to what I felt when I got hit by that heartbreak I spoke of earlier. I went from king of the world in my head, to prince of the potty in real life. And before the comments start, yes I know that my life isn’t, and wasn’t a potty. I’m a super lucky guy. And yes, I know that a privileged actor’s journey isn’t super relatable. BUT, I think that the feeling of “expectation vs reality” is, and that’s the broader issue that brought me to therapy. And that’s what I think needs to be talked about because “expectation vs reality” is driving a lot of men like me (and women) into depression and isolation, without the tools to talk about it or ask for help. Ok, that’s too bleak, back to the story.
Emily and I moved to LA right after we got married (that’s us the night I proposed, complete with Central Park carriage ride and NYC hotdog stand). I kinda forced the move, because it seemed like it was the only place to make actual money as an actor and it seemed silly not to at least roll the dice out here. It turned out that I had the wrong dice. Or maybe they don’t do dice in LA? I still don’t know, all I know is that being a theater actor in Hollywood is about as meaningful as being a race car driver at a chili cook-off. I couldn’t get a job out here to save my life, and I got crushed by years of auditioning and rejection. When those inflated expectations got popped, I began a journey to a very dark place. I mean, what a stupid career choice it is to be an actor. You voluntarily go on hundreds of job interviews to try to sell a product that is literally yourself, and get told “no” 99.9% of the time. And it’s not like other art forms like painting or writing that you can perform alone, you can’t act by yourself in your room. I mean you can, like when I do my one-man “Yoda in a Russian Bath” routine to make myself laugh while I’m getting dressed, but to be an actor you need to get cast in something. You’re at the mercy of other people, always, and it suuuuuuucks. It also sucked the life out of me.
It had been 7 years of “no’s” and I didn’t have another career or side job (because I was still gonna make it dammit!). Emily had won Design Star, shot two seasons of Secret From A Stylist, and her blog was blowing up. My confidence and success had taken the exact opposite trajectory of hers and I was in such a dark place and felt so stuck, that I started taking it out on her. I turned into a dick. I resented her success and would constantly diminish it, or deliberately neglect to acknowledge it, which would cause fights without resolutions. It got bad. We both knew I was deeply unhappy but didn’t know how to change it. She put up with mood swings and feeling shut out, as I got deeper and deeper into a depression.
It built up to one dark night when Emily basically told me that I’d changed so much from the happy man she married that I either had to make a change or we needed to rethink our future. That shook me. I was about to lose my wife, the best thing in my life, unless I did something to change. I didn’t know how to change, but I knew what was wrecking me. So, I quit acting.
I just stopped auditioning and took myself out of the whole thing cold turkey. That worked for a bit. I started doing real estate, which distracted me but I was still walking around in a fog of depression, which now was compounded by the thought that I would never get to do the thing I loved again. Then Emily got her first Target job, which brought a whole new flood of resentment. It wasn’t fair but it was still there, if only more hidden from her. And then she got pregnant. Which should have brightened everything, but in a weird way it made me even more depressed, for super selfish reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled that we were pregnant. I had wanted to be a dad for as long as I could remember. But the idea of starting that phase of my life without feeling “happy” or “fulfilled” made me crash again. I regressed to being difficult and had a cloud over me that was soon hanging over our whole house. Once again my wife (thank god for my wife), confronted me and said she didn’t want our baby to have this negative energy around it, and she said I needed to go see a therapist – which I had been putting off for years. I knew she was right, but I was so stubborn about my feelings and still had the sense that I knew how to fix myself. I had pushed the idea of therapy away anytime it came up. But now we were having a kid and I couldn’t bullshit my way through it anymore, no matter how much I tried.
My preconception about therapy was straight out of a bad movie, which is part of the reason I resisted it for so long. I also felt like I didn’t need to do a deep dive into childhood trauma or parental issues. Not to discount that type of therapy, I know that is unbelievably helpful for many, many people. It’s just not what I needed. Mine was a depression born out of not knowing how to move forward in a life that wasn’t what I had planned it to be. I needed tools to bring myself back to the happy person I used to be. And I’m very lucky that the referral I got from a friend was for a therapist who specializes in just that.
Lucy Cotter is a narrative therapist. I know that narrative therapy sounds like I was laying in a sleeping bag while she read children’s books to me, which isn’t too far fetched out here in Goop-y Hollywood. But no, narrative therapy is a proactive kind of therapy that teaches you that the way you see yourself in the world is just a “story” you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. For your whole life! And that as the “narrator” of your own life, you in fact have the freedom to change that story. I’m no expert, and it’s kinda hard to explain, but this is my take away from it – I think it’s all about giving people the tools to actually change their responses to difficulties so they can move past them rather than get stuck or derailed by them. And they do it by separating your difficulties from you if that makes sense. Like, the problem is only a thing that exists in the world, it’s not a part of you, and you’re telling yourself a story about that thing that makes you want to avoid it or fight it. In fact, there are many ways to approach that thing in a way that incorporates your own positive feelings. You just need to try to change the story of it. That’s not convoluted at all, right?
Let’s see. Ok, so, an example would be:
When I started seeing Lucy I was just beginning to shoot Emily’s videos, but I didn’t want to make videography my full-time job because I didn’t “love” it, and I felt emasculated by the idea of working for my wife. Let’s just pause here and acknowledge that I’m aware of what a gigantic privileged baby I was/am. I’m so fortunate to even have the options open to me that I do. But if I’m writing honestly, I didn’t want to do it because it represented a kind of “giving up” of my autonomy. So Lucy started to get me to understand that my feelings about being Emily’s videographer fit a long-ingrained narrative that I had been telling myself about any kind of work that wasn’t acting. She made me see that there were tons of different ways I could view it, if I just allowed myself to let go of the old narrative. She asked me what I loved about acting, specific things that I missed about being onstage. I answered that it made me feel artistic, free, that I felt ownership. Then she asked if there was a way for me to find those feelings by starting a video company. At first, I was like “Um, no.” But then we got into the actual daily tasks of making a video – framing up shots, directing Emily, running a set, editing it with music – and I realized that all of those feelings could be found in that. And that’s when it really clicked for me. I had been telling myself that working for Emily, doing something that wasn’t acting, would never be enough for me, for so long, that I didn’t realize I just needed to open up my aperture, as it were, and see it all from a wider lens. From that moment on, whenever I started feeling down about something I would pause and try to a way to reframe the story of it.
We would even create weekly checklists for me to work on, which was such an amazing surprise. I learned that I needed accountability and practicality. It was like she was half life-coach, and half therapist. I had actual, tangible things to work on at home. Which for a guy, I think is super helpful. Things that were as straight forward as “register the domain for your website,” to the theoretical “pause and consider your first response to an annoying situation.” The more we worked, the easier it became for me to engage in the world with a more open point of view, and have the ability to shift my feelings about things. It hit me on a deep, macro level, which was what got me out of my depression. Once I was able to tackle the stories of my individual problems, I saw that I could start to rethink the overall story of my life. Of what I think it means to be Brian in general. I started figuring out that my whole sense of “I’m the kind of person that…” was just a story that could be expanded. I describe it like tunnel vision (here comes my “half-pipe” tattoo explanation, in case that’s the only reason you were sticking around). I was looking at everything in life through a tube or a pipe, with only one little point of light to see through. I felt stuck in my depression because I didn’t realize that it was totally my choice to see through this little hole. But through narrative therapy, I was able to cut the pipe down the center, spread it out and realize that there was a whole horizon on either side of that little circular view. That there is a vast landscape of options to choose from. Sorry for all the metaphors, it’s cheesy I know, but it’s was a life-saving lesson for me. And that is why I got my tattoo. Because it’s easy for me to slip back into old reactions to things, and sometimes I need a little reminder.
It literally just happened two weeks ago. Our oldest kid had an extra week off for winter break (wtf LAUSD? Jan 13th?), but Emily and I both had to get back to work. Well, Emily had to get back to work because she runs an empire, and I was just looking forward to starting a new productive year. But we didn’t have any childcare during the day, so I was forced to watch him and try to work from home. And boy, oh boy did I put up a pouty puss performance. For the first few days, I grumbled little annoyances at breakfast and acted like I was doing hard labor at Rikers. But around the third day, I glanced down at my dumb little tattoo and realized I was acting like a baby. I changed the story. I wasn’t a put-upon victim, I was a lucky parent who got the rare gift of spending a ton of time with their kids while they’re still young. And that little shift of thought changed the rest of the week. I was a better dad and I’m sure a better husband. Besides, I had all year to be more productive, which is another great thing that Lucy taught me. Timelines are what we make them. You can always expand your timeline, and it can take a lot of pressure off of you. If you give yourself a longer timeline for some goals, it can make everything a little less high stress so you can live in the moment a bit more.
Remember that acting thing that I was obsessed with? Through my work with Lucy, I allowed myself to expand the timeline and change my story. It took me about two years of working on the other stuff, like the video business and healing my marriage, for me to feel like I was ready to reengage with acting. But this time, I felt secure about it. I had no desire to audition to be on TV or in film. I just wanted to get back to what I loved about acting in the first place, working on stage. And that meant I didn’t have to tie my self-worth to whether or not I booked a job. I had the important things squared away, and this was my way to create art on the side, to scratch an itch. I’m back to auditioning for and performing in stage productions when I can, and Emily and I have found ways for me to make it to rehearsals and performances. And thus far, it’s been really, really great.
I still get down sometimes, for sure. Depression isn’t like a bad movie that you just see once and swear off; it keeps getting rebooted!! With different casts, directors, and marketing campaigns. Sometimes I feel myself getting in line for a ticket, but then I look at my little tattoo and realize that I’m actually at a multiplex and I can go to a different movie. I’m lucky to have Emily and Lucy in my life, but it took me getting to such a bad place that I was forced to open up and talk to someone. I don’t think that a lot of men are as actively confronted as I was, or if they are, they sometimes aren’t ready for it. And I totally get that. I was there too. I hated the idea that I couldn’t fix myself. Asking for help seemed like defeat, or a character flaw. Like I wasn’t a real man. And I think that’s all too common among men who absolutely should be talking to someone, but are too hung up on their idea of therapy that they just shrug it off. Both young and old, from the stress of starting manhood to the fear of retirement. Expectation vs reality can be debilitating. But I had a wife who was brave enough to be honest about what she needed and supportive enough to let me know that it was going to be ok.
So if you are a dude (or anyone) feeling down, or lonely, or depressed, just know that a lot of people feel that way. You’re not alone, you’re not strange, you’re not a wuss. I know the pressure you put on yourself to “tough it out.” But there are other ways of thinking that will take the weight off your shoulders. And for the record, I think it’s pretty damn cool to talk about your emotions. So, let’s start doing that more.
Sorry this post wasn’t as funny as I thought it was going to be. I promise I won’t get this deep if I keep writing for the blog, but I know that this is a problem for a lot of people and I wanted to get my experience out there just in case it could get start a conversation. Even if it’s just about whether Captain America would be a better quarterback or pitcher.
Oh, and if you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like more info, here’s Lucy’s website: http://narrativecounselingcenter.com/lucy-cotter-psychotherapist/