Sunday, August 12, 2012

What Kind of Work is it I Do, Anyway?



I'm blogging during the closing ceremonies for the London Olympics.  As if there's not enough stimulation going on here....  

In Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work, we talk about psychotherapy as a process that occurs over time where the talking is an integral part of the actual treatment; that is, it's the talking itself that facilitates the cure.  Traditionally, psychotherapy happens on at least a weekly basis -- sometimes twice a week -- and for psychoanalysis 3-5 times/week. Sessions are 50 minutes long and patients are often seen at a set time, for example, every Friday at 1pm. 

I think of myself as a psychotherapist because I see the majority of my patients for 50 minute sessions and people generally tell me about the events going on in their lives.  Unless someone is acutely symptomatic, very little of the sessions are devoted to symptoms, side effects, and medications, though certainly that is part of what gets discussed if there is a problem.  The assumption, however, is that there is more to the psychiatric treatment I'm doing then checklists of symptoms and medication adjustments that take place in a vacuum that does not include the patient's life events, past events (including childhood) and their emotional reactions to their world.  

Okay, so several readers and Amazon reviewers have commented on typographical errors in my e- novel, Home Inspection.  I recently got the paperback proof back, and with the help of one of our readers,  I've been re-reading it and going through the novel trying to see the words (and errors) my eyes (now on their zillionth reading) tend to simply not see.  

For those of you who haven't read Home Inspection, it's a story told by a psychiatrist through the sessions of two of his patients.  Dr. Julius Strand's life is a bit of a disaster: he continues to mourn the death of his first wife, his second wife kicked him out, he's living with his cat in an apartment full of unpacked boxes, his career has a crisis, his health is not good, and his relationship with his daughters is strained.  Patient Tom is a cardiologist who is having panic attacks as he starts building his dream house with a woman who is certainly not his dream woman, and Patient Polly feels 'stuck' in her life.  She struggles in her relationship with the psychiatrist and talks about her past begrudgingly, asking repeatedly if it will set her free if she talks about those past secrets.    Through a series of coincidences, their paths all cross, and somehow, the patients help to cure the doctor.  

The therapy that Dr. Strand does is a very conventional, psychoanalytically-informed therapy.  His patients come at the same time each week.  They talk about how past events inform their current behavior, and he thinks a great deal about how their relationships with him are relevant.  

It occurred to me as I was reading my own account of treatment (fictional though it may be), that I don't do really do this type of therapy anymore.  I'm not sure I ever did.  When people start therapy and are feeling badly, they generally come weekly, but as soon as a patient's symptoms get better -- often a matter of weeks to months -- they ask to come less often, and most patients come every two to four weeks.  Some I see on an irregular basis -- they call when they have a problem and want to come talk.  Therapy is expensive, and in our harried world, most people don't have either the time, money, or inclination for sessions once or twice a week. While there are people I tend to see on specific days or at specific times, most patients don't have a fixed regular session -- I think this is because I like having some flexibility to my schedule.  And while people do talk about what is going on in their lives, and I often will ask about how past events and emotions have impacted them, I don't spend much time focusing on the therapeutic relationship.  I won't say never -- and certainly,  the fictional Dr. Strand thought about it much more than he talked about it -- but it is not a major focus of treatment for most people.

So I think of myself as a psychotherapist, and I think of psychotherapy as a crucial part of treatment, but if I don't see most people for weekly sessions,  then what exactly is it I do?

And if you don't feel like talking about psychotherapy, by all means, tell me what you think of the closing ceremonies!