Be not afraid … to talk to your therapist

3 mins read

Since the publication of my new book “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.05), I have heard from people whose lives have been destroyed by abuse. Compounding the problem, some Catholics have claimed that no Catholic should need psychotherapeutic help to deal with the trauma of abuse — or any other issues. These Catholics are engaged in what I call “magical thinking,” telling those in pain to just pray a bit more, frequent the sacraments more often, and presto — depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and any addictions or self-destructive behaviors will just disappear.

Other Catholics, ignoring the facts, have flatly said there is no mental health crisis today — even as suicide rates continue to climb.

Both forms of denial only add to the suffering that people feel and do absolutely nothing to help them find healing. These denials — stigmas, really — must be challenged.

One of my heroes, the late and saintly Jean Vanier, gave up a brilliant academic career to make himself vulnerable living alongside suffering people. He wrote that “sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

In that spirit, let me note that in my book I very briefly mentioned two women without whom my present life — my marriage, children and academic vocation — would have been impossible. These women, the late Dr. Louise Carignan of Ottawa, and Dr. Mary Landy of Indianapolis, are both psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. I entered classical psychoanalysis with Dr. Carignan in my 20s and would spend four times a week on her couch for nearly seven years. More recently I spent two years on Dr. Landy’s couch.

Their impact upon me was perhaps best summarized by the Belgian Jesuit psychoanalyst Andr√© Godin, who in a 1965 article, “Revelation and Psychotherapy,” found himself “seeing in the action of the therapist a sign of God.” Neither of my two analysts openly expressed Christian belief (my hunch was that they were lapsed Catholics), but both of them nonetheless were guided by a belief that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Both of them helped me to find freedom and also to secure not just important insights, but deeper structural alterations in my psyche. Thus therapy can in fact aid Christians to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

For a long time, I could not know what was good and pleasing to God because of early and sustained trauma. My images of God were pathological and destructive — the result of what the Anglo-Austrian analyst Melanie Klein famously called “projective identification.” Unconscious aspects of my own deeply despised self were projected onto God and identified with him, leaving me convinced that no matter what I did I was hated by him. Prayer, theology, spiritual direction and even daily Mass and weekly confession could not budge these false images.

It was psychoanalysis that revealed to me that this “god” was a false idol of a tortured and damaged psyche. In this, my time on the couch was true to Sigmund Freud’s deepest hope for his patients. As the contemporary analyst Adam Phillips has put it, Freud’s profoundest project “was the destruction of idolatry.”

The Christian philosopher Paul Ricoeur has similarly understood Freud’s genius very well: “psychoanalysis is necessarily iconoclastic … and this ‘destruction’ of religion can be the counterpart of a faith purified of all idolatry.”

For me, analytic therapy did not just help with my mental health; it made faith itself possible by helping to dismantle false images of God and to create room for the truth to take root.

Did it take away every struggle? No, but then Freud was very clear about this, too: Analysis removes the neurotic and pathological issues so that we can see everything and everyone as they really are — the good and bad together. In this I also find the analysis congenial to Christianity: “Reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us,” as Phillips has put it in his very theologically suggestive book “Unforbidden Pleasures.”

If Catholics are finding reality too hard to bear today, take courage from Pope Francis’ admission that he profited greatly from seeing a Jewish psychoanalyst in Argentina for six months when he was a priest. And if your psyche has darkened uncontrollably and all joy has vanished, then know without a doubt that the Church, and God, wants you to find help through the many means offered today. Christ’s healing power can be mediated through counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and psychotropic medication. Be not afraid!

Adam A.J. DeVille is author of “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.95).