By Mike McMahan, LPC
As someone who loves roller coasters and is the parent of a young child who ALSO is developing a love for roller coasters, this article was pretty darn scary. It also made me think about roller coasters metaphorically, as it’s something that many of us (therapists or not) use to describe our lives and their inevitable ups and downs. But is there something to be gained from this thought process, or is it simply just a “hey, your life will have ups and downs, suck it up” style cliché?
As far as the incident, I was very impressed by the dad’s actions. It must have been terrifying but I’m glad to know he was able to keep his little boy safe. In reality, it didn’t scare me. I’m a big numbers/stats guy and roller coasters are overwhelmingly safe. Would it be scary if this happened? Sure. Is it likely? Not remotely. Still the most dangerous part of riding coasters is the car ride to the amusement park. That said, the (alleged) response from the employee that “that happened from time to time.” Note to Wonderland. Please repair this!
So now that that’s out of the way…. What about the metaphorical part? It is undeniably true that life has its ups and downs. Even the “that happened from time to time” bit fits this metaphor. To further extend this topic, I often tell new clients that the process of psychotherapy can make things appear to get worse before they get better? Why is this? The answer, most likely, is that examining aspects of your life that may be challenging has a way of stirring things up. This may lead clients to different emotional reactions which may make things appear to be worse. The emphasis must fall on the word appear, however, as I am a believer that this is all part of the process of making positive, healthy change. So just because things might appear worse, this does not mean they are actually, worse.
There is one great lesson from the original story. I would argue that we have all been in both the position of the father and the son. Sometimes we are vulnerable and need that helping hand to strap us in. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re the one whose harness has come undone. Help comes in many forms: family, friends, mental health professionals, and many others. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this field it’s that we all have problems and challenges to deal with from time to time. It seems like bad stuff only happens to us, but that couldn’t be less true.
In addition, I’d say we have also all been in the father’s position at some time or another. In this case, he used physical strength to hold his son in the car. This may not always be the case. Ask yourself this: when someone comes to you for help, why have they chosen you? What unique skills do you possess that led them to seek you out, and in what ways can you use these skills to solve problems or confront challenges in your own life?
So, how else might thinking of your life as a roller coaster be beneficial? One thing I’ve learned in working with clients who suffer from depression is that they tend to get stuck in the “down” part of life. So much so that it seems that they never get to go back up on the roller coaster. Their lives seems to go down->plateau->down endlessly. Though, again, to an outsider observer (in this case, the therapist) this is not the case. So how do I help clients break out of this cycle? I often ask them to look for signs that might indicate that they are on the way back up—much like the signs that tell you you’re going up that big hill on the roller coaster. You know the ones: “No backing out now” or “keep seated at all times” or something that invokes the theme of the ride. I ask them to look for these signs so that we can discuss at our next session. What might such signs be in real life? Well, it varies from person-to-person, but generally I’d say that I describe it as a “break in the clouds.” Maybe you’re considering going on a social occasion after weeks or months of avoiding them. Maybe it’s slightly easier to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe you’re considering exercise even if you aren’t quite ready to strap on the running shoes. Either way, these are signs that you might be ready to leave the cloud of depression and give a therapist something to work with to help you on your way.
So get on that roller coaster and ride!
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture