Are You Out There?

"Adolescence" S. Dali

One of my favorite performing artists, Dar Williams, wrote a song with the same title as today’s blog, inspired by her childhood experience of listening to late-night radio.  In it she sings:

Are you out there, can you hear this?

I was out here listening all the time
And though the static walls surround me
You were out there and you found me
I was out here listening all the time

It is an ode to the late-night radio DJ, both a calling out for reassurance and assuring that she is out there listening as well.  Williams recalls the poignant sense of isolation that we forget adolescents experience, often to the point of despair and suicide.  Even working with teens, it is often hard for us to look beyond the behaviors and see the intense feelings many experience.  Because when we do, we remember.

Adolescence is the first time we experience loneliness with self-consciousness.  As children we experienced the immediacy of loss and abandonment, as terrifying as it was all-consuming and eternal.  As adults we will have come to abstract loneliness into a fact of life or a thing to be avoided.  But as adolescents, we take our first steps across a new threshold of mentality, and we become aware of our loneliness.  Perhaps this is one reason why the peer group is so important to youth, at this moment of existential awareness that the planet is really a lifeboat afloat in something so freaking big.

Winnicott often remarked that it is a developmental achievement to have the capacity to be alone, and requires the experience of being alone in the presence of an empathic, quiet other.  I have found this an invaluable thing to remember when sitting with an adolescent sprawled on a chair in my office who was in danger of being labeled “sullen” by me.

It is important to know that someone is out there listening, and I have been reminded of this recently not by my work with adolescents, but by working with therapists.  Every blog post has grown my readership (thank you!) and as it has grown so have the comments on the blog and the emails behind it.  People write to me about their practices, why they decided to take the plunge, what they are worried about, how their supervision has gone, or a victory of self-care.  They write me about how angry they are at the government for changing the rules, how angry they are at insurance companies for lowering their fees, and how angry they are at me for sounding so rigid about online boundaries.

And I hear from gamers as well.  They say how glad they are to read my blogs taking a pro-gaming stance rather than condemning their lives; they tell me how frustrated and confused they are that more therapists don’t seem interested in learning about these things and therefore them; and how angry they get at the media each time it hypes a new study about online addiction or “pathological gaming.”

I have remarked in my contact page that I discourage brain-picking, that act of trying to get free consultation without paying for it in the guise of asking “just a quick question.”  But I could read emails from the above people all day long.  They share so much with me, and those authentic voices, even those who don’t go on to buy my services, are always valued.

Another great thinker, Alanis Morrisette, says, “There is no difference in what we’re doing in here/That doesn’t show up as bigger symptoms out there.”  Our world is broken, and there are many people alone together in the lifeboat, people who have forgotten the wisdom of holding onto each other as adolescents do.  You know this, you work with these people, I work with these people, and we are these people.  We all need to regress a little, to remember that secure solitude begins in the presence of another who cares.

So if you have been thinking about commenting or writing, please don’t hesitate.  You deserve to have someone you can be alone in the presence of, and I am out here listening.  I really am, and if you’re anything like the epic therapists, gamers or patients who have already written me, I know you’re a rock star too.

Comments

  1. What a lovely and sensitive post, Mike. There are so many elements, so I’ll just respond to the parts that I particularly appreciated. First, I’m a big Dar Williams fan myself (and Alanis is pretty cool as well). Second, I have such a soft spot in my heart for adolescents. It is (as I recall well) such a difficult period in our life, and getting through it is truly a major developmental triumph (as you pointed out).

    I learned the concept of “sitting with” from a minister friend. We were both volunteers with the our county AIDS support group, and it had never occurred to me until that time how powerful an act it is to simply be with someone in their discomfort/pain/peace. I think it has probably been one of the most important things I’ve learned. Thanks for your post.

  2. Great theme, Mike, and a real pleasure to discover you also appreciate the music of Dar Williams. Of course we are all folk singers at heart!

    • Yes, I love Dar. I’ve seen her in old New England theaters, fields in the middle of NY, and Sanders Theatre in Harvard. Each time was great. She has a great song about therapy too, “What Do You Hear in These Sounds?”

  3. ” Winnicott often remarked that it is a developmental achievement to have the capacity to be alone, and requires the experience of being alone in the presence of an empathic, quiet other. I have found this an invaluable thing to remember when sitting with an adolescent sprawled on a chair in my office who was in danger of being labeled “sullen” by me.”

    A wonderful reminder of the power of just being with someone. Thanks, Mike.

  4. Mike, I’ve subscribed to the blog for a bit now. I learn a lot here, and I appreciate it. But this post really hit home for me. It was a reminder and an affirmation of what I value most about therapy. There is a reason that the therapeutic relationship is the factor that shows up as beneficial no matter the theoretical orientation of the practitioner.

    Thank you for speaking so beautifully about the power of empathetic presence.

    • Ann, hello! I’m glad you came out from behind the scenes to way in. You are very welcome, and I’m glad I reminded you of what you value about therapy. That is why we need a peer community, glad you found us.

  5. It’s so important to make time for “sitting with” — in relationships, in therapy, in medicine, in business, in oneself. Thanks for reminding us of this. Reminds me of learning about the profound value of this as an intervention, as read in Trials of the Visionary Mind, by John Weir Perry.

    And thanks too for that line between connecting with a kindred spirit, and having the chutzpah to take advantage by asking for somethin’ for nuthin’.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Langlois, LICSW and Mike Langlois, LICSW, Roia Rafieyan. Roia Rafieyan said: A very beautifully written post from @MikeLICSW Are You Out There?: http://t.co/AU3Fz5h […]

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