White-Water Canoeing and Starting Therapy? There's More in Common Than You Might Think!

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2014

Recently my family and I took a two- day course in white-water canoeing. This sport is something I've been wanting to do for about 30 years. I was interested in the past, but not enough to take the leap. Why would I push myself to get into a situation where my life is actually at risk? Certainly the idea sounded exhilarating, but there seemed no end of ways to harm yourself. Then kids came along, and, since I didn't have much experience at white water, I kept on the safe side and flat water paddled. The one time I tried it was years ago - a foolish adventure with my two brothers down a swollen river in spring time. I escaped wet and cold but otherwise intact and with a good dose of respect for water rushing over rocks. But now my kids are older and they want adventure, and so, that is why I felt it was time.

The course went very well. My son was very good at barking orders at me from the bow. 'No, not that stroke - a pry silly!' Despite a very good instructor teaching us the various strokes and safety protocols, I couldn't escape the 'river monster' (a big drop and whirlpool). I became aware as we entered the rapids that even though I had practiced the strokes and maneuvers to manipulate the craft, what took over when things really got dicey was instinct. Sometimes it helped: a draw stroke could be transformed into a makeshift rudder by holding the paddle against the side of the boat. This way I could steer. But sometimes intuition back-fired: Right beside the monster, instead of tilting the canoe away from it, I panicked, grabbed the side of the boat which then sent us over into the monster's frothy jaws. In my quest to preserve myself and my son from a tumultuous dunking, my instinct let me down. As you can probably tell, we all survived. But the most significant learning for me was that self-preservation instincts can let you down: it really helps to have a guide show you the way over the rocks.

I could imagine that for many people signing up for therapy would not be too different for enlisting for a course in white-water canoeing. You might ask yourself, 'Why would I put myself in a situation where the outcome is so uncertain? What are the benefits? Do they really outweigh the risks? I don't really know what's involved - the steps to take (the strokes), so how do I know I will be kept safe, that I won't be smashed up against the rocks of life and be severely damaged? What if the course leader (therapist) gets us in over our heads, into something she can't manage?

These are all legitimate questions. You really need to put some time into answering each one of them when you engage in therapy. You are taking a risk. You are saying you need help and are admitting it to yourself and at least one other person. You need courage to do this. Sometimes it feels easier to ignore the issue that's pushing you toward considering therapy and hope it goes away on its own. However, usually our psychological/emotional troubles don't disappear simply because we wish them to. Consequently, some risk-taking, some entering into the unknown is usually necessary.

If you have had exposure to the notion of asking for help, then taking the first step toward therapy might be easier. If you have a nurse or some other health care professional in your family, you are probably familiar with people helping one another over a hurdle. Or you may have spoken to a religious minister, school counselor or teacher - anyone who took time to listen. Remembering that experience might help you get a sense of what it would be like to ask a therapist for help. At the same time, you may not have had these opportunities, or they may even have been bad experiences, so going for therapy may seem like something too intimidating and potentially hazardous - just like white water canoeing.

Furthermore, you may consider yourself to be fiercely independent, so you might have trouble accepting help from others. You may fear you would become dependent on the therapist and thereby fail to develop the capacity needed to overcome your issues because someone is doing it for you. (Good therapists don't do this.) On top of all that, some cultures are very suspicious of admitting psychological difficulties. Doing so can work against you even to the point of being stigmatized as lazy, without backbone, or, in extreme cases, even possessed. So, as you can see, there is no shortage of reasons to avoid therapy. All of these barriers need to be worked through. The good news is that you can talk to the therapist about them. It would be a very good way to start. Put on your helmet, snap up the lifejacket, grab your paddle and hop on in!