The Shadow Knows

I thought my life was pretty great. That was before I embraced the pain

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME.

The Shadow Knows. I thought my life was pretty great. That was before I embraced the pain.

Therapy has always seemed like a waste of time to me because you're only talking about yourself to one person. Besides, it's obnoxious to complain about all the psychological damage my parents caused me when I'm well aware that I caused them far more.

But when I heard that a ton of successful writers, actors and producers in Los Angeles were getting career help from therapist Barry Michels and his mentor, psychiatrist Phil Stutz, I knew I had to see them. It wasn't that I needed advice. It's just that in L.A.--as with restaurants, hiking trails and preschools--if you don't go to the same places as the network executives, those first 45 minutes of prepitch chat can ruin your 15-minute pitch.

Michels hasn't taken on new patients for nearly three years, Stutz for much longer. But they have written a new book, The Tools, in which they explain that they reject psychotherapy's search for childhood causes of your problems and instead just fix them. There's plenty of good advice in The Tools, but the book was not going to help me prepitch name-drop, so I persuaded Phil to give me a session if I wrote about it.

I walked into Phil's home office in his Santa Monica apartment and told him all the issues I could think of, none of which interested him. Not my porn use, my flirting to feed my ego, my panic over public speaking, my inability to persuade my wife to have a second child. The reason I bombed at a recent speech, he explained, was that "they brought a dead man up there to talk to them." I was hoping for more of a Picture-the-audience-naked kind of insight.

"Dead man" seemed a little harsh, I told him, for a guy who loves his wife, son, parents, career and house. But Phil said a lot of things I'd secretly been worrying about, like that my seeming contentment with my life wasn't Zen-like acceptance but fear, and that the recent disappearance of my fear of death was less enlightenment than mild depression. "You're confusing comfort with happiness," he said. "I view it as a health danger. And it's very unfair to the child." Phil has invented the only therapy technique I've ever heard of in which you leave with bigger problems than you walked in with.

Phil told me to recall an incident when I got in trouble as a kid. I told him about the time my gouty high school guidance counselor had to come get me after I refused to leave class with the security guard who had been called to escort me to the principal's office as punishment for a heated argument with my physics teacher. I was surprised Phil didn't press me for a better story until I realized he mostly deals with writer nerds.

I was told to visualize my youthful rebel self, face the wall of Phil's office and yell, "You are my evil shadow!" Most clients have to wrestle with their inferior shadow, who gives them insecurities that make them act out. I, however, don't act out enough, so I had to get back in touch with my evil shadow. This lack of manliness made me feel insecure and need to deal with my inferior shadow. We were going to be there a lot longer than 50 minutes.

While I was facing the wall, I had to ask physics-hating me what he thinks of me now. The crazy part was that I did it. Even crazier, unless he did it very quietly, Phil didn't laugh at me.

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