I didn’t know any psychologists when I was growing up. I didn’t know anyone who wanted to be a psychologist. I didn’t know anyone who saw a psychologist.
Psychologists were as much a part of my life as astronauts.
I met my first psychologist when I got a janitorial job at a tennis club when I was fourteen. His name was Dr. Atkins and he wore a fur coat and drove a black Mercedes. He was the complete opposite of my father who drove an old Chevy without air conditioning or a radio.
It was a big scandal at the tennis club when it was discovered that Dr. Atkins wasn’t really a psychologist—that he had falsified his education and training. He had to leave town suddenly. His departure didn’t really affect me, since I never looked up to him all that much.
The person I looked up to most at the tennis club was a part-time instructor named Lou Graves. He was a teacher in a juvenile detention center and would kid me that I reminded him of some of his delinquents. What he meant was that I had a temper, even though my temper hadn’t gotten me into any legal trouble. It just got me into an occasional fight, including with some of my tennis opponents when I began competing in tournaments.
Coach Lou liked that I was a fighter. He liked that I worked hard to support my own tennis. He also had to fend for himself as a tennis player when he was my age. What made things more challenging for him was that he was an African American in Louisiana at a time when African Americans weren’t welcome by the tennis community.
Coach Lou used to tell me stories about being kicked off courts because of the color of his skin. I didn’t tell him too much about my personal life, but he knew I hitchhiked to work and tried to be as self-reliant as possible. He once gave me a ride home and took me to the same Chinese restaurant where I had worked in eighth grade as a dishwasher. While we were waiting for our food, I told him the story of how the head cook went off on me after I accidentally got a fork caught in the disposal, which led to me shoving another ten forks in the disposal on purpose, which then led to him coming after me with a butcher knife.
I never told my parents the story about my last day of work at the Chinese restaurant. It felt good to tell Coach Lou. It felt good to have someone calm and stable in my psychological corner. My own dad wasn’t calm and stable. My older brother was growing even less stable. He eventually became so unstable that he ended up in Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric, the state mental hospital known as Ypsi State.
I was a freshman at the University of Michigan when my brother was committed to Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric for ninety days. I would sometimes see guys wearing Ypsi State T-shirts on campus… the joke being that Ypsi State sounded like a university. It wasn’t. It was an old fashioned state mental hospital like the one in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I had to take a deep breath before visiting my brother in that hospital. I had to connect with all of my courage. I once met with Coach Lou after visiting my brother and he told me that life was harder for some people than it was for others. I nodded quietly in agreement. I could relate to how my brother’s life was harder than mine and how my life seemed harder than some other college students.
I usually didn’t feel sorry for myself. I knew my mother had gone through much worse conditions during the Holocaust. I believed in my own ability to persevere and I also believed in this ability in others. It was a belief that helped me when I eventually became a psychologist, because I didn’t feel I had to rescue people from their pain. I didn’t feel my main job was to make them comfortable. I had learned a lot from situations where I had been uncomfortable and trusted my clients could do the same.
Looking back, I feel grateful that my life has been so rich in mentors. It has helped me to be a mentor in my role as psychologist and to see strengths in my clients the way Coach Lou saw strengths in me. Coach Lou used to tell me, “Do your best and forget the rest.” That was his coaching version of unconditional love. It sometimes only takes one person to believe in you to get you to believe in yourself.
Dan Saferstein, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist, working with adolescents, adults, families, and teams in his Ann Arbor-based practice. He is the author of 100 REASONS TO LIVE: Adventures of a Depressed Duck, YOUR COACHING LEGACY, STRENGTH IN YOU: A Student-Athletes Guide to Competition and Life, WIN OR LOSE: A Guide to Sports Parenting, and LOVE FOR THE LIVING.
You can reach Dr. Dan at www.dansaferstein.com