Darren Haber, an addictions specialist and popular contributor to our Dear GoodTherapy.org column, is the focus of our third installment in an ongoing series of “Meet the Topic Experts” features, designed to shine a spotlight on our dedicated, trusted panel of Topic Experts in the field of psychotherapy and psychology.
A member of GoodTherapy.org since December 2009 and a published contributor since February 2010, Darren has demonstrated a consistently compassionate and thorough approach to a wide range of reader-generated questions for which we turn to him for answers. In the process, he has established himself as an invaluable resource on topics including, but hardly limited to, sexual issues, compulsions, relationships, and trauma.
We asked Darren, who practices out of his Los Angeles office, 10 questions intended to help readers, fellow therapists, and potential clients get to know him better—as a person as well as a therapy professional. As is his custom, he didn’t keep us waiting long.
1. What compelled you to pursue a career as a psychotherapist?
Some very powerful transformations that occurred in my own therapy, and a lifetime interest in psychology, combined with a keen desire to get to know the human mind on a deeper level and try and help others heal wounds I myself was/am familiar with.
2. Why addictions and compulsions as your area of focus?
Again, personal experience—I come from a family where addiction runs rampant—and fighting some of my own compulsions and coming out the other side. Addiction is one of those things where the client seems comforted to know that you, the therapist, have been in his or her shoes (not literally, of course). It seems to reduce the shame factor. Plus, addiction is highly complex, and I love a challenge.
3. If you had to specialize in something else, what would it be and why?
I’m actually developing a specialty in treating depression (underrated in terms of its severity and potential lethality) and attention-deficit hyperactivity, which seems the most symbolic mental health issue of our speeded-up society.
4. What is your favorite aspect of being a therapist and why?
You get to cut through the B.S. and do something that, to me, feels very meaningful, in connecting with others and helping them heal and find their own voice and path. I work a lot with trauma, which robs us of the language to express our deepest wounds—that lack of expression is itself a kind of exile, which only perpetuates shame and isolation. It means the world to me to help someone escape that horrific solitude, people who often secretly feel misunderstood or neglected by others and are often too ashamed to talk about it. To me, the internal life is a sacred space, and it is an honor to be trusted by others who allow me to share and explore that space and begin the healing process.
5. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Favorite hobbies?
Free time? My wife and I recently adopted a beautiful baby girl, so my hobby now is changing diapers. I’m also in a PhD program studying trauma and attachment and relational psychology. However, I do love golf and hiking, and have always been a serious movie buff. I also love to escape into a good novel, especially mysteries and thrillers. And music. Probably my favorite hobby or pastime is discovering new music.
6. How do you feel about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as it relates to identifying and diagnosing addictions and compulsions? Does it go too far? Not far enough?
Boy, there’s a complicated question. I look at the DSM very, very generally, and am not fond of labels. At the same time, I’ve had clients relieved to know that so much of their suffering is, in fact, dysthymia or depression or some kind of anxiety issue and therefore not due to their “weakness,” etc. Also, we do know that there are some interventions for these things that tend to work (i.e., 12-step programs for addiction, therapy and increased social/physical activity for depression, etc). How that issue shows up with each person is very different, of course. Some people are relieved by the epiphany that, yes, they have a drug or alcohol problem; to others, the very prospect is an awful nightmare. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis and see if the suggested diagnosis helps or not. I am disappointed that sex addiction is not listed in the DSM-V; I could go on about how that oversight doesn’t even come close to my clinical experience and the unmistakable patterns I see in my practice, but that’s for another day.
7. Who are your heroes or role models?
I love Batman, the newer darker incarnation (only half-kidding). It goes through cycles, but I’m a fan of the founders of intersubjectivity theory: Stolorow, Orange, Atwood and Brandchaft. Though I often disagree with their theory or parts thereof as a whole, I do think Freud and Jung are pioneers. I’m grateful to Kohut for founding self-psychology, and to Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob for starting Alcoholics Anonymous. Viktor Frankl’s book on meaning is essential. I also love literature and philosophy, and am immensely awed by Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, and Beckett. Octavio Paz, T.S. Eliot, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Beethoven, to name a handful.
8. If you had to work in another field, what would it be? Why?
I wanna dance (kidding)! I started off in film/TV at NYU, so in a parallel life I’m a filmmaker or standup comic. I could try out my material on my clients … and watch my practice dwindle.
9. What’s the biggest hurdle to reducing the stigma in mental health?
Fear and ignorance. Most people are deeply afraid to look within, perhaps because of shame or trauma or some earlier painful experience and fear of what they’ll find. There’s really no need for that. Our culture doesn’t really value the inner life; it’s so relentlessly focused on the material (which is a setup to suffer). But just about everyone discovers it’s really not so bad, and that the fiery dragons we imagine lurking within are actually just affection-starved puppies.
10. What would you most want a potential client reading this to know about your approach to therapy?
That every situation and problem, to quote Pema Chödrön, is workable. That if you’re breathing, there’s hope. Also, I really do see each client as a world unto him/herself and avoid cookie-cutter formulas. Each problem or issue looks completely different for each client. Yes, there are patterns, but the meaning of the problem, the fact a problem might have started out as a solution before it became a problem (like drugs or alcohol), has to be respected and understood. My approach is collaborative, and a sense of humor never hurts. (Laughter is healing.) Everyone has a very specific, individualized story to tell, and I want to help them tell it, and change it to something more hopeful and meaningful. I like listening more than I like talking. When people talk, it’s like a kind of music. Finally, most people have no idea of the vast potential of their own creativity and expansiveness, or the possibilities of true love and intimacy; and even I forget how truly interconnected we are, that we are wired for intimacy and closeness, which is why loneliness is so painful. I always welcome the chance to help a person begin his or her journey toward finding out all this for themselves.