89. Now That’s Therapy!

89. Now That’s Therapy!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Now That’s Therapy!

Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles that one has overcome while trying to succeed.

~Booker T. Washington

The scissors clicked open and shut twice before I trimmed the feather on the fishing fly I was making. Tapping the last material five times “to feel right,” I finally completed the fly. I clicked, counted and tapped through thousands of commercially ordered fishing flies in high school. It was my only job aside from lawn mowing and paperboy — solitary pursuits. I not only had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but was also very anxious around people. School was tough enough; more interaction after school in “regular” work was unquestionable.

If you had met me twenty years ago, you’d have said, “Tony Smith will never socialize, never mind be the center of attention for any reason.” Maybe it was because I was picked on for my Tourette’s or being overweight, but by age fifteen I had diagnosable social phobia. I yearned for camaraderie and wanted to flirt with girls, but I also feared being subjected to intense scrutiny. Lots of people did like me and invited me to get together, but although I recognized this, I still couldn’t shake the nervousness and always refused. Despite therapy and anti-anxiety medications, I spent high school as a melancholy loner thinking I was losing my mind.

As I entered ninth grade, where everything involved socializing, I was certainly not partying and I was spineless around the fairer sex. I needed something to occupy myself. When I found Poul Jorgensen’s Book of Fly Tying, I decided I would get good at fly-tying. While my peers campaigned for class president and fought over girls, I fled to a basement workbench and busied myself bending feathers into fish-catchers, enjoying the company of my inanimate creatures.

On a wintry day in February 1993, happy that I could stay home and tie flies, it dawned on me that I could never use this many! So, I placed an ad in a newspaper. Soon my cigar boxes of flies needed replenishing. I was building a business! As my work refined, I needed better materials and learned of the legendary Hunter’s Angling Supplies fly fishing shop a few hours away. One time when my parents drove me up to look for materials, George, an employee, asked to see my work. I mailed up some flies and upon receipt he suggested I tie for them. Magnified by the OCD, I only saw imperfections in my flies, but George’s comments boosted my confidence. Soon I branched out, developing an interest in Atlantic salmon flies — storied, complex creations that are easy to get absorbed in because of their elegance.

On Christmas Day 1994, some sought-after salmon fly books awaited me under the festive evergreen. Mouth agape, I looked at the flies of Dave McNeese, Paul Schmookler, John Shewey and others. I had only one thought: “I’ll never be that good, but where do I start?” Being so shy, I had no choice but to teach myself how to tie them. After a while, I hit an impasse. There comes a point when people must refine their skills by observing others. Realizing I lived in a hotbed of salmon fly tiers, I attended some shows and met many of the fly-tying celebrities. I mustered some courage to show my work to these stars. I was poised to run out, red with anxiety and shame from the scrutiny I anticipated. Like the first time I asked a girl out, time froze and I held my breath. “Can I have it?” asked Schmookler, making me an offer on a fly I showed him. I left the show with the same feeling one gets after the girl says “yes.”

I soon needed work to see me through college, and local fly fishing supplier Phil Castleman needed help. Through him, I connected with a great young tyer in Oregon named Jon Harrang, and we got well acquainted through letters. We eventually thought it would be fun to meet. When I was invited to demonstrate at the Northwest Fly Tyer Expo in Oregon, we had our chance. I felt I knew Jon well enough by then for it to be anxiety-less. The catch was that I needed to demonstrate at the show. “Who cares what you tie, just do something you can’t screw up,” Jon said, and I shakily accepted.

I was so thrilled to be in Oregon that I forgot how nervous I was . . . until tying time. I chose the day’s end, figuring there would be fewer people to watch me fumble, only to have people crowding the table. Amongst them were multiple Northwest legends such as John Shewey and the late Harry Lemire. (Gulp.) “If I survive this, I can do anything,” I thought as I started the fly. Someone asked to keep the fly when I finished, and others asked for my card.

Shortly thereafter, someone called me from the Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild in Seattle and asked me to come demonstrate, all expenses paid. They saw photos of my 2004 gold medal Irish Open Creation Classic fly and wanted to see it tied in person, and I less shakily agreed to this one.

“You fool! You can’t catch anything on that fly in those conditions!” Shewey teased McNeese as they sat in my class. Listening to their banter, it drove home who was present and how far I’d come. Twelve years earlier, feeding the interest I took to in an effort to avoid social situations, I sat in my room staring at their work, fantasizing that someday I’d be that good. Now I was being paid to teach classes, and people I admired felt they could learn from me?

Years of counseling and medications were less useful for my cure than my unbridled passion. My experience taught me that if you work with what is going well despite life’s problems, you get better results than just focusing on removing the problems. In psychology, this is known as a solution-focused approach to therapy. Years after my severe anxiety, and as a mental health professional, I was naturally drawn to working with my clients in this manner. I tell my clients that working on their concerns can be like gardening, and relay a quote from the late psychiatrist Milton Erickson that I once heard at a professional seminar: “Sometimes it’s easier to cultivate the flower, than to go pulling out all the weeds.” It was this mindset that allowed me to fly into success in more than one way. Now that’s therapy!

~Anthony Smith

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