Thursday 18 January 2018

Hollywood therapy for the price of a pint

Need help sorting out your life? Just go online for instant access to the analyst's chair. Tanya Sweeney reports

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images
Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Tanya Sweeney

In his capacity as a therapist in Hollywood, Matt Prager has never had a shortage of clients: "In LA, I would work with these movie studios, and therapy is so accepted there that the sessions are scheduled into the executives' calendars," he says.

"You'd ring their office and their secretary would say, 'He's in with his therapist right now'."

In Ireland, however, therapy is, regrettably enough, nowhere near as prevalent or socially acceptable. Often, counselling is seen as a last resort for those going through a rocky patch, as opposed to what Prager calls "a kick in the tyres, to see if they're flat or not".

"Some people think that seeking therapy makes people seem weak, but do these people not talk to friends or parents?" he says. "Whether they're paying a professional for it or not, they're seeking therapy from someone all the time."

In a bid to reach out to those who are cynical about the idea of sitting in a counsellor's office, Prager has come up with a rather ingenious idea -- 'eTherapy'.

Rather, he calls his series of self-help booklets a sort of "therapy to go for the digital crowd".

It's a novel idea designed to appeal to those who are cynical about self-help, those who prefer to do their soul-searching in private, or simply people short on time.

"Self-help books aren't just general, they're also very long," he explains. "When you're feeling angry, frustrated or depressed, do you want to have to sift through 400 pages of a book? Who wants to comb through all this stuff to find the two paragraphs that applies to them?"

Prager sells his eBooks for $2.99 (¤2.09), while his podcasts can be downloaded via iTunes: "There's the weekly paying for therapy that many people resent, the plonking down of a couple of hundred bucks a week," he says.

"eTherapy isn't a huge financial commitment. With these eBooks, the basic idea was that they're cheaper than a beer, which is what most people turn to when they're frustrated. It's just a practical thing to help you through a certain issue.

"You might not need therapy as such, but you might need something outside of yourself that allows you to get in touch with yourself. Getting something to read on a Kindle isn't weak. It's more of an admission that you can't fix any one problem yourself," he adds.

The topics of Prager's digital essays run a rather broad spectrum.

As you might imagine, they read like garden-variety self-help titles: 'The Boundaries Song: How To Avoid Being As Co-Dependent As The Couples In 70s Power Ballads'; 'Hey There, Rock Bottom: How To Pull Yourself Out Of Your Hole And Get Your Life Back'; 'What Pattern?: How To Get Yourself Out Of Your Repetition Trap (Without Chewing Off Your Hand)'; 'Getting to Zero: Getting Zen With Relationships That Are Hating On Your Mojo'.

However, unlike most self-help tomes, many of Prager's digital essays clock in at around 30 pages.

"As for the issues raised, they came pretty much from advice I'd given in my Hollywood past," says Prager. "I just wanted to put that time into practice.

"I think the speed element is important. When you're dealing with a problem, you want the solution now. Sometimes, there comes a point where a problem is eating you up so much that you feel you can't talk about it to friends any more. Or vice versa; you're sick of hearing someone talk about the same issue, day in day out.

"The tone is very conversational, breezy and easy. Dense, but matter-of-fact. It's more a talk through the practical points that might be able to help. I don't do the whole 'You ARE amazing' thing. It's like me saying, things can feel unresolvable, but you will be fine, eventually," he explains.

One title in the series immediately catches my eye: 'Can't Buy Me Self-Love: How To Separate Your Spending Habits From Your Internal Issues'. After spending the morning standing in a queue at Topshop (while guarding an eBay bid on my iPhone, no less), I suspect that this might be one essay I should read.

At the very least, it can't hurt, right?

"We compensate for an emotional lack by buying something else," says Prager.

"It's giving ourselves something in lieu of something we really want. In the moment you're buying clothes, for instance, ask yourself, do you want these clothes? The hardest thing is even noticing these habits."

Sure enough, the digital essay is direct, getting straight to the nub of the issue: "We often pretend that money is some external object, unrelated to internal self-definition, but how you spend your money tells you everything about how you view yourself," writes Prager.

"Because money is tangible, looking at how you spend both cash and non-money-related emotional coinage -- and what you receive in return -- can give you insight into deeper, often intangible, internal patterns.

"For example, food: do you tell yourself you want to lose weight but you're just going to eat this cupcake then ... ?

"Love: Do you have 'empty calorie' relationships that you kind of know are going nowhere, letting time keep drifting by without finding anything real?

"Or do you dodge dating/ relationships altogether, telling yourself you want to be in a relationship but you're just too tired/lazy/etc to date now and you'd rather spend time with your friends?" Prager asks.

"The commonality here is that you're giving yourself a 'gift' in the present in the hopes that the underlying issue will just work itself out and go away in the future.

"In order to properly budget your life, you first need to detach money from meaning," he continues. "Money doesn't mean anything; material objects don't mean anything. The problem, in fact, is your effort to derive meaning from objects.

"If you want a $700 sweater, by all means go get one -- just realise that neither the money you spent nor the sweater itself actually means anything."

Well, that's me told.

As it happens, Prager has been a go-to guy for the digital crowd in another, more intriguing capacity. Prager has also been working as a 'cyber Cyrano', or online dating surrogate. For his 'high-end' clients he will create an internet dating profile for them, headshot and all.

Based on a number of conversations, he will trawl through the most popular dating sites on behalf of his (mostly male) clients.

When he has whittled down a shortlist, he will begin exchanging emails with the women on his clients' behalf, ostensibly in a bid to get them to commit to a real-life date. Prager then presents his clients with a 'cheat sheet', detailing points of note and conversation starters based on the pair's email exchange.

"It's not exclusively men, but I think men are more willing to cede control of their dating lives," admits Prager.

"Guys are happy enough to just show up; they don't really care. I guess you could call it flirting for a living, but I prefer to call it creative typing. It's more of a secretarial service."

Call it cyber-subterfuge, but behind Prager's interesting sideline lies a genuinely altruistic motivation.

For much the same reason that he created therapy-to-go for the digital crowd, he simply wants to make the lives we live at breakneck speed that bit easier to handle.

"Very simply, I got into business because I love helping people," he smiles. "People who wouldn't normally get help are likely to try this.

"Sounds cheesy, but I like that, in some way, I can help you on the road to you."

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