My Experiences With Free Therapy

My first structured personal growth experience I had was attending a two day group workshop when I was 19.

It was life changing. I encountered my emotions for the first time, in an environment that encouraged men to express themselves freely while exploring their childhood, interpersonal dynamics, and our reactions to stimuli.

This experience opened a world of further opportunity to me, one that others can take decades to achieve – or miss out on completely. My ability to cry as easily as I do (one of my biggest superpowers), my ability to dance freely in public, my openness to the darker parts of my psyche, can all be traced to that one event.

And my parents paid for it.

$5,000 of free life coaching

A few years later, I was struck with the urge to see a life coach. I had the sense that I had addressed at least some of my inner workings, had found some amount of inner peace; it was time to learn to express it in a more practical way.

I didn’t have the money to pay for it, but I had an idea. I was training to be a therapist myself, and I knew the value of practical experience to a young trainee. Students of life-coaching programs often need to fulfill a certain amount of hours before they can receive their certifications, and I knew from personal experience that I was willing to pay to have someone to work with.

So I started asking around online, and I was referred by someone to their brother, who was then completing a life coaching program and needed the hours. We had some uncanny similarities – my name was Shalom Tzvi, his, Tzvi Shalom. We were both the eldest of large families.

We proceeded to work together for three years, far exceeding the initial 10 sessions his training had required. I never paid a dime, because I couldn’t afford it, and I calculated that he had given me over $5,000 in training and support.

I am eternally grateful to Tzvi – we did good work, and my life transformed. He changed my relationships, my self esteem, the way I approach others. I was a model client, and would have made a great case study; I grew by leaps and bounds during that period of time, and I attribute much of that growth directly back to him.

I also referred other people to him. In total, I sent seven other people to him, some of which worked with him for even longer than I did. Here’s the thing. He never charged any of them. He had a day job, and he provided these services from the goodness of his heart.

Silent Meditations

Shortly after ending my work with Tzvi, I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. One of those places where you don’t talk or make eye contact with others for 10 days straight. This too was life changing.

For the first time, Vipassana provided me with a philosophical framework with which to view the world; a way to process suffering and difficulty, a way to find equanimity through life’s guaranteed ups and downs. Practical, simple, and transparent, there was no forcing anyone to do anything – you were asked to give the retreat your best shot and maintain a meditation practice if you felt it made sense to you.

Equally transformative though, was the retreat’s business model. It was completely free. Your stay there – accomodations, great food, and 10 hours a day of guided teachings – were paid for by others who had attended before you. At the end of the stay, (and only then, they do not accept donations if you haven’t attended a retreat) you were invited to pay it forward through a Buddhist practice called Dana.

It was so simple, and so unheard of. I came from the world of Jewish philanthropy, where ever book gets its own sticker of who donated it. Here I was, in a multi million dollar retreat center in the wilderness, all expenses paid, and there was not a single plaque to be seen. The place was run by volunteers, and yet I had never seen a system run so smoothly. I was sold.

I paid what I could at the time to allow other people to have the same experience, and I subscribed to a small monthly donation which I am still making over six years later. This has accumulated to several hundred dollars so far, and I have no plans on stopping.

A low point

A few years later, I found myself alone in Baltimore MD, struggling through an extended separation from my kids and family, financial issues, and a very dark winter. I knew that something needed to be done, but I didn’t have the money to find a therapist, nor did I really know where to turn. When you’re in that kind of state, even researching therapists can feel like an insurmountable task.

I finally found an organization that pairs therapists in training with clients who cannot afford therapy. We started meeting weekly, in a synagogue, of all places. My therapist was not a great match for me. He was inexperienced, and had a different therapeutic modality than I what I was used to. Nonetheless, his presence in my life at that time was invaluable.

One of my favorite Talmudic quotes (other than “there is always room for desert) states that “a prisoner cannot extract themselves from jail”. I knew exactly what I needed, I probably had more techniques and practice than he did, but nonetheless, I needed someone in the room with me to make it happen.

I could not heal myself.

I am grateful for the time he spent with me, for him reflecting myself back to me, for tolerating my use of gestalt therapy and hypnosis on myself as he looked on. To me, this anecdote attests to the principle that a “bad” therapist is often far better than use being left to our own devices.

My life turned around dramatically over the next few years, and I finally felt emotionally ready again to start helping others. I volunteered my services to communities of trauma survivors, who I felt a praticular affinity towards.

I started working virtually with several clients, and felt great satisfaction in being able to facilitate insights and growth in other people’s lives. To me, there is no greater honor or more meaningful experience, and, since I already had a day job, I experimented with offering my services for free or a pay-what-you-can model. I am a firm believer that money challenges should never be the reason why a person doesn’t get the help they need – we already have enough other factors working against us.

Looking Back

My experiences both on the receiving and giving end of free therapy are what has inspired me to create Pro Dana, a platform to formalize and facilitate this “pay it forward” model of therapy. Here’s how I think Pro Dana could have played a role in those past growth expereinces I had.

Personal growth workshops – an easy way to have a transparent scholarship fund, where the number of available slots are clearly visible and grow dynamically based on the number of donations and monthly subscriptions are paid into the fund.

My life coach – Although I couldn’t pay for it then, I’d love to be able to visit a page now, years later, and contribute to a fund that makes his work available to others. Alas, no such page exists, and Tzvi is probably still helping others at no charge.

Organizations – for an organization that helps people on scale, and has a fixed cost per client, having a simple booking system and a way to quantify the value of contributions made to the organization, can be invaluable.

My own practice – I built with Pro Dana with my own needs in mind. I wanted make it easy for people to pay what they could, and to make it clear that their contributions were paving the way for others to experience the same benefits they did.

I firmly believe that the shame of “I’m not able to pay the full rate” can be transformed into the pride of “I am giving what I can to help others”. Similarly, I believe that having an open door that says allows people to pay a small amount monthly, or nothing now and more later, can contribute to this same effect.

My goal is to remove the transnationality from the healing process, because we are all in this together: we did not get to where we got alone.

A prisoner cannot free themselves.


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