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Wise Counsel Interview Transcript: An Interview with Laris Macpherson on the Therapy Client's Experience

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

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David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

One of the things that we've hoped to do in this series, from time to time, is to get the psychotherapy client's perspective. We've interviewed a number of well-known and highly respected therapists, counselors and research academics, representing a wide variety of theoretical perspectives. To balance out the picture, it's also important to hear from clients themselves about both the benefits they've received, as well as the challenges and possible setbacks they faced in their therapeutic journey.

Today's interview is with Laris Macpherson, a 36-year-old woman from the Netherlands. Laris left home at 16, setting off on what proved to be a rocky road that over the years would include some success as a radio and TV announcer, but also several diagnoses, visits to multiple therapists, an eating disorder, marriage and divorce, and an eventual diagnosis and treatment for ADHD. At this point, she feels better than she ever imagined possible and is planning to study to become a counselor herself. Here's the interview. Laris Macpherson, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Laris Macpherson: Thank you, Dr. David. It's very nice to be here.

David: Well I want to let our listeners know that you and I met actually through my other podcast, Shrink Rap Radio, and you're a regular listener to that podcast. You sent me some emails, and in one of the emails, you wrote to me about some of the ups and downs that you've gone through in your life, and you also indicated that you'd be willing to talk about them.

So I thought that could be good for our listeners on this podcast series to hear the view from the other side of the coach, so to speak. So let's start. I'm going to be drawing largely from the email that you sent me where you talked a bit about your life, and you mentioned that you left home at age 16. What triggered that?

Laris: Well there was a lot of rowing and arguing at home. I could see my mom and dad got on too well. They always saw me as a rebellious child. My dad got a job in a small town as a headmaster of a school when I was about 13, so that was quite a difficult age. I've got friends in this little village and then later on, they sort of turned on me and started bullying me. So everything added up.

David: Were you a student in the school where your father was the headmaster?

Laris: No, I wasn't. I was in a town where we used to live, but that was only in one of the later years, and that was one year.

David: OK, but I could see where if your father's the headmaster, maybe there was pressure on you to be a model child to make him look good.

Laris: Definitely, which didn't really work because I wasn't the typical model child.

David: Yeah, you say you were very rebellious. What forms was your rebelliousness taking?

Laris: Well it ended up being existentialist, I think. My parents would be quite strict, more strict than other parents, and I couldn't go out to discotheques and places like that, or not as much as other kids. Then they would forbid me to do things and always threaten. And I ended up thinking to myself well it's my body, if I want to be in this place, then surely I can take myself to this other place.

David: And what age are you talking about? I'm sorry the signal dropped out a little. Did you say that was about at 15?

Laris: Yeah.

David: And in your email to me, you mentioned in one place about your parents' psychological abuse. You said they did not abuse you, physically, but you did call it psychological abuse. So was there something more abusive? It doesn't sound truly abusive that some parents are strict and they don't let their kids at 15, go to discotheques? Were there other ways in which they were abusive?

Laris: Yeah, the names they used to call me, and the way they would approach me was quite negative. It's hard to say in English, but they would call me something like 'devil's brood' or words like that. Always commenting on my weight and everything I did really.

David: Were they very religious people?

Laris: Well compared to other people nowadays, not that much. My mom always used to say God is always watching you. It's a bit hard to explain because it was many things. But later on, in my teens, it did turn into physical violence where my dad would get so frustrated that he would hit me, and my mother would be in the room and not really do anything to stop it.

David: And if your dad hit you was it in the form of spanking, punching or using an object?

Laris: Well as a child, it used to be spanking. But later on, I would walk off and he would come up behind me and drag me down by my hair so I would fall, and then he would hit me and kick me. And my mom would say, "Don't hit her back. Hit her on her big bottom". I discussed this later on with her and that was her way to try to save me, because it wasn't as damaging to hit on my big behind as it was to hit my back, which didn't feel quite like that.

David: But actually he was dragging you down onto the floor, hitting and kicking you, and your mother really wasn't intervening in a very powerful way.

Laris: No.

David: What about your earlier home life before all of that began? Would you describe that as happy or unhappy from earliest memories?

Laris: There would always be a lot of stress on a Sunday because we were Catholic, which in Holland, where we were, is not a very strict religion. And we would live in a town with Protestant people, who were a lot more conservative, and their kids were not allowed to play outside, and me and my brother were. But the Sundays were quite boring, and also many Sundays we had to go to my Dad's family. And as you can imagine, like the way my dad was towards me, I think says something about his upbringing as well.

David: Yes.

Laris: And my grandparents weren't too happy with me because I was not supposed to be born first. My dad wasn't the eldest son, so the oldest son should have had the firstborn grandchild. So it was a bit of a disgrace to my grandmother that my dad got a child before my uncle. And also, well, I was quite busy, and my mother didn't get on with my dad's mother.

So there would always be lots and lots of tension and rows on the way back in the car. There would always be rowing. And I don't think that that was like me at all, but I remember getting to my grandparents' house and throwing myself on the floor and kicking and screaming that I wanted to go home. And I only did that when I was at their house.

David: Yeah. So it sounds like there was a lot of tension...

Laris: Yeah.

David: Not just with your parents, but in the extended family and between the parents and their parents.

Laris: Yeah.

David: Did you have any brothers or sisters?

Laris: One brother. He's two and a half years younger. And then, nine years after me, my sister was born.

David: OK. So you leave home at 16, and you describe yourself, at that time, as both rebellious, but also as conforming.

Laris: Yeah.

David: So say something about that. What do you mean by rebellious and yet conforming, after you leave home?

Laris: I think, in hindsight, because I was bullied and I felt like I didn't belong, like even if I tried to fit in...

David: Yeah.

Laris: All the people decided for me that I didn't fit in. So it ended up with a bit of, I think, my subconsciously feeling, "Well, if I can't join you, then I'll rebel against you." And I'd always been interested in things that were different.

David: So why was it that you weren't able to fit in, do you think? Is it because you were Catholic in a Protestant neighborhood?

Laris: No.

David: Or something about your looks? Or what was it?

Laris: Well, my school was Catholic, so that was not the issue. I was more of a tomboy than other girls.

David: OK, uh-huh.

Laris: Well, I think, looking back now, I'm quite sure that it was the fact that I've got ADHD. Yeah, because I think I probably missed a lot of social cues.

David: Yeah.

Laris: I wasn't louder and busier than other children.

David: OK. Well, we'll be getting onto the ADHD later. That's kind of leaping ahead in the story.

Laris: OK. [laughs]

David: [laughs] So, when you left home, where did you go? Were you still in school? And who did you live with?

Laris: When I left home, I moved to Almelo because I was going to do this. It was like a preschool for art school, because I thought, well, that that was it, because I hated school and I didn't finish it.

The way we did it, we were talking to a social worker when I was still living at home. And we tried this and we tried that, and I left home to stay with another family for two months. And then I went back home, and everything just went back to the way it was. So then, I had to choose what I wanted to do. And of course, I just wanted to live at home, happily. But I couldn't, so I decided that I was going to leave home.

And we found this house in Almelo where there were a lot of young girls, like round about 16 years old. There was about seven or eight of us in that house, with mentors. And they sort of taught us--well, not physically--but taught us how to take care of ourselves. Like, you had to cook a meal every day, you had to clean your room, or make do with the money you were given. And then I left that place after nine months.

David: OK. Well, it sounds like, at that point, you were in the social services system. You had already been identified as some kind of troubled youth in a troubled family, and so social workers intervened and helped you find this kind of a halfway house, right?

Laris: Yeah.

David: And then you left after nine months. Where did you go from there?

Laris: I rented a room, which was, well, really grim, and I wasn't really happy there. By that time, I started smoking lots of weed. [laughs]

David: Uh-huh.

Laris: And I'd always been interested in the left-wing squatter scene.

David: What is that? The left-wing squatter scene? What is that?

Laris: Yeah. Sorry?

David: Tell us what the left-wing squatter scene is, in the Netherlands.

Laris: Well, it turned out for me that it was another place where I couldn't be me, because it's full of people who are, well, what you would now call anti-globalists. In those days, they were anti-Shell, anti-Coca-Cola, anti-big supermarket. Anything global and big was bad.

David: Yes.

Laris: Cared a lot about the environment, not that much in favor of cars, lots of demonstrations, rallies, all that sort of thing. And squatting houses, because, well, houses were supposed to be for the people and not to make huge profits on.

David: So were these like abandoned houses that you guys would just kind of move into?

Laris: Yeah, yeah. In Amsterdam, we even had a squatting hour down at the local squatting pub, because there were about five or six pubs all over Amsterdam that were squatted and run by squatters, with about 80 different kinds of beers. And I used to do this squatting hour, where students and all the people who had seen our posters would come in and say that they needed a house to live in.

And we would always cycle around in Amsterdam or walk around and look up to the houses to see which one had been empty for quite a while. And then we'd put the address on a card and stick it in a filing system so people could search out houses that they would like to squat in. Then the Sunday afternoon was squatting afternoon. [laughs] We had groups of people, and, well, we would break and enter into empty apartments.

David: How were you feeling during all of that? I mean, it sounds like it could have been an exciting time. I don't know if it was exciting for you or depressing for you. What kind of emotions did you have during that period?

Laris: I think it was both. It was both exciting and it was very depressing because, looking back, I think I was quite depressed, and I think that I didn't feel a lot of things that I'm feeling now. But looking back, I was totally unhappy with who I was, and I didn't know who I was. I really felt that it was just pointless, that I was not going to amount to anything. The only thing I was OK was a bit of drawing, and that was it, that I was just really bad at lots of things.

David: So you kind of wanted to be artistic, but you didn't feel like you really had much artistic talent to back it up with. And I got the impression that you were a punk rocker during this period. What did that mean to you? Did it affect your dress, the way you looked?

Laris: Yeah. From age 15-16, I usually had my hair in a Mohican, like the sides shaved...

David: OK.

Laris: And then I would dye it green one month and purple the other month, and then green and purple, and yellow and pink, and whatever colors.

David: Right.

Laris: And I would also wear ripped jeans with ripped tights underneath and lots of colors, or all black. And I would wear chains around the waist and army boots with nails in. [laughs]

David: Well, I think I saw you. [laughs] Or if it wasn't you, [laughs] I certainly saw people [laughs] who fit that description.

Laris: [laughs]

David: And you mentioned about that period that it sounds like, in a sense, you were trying to conform with another group, with a group that felt outcast in the same way that you felt outcast. But I think you said something that you didn't really feel like you fit in, even there.

Laris: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Well, I think now, maybe it was like I was at war with the world, but I was really at war with myself.

David: So at some point, then, that led you to consult with a therapist. When did you first go to see a therapist, and what led you to do that?

Laris: Well, my parents said it a couple of times to me. I think I was about 19 or 20. And I didn't want to do that, because therapists, in my view then, at the time, were part of the system, and I was not going to conform to the system sort of thing...

David: Right, right.

Laris: And then I found myself reacting in the same way my dad used to do, like my then-boyfriend used to. Like, when he would drop a glass, I would just flip. I would just get really, really angry. And I thought, "Oh, dear." And a good friend of mine was in therapy as well, and I think that that helped, too.

So one day, I thought, "Right. That's it. I don't want to end up the way my dad is." So I decided to get help.

David: And so, what kind of therapist did you go see? Was it a man or a woman?

Laris: It was a man. I think that that was Rogerian therapy, but I'm not sure. The therapy I had later on was, but I think it was about the same thing.

David: OK. So you're not sure. You think maybe it was Rogerian, but you're not sure. Can you describe at all how he worked with you?

Laris: He had me tested. But I think I didn't go there for too long. I think he was mainly trying to create a safe place.

David: And do you think it was helpful for you at that time or not?

Laris: Yeah, yeah, because I moved to Almelo and I continued the therapy in Almelo. But yeah, it was quite a slow process, really.

David: OK, OK. But at a later point, you end up in a psych ward in a hospital for an eating disorder. How much further down the road was that? How old were you when that happened?

Laris: Yeah, that was quite a few years later. I think I must have been about 24, 25.

David: OK. Yeah, go ahead.

Laris: Well, there were a lot of things happening all at once, because I wasn't working because my looks didn't help in finding a job, and I was in psychotherapy once a week. Yeah, I was just quite depressed. Well, the idea of having a job really scared me, because my experience in my childhood, a lot of things were forced. Just the thought of having a job was quite scary, having to do this and having to do that.

David: Yeah, because you had actually had quite a bit of freedom...

Laris: Yeah.

David: During that period of being away from your parents and living in squat houses and so on. So you'd been leading a pretty unstructured life, it sounds like, up to that point.

Laris: Yeah. Uh-huh, yeah.

David: So I could see where the world of work would seem pretty alien and threatening.

Laris: Yeah. It did. But the thing is, it was a life of freedom, but it didn't feel free at all because I would always second-guess myself. And I used to feel that my...

David: Yeah, you weren't free inside, even though you had this external freedom.

Laris: Yeah. Yeah, it felt like I was always at war with myself, looking back now. And I used to say this to people, like, "Why is it that my heart says one thing and my mind says another thing? Why can't the two go together?" I don't feel that way now.

David: Yes. So how did you end up in the psych ward? What was going on there?

Laris: Oh yeah. Well, there was a lot of things happening all at once, because I decided that I wanted to get into work. So I went to this government agency, and they put me on this orientation course. But it was quite low level, and I found out that I was like the best of the class in almost all things. Yeah, they taught you how to lay pipes and things like that, I think even a bit of welding, that type of thing, carpentry. And I found out that my language skills were really good, that I was quite good at all the practical stuff.

And then I felt, well, actually, I could do better than this. So I quit doing that, as an impulsive act. And then the bloke that had arranged it got really, really angry, and it really frightened me. And at the time, I think I had quite a big identity crisis. I was wondering whether I was gay or not, and this close friend of mine, the friendship was too close...

David: OK.

Laris: So we ended up [inaudible]. And yeah, there were just a lot of things happening all at the same time. And I'd always had an issue with food. My parents had always commented on my weight, which was fine, looking back. I think it was more of a case of my father having a problem with my growing up and developing.

David: Yes.

Laris: But in my mind, I just always felt like an elephant, because that's what my parents used to call me. And I'd always used food for everything, like to celebrate, for comfort, for when I was angry.

David: Sure.

Laris: Everything I felt sort of got taken out into food. So at the time, I remember walking down the supermarket and buying lots of bad food, like chips and chocolate and all these things. And I felt sort of in a daze, like, "This isn't right, what I'm doing." And I did it anyway, and I went home and I had my first binge...

David: So you were a binge eater then? And then would you force yourself to throw up, too?

Laris: Yeah, yeah.

David: Yeah.

Laris: Yeah. But I think that took a couple of weeks, by which time I told my therapist, and I said, "This is going to go out of control, because I am going to do it. And I know that I should not throw up, but I know that I'll lose control of it."

And then he, of course, couldn't do much. And he sent me onto this woman's therapist. But by the time, it had spun out of control and I'd started binging. And then I found myself in the shower shaving my legs and then thinking, "Ah! What else can I do with this razor?" And I thought, "Oh, dear."

And I managed to tell my friend, and then she called her mother. And then they took me to the emergency of the psych ward. And then a psychiatrist came, whom is now my psychiatrist. He's a nice bloke. And then he asked me if I felt suicidal, and I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, are you going to do it tonight?" I said, "No." And then he said, "Well, you're going to have to come back later. Sorry." [laughs] And then I went back on a Monday.

David: OK. And then you were there for a while.

Laris: Yeah.

David: Now, at some point--I don't know if this was on that ward or later--you joined a cognitive behavior therapy group for women with "autonomy issues, " you said.

Laris: Yeah. That was after, because I was on the psych ward for about three weeks, which is quite short. And I didn't get any medication.

David: OK. Was that useful for you? Was that a useful thing for you, to have been on that psych ward and to have that structure?

Laris: Yeah. Yeah, definitely, because it was so structured that I managed to calm down. It was like everything was overheated in my head. It was just running wild.

David: OK. And then, when you were in the cognitive behavior therapy group for women with autonomy issues, how did that go for you? Was that useful?

Laris: Yeah. It was very useful. But it's no slight on the Rogerian therapy, because I think that that laid the groundwork. But the good thing about this group was that it was very practical, and it was about the way you thought, like you thought better, and I could really work with it. And in no time, things just clicked.

David: What was it that clicked for you?

Laris: Well, that it wasn't so difficult, like if you find something difficult to do, you don't take a big step, but you take a small step and you do like one step a week. So I ended up going to the local radio station, which I found really scary. And I was quite sure, well, they were not going to offer me this volunteer job. And they did. And then things took off from there, because I knew, if I don't get myself out of this situation that I'm in and if I don't get something positive going for myself, I'll be going back and back and back, like in the same circle.

David: Yeah. That was great, that you had that insight and that, somewhere, you had this insightful part of yourself and, also, a strong part of yourself that was determined to keep moving ahead and try to find your way to the light.

Laris: Yeah.

David: Now, at some point then in the narrative, you fell in love with an English truck driver and you moved to Britain. [laughs]

Laris: Yeah, yeah.

David: So how did that go? How old were you when that happened?

Laris: I think the psych ward was about 24, I think. And I was about 25 or 26 when that happened.

David: OK. And a year or two after you get out of the psych ward, you fall in love with this English truck driver, and you move to England. That must have been quite a change.

Laris: Yes, it definitely was. But yeah, I think now that it was a bit of an impulsive thing. [laughs]

David: [laughing] Right.

Laris: Because I'd only known him, well, for less than three months. I think I'd known him for about two and a half months or something when I moved, which, in hindsight, is totally ludicrous. [laughs]

David: Yeah. And the marriage didn't last. Is that right?

Laris: No. Yeah, which is no surprise, really.

David: Yeah.

Laris: I think, well, we sought out issues in each other. The childhood issues that we both had sort of worked themselves out in the marriage, sort of reenactment.

David: Yeah, reenacting the earlier patterns and traumas on one another.

Laris: Yeah.

David: So, to bring us closer to more recent history, at some point within about the last five years, you say you've found out that you have had ADHD all this time. Yeah. How did that diagnosis come about?

Laris: That came about because, well, I was never going to go back into therapy, I'd sworn. And then my then-husband and I had lots of difficulty, and I did end up going into relationship therapy with him. And my parents, by the way, when I was living in England, my dad, being in the schooling system, said that he thought that I might well have ADHD, as did my mom.

And I went to a psychiatrist in England, which was quite difficult to get to. And he didn't think that I had ADHD, that it was just adjustment problems and that I wasn't happy in England, which was right, but it was both.

But I was in relationship therapy with my husband. And for the so-many-eth time, I was trying to explain to him why I had done something, because we'd gone to a shop, and I was going to go to another shop to get this and this, and then I would come straight back. While I was going to the shop, I thought, "Oh! Must buy such and such," which I thought was a good and responsible thing to do because it was an offer, dashed off to the other shop. And my husband came looking for me and was really peeved that I wasn't there.

So I was explaining to him, "No, it is not a case of my disregarding you and my not caring about your feelings and my just leaving you to your own devices. I was just acting on impulse." And I heard myself say this, and I thought, "Ah! Oh no. Impulse. Oh, dear. ADHD." And then, all of a sudden, I just sort of felt it, like, "Oh! It is!" And then I went home and looked it up on the Internet, and, well, it just clicked. It was just really clear.

David: You really felt like you were reading about yourself when you read about it on the Internet.

Laris: Yeah, yeah.

David: And I gather, since then, you've found one or more professionals who agree with that diagnosis, and they've treated you for ADHD. What form did that treatment take?

Laris: Yeah, well, I haven't actually had ADHD treatment. I go to a psychiatrist now.

David: OK.

Laris: And it's like once every two or three months, and it's more about my medication.

David: What kind of medication does he have you on?

Laris: Strattera, but that was on my own request, because I like to study psychology and neuroscience and all that stuff. But I just do it on my iPod...

David: [laughing] OK.

Laris: Yeah, brilliant! It's fantastic!

David: Yeah.

Laris: So it was quite funny, because I went to see him and I said, "Well, actually, I would really like to try Strattera, because it works on the noradrenergic system rather than on the dopaminergic system." And he was like, "Ooh." [laughs]

David: [laughs]

Laris: That was funny.

David: Yeah.

Laris: And I'd also found out, because I was afraid to start on Strattera because I didn't want to stop my Ritalin, which worked quite well. But I thought Strattera might work better, as like a mild antidepressant, well, for mood swings and all that stuff.

David: So are you taking the Ritalin still?

Laris: No, no, no. I've stopped taking Ritalin, but I've tapered it off. I was actually telling him, "Well, I can't take it with Ritalin, so I suggest I start building off Ritalin, as such, like doing half, and da da da." And he asked me, "Is that not going to be a problem?" And I said, "No, bearing in mind the sympathomimetic symptoms, blah blah blah." It was really, really funny. [laughs]

David: Well, how are you feeling about yourself now and about the future?

Laris: Good. [laughs]

David: Yeah. [laughs] Well, say something about that.

Laris: [laughs]

David: What's changed for you, in terms of the way that you look at yourself and the way that you look at the future?

Laris: Well, I just feel good about myself, like I can do stupid things. I can be flippant. But I don't do it as often because I don't put as much pressure on myself. I don't have to put as much pressure on myself because I'm on medication. I've got the time to think now before I blurt something out. Whereas, before the medication, a thought would just be out, an action would just be done.

David: I see.

Laris: So I would always be on my guard, always feeling like I had to tone myself down all the time or things would go horribly wrong. That sort of weight has been lifted. Well, and I think that all the previous therapy helped a lot, that I did. It's all sort of come together in a greater understanding of who I am.

David: That's wonderful. And as you look to the future, what plans do you have, either for career, or does the future look optimistic and bright to you? [laughs] I'm hoping. [laughs]

Laris: Yeah. Well, that's always changing. That changes with my mood. [laughs]

David: Sure, sure. [laughs] It does for all of us.

Laris: Well, I feel a bit of frustration, because I haven't finished school. And looking back, if it had been known at the time that I had ADHD, and if I had the medication, I could have easily done quite a good education. And I haven't now, so that's a bit of a shame. But I'm still looking into it.

David: I was going to say, do you think about going back to school? That's still a possibility.

Laris: Yeah, it is. But the thing is, knowing that I've got ADHD is also knowing my opportunities and my limitations. And I know, because I'm in a relationship now, which I find very important, and for me, to run a household for myself, to have a job, to go to bed on time, to not go out into the pub and drink till the early morning, those simple things for most people, to me, can be quite a lot. So if I take on a study that is very demanding, then it's just...

David: Well, it could be baby steps.

Laris: Yeah.

David: You could take just one course and see how it goes.

Laris: Yeah, yeah.

David: That's what I would suggest.

Laris: Yeah, that's fine.

David: Yeah. Hey, we probably need to start wrapping things up here. Maybe there's somebody who's listening who's going through something similar to what you've described. What's your advice to others who might be considering seeking out counseling or psychotherapy?

Laris: Oh, do it. Really, yeah. But, well, obviously make sure that you get a good therapist or a good counselor that makes you feel good. But I think I heard it in one of the podcasts the other day; I think it was Aristotle saying that a life unexamined was a life not worth living or something...

David: Yes. Yeah, exactly. I think you got that quote just right.

Laris: Yeah.

David: Well, we'd better close it off. Laris, I want to thank you so much for having the courage to be so open about your life experiences, and I'm really glad to hear that things are on a good track for you. And I want to thank you so much for being my guest today on "Wise Counsel."

Laris: OK, welcome. [laughs]

David: I hope you benefited from this interview with my guest, Laris Macpherson. I appreciate her courage in being willing to share her difficult past with us. And of course, I'm very pleased that she now finds herself on more solid ground.

If you have a story to tell about your own therapeutic journey that you're willing to share and that you think others might benefit from hearing, please contact me and let me know of your interest.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access this show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the mentalhelp.net home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com, and "rap" is spelled R-A-P.

Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.