Sit Down, Be Humble: My Decision to Start Seeing a Therapist
My first experience with therapy was when I was twelve years old, paranoid that I would stab myself with kitchen knives and convinced that tapping the door three times would save my family from certain death. My parents took me to see a Christian counselor, a middle-aged woman in a nondescript office suite near the YMCA. I remember nothing from my sessions with her other than the fact that she told my parents I worried about things because I was unusually intelligent for my age. Even then, I thrived on affirmation. I liked that this educated, serene woman thought I was smart. I did not like telling her about my nightly rituals of checking the carbon monoxide detectors ten times and sneaking into my parents' bedroom to demand that they say "Goodnight, I love you" over and over until it felt right. Admitting these things out loud felt obscene, and from that point on I changed my entire goal from reducing my OCD behaviors to simply hiding them better. After all, I thought, I could deal with all this stuff on my own. I just needed to try harder.
I didn't see a therapist again until a year ago, when I battled a second round of postpartum anxiety after having my son. I made an appointment with someone a friend of mine had recommended, and this time I was excited to go. I was proud of myself for being so responsive--I saw this shit coming and I didn't wait until the 5th, 6th, 7th panic attack to do something about it. This woman was part of a small collective of mental health professionals in the second story of a renovated double shotgun house in Mid City., above the type of day spa that has cucumber water on tap in the waiting room and where none of the magazines have black people in them. I had Lucas with me for the consultation because I hadn't pumped enough milk to leave him with anyone else. I felt out of place and unmoored.
After hearing me explain my history with anxiety and what I hope to get out of therapy, the woman launched into a lengthy explanation of hypnotherapy, her specialty, and why she thought it was a perfect medicine for what ailed me. It reminded me of an elevator pitch for a direct marketing company--the hard sell. I listened dutifully, nodding my head and smiling as a breastfed my newborn, all the while knowing that once I left that ylang-ylang scented office I would not be coming back. It was going to be terrifying enough to talk about my secret irrational thoughts with a stranger; I wasn't ready to surrender my entire subconscious to one on a silver platter. I would be fine, I told myself. I got through it before and I would get through it again.
I tried one more therapist shortly after that. This one was much younger than the other two. She seemed like the type of person I went to campus ministry with in college--energetic, welcoming, suspiciously cheerful. She wore jeans and scheduled appointments through her iPhone. She spoke about each of my issues as though they were but a nagging item on the end of her to-do list: "Yes, that obsessive thought about your baby getting cancer sounds like it's really interfering with your life. We can address that, no problem!" I admired her tenacity. I wanted her optimism for my own. We made a plan, talked over insurance, and shook hands before I left. I proceeded to miss the next three appointments I made for one reason or another--I forgot, I double-scheduled myself, *cough* I was avoiding an undesirable task *cough*--until I was so embarrassed I insisted on paying the full session fee for the final time I flaked. It didn't matter, I told myself. I was going back to work soon and didn't have time for therapy anyway.
At some point in August of this year, I reached a breaking point. I was two weeks into a new role at work that was challenging all of the weakest parts of my character--my fear of confrontation, my lack of long-term planning, my inability to determine what is most important at any given moment. At the same time, Lucas and Eleanor had both started new schools and were adjusting to their new routines, which all of the parents out there know is code for acting like emotionally unstable chimpanzees. I had no time to myself, no time with Marc, and no sleep or energy. For an entire week I stopped doing any housework whatsoever, letting dishes overflow and clutter pile like a landfill on top of our dining room table. I stopped eating because my stomach was continually in knots. I stopped talking to my friends. I cried multiple times a day for no particular reason I was able to identify. After getting the kids to bed, I would sit silently on the sofa for hours, paralyzed. I felt like my anxiety had been cranked to eleven and blown the circuit on my brain. I just...didn't work anymore.
This is when Marc had a come-to-Jesus talk with me. "You need to find another therapist," he said. "You've known you have anxiety for years, you know that therapy can help, but you just refuse to do it."
I just need to try harder.
I've gotten through this before.
I don't have time.
Excuses. He was right. I've written before about the scarcity trap in relation to self-care, the notion that the longer we lack something we need, the worse our decision-making gets about that thing. Our brain is on survival mode, not thriving mode, which is how you arrive at the type of flawed thinking I was mired in about therapy. Let's also take a look at the embarrassing subtext of these statements that betrays my internalized misconceptions about mental health, shall we?
I just need to try harder. [Therapy is for weak people.]
I've gotten through this before. [Therapy is a last-resort option, not a proactive measure.]
I don't have time. [My mental health isn't a priority.]
That Saturday, Jamie came over to visit me while my children ran amok in the carpet of toys covering my living room and I drank iced coffee in yoga pants I'd worn for three days straight. I told her that I was going to start seeing a therapist, and that I hated it, and that everything was stupid and hard and pointless.
And because she's a good friend, she listened, occasionally pulling chokable objects out of my son's hand and helping my daughter find her missing calico critter/shopkin/my little pony/whatever. She shared her own journey of going from hating therapy to loving it, and because she doesn't bullshit I believed her and got a small glimpse of what might be possible for a anxiety-ridden control freak like me one sunny day.