Looking back, I’ve definitely needed therapy for pretty much my entire life. I mean, obviously. Mostly because my childhood was, uhm, interesting (more on that later) but also because I’m just the kind of person who needs some grounding. A lot of grounding.
Despite the fact that I’ve obviously always needed therapy, I’ve only ever sought help when I’ve absolutely had to. I.E., the two times I had a nervous breakdown. Yeah, two, because I’m apparently a Goddamn overachiever when it comes to life meltdowns. The first one, I was in college. The second, last year. What caused it? Not sure entirely sure but my therapist has a few theories that sound pretty legit.
When I started therapy last year, I was desperate. Not only was I 100% sure that I was actually going insane but I’d convinced myself that I was also dying. And this desperation probably contributed to my therapy has worked so incredibly well for me. I walked into my therapist’s office ugly crying, shaking, my hair in a horrifying tangle. I was a giant gaping wound, begging to be healed. I would do anything to feel normal again. ANYTHING.
If I hadn’t been that “raw,” and honestly, a little pathetic, I don’t know if I’d have gotten the same results. Because I’m a little bit of a know-it-all and probably would have walked in challenging the therapist like, “I’m smart, you probably can’t help me,” and I’m also not at crazy disciplined in life. Trust, dedication and opening up completely are pretty much required to get the most out of therapy, for it to actually work. Which brings me to what I’ve learned.
1.Do the Work. When I first walked into my therapist’s office I was a hot mess. Bawling, gagging from nerves, my mind racing in circles two-hundred miles per hour of the scariest shit ever. At the time, I was so messed up I couldn’t eat or sleep. I’d been up for 4 days straight and had only eaten carrots all week. I vomited everything I possibly could to my therapist and she gave me a list of things to do: Meditate, take a sleep aid, and make an appointment with a psychiatrist for temporary meds. I didn’t do any of it. I hate medication (my brother died from a prescription a doctor gave him), meditation seemed like weird hippy bullshit, and didn’t Kurt Cobain go into a coma at one point after downing sleeping pills? No thanks. I was in therapy! That would fix me! Nope. Therapy helped and brought my anxiety from a 10 to an 8 but I still couldn’t sleep, eat, or function. After two more weeks, my therapist once again suggested those things and since I’d nearly started to hallucinate from insomnia I agreed. I meditated and felt some relief. I took a sleep aid and my God I felt amazing after that first night’s sleep, and I made an appointment with a Psychiatrist. She gave me a non-addictive prescription for anxiety (a tempory solution, she said), and within two weeks my panic attacks stopped and my anxiety had dropped to a manageable 4. After one year, my anxiety is a zero, depression is all clear, and I don’t need medication anymore. Although, if I get super stressed out (like when we bought a house, I sometimes need some help sleeping). Also, there’s no shame at all in needing meds, but it’s not to need them.
2. Find a Therapist You Can Trust. In college, I went to a few therapists who tried to diagnose me with a handful of mental illnesses and prescribe medication on my first visit. Fuck, no. Brains are complex, I don’t trust anyone who simplifies them and believes they know exactly what’s wrong with you after a thirty-minute conversation. I found my current therapist through a friend who saw her and loved her. I immediately clicked with her and that allows me to trust her advice completely. She doesn’t spend our sessions trying to slap me with some kind of label. This makes it very, very easy to tell her everything and just do what she says. If she tells me to spend less time with my husband, I do it. If she tells me to meditate, I do it, and if I didn’t trust her, I wouldn’t because I have trust issues. The same goes for my psychiatrist. I didn’t want some typical pill-pusher so I took a lot of time to find the perfect doctor for me and my unique personality. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for a good doctor or therapist but it makes all the difference. My doctor is holistic, meaning that she’s an M.D., but she also believes in treating the entire body and mind. She tested my blood and put me on 2,000 vitamins to fix imbalances in my system. She recommended relaxing yoga and meditation. And, yes, she gave me a medication along with herbal supplements. My first meeting with her was THREE HOURS. I trusted her. And that trust allowed me to focus on healing instead of wondering what her motives were for her suggestions.
3. Just Walk in and Word Vomit. A lot of people, including myself, think they have all the answers, or they’re worried about being judged or scared of what they might learn about themselves. This doesn’t work in therapy. You might know what some of your issues are but if you’re like most people, there are probably patterns and roots that you can’t see or honestly don’t want to see. Walk in and spill it all. Start with your week, fights with friends, arguments with your spouse, a bad memory about your mom, that weird thing that happened at Thanksgiving when you were 6. Just say it all. Open the gates and let it all come out. My therapist noticed things that I never noticed. Like, that I’m super co-dependent and that I allow myself to be triangulated between others and their problems to avoid dealing with my own shit. In fact, what I thought was causing all of my problems were only a fraction of the issue. The real issue was something that had never, ever, occurred to me and never would have without her insight. And what’s even better, once we identified problems, she gave me guidelines for how to deal with it moving forward. And, ta-da! It worked.
4. Self-Help Books Are Stupid But Also Helpful. My therapist gave me a shitload of stuff to read and it took me a while to get to it all. I’ve always been the kind of person to roll my eyes at self-help books because they just seem lame and weird but they actually help. They helped me understand how trauma impacts the body and mind, what anxiety actually is, and how stress causes or worsens depression. That information really helped me to understand myself so much more and fully understand the treatments my therapist suggested. Suddenly, meditation actually made scientific sense and I was even more on board than before.
5. It Takes a Village. Therapy works best if you have a support system who understand what you’re trying to do to heal your brain and body. I had to distance myself from people who made shitty remarks about therapy or “didn’t believe in it,” blah, blah, blah, and spend more time with friends who understood it. Why does it matter? Because negativity doesn’t help anyone and also because in therapy there’s a lot of weird shit you’ll have to set boundaries and say really obnoxious shit like, “I can’t get involved because I’m not supposed to let myself be triangulated anymore.” And friends who get therapy will be like, “ah, totally,” and they’ll support you. Family or friends who don’t get it, will throw tantrums or take it personally and make it about them. It doesn’t mean you have to change friends permanently, but you might want to temporarily surround yourself with people who are willing to support you. I lucked out for the most part because like eight of my friends see a therapist and a few of them see mine. A group of my female friends also meet for a self-care night where we talk about life, therapy, drink a shitload of wine, and talk about books or articles we’ve read about mental health or self-care in general.
6. It Will Work. With the right therapist and doing all the work, I’ve gone from chronic depression with paralyzing anxiety to zero depression and zero anxiety. That’s not to say that I’m “fixed,” but I’m able to manage with relaxing yoga, exercise, daily meditation, positive self-talk, weekly therapy appointments, supportive and amazing friends and lots of dog cuddles. And, I’m happier now than I’ve probably ever been in my life and feel shockingly stable. It’s honestly a little weird to not be super irritable, or anxious, or off all the time.
7. Your therapist Can’t Fix You. A lot of people think that by going to therapy and chatting you should see amazing results overnight. From my experience, that’s not a thing. It’s a process and it takes time. My therapist is like my mentor in healing. She talks with me, for sure, because we do talk therapy along with cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR (magic). And she gives me tools to build a stable and healthy brain. But she can’t build it for me and she’s not a Goddamn magician. It’s entirely up to me to make sure that I use the tools that I’m given. It’s up to me to go in and word vomit at her, it’s up to me to meditate, go to yoga, and stop myself from repeating whacko behaviors. Above all, it’s up to me to give it ample time. It took me one year to feel like me again.
The great thing about therapy for me is that I have this incredible relationship with my therapist who provides an amazing support system to help guide me through all of the shit going on in my brain and the general difficulties of life. She once told me, “you’re not alone in this battle, I’m here now,” and it was priceless. And then I cried all over her. Once you have the tools and really understand how to use them, you can heal, you can live a normal life, and you can be happy again.