The decision to try therapy is never an easy one. Hours of soul searching and aching for change sometimes just isn’t enough to convince yourself to give it a go. What if my friends find out and think I’m weird? What if my parents think I’ve gone off the walls? The fear of judgment and stigma is a large roadblock, only outweighed by the fear of vulnerability. I don’t even talk to my friends about this stuff, how am I going to tell a complete stranger? Aren’t shrinks known for being closed off and cold, scribbling away in their notepads and exposing every secret thought I’ve ever had?
I’ve gone through this process of doubt and discomfort a few times. The first time I went to therapy, I let those scary expectations prevent me from gaining anything from it. The psychiatrist was nice enough, a man with blond hair and a smile that swallowed up his eyes, but I was too afraid to really open up. I left the room with a pit in my stomach and a diagnosis, but I told my mom the next day that I suddenly felt much better. The thought of having depression and anxiety was uncomfortable enough. I simply couldn’t go every week to this man and talk about my ~feelings~. I would just have to figure out how to handle it on my own.
As anyone could have predicted, I didn’t really do a stellar job. Sure, I found some websites that helped me slow my breathing during a panic attack and made an effort to exercise and even meditate once in a while, but eventually, the depression came back with a capital D. This time, I decided to put aside my worries and call the university’s counseling center to set up an appointment. After a painless 15 minute phone call with a pleasant voice named Susie, I went in for our first session. As I sat on a beige sofa and talked about myself, I discovered that the reality of having a mental illness is so much different than it seems.
Dealing with it isn’t a matter of pulling yourself back from the ledge, finishing your homework even when it makes you cry, going out with your friends when the only thing you want to do is lay in bed with the covers shielding your bedroom walls from the light of your laptop. You can’t heal an infected wound with soap and warm water, and you can’t reclaim your life from mental illness by learning how to accommodate the symptoms. In fact, dealing with mental illness means diving deep into the sources of these feelings and urges, digging up the trauma and putting it on display until it loses its hold on you. The first step of actually living with mental illness is asking for help, in the same way as breaking your arm kind of means you have to go to a doctor.
However, the relationship you build with a therapist is much different than the one you have with your doctor. Your therapist won’t clinically ask about your sex life and mark a box on a clipboard at your uncomfortable response. A therapist gets to know intimate parts of your life and provides you with support and comfort. Basically, your therapist will become a friend, so it’s important that you find someone you click with. Just like in real life, there are some people you don’t have any business being friends with. When you first call, you’ll likely be asked if you have a preference for a male or female, so if you have a gender you’d be more comfortable with, don’t be afraid to say so. The whole affair is for your benefit, so if someone doesn’t work for you or treats you in a way you don’t really like, you have every right to walk away and find someone better. Think of it like picking a boyfriend. You didn’t marry the first snotty boy in 6th grade who asked you to go out, did you? (Unless you did, in which case #goals).
But don’t expect your therapist to be like your roommate who will complain right back when you vent about your classes. They won’t ask you for advice, and more importantly they won’t pass judgment or tell you what decision to make. Instead they’ll help you discover what decision you want to make. The kinds of conversations you’ll have together will be like the ones you have with your best friend when you realize the boy you thought you’d wake up to every morning has left you with empty sheets, over hot coffee and under fluffy blankets that silently catch your tears and hug your chest until the shaking stops.
And you’ll get to tell your therapist the things you couldn’t even tell her. Things that used to scare you to say aloud, so they were left in pencil etchings on the notebook you keep under your bed or maybe just burned to the back of your eyelids. And your therapist will be there to catch your tears, to always know what you mean. Together, you’ll take out the scary things you keep locked away in a box and tackle them together. You’ll walk out of the warmly lit office every week feeling strangely lighter, relieved of the ugly-cry you didn’t know you’d been choking back. And you’ll re-enter the world, the same person you were before really, but more awake, more aware of yourself, and better prepared to tote your baggage and drag your demons along, leashed and muzzled, unable to hurt you anymore.