mental health

5 Lessons Learned From One Year In Therapy

One year ago today, I walked into the offices of Ebb & Flow Counseling to meet my new therapist for the first time.

This was not my first trip into the land of therapy: over the many years of my life I have seen various counselors, usually taking advantage of work Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to get a couple of free sessions when I’ve been going through a rough time. But it never lasted more than couple of sessions and I never found someone I got along well enough to stick with it.

Walking into Ebb & Flow, I immediately knew this time was going to be different. First was the waiting room, which feels like a really cool apartment of someone who shops at both Target and the Cleveland Flea. I basically want to move in. The letter board is my favorite, and I’m always checking to see what the latest message is. But also, my therapist? She’s a unicorn, y’all. I liked her right away and — perhaps more importantly — felt comfortable with her right away. She pushes me to talk about things I don’t always want to talk about, but also knows when to back off and respect when I say that topic is off-limits for right now.

She challenges me, sometimes in difficult, but ultimately really positive ways.

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Given that May is Mental Health Month, and considering today is my one year therapy anniversary, it seemed like a good opportunity to impart some lessons I’ve learned over the past 365 days:

1. You may need to shop around for a therapist

Three years ago, shortly after clotpocalypse, I found myself having panic attacks for the first time and sought out a therapist. I saw her for a few months before just ……. stopping. I cancelled an appointment for a work trip and then, well, just never rescheduled.

She was nice enough and all but she wasn’t the therapist for me. I couldn’t get comfortable with her. The office felt dark and oppressive and we just didn’t have a good fit.

THAT’S OKAY. Not every therapist is for every person and as annoying as it is, you might have to shop around for a little. I know, it can be challenging. Research and calling and making appointments and having to do it all over again if that person doesn’t work out. With anxiety and depression, this can feel insurmountable but I promise that if you can push through and find the right therapist it’s a game changer.

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2. The appointments you don’t want to go to are the exact ones you should

Sometimes I find myself dreading my appointment. Full on fight or flight and I have to drag myself to my appointment. And then, when I get there, I can be somewhat resistant and I know my therapist probably hates me because it’s like pulling teeth. (I don’t really think she hates me, but you know what I mean.)

I’m usually dreading it because I know that there’s some topic I probably should talk about but my personality — which can be super avoidant — thinks we should just stay home and hide behind our walls and not deal with whatever thing I (clearly) need to deal with.

But I still go (well, almost always. See #3). I force myself to go because after a year of this I recognize that avoiding something doesn’t do anyone any good and, in fact, probably just makes my life more difficult because the anxiety around said thing just keeps compounding. So I might as well just suck it up and go deal with whatever it is.

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3. That said, it’s also perfectly acceptable to sometimes skip — just make sure you reschedule

This past Wednesday I took a Mental Health Day. I cleared my calendar and took the day off. Clearing my calendar meant cancelling that evening’s therapy session. In the days leading up to Mother’s Day, life has just been kind of terrible and I just did not have the emotional and mental energy to sit in my therapist’s office and talk. Or cry. I couldn’t do it. I knew what the issue was and I wanted to deal with it from the comfort of my couch and my blanket where I could just have an ugly cry without any witnesses.

So I cancelled. But, I did reschedule. Because even if on Wednesday I  wanted to deal with it on my own, I know that it would also be good to deal with it in therapy. Just on a different day. The key is rescheduling right away, otherwise my silly anxiety may get in the way.

This is only the second time I’ve ever cancelled a therapy appointment with her, and I go every other week these days so the majority of the time I do force myself to those appointments I don’t want to go to. Because therapy is part of self-care. It’s life maintenance.

Sometimes, though, not going to therapy is it’s own form of self-care and just as valid.

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4. Your therapist is not there to solve your problems for you

When I think back to all of my previous experiences with therapy, I think sometimes I stopped going to therapy not because the therapist and I didn’t have a good fit but because I wasn’t ready to do the work.

And make no mistake THERAPY IS WORK. But I didn’t want to do the work. I didn’t want to get introspective and examine the inner workings of my fucked up brain. I wanted the therapist to do the work and just hand me some magic instructions on how to wake up a different person. I wanted her to hand me a solution on a silver platter.

And, well, that’s just not how this thing works.

I also think I went in not fully understanding what exactly therapy is and what it is not. For instance, your therapist is not there to tell you what to do. No, your therapist is there to help you figure out what you need to do. She asks questions. I answer. She asks more questions. I answer some more. Sometimes I cry. I also swear a lot. She doesn’t instruct me or tell me what to do, although she does offer suggestions or ideas.

For me, having that sounding board allows me to work through my own thought process. It’s like having a kernel of popcorn stuck in your way back molar and you just need to use your tongue to wiggle it out. She helps me wiggle it out.

(One thing I’ve learned from therapy: my brain really really likes visual metaphors.)

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5. Therapy will not fix your life

While the therapist I met post-clotpocalypse wasn’t a great fit, one thing she did instill in me was some tools courtesy of cognitive behavioral therapy. Tools that my current therapist helps me continue using and refining. So when I start to engage in cognitive distortions, I have a toolbox full of tips and tricks.

Which is good because I’m fairly certain I’m always going to have distorted thoughts. That’s just kind of how my brain is wired. The difference now, though, is that when those thoughts come I know how to combat them. I can stop in the moment and recognize what behavior I’m engaging in and flip the script or at least slow it down a little. It’s a self-awareness thing and, for me, just being able to identify and put a name to it helps.

But they aren’t just going to, like, go away some day. The anxiety and depression will still be there. The distorted thoughts are still going to be there. The reasons I went to therapy are always still going to be there. Sitting on her couch every other week is not going to magically make all my problems go away. Instead, sitting on her couch every other week is going to provide me with the tools to make those problems a little more manageable.

I know I am super fortunate that I have insurance that covers therapy and I have an inexpensive copay. It’s frustrating that mental health in this country is treated like some expensive out-of-reach experimental procedure. But if you have the means, I feel like everyone can benefit from therapy. Just having a neutral third party person to talk to is helpful. Really, if there is one true lesson I’ve learned from the past year it’s that therapy is what you make it.

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