Notes for the Therapist Who Did Not Make Me Feel Understood

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As I sat before her, my mind was swirling with thoughts. Overwhelmingly, I needed help. My brain was screaming through the fog of my depression that I desperately needed her to connect with me. I needed her to understand the different chasms my anxiety and depression had opened before me.

“You understand that if you devoted all the time you do to worrying to something else, you could get so much done.”

I felt sucker-punched. Here I was in therapy, having dragged myself here through sheer will, and I was being told not to worry so much, to just let things go. Other hurtful comments followed. I shut down. She probably thought she was being encouraging, but for someone in the midst of a mental storm, those little offhand comments make it worse.

We’ve probably heard them a million times from random people in our lives. The last place we need them repeated is in the (hopefully) safe space of therapy. I picked up the pieces myself afterward, but here is what I wish she had said instead.

1. “Don’t worry so much.”

If I could stop worrying, then I wouldn’t be in therapy needing help. Instead of saying I should worry less, I wish she’d actually imagined what I was feeling. I wish she would have said, “I can imagine that being overwhelmed by those panicky thoughts must be draining every day.” This would have helped me feel understood far better.

2. “You’re wasting time worrying about things you can’t control.”

True. Of course it’s wasting time, but I cannot change the way my brain processes daily life. Giving me one more thing to feel I’m failing at is not going to help my currently shaky mental state. Instead, I have another hook for my anxiety and hopelessness, “My therapists said I’m wasting time. Oh my word, I’m failing therapy. Yet another thing I haven’t achieved this week.” If my therapist had said instead, “Losing time to panic attacks and worrying thoughts must make you feel even less in control, and that makes you feel powerless,” then I would have given her a smile and nodded.

3. “Are you doing anything to help yourself feel happier or calmer?”

Yes, I’m here in therapy right now, having left the house for the first time in days to get understanding. This took all my energy and a dollop of courage too because I don’t know you, and I would appreciate you acknowledging that. I do many other things to survive on a day-to-day basis, probably more than you know. At this point, it’s clear you probably don’t struggle with anxiety or depression because you don’t understand.

If my new therapist had said any one of these things or the sea of other options, then I could have felt understood. I could have known that dragging myself to therapy was worth it. That I had succeeded. Instead, I walked out smiling at her like the polite person I am, internally seething. I left feeling like I was on my own. It’s hard enough to get help when you have one or more mental illnesses. The last thing needed is a therapist who contributes to the harmful dialogue around anxiety and depression.

What I needed and want from a therapist is not advice but support. I wish all incompetent therapists could spend a day in the mind of their clients to know exactly how unhelpful ignorant statements can be. We probably have answers in our own heads, or we don’t and we need someone to sit with us while we deal with that. When we don’t receive this, we end up feeling more alone and more isolated than we do already.

So I want to end this as a love letter to the people out  there who endure days with mental illness and incompetent mental health professionals. I salute all of you for having the courage to go in the first place and to continue on your journey regardless of bad therapy, as well as those who get through another day without choosing to go to therapy. Going is a choice and there is no right or wrong choice here. There is right and wrong therapy, however.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Cupcakes and Humor: The Ingredients in the Recipe of Marriage to Someone With Anxiety

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My husband deals with so much disappointment due to my illness, but he would never say that or even show it. I know and can see it is true though. When we first met, I would drive from Seattle to Los Angeles by myself to visit him. I haven’t driven a car in the last eight months. My husband and friends drive, or I take the bus or walk whenever I have to go out.

Cupcakes and humor.

When we first started dating, I would fly (even overseas) by myself. Now, when we travel we have to plan the trip around certain times of day (less anxiety), and we have to pack and prepare in ways to try to make the trip as pleasant and as smooth as possible. I almost always am overcome by anxiety at some point in every trip (usually at the airport and on the airplane).

Cupcakes and humor.

I was once so independent compared to how I am now. I was once so social and active. Now, we spend a lot of energy to make sure my life is as stress-free as possible to keep symptoms at a minimum. I stay at home and have minimal stress or interactions during the day. I even limit what I post on social media to avoid confrontation with others (stress).

Cupcakes and humor.

I know my husband would enjoy socializing more, but I will rarely agree to go with him. (Isolating socially is a real symptom of schizophrenia and one that has increased in me every year.) There is so much my husband enjoys that he has given up to help provide me with the kind of environment I need to give me the most symptom-free existence.

Cupcakes and humor.

For all the sacrifices my husband makes, I try to be a supportive partner when I can. Once a month, my husband asks me to make cupcakes because he has taken it upon himself to celebrate the birthdays of everyone in his office. My husband reminds me on the last Monday of every month, “If you feel up to it tomorrow, then can you please make cupcakes?” It wouldn’t matter if I were struggling with my worst symptoms. I would try not to let him down by having the kitchen counter free of the little cakes that help him lift the morale of his coworkers. It is so little to ask of me. In the past six years, I have never once let him down.

Cupcakes and humor.

When I am comfortable, I make up random songs and sing them constantly. I am a terrible dancer, but I love to shake a little booty with absolutely no sense of rhythm while walking from one room to the other in the house. I love to tell a lively story about anything and everything. To make this simple, I love to see my husband break into a belly laugh or at least a big smile, and no one can do that to him the way I can. So yes, it is the simple ingredients that hold even strained marriages together. May I suggest cupcakes and humor?

Image via Thinkstock.

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Kate Allan Designs Comics to Help Motivate People With Anxiety and Depression

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Kate Allan, 27, likes to draw places that don’t exist – fictitious landscapes filled with colorful creatures – worlds where her anxiety and depression can’t reach.

Girl hugging creature mimicking anxiety

For Allan, drawing provides a way of coping with her mental illnesses. The Washington-based illustrator creates brightly colored images featuring motivational quotes that contrast the negative thoughts that come with anxiety and depression. “When I was struggling through a particularly bad depressive episode, drawing cute animals saying nice things like ‘you will survive this’ and ‘speed doesn’t matter, forward is forward’ helped me cope,” she said.

Turtle with "your speed doesn't matter, forward is forward"

To create new quotes, Allan looks within and writes down the words she needs to hear to get through the day. “I feel like I always having difficulty managing something, and so the text nearly always comes from what I need to tell myself that day to get through,” Allan told The Mighty. “I’ve been really anxious lately, so nearly all my captions have been about anxiety.”

Not all of her comics focus on anxiety, other captions preach self-love or provide encouragement through periods of depression like Allan’s favorite illustration – a bird with the caption, “Today is a brand new day, and you are a brand new you. Good luck!”

Bird with quote

“I tend to get stuck in a really negative mindset, and thinking this way — like every day is a new start — helps break me out of it. It’s something that’s continually stayed relevant for me.”

Now Allan, is sharing her illustrations to help others. “I didn’t think drawing things to cheer myself on would be of help to anyone else,” Allan said. “It’s been really nice to connect with people who struggle with the same things.”

Cat with "It's ok to take things on as you feel ready text"

 

Beyond helping people living with anxiety, Allan hopes to help others understand how debilitating anxiety can be. “I just wish for more awareness, that people understood anxiety disorders better,” she said. “An anxiety disorder may not be something that everyone experiences, but I think people can understand what it’s like to feel uneasy about a situation or too afraid to move forward when they can’t predict the outcome. With [generalized anxiety disorder] it’s just that, but all the time and about pretty much everything. What we feel and perceive forms our reality, same as everyone else. Our perceptions are just, unfortunately, a lot more threatening.”

To view more illustrations, check out Kate Allan’s website.

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What I've Learned About Managing Anxiety After a Decade

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I was 15 when anxiety entered my life. It started with the fear of contamination then snowballed into panic attacks and everyday fear about leaving the house. My anxiety became a full blown force in my life when I ended up in the ER multiple times with a heart rate of 160, fear of death and overwhelming feelings about losing control of everything around me. I continued to struggle with anxiety for the next two years before I sought help from a therapist.

Since entering therapy at 17, I’ve done work around learning the roots of my anxiety, coping mechanisms and practicing self-care on a daily basis. I’ve learned a few things over the past decade and wanted to share as they may help you manage your anxiety.

Coping Skills

Learning and using coping mechanisms is necessary for living with anxiety. Trust me, there are days I feel like I am just getting by with anxiety and it’s OK to have those days, but I want to feel good and like I am thriving at work and in my personal life, and the way I do that is using my coping mechanisms. Positive self-talk, exercising and talking to someone about my anxiety, be it a friend or my therapist, are just a few coping skills I use when I start to feel anxious.

Triggers

Moving, career transitions, entering a new relationship and failing health of a loved one are all things that have triggered my anxiety. You may recognize many of them are positive, happy experiences, which they are, but for me even positive changes present challenges for my mental health. Being aware and preparing in advance for known triggers can help ease anxiety.

Move It Out

Therapy, exercise, talking, writing or drawing — whatever it is, moving anxiety out of your body is something I learned is necessary and also helps to prevent future panic attacks or anxiety. Think of it this way: when you have an infection you take antibiotics to get it out of your body. Anxiety is like bacteria; it is something inside your body that needs to be broken up and moved out to feel better.

Self-Care

Forget taking the notion that self-care is only a monthly massage, or self-care is something that can and should wait till your project is done. Self-care is something that needs to be integrated people’s everyday lives. Make it a priority to do something outside your routine every day to take care of yourself. It can be a walk, playing with an animal or buying yourself lunch. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, even five minutes of focusing on just you will help. Whatever it is, as long as it doesn’t harm your body or mind, do it!

Connect

While I was seeing my first therapist, she recommended I check out an anxiety and phobia workbook. After getting through a few sections, I started to realize it wasn’t the worksheets that helped, but reading the introduction stories people shared about their experiences with anxiety is what helped the most. I began to learn other people felt the same way as I did, and I no longer felt I was the only one.

At 26, I’ve lived through over a decade of anxiety, and I will continue to live with anxiety for the rest of my life. Remaining committed to my self-care practice and keeping my coping skills fresh helps me successfully live with multiple anxiety conditions.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When I Try to Remember a Time Before My Anxiety

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Life can be broken into segments. I used to separate my life into sections according to school: Preschool. Elementary school. Junior high. High school. Older people may see the segments of their life much differently. A divorcee, for example, may see their life like this: Pre-marriage. Marriage. Divorce. Post-divorce. The human brain tends to place things into groups, to sort things so that they might make more sense, to compartmentalize and condense.

I try to do the same with my anxiety. I try to remember my life before – before my anxious thoughts became too much to handle, before I had my first panic attack. Then I find myself wondering if a “before” even existed.

As a kid, I was always a little more nervous than everyone else. I remember being in grade school and worrying about things my friends didn’t even think about. My mind would run rampant with “what-ifs” about the silliest things: What if no one wants to be my partner in class? What if there’s a fire in the school and I have to leave all my things behind and I lose everything? I remember agonizing over “silly” things for as far back… well, as far back as I can remember. That was my “normal.”

It was in high school that I began to wonder if my “nervousness” wasn’t as “normal” as I had always thought. During my sophomore year, I signed up to take the ACT — earlier than everyone else in my grade. The night before the test, I woke up around 1 A.M., shaking and unable to catch my breath. My mind was racing with anxious thoughts, and it took me about an hour to calm down and finally go back to sleep. It was only one occasion of many, but I remember the paralyzing fear of that incident better than any other.

If I had to pick a single trigger for my anxiety – the straw that broke the camel’s back – it would have to be my first semester of college. I went away to a school I didn’t really want to attend; I had received nearly a full ride, and my family convinced me it was too good of an offer to turn down. I left behind my friends, my boyfriend, and my tight-knit family, only to arrive at a school I was less than excited about.

I was only five days into the semester when the panic attacks began. I would sit in class, my mind racing, my chest squeezing, and run back to my dorm as soon as class got out. I would lie in my bed for hours, trying to fight the gaping pit of dread in my chest. Eventually, I began to skip classes. Sometimes the anxiety got so suffocating, I convinced myself I was going to die. My constant state of anxiety eventually shifted into a black fog of depression. Instead of feeling like my whole body was abuzz with nervous energy, I suddenly felt nothing. I can’t say which was worse.

I got help, eventually. I went to the mental health clinic at school, got on medication, and talked to a therapist. She suggested I transfer to a school closer to home; it was such a relief. I thought maybe if I went home, things would get better.

They did, but not entirely. Upon returning home, my anxiety found new targets. Instead of focusing on being away at school, it honed in on my relationship with my boyfriend, or my aspirations for the future. It has remained with me to this day.

The anxiety comes in waves, but it is always there; sometimes, it’s just a tiny pit in my stomach, reminding me that something can always go wrong. Other times, it’s an endless cascade of racing thoughts, horrible anxious thoughts that take away my ability to breathe. I am getting better at dealing with it; I go to therapy, I take medication, and all of it seems to help. But it is always there.

Which leads me to wonder – was there ever a “before?” I don’t think so. I now believe my anxiety has always been a part of me. I see it as a volcano that sat dormant for 18 years, only trembling every now and then, until it finally erupted with devastating and unforgiving fury. Now, it burns slowly, sputtering violently here and there. But I can live with it.

If there was no “before,” I don’t think there will ever be an “after,” either. I think many people with anxiety will always deal with it to some extent. It might be hard to accept that. But I firmly believe that accepting your anxiety doesn’t mean you’re giving up; it doesn’t mean you’re letting it win.

I think if we accept anxiety as a part of who we are, we will be better able to deal with it. We will no longer ache for an “after” that will never come. And we will thrive.

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To My Daughter With Anxiety

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I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. The way your freckles frame your beautiful face. The way you shrug your shoulders when you are unsure of yourself. The way your smile and laughter brightens up a room. You are a perfect reflection of love and all that is good in this world.

You are pure magic. You are the light of my life. Ever since you were placed upon my chest after birth, you have managed to fill up a huge place in my heart. I became a mom when you were born. I wouldn’t want to be anything else, for you bring more meaning and love into my life than I have ever known.

You may not know this, and I am sorry if you cannot comprehend how much you mean to me. It is difficult to put into words how the stars came down from the sky when you were born. They brought you to me, my shining special girl. You are so amazing, and you have no idea of your worth. Never doubt your worth, never let anyone put you down or make you feel less than you are.

You have been struggling with anxiety on and off for a few years. I know it has been difficult for you, and I would do anything to take these feelings away. You are only 10 years old and should not have to face such misfortune at such a young age. You should be living happily, frivolously and free of such adversity.

You are having a hard time adjusting to middle school and all the changes you are facing. You are no longer a small elementary school student. You now carry a heavy load of honors classes and much more responsibility. Recess is a thing of the past, and playtime is replaced with commitments and worry.

Your old friends are just a blur in the busy hallways, and new faces crowd the overwhelming corridors of your new life. You are trying to adjust, but your anxiety is holding you back. It clouds your brain, it tries to hold you back from all you are meant to accomplish.

But I have no doubt that you will overcome this difficult challenge and accomplish great things. Anxiety is tough, but you are not ashamed to admit you are struggling, you are not afraid to ask for help from the school counselor and from your after-school psychologist. You are the bravest girl I know, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.

You are putting yourself out there, you are climbing mountains and you are breaking down the walls that are holding  you back. You keep fighting every single day, and you never give up. Though you leave the house in tears often, you come back better, stronger and more powerful than you have ever been. This will build your character, this will expand your ability to feel empathy for others.

I am in awe of our strength, your courage and your willingness to help others though you are struggling yourself.

You are the kind of person I admire. You are the kind of person I still aspire to be like.

Though you are still so young, you have such wisdom packed into your little soul, and enough love in you to change lives.

I know you will learn how to cope with your anxiety and live a wonderful, fulfilling life.

Never be ashamed of asking for help when you require it. Those who do are the most courageous people in the world.

I am so proud of you and always will be. From the moment I first saw you, you were my stars, you were my heaven on Earth, you were mine.

My sweet darling daughter, never forget you can face whatever life throws your way. Always keep trying, always be yourself, always stay kind.

I cannot be prouder of you, and I will always be in your corner.

Forever walking by your side. With each passing moonlight mile.

My sweet daughter, how I love you…

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