The Therapy Session in the Passenger Seat of My Doctor's SUV
I sobbed in the passenger seat of a parked navy SUV, while someone I met 40 minutes before sat in the driver’s seat, in front of a brick office building with a blaring alarm in suburban Western New York. My concerned mother handed me a tissue. She listened from the back seat and did her best to stay out of the conversation. She heard things she never knew about her daughter. The woman sitting next to me, Alice, contradicted all of my expectations for therapists. Alice’s wide eyes stared into my soul from across the console. I looked at her with teary eyes as her wrinkly mouth said my problems can get better if I learn some new skills.
My first therapy session, about four years ago. My mom brought me in to meet her therapist after I mentioned I couldn’t stay focused while doing homework. My therapist agreed to work with me despite her typical refusal to work with patients’ family members who want individual treatment. She and my mother expected the treatment to consist of only a handful of sessions and possibly medication. All three of us thought I would get an Adderall prescription and that’d be the end of it.
I fearlessly walked into the office with my mother, ready to get help with my undiagnosed ADHD. The room looked like a movie set of a living room: a couch along the back wall with two lounge chairs forming a triangle around the carpet, with a dimly lit floor lamp and an orderly bookshelf to the right. I sat on the couch next to my mom, facing Alice’s chair. She asked me for details about how I study, what distracts me while I do homework, and when I noticed an issue. I explained I get anxious about how much work I need to do and then waste time worrying about it. I check the time at least once per minute of studying. Every day I make a list of everything I have to do, then make a new list of the order in which I will do them, and continue to make new lists when I go out of order or something interrupts my schedule. I plan every minute to minimize wasted time. I despise wasted time because it takes time away from sleeping – my favorite part of the day.
Ready for Alice to give me some tips and medication, she kept digging for more. The questions shifted from study habits to why I care so much about time and why I get so tired despite prioritizing my life around getting enough sleep. An unexpected fire drill went off in the midst of this interrogation. Being forced to evacuate into heavy rain, Alice decided our only option was to sit in her car to finish the session. I giggled about the situation but started questioning how this appointment would end. We got in the car, and Alice continued. She pushed for the deep shit. Why do your grades matter so much? Why do you need to be on High Honor Roll? Why do you spend your days looking forward to sleeping? She explained that rumination – repeatedly contemplating the same thing extremely or unnecessarily – can be linked to anxiety and depression. In this case, she was considering obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
I cried at the terminology. The vulnerability and potential diagnoses overwhelmed me. I dreaded the pending conversation with my mother that night. Alice suggested I come back for another visit.
I reluctantly admitted I needed her help, pained by the thought of being “weak” enough to need a shrink. Within two months, I felt like nothing more than my diagnoses. I was no longer a typical teenage girl just surviving the breakups, drama, exams and the other hells of high school. I was anxiety, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder. My physician started me on low doses of daily antidepressants and “as needed” stimulants. I saw Alice every two to three weeks, depending on how I was doing. She taught me there are no “shoulds” with emotions – it doesn’t matter what I think I should feel, it matters what I actually feel. I slowly forced myself to confront emotionally distressing circumstances rather than dismissing my negative thoughts as my own unsolvable issues. My father didn’t take it seriously and dismissed the fact that his daughter takes medication for mental health. My mother thought she knew all about the mess in my brain after that first session, but that was just the beginning. She tried to talk to me about it, I gave her attitude. She still doesn’t know about all the reckless actions I tried for the adrenaline, not caring if they killed me. She doesn’t know about the pot I smoked every weekend with all my High Honor Roll friends as we tried to dull the pain.
With each therapy session, I felt less embarrassed and tried to believe Alice when she said it’ll get better. It did get better. After four years of moderately consistent therapy, I no longer check the time every 30 seconds. I only made one to-do list today. I don’t schedule two hours to write and cry after school every day to get it out of my system before anyone comes home. I learned to process my thoughts through journaling, without using that notebook to just dwell in my misery. If my boyfriend breaks up with me, I think I’ll be able to feed myself this time. Still, too often I think I recovered, my mental instability cured. That’s when it smacks me in the face, reminding me of its ever-looming presence. Suddenly I’m crying in the driver’s seat of my own car four years later, all because I can never do enough to feel satisfied with myself.
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Thinkstock photo by Antonio Guillem