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The Unexpected Way That Reaching out to a Therapist Changed My Life

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Three years ago this month, I made a phone call that turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I had gone through a really rough period at work – the entire industry I was in had undergone substantial change over a short period of time – and I, like many of my colleagues, felt burnt out. Although I’d experienced highs and lows in my career, I’d never hit a low like this one before. I thought I needed help with managing my work stress so I made the difficult, scared phone call to a local therapist who was recommended by my employer’s EAP program.

I’d never visited a therapist before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t even know if she would be able to help me. What I did know is I was tense all the time, had trouble concentrating at work and home, was crying a lot and became frustrated and angry very easily. Physically, I was struggling as well; I felt I had a stomach ache that has lasted for months and the pain in my neck and shoulders – resulting from all of that tension – was getting worse every day.

The individual I reached on the other end of the phone that day was assertive; her voice was crisp and decisive, and she quickly relayed information about openings in her schedule. I was the opposite — tentative and cautious. This was out of my comfort zone. A week later, I went to that first appointment, scared but confident my therapist would be able to help me implement some techniques that would ease my stress level and help me regain the passion I once had for the job I loved.

We met weekly at first and I have no doubt I was a challenging client. You see, it’s not in my nature to be vulnerable, transparent or talkative when it comes to my feelings. Despite this, my therapist never wavered. She was patient, careful and considerate. And, importantly, she earned my respect immediately. Within a few weeks, we identified low-hanging fruit: a few areas of opportunity for reducing my stress level at work and new coping skills I could implement at home. This was no minor feat, given I had no idea what she was talking about the first time she asked me what I did for “self-care.”

At the same time that we were working through this, my therapist was gently nudging me to talk with her about the broader context – about my extended family, childhood, relationships with my parents, etc. To say I was resistant is an understatement. In my mind, I had these prior “issues” that belonged in the past – and to be clear, I had never opened up to anyone about them (not my husband, my best friends, parents; no one). It ended up taking us the bulk of that first year in therapy for me to open up to my therapist with the bare minimum about my less-than-idyllic home life as a child, sexual abuse that occurred outside the home when I was 7 years old, and the time I was forced to have sex with a guy I barely knew as a freshman in college. I’m certain my reluctance to share must have made her job, already so challenging under typical circumstances, much more painstaking. To put it simply, I had a lot of secrets and I was terrified to share any of them.

My therapist was sensitive to this long before I owned up to any of it. She displayed a willingness and commitment to earn not only my respect but my trust. This took time … a lot of her time! Before you start thinking this is the problem with psychotherapy – you go in for one specific issue and end up dissecting your entire childhood and all of the bad things that have ever happened to you – let me just say that in my case, it was absolutely warranted. And although I’ve been reticent, stubborn and withholding at various times, what my therapist has given to me through our therapy sessions has been the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

So, what began as a series of appointments that I thought would help me deal more effectively with stress turned into a meaningful therapeutic relationship that has not only helped me deliver on my original goals, but forged a connection that has had profound impact on how I understand myself and have dealt with both the past and the present. I now know that the rough time I went through at work was so difficult, in part, because it was a trauma-bond that was facilitated by growing up in an unsafe home. And I know I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To better illustrate the impact of my partnership with my therapist, here are a few examples:

1. I not only understand what is meant by “self-care” now, but I practice it daily and over time I’ve come to know it’s something I deserve.

2. I now know that growing up in a home with daily verbal and physical abuse, intimidation, neglect and bullying is not something to be normalized and minimized. It was traumatic and there are lasting impacts that need to be recognized so healing can begin.

3. I can now say with certainty that sexual abuse at the hands of a 17-year-old, when I was 7, was not my fault.

4. And I recognize that being “forced to have sex with a guy I barely knew” is rape. No ifs, ands or buts.

All of these things are a work in progress between my therapist and me. At times we’ve disagreed. Some days I’ve left angry, and at least one time I swore I was done with this “therapy thing.” But, we’ve continued to forge ahead – most recently celebrating what I jokingly refer to as our 3-year “therapy-versary.” She’s raised a profound awareness within me of not only the impact of my prior wounds but also my strengths and attributes to be celebrated. She continuously amazes me with her discerning questions and has the ability to provoke such deep reflection – always bringing me back to some actionable takeaway.

Along the way in the three years that I’ve been meeting with my therapist, I’ve stumbled upon some new challenges – being diagnosed with fibromyalgia and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. These things, and other daily dramas, have gotten in the way at times of us exploring layers of trauma from the past, but that hasn’t hindered her ability to make me feel safe and understood and know I can make progress.

I had no idea that phone call I made three years ago would have such a lasting, positive impact on my life. I was scared, but somehow I didn’t let that hold me back from reaching out for help. I’m so grateful I had that strength on that one particular day! It allowed me to make a connection that continues to improve my life in so many ways.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo via SrdjanPav