When Mental Health Professionals Make You Feel Worse
Depression — let’s talk:
Today is World Health Day, celebrated to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization. The theme for 2017 is depression, which comes as no surprise to me, since suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-29. This is a staggering statistic and one that needs to change.
I believe this change will only happen if we have open talks about depression and other mental illnesses — which would remove the stigma associated with them — and if we continue to invest in organizations that help people who are struggling.
People with mental health issues are often judged by others who make assumptions about these people based on fear and ignorance. And sadly, sometimes the people who we go to for help are the ones who can make us feel worse.
The bad news — some doctors might make you feel like shit:
A few weeks ago, I visited a new psychiatrist since I’ve recently moved to a new state and needed to change doctors. In my first session that lasted 45 minutes, I was analyzed in a brutal and basic way. I was told that my father was an alcoholic and my mother was an “uneducated pussycat” for putting up with him. I was told that men had let me down and that I “pick the wrong ones all the time.” I was told that “women just want to get married, have children and settle down,” which implied that I was depressed because I didn’t have a man that was going to provide that for me. I was told that I didn’t have anxiety or general depression, but that I had bipolar disorder since my brother had it. And I was told that my father probably struggled with bipolar disorder as well since it was a “genetic disease.”
I walked away feeling bruised, confused and very upset. When my dad asked me how it went, I told him, and of course, it made him feel sad too. We didn’t talk to each other for a day because we were dealing with it. Now, I look back and see it for what it was: a load of rubbish.
Another psychiatrist told me that I had lived a privileged life and was lucky to have traveled around the world during my childhood. She made it sound like the rootlessness, dislocation and uprooting were not valid reasons to feel broken inside. That I should be grateful for the experience, which of course I was, but that didn’t mean I didn’t experience trauma surrounding it. This is a whole other issue to discuss that would require another post: “The joys and traumas of the third culture kid experience and how most people don’t get it.” After knowing that I’d traveled the world and was both American and British, the psychiatrist had the guts to correct my English when I pronounced something in the British way instead of the American way. And when I told her I had visited Edinburgh over the holidays, she asked, “Where’s that?” Go figure.
She also asked me if I had always been “that calm.” She asked me if I ever expressed “spontaneous joy.” I was almost too shocked to reply to her. I wanted to say she could fuck off and see how she liked that for some spontaneity. Instead, I said, “When I’m with people I enjoy being around, I express joy. Sometimes I dance around my room naked.” I also added that I felt more British in the expression of my emotions: more reserved, not as loud as some Americans are, having a drier and more sarcastic sense of humor, more observant. She told me that I could work on being more animated around her and others. She told me that being British didn’t mean I had to be miserable. I mentally noted that sentence and promised I would make a caricature of her one day in one of my future books. No darling, it doesn’t.
About four months ago, I visited a general practitioner after I was told I should probably see if there was anything “wrong with my body” that would explain the anxiety and depression. People are a lot more comfortable knowing you have a bodily injury or illness rather than a mind-based affliction. I sat down in the doctor’s office and explained why I was there in a nutshell. When I mentioned I had been having suicidal thoughts, I saw the doctor visibly flinch and the medical intern in the corner of the room shuffle her feet and stare at the floor. I understand that depression is difficult to talk about, but why don’t people squirm in the same way when you tell them you have a kidney stone or a broken arm? (Who knows, maybe they do.)
After measuring my height and weight, and taking my blood pressure, it seemed like she didn’t know what to do with me. She asked me questions like: “Are you sleeping okay?” and “Are you exercising?” To which I replied, yes and no. She then recommended that I find the time to exercise. I replied that I would find the time to exercise if I wasn’t thinking about cutting myself half of the time or if I managed to find the energy inside left over from the continual grieving and struggling to lift my limbs. She didn’t know what to say in response. The last time I had tried exercising, I rolled out my yoga mat in the living room and attempted a few sun salutations. I managed to do a few downward dogs and then I flopped onto the mat and cried with my face squashed into the ground. If I got outside and walked a block, it was a triumph.
The good news — you can find an ear to listen:
Am I saying that you shouldn’t go to seek professional help when you feel like hurting yourself or if you’re struggling? Hell no! Of course, you should. You must. You can’t do this journey alone and your loved ones can’t bear the brunt of it for you. I’m not saying you’re a burden — you’re not — but having more people help lift the weight is easier for everyone. And yes, sadness has weight. It is so heavy, isn’t it?
What I’m saying is that finding the right mental health professional for you is a process. If you find the right psychiatrist or therapist straight away then that’s great! But if it takes a while to find the right fit, do not be discouraged. Do not let the system get you down. And do not let anyone, with an MD at the end of their name or otherwise, tell you who you are. You know who you are. Even if the depression is making every day a struggle, you know who you are. You know. You know what you like and don’t like. Listen to the way your body trembles. It’s speaking to you.
If you don’t like your psychiatrist or therapist, find a new one. There are others out there. You’re not a failure for wanting to change. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or picky. If your parents or friends tell you you’re running from the truth by changing doctors, tell yourself you’re doing anything but that. You’re confronting it. A lot of people don’t even admit they have a problem, and funnily enough, it’s the people who have issues that like to judge you for yours. If you’re booking an appointment with a psychiatrist, you’re a badass.
Moving forward takes time:
Now, after some false starts, I’m happily in therapy with a wonderful therapist who listens to me, asks me important questions and doesn’t judge me at all. I’ve spoken with her about my bad experiences with other mental health professionals and she’s been very empathetic and admitted that the profession can attract weird types of people.
I’m still trying to find a psychiatrist, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’ll find one eventually. The good thing about psychiatrists is you don’t have to see them very often; only about once a month on average since any medication takes some time to kick in. I think it’s far more important to find a therapist to work with because they’re the ones who will work with you on things, get deep into the hurting and not just prescribe pills to fix everything. The best combination is having a psychiatrist and a therapist — at least, that’s what has worked for me.
I’ve also started exercising and meditating regularly. Waking up every morning at a set time and hitting the pavement to go for a walk or to the gym is helping me so much. You’re probably wondering what changed and how I managed to motivate myself to do this. Well, I had a really difficult conversation with myself. I asked myself how I wanted to feel during my day. I replied: expansive, powerful, strong. I knew that I needed to reconnect with my body in order to do this, the same body that I had been hating, the body that I had wanted to hurt.
I believe that when people want to hurt themselves it’s a cry to reconnect to their body. The negative thoughts might banish us to a dark place where we can’t even feel our body anymore. It’s a weird feeling to have, to feel so much pain and to not be able to feel your body at the same time. It doesn’t really make much sense. The self-hatred can shake the bond with our body. It is a deep yearning that only we can answer for ourselves. Thankfully, I no longer feel like hurting myself. I need this body to walk. I need it see the animals. I need it to breathe the air. I need it to do so many things I want to do. Hell, I need it because I need me.
I looked to the past and recognized the fact that I had been happiest when I was rooted in my body. I realized after a lot of tears that this reconnection had to involve nature. So I made a pact with myself that I would get outside and go for walks to hear the birds and see the squirrels in the neighborhood. Soon I was going to sleep thinking about the next morning and how I was so lucky to wake up and go outside to see the living creatures walking around. This is hope. This is how hope is born.
Another way I live in my body is by training my mind through meditating. Meditating is a life saver because it quiets my mind’s obsession with thought. I used to roll my eyes at people who spouted the benefits of living in the moment and letting go of the ego. It sounded like exclusive living to me. Something only those who are graced with the light of spirituality can experience (by the way, I think we all are). But once I shifted my mindset and viewed meditation as an exercise like walking or going to the gym, I started viewing it in a different, less overwhelming way. I just do 10 minutes a day, 20 minutes max. I started with three minutes. I downloaded a few meditation apps (Stop, Breathe, and Think and Calm) to help me along and willed myself to sit still. If you can live the three minutes for a quick meditation, I bet you can live another three minutes, another 10, another 20. I sure hope you do.
You can do this. Stay strong, warrior.
Follow this journey here.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via shironosov