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What It’s Like to Be a Therapist Who Struggles With Mental Illness

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I sat and stared at the screen, my trembling pointer finger poised above the touchpad. This was about the fifth time this year I’d gotten this far, but each time I had been too afraid to click “post.”

I had always been worried what other people might say or think when they learned more about me. Would they say I was “crazy?” Would they think I wasn’t professional or competent enough to do my job anymore?

The risk felt greater than the potential reward up until now. But here I was, two months into a downward spiral of panic attacks, depression and insomnia. I was back in regular therapy and I was starting to accept part of my healing would need to include more vulnerability. I came to that conclusion after sobbing in my therapist’s office for the better part of an hour. I kept telling her how I was so tired. “So tired” meant many things but it definitely included how I was tired of pretending I was fine when everything was falling apart.

So just over three weeks ago, I “came out” online. I clicked “post” on Facebook and Instagram, putting it out there publicly: “I’m a therapist and I suffer from mental illness.”

I half expected something dramatic to happen, like my keyboard would burst into flames. At the very least, I expected panic would start to creep in and I might hastily hit “delete” or retreat to my bed to hide and cry.

Instead, I felt a slight flutter of nervousness in my stomach. Then, I stood up from the computer and let out an audible sigh of relief.

There was freedom in that moment when I finally clicked “submit.”

As a therapist, I’ve spent years telling clients there’s no shame in struggling with mental health issues. When it’s been helpful or appropriate, I’ve disclosed to my clients that I‘ve experienced panic attacks, I’ve been in therapy off and on since I was 16 and I take medication to help with managing my depression and anxiety.

I’ve had clients tell me over the years they appreciate knowing I’m a “real person” with problems too. Clients have shared that it helps them feel more comfortable opening up to me knowing I’ve been in therapy myself. I’ve seen firsthand how my authenticity about my issues has had a positive impact in some of these clients’ lives.

Then why had I been so hesitant to share my story on a larger scale? I had been vocal online for years about the ways mental illness is stigmatized (and how that needs to change). I had posted plenty of articles on my business Facebook page about mental illness and how to support/help others, as well as information about resources available for those seeking professional help. But I had always held back on going deeper and telling my truth because I was afraid of what might happen.

As a mental health professional, I felt there was an image I needed to uphold. I can be empathic, educate and advocate. But I can’t let people know I had horrific postpartum depression and couldn’t work for a year. During that time, I saw a psychiatrist regularly to receive therapy and adjust my medication. Yet until now, I was afraid to be more transparent because I feared being judged by my peers or potential clients as “incapable” if I told the truth.

As it turns out, the truth is helping to set me free.

Like so many other therapists, my main objective is to support and help others. While my degree, training and experience is part of what makes me an effective therapist, I also hear people talk about how important it is to feel comfortable with a therapist.

Therapy can be scary and intimidating, especially if you’ve had a bad experience or don’t know what to expect. Once someone is in the room with me, I find that building the relationship is the first (and most critical) part. If you don’t get to the point where you feel comfortable with your therapist, how can you be expected to trust this person enough to fully open up about your feelings and life struggles?

In order to be vulnerable with more people, I had to keep reminding myself what an impact it’s had when I show up as my true self with my therapy clients. My internal dialogue right before I clicked and “came out” online was something like this:

“So what if more people know? Your family and friends know. So many of your past and current clients know. You’ve constantly been told people appreciate that you’re ‘real.’ If you want to help more people, you need to put it out there more. Maybe if someone reads that a therapist goes to therapy and isn’t afraid to talk openly about it, that will help break down the stigma even further.”

As for “that post” — the one I agonized over — I returned to my computer a couple hours later and was surprised to see so many “likes” coming in. Then came the comments:

“Thank you for shining your light, being whole and real.”

“It takes great strength to be vulnerable.”

A version of this story was previously published at Enlightenedhood.

Getty Images: Sky_melody

Originally published: October 24, 2019
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