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Why My Preconceived Notions About Mental Health Therapy Were Wrong

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Therapy. I had this notion, when I ended up “getting stuck” going to therapy, that it was spilling your guts and having someone nod back at you while ticking off boxes on a checklist.

Depressed? Yes. Issues with one’s perceived body and disordered eating habits? Yes. Anxious? Yes. Inability to control ones desire to self-destruct? Check. Crumbling under the weight of attempting to navigate the new burden of adulthood? Check. Check. Check.

I thought once they ticked off enough boxes, I’d get a diagnosis. A prescription. I’d be aligned with whatever narrative fit best; the type A, perfectionistic, over-controlled, restrictive individual who experienced trauma at a young age and overachieved her way to semi-tangible success only to crumble at the first signs of adulthood. Footnotes to include chronic pain, multiple hip surgeries, heavy use of avoidant coping and distorted body image due to growing up inside a dance studio.

I thought my issues would be laid clear and bare in front of me. I’d be told what to do, what to work on, then eventually be on my way as a “normal” human being again.

I thought it meant I was “crazy.” Ending up in therapy, it meant I was royally messed up.

I was wrong. So wrong, it’s laughable.

I didn’t really speak the first three sessions. So that threw the whole “just spill your guts and get a diagnosis” thing right out the sixth-floor window. I remember those sessions in bits and pieces. My leg shaking so hard it felt like the therapist sat across from me in the small room would feel the reverberations in their leg as well. I remember the cracking of my knuckles. My voice raspy as I tried to force myself to answer his questions in more than just one-word answers. The sound of the clock ticking, echoing inside what felt like an empty head. I had walked into that room and my mind went dead, only to restart with an anxious vengeance about how terribly I had done.

I ticked that off, my inability to spill my guts, on my list of the ways I had failed at therapy (yes, I really did think you could fail at therapy, and again, I was very wrong). You can’t fail at therapy.

Yes, therapy for me did start with tests and things that had boxes to check. I took tests like the GAD-7 that gauge your anxiety. Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems? Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge? Nearly every day, +3. Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen? Nearly every day, +3. Not being able to stop or control worrying? Nearly every day, +3, +3, +3. That was a starting place because diagnostic tools like these can be important. But it isn’t just ticking boxes. It starts a bigger conversation.

No, they weren’t looking to align me with whatever narrative was closest. I wasn’t a plot line in someone’s else’s book. It was about my unique, specific, important life story in itself. It’s not about what narrative fits — it’s about your narrative.

I went into therapy thinking they’d understand me better than I could understand myself. I went in thinking they’d know exactly how to fix me. This maybe won’t be reassuring to anyone thinking of going, but that isn’t true. There isn’t a clear fix, and, it isn’t about a “fix” at all. It’s about learning, and change, and curiosity. Oh, and new coping skills. At first, a lot of new coping skills.

It’s accepting the chaos of life. It’s learning you’re in no way “crazy.” And yes, I still struggle with that thought. I still spend days wishing I was “normal.” Here’s the secret I learned… there is no such thing as normal. It’s an idea we have in our heads, one that we use to isolate ourselves and keep us stuck. We call ourselves “crazy” because if you pretend to own it, it hurts a lot less when someone throws it back at you.

Therapy was learning that emotions aren’t the devil — that life isn’t about never feeling certain emotions, it’s knowing what each emotions telling you. Learning that each emotion tells you something; anger shows you what you’re passionate about, where your boundaries are. Bitterness shows you where you need to heal, shows you that you’re holding on to judgments of others and yourself. Shame is showing you that you’re still internalizing others’ beliefs of who you should be. The list goes on.

Therapy is getting asked questions that make your stomach drop like an amusement park ride because the thought of exploring your internal rules and assumptions of life feels like a roller-coaster; you’re never really sure if you’re ready to ride. It’s finding out that some questions will never have a simple answer. It’s finding out that some questions only lead to ten more questions. It’s also finding out that some questions may never have a real answer. It’s asking questions while knowing that questions beget questions.

Therapy is allowing life to be more complex. It’s chucking societal prescriptions out the window and finding and exploring freedom. It’s learning to embrace life’s chaos. It’s finding what you value, what you need, desire; it’s finding who you really are underneath the years of trying to be something society wanted you to be.

It’s examining your relationships with family, with friends, with yourself, with the world around you. It’s accepting that change is the inevitable constant in life. It’s learning effective ways to communicate. It’s challenging the assumptions and beliefs that keep us trapped in the life we live. It’s facing the fears. It’s approaching the difficult things when we’d rather run the fastest 5k of our life in the complete other direction. It’s stopping labeling things as black and white and good and bad and accepting the messiness. It’s accepting the body you live in. It’s accepting help.

Therapy is hard work. It’s painful, and it’s beautiful. Therapy is accepting that life can break you, and living life is also the only thing that can heal you.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Getty Image photo via Vasyl Dolmatov

Originally published: December 12, 2017
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