I've Been in Therapy Since 1990, And I'm Totally OK With That

I don't skip my pap smear just because there's nothing weird seeping out of my uterus. It doesn't make any sense that I wouldn't also keep some sort of eye on my general mental health.

Nov 30, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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I said it completely without irony: "It's such a good thing I have therapy tomorrow!"

And I realized, counting backward on my fingers, that I have been in therapy for 21 years, more than half of my life. My adventures in mental health are old enough to drink! I feel like I ought to throw my therapist a party or something.

In all honesty, my first experiences with therapy were not entirely my idea. I was 13 years old, living with my grandparents, fresh back to the States from a two-year stint in Thailand. I'd gone overseas with my parents; my dad was there to build a golf course.

At that point, even though I'd lived in the same house for 10 years, I'd gone to a variety of public and private schools (remind me, one day, to tell you about how I didn't actually finish kindergarten) in a variety of counties in the Atlanta area. I'd started 8th grade at an international school in Bangkok (three hours north of where my dad lived) and finished it at a home-school-in-a-house in Pattaya -- the resort town where the golf course was located.

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The culture shock of going to small-town north Florida was a whole lot bigger than it had been going from Atlanta to Bangkok (cities are unique creatures but they have commonalities that make them easier for me to navigate than small towns). And so my family decided it would be a good idea for me to have someone outside the family to talk to.

My mom and I have a ... difficult relationship. I don't talk about it much in print. But that was also a factor.

They also decided I should take tennis lessons, to my ever-lasting confusion. I mean... tennis? The therapy lasted a lot longer than me practicing my backhand.

So, I was 13 years old and going to see a child psychologist. Her name was Charlotte. I could probably look it up in my medical records, but I have no memory of her last name. She introduced herself as Charlotte, told me to call her Charlotte and I always referred to her as Charlotte. In hindsight, I have to smile at how effective such a basic gesture of trust building was.

Once a week, I went into Charlotte's office. It was bright, well-lit and very comfortable. I knew she specialized in talking to kids, and I felt like I was probably on the upper end of the age range she was set to accommodate. I thought this because I spent a lot of time finger painting in Charlotte's office.

Finger painting is still oddly soothing to me, even as an adult. It's a very tactile experience, and since it's meant to be abstract, you don't have to stress as much about accuracy of representation.

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It was, I'm sure, just a way to distract me so I would be more inclined to talk to her. It's amazing how some kids (and by some kids I totally mean me) will open up when they have something else to look at -- when there isn't the oppressive weight of adult attention locked onto them. I was, even more then than I am now, concerned about getting my fingers dirty. But the texture of the paint and the smoothness of the paper were kind of irresistible.

Charlotte's other distractor was solitaire. A well-thumbed deck of playing cards and a flat surface -- I sat across a table from her, rather than a desk. One of my clearest memories from that time (my memory of my childhood and adolescence is actually kind of spotty -- which isn't unusual for kids dealing with trauma) is objecting to her moving cards for me. There was a possible move... but I didn't want to make it yet, in case something else opened up that I needed that card for.

To this day, that is one of the most powerful revelations I have ever had about my own personal character. I am a just in case person, a worst-case-scenario person, a planner-aheader person.

In fact, I am sometimes hobbled by my need to sort out all the various hypothetical situations. "What if" is both my favorite and least favorite idea ever.

It has been suggested to me that one reason I stay in therapy is that I started it in the first place -- the criticism is that therapy is a self-perpetuating need. There's something to that, though I don't think it's a bad thing. Once you start having a sounding board, an external ear, it's hard to give that up. And I don't actually think you should have to give that up. Like, some therapy is a temporary thing and that's made of awesome sauce. But ongoing therapy doesn't mean you are any more or less damaged as a person, y'all.

I don't skip my pap smear just because there's nothing weird seeping out of my uterus. It makes sense that I would also keep some sort of eye on my general mental health.

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This is probably the part where I tell you, Hey, I'm all jacked up in the head, too!

While I struggle with that specific label (I don't like being pathologized, much less stigmatized), in addition to specific seeds sown during my childhood, I am bipolar. I have hypomania, which means I wind up with fewer depressive episodes (though I still get those -- hello, last two-and-a-half months of my life!) and more mild manic phases. For me, that looks like compulsive thought patterns, insomnia and hyperactivity.

I talk about this crap because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in the world who has scrubbed a plastic tablecloth with a toothbrush (I was 9 for that incident) (it was so satisfying) because the hyper focus felt so good. Okay, maybe I am the only person who’s done that in particular. But still! The point stands!

People are like this. I’ve been in therapy for 21 years. It’s my normal.