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On November 21st, three years ago, I walked in the door of my therapist’s office for the first time. I didn’t know she was going to be “my therapist,” or that I’d go to see her almost weekly for the next few years. She was simply the counselor on call that Monday afternoon.
I checked myself in as a student in crisis, filled out the invasive questions on the form, and sat on her uncomfortable tiny couch, unable to make eye contact.
Obviously I was in a bad place at that time. A crisis in my family life led to me making extreme decisions for my own health and safety, which in turn led to me questioning everything I’d been brought up to believe was true. This included the deep-seated belief that therapy was a crutch for the weak.
That was part of the overreaching umbrella of my viewpoint of mental health help in general, which was that medication was pretty much evil and that the concept of “mental illness” could always be explained by the ever-present corruption of the devil.
It boiled down to me fearing whatever this therapist was going to say to me, while also thinking that whatever she was going to say to me couldn’t possibly help me in any way. But the reason I went was because I was cracking under the pressure, and I knew if I didn’t do something to seek help, it would break me completely. So I sat, shifting and fidgeting, and the story spilled out of me in fits and stops and a monotone voice.
My therapist was a petite woman, with a soft voice and intelligent eyes. Her name started with an E. She listened to the whole story, asked questions to clarify, took mysterious notes on her small legal pad. We agreed I’d come back in one week, sooner if I needed to, and that I would call if I felt things getting out of control. I went back the next week, and the week after, and a few months later she recommended me to the clinic, where I was prescribed an antidepressant for the first time in my life. At what felt like an unbearably slow pace, I began to walk through the trauma and, with her help, see things more clearly.
There were still times when I felt blocked. I often emailed a poor excuse of an apology for not making it to our appointment. This would usually be a consequence of one of two extremes: Either we’d been making enough progress that I believed I could muscle through things on my own, or things felt so bad that I was sure nothing would help. It took me almost the entirety of our two years of sessions to learn these patterns and to commit to making myself go regardless. Like the pills I took each evening, therapy had to become part of how I managed not only situational crises but the reality of the depression I’d struggled with my whole life.
I never lied to my therapist outright, but in the beginning I would swerve around the heart of the issue more often than not. I needed to grow comfortable with not only sharing brutal truths with her, but with recognizing them myself.
More and more, the small leather couch became a way for me to force myself to face the issues I was dealing with, and my therapist was there as a facilitator of that. I think that’s why I didn’t like the fact that I was still going, sometimes. In my mind, I should’ve only been in therapy for as long as it took for me to get “better,” and then I should’ve moved on. That was the deal I’d made with myself when I first walked through the clinic doors, back when I didn’t know that for therapy to work, you had to be intentional with it.
It’s curious how I didn’t feel the need to put such a time frame on my use of antidepressants — once I accepted that I had a deficiency of chemicals in my brain, I accepted that it was quite possible I would need to help alter that balance with medication for the rest of my life. But therapy was still a sticking point with me, because I only saw it as a last resort, because that’s what it took to get me in the chair.
Eventually it didn’t matter how much I didn’t want to be there, because I could see the positive effect it was having on my life. I didn’t always leave feeling comforted, but it would come later as whatever we’d discussed sunk in. I learned about self talk and self care. I learned I was actually a perfectionist (my reply to this was “But I can’t be a perfectionist, nothing I do is perfect!” and E gently laughed at me), and I learned that I had to sacrifice a lot of things in order to maintain a sound mind. I wasn’t a very good friend at times, and I was a shoddy employee and unreliable student. But I grew better, and stronger, and began to feel like I could see myself healing.
Anyone who’s gone through any sort of extensive trauma can tell you that it takes years to unwind it. It fades slowly, loosening its grip from a chokehold to a familiar embrace. It never goes away completely, but instead becomes part of you, a piece of yourself that you can’t quite forget, no matter how hard you try.
Throughout my time in a therapist’s office, I learned how to loosen the chokehold, how to tame the beast, how to let the fear wash over me but remain unmoved by it. And that’s why, two years after I sat down with E for the first time, I sat down with her for what would be our last session and promised that after I graduated and moved hundreds of miles away, I would email her when I found a new therapist to help me walk through the next phase of recovery and learning to live.
Now it’s been three years, and while it took me a while, I’ve found another good fit. Her name starts with an L. I see her less often than I did E, usually once every three weeks or so. I haven’t cried in front her yet, but I’m sure we’ll get there.
Those first two years of therapy were free to me as a student of my university, but now I pay per session. No matter how hard the month’s been financially, I never regret paying that particular bill. I see therapy as an extension of my medication, a way to treat the depression that can sink over me without notice. I recommend it to friends and family members if it comes up, and I’m open about it with anyone who asks (hello, here I am writing about it on the Internet).
It wasn’t easy to get here. It was a journey filled with roadblocks, mostly of my own making, and breaking down the mental barriers I set up against it. I thought therapy would be letting someone else into the secret parts of myself, an invasion of what I held dear. It turned out to be so different from what I believed -- not an invasion, but a helping hand, there whenever I needed it, whenever I felt ready.
For that, I’m grateful, not only to E, my first therapist in what I’m sure will be a line of a few throughout my life, but to myself, for sticking it out and walking through the doors every time I didn’t want to.