Updated: Mar 14, 2018
I was 26 the first time I went to therapy.
My therapist was wearing a yarmulke, which I found comforting despite my faithless upbringing. Though I had requested my mother send me to Sunday school as a child so I could hang out with my friends who were forced there, I only went once. But this therapist felt like a stable guide- clearly he believes in things. Maybe he’ll teach me to believe that sharing mental illness memes is not an adequate coping mechanism.
Inside his office sat three chairs and he invited me to have a seat anywhere I'd like. “Is this a test?” I asked. “This room smells like relish.” He let out a modest chuckle and he told me the office was freshly painted, justifying the ballpark smell, then flicked on one of those noise-canceling devices that mimic the sound of a soft womb.
First, he asked why I had decided to try therapy. Oversharing is my forte but burdening innocent lives with the weight of my existential dread had left me guilt-stricken, so I decided paying a stranger to hand me tissues for an hour was a healthier choice. By this time, I felt like a raw nerve whittled down to the bone. All I wanted was for someone to tell me what was wrong with me and how to fix it.
I explained that for many years I had experienced bouts of depression and anxiety. These moods would ebb and flow, many times arising for no tangible reason whatsoever. While the episodes weren’t necessarily crippling, (I always managed to have two jobs at a time and good hair), they would strongly alter my perception of being and of myself as I felt like a prisoner inside my own thoughts. A carnival of the mind would come to town full of rude, sweaty carnys then leave my body exhausted, covered in funnel cake and fried Twinkies, with nothing left to spend on work or relationships.
During these phases of mental anguish, I seemed to question everything; my decisions, my future, whether or not I should go gluten-free. I didn’t understand why emotions seemed to plague me so deeply. One blip of uncertainty on my radar would send my thoughts spiraling downwards until I had no idea when or why George Constanza had moved into my psyche rent-free. In addition, a slow disintegration of my self-esteem happened over time which I hadn’t really noticed.
While it may seem like a quick and comforting fix, I found that relaying these feelings to family and friends is often counterproductive. They may shower you with compliments, place emphasis on your redeeming qualities and tell you there’s nothing to worry about. Just be happy and let go! In reality, the kind words of loved ones made the mental haze even thicker. It would seem then that I was depressed and anxious for absolutely no reason. As a result, I felt isolated, less understood, and, well, crazy.
I went without professional help for so long because I thought it was normal to feel sporadically tortured by your own existence and failed to see how my quality of life could improve as a result of therapy.
During that first session, deep into an uplifting rendition of This Is Why I Suck: Act III, my therapist said something so simple yet poignant that it ironically changed my life: “Have you noticed you are very hard on yourself?” I was speechless. I… thought we all were. I assumed everyone did the emotional equivalent to Jim Carrey beating himself up in a public bathroom a la Liar Liar.
Because a therapist sees you without the bias looking glass through which you see yourself, they have the ability to bring awareness to your negative thought patterns. It’s hard to help yourself when you can’t identify what it is that’s causing you pain. This awareness, paired with coping strategies, are the tools you can use to change your perception and feel a greater sense of understanding of not only yourself, but others.
These aspects of therapy have been invaluable to my personal healing. I know I am far from alone in the experiences I discussed here, no matter how isolating they may seem. So to anyone feeling overwhelmed, exhausted or consumed by the inner-workings of the mind: may you find your very own relish-scented safe haven and try out all three chairs while you're there.