I’ve seen seven therapists in my life.
The first time I was ten years old. Her office was on a high floor in a huge building like the kind my mommy worked in. It was dark and stuffy but the waiting room was filled with toys. “Your school nurse wants to make sure you are talking about your feelings enough,” my mom had told me, which was perplexing. I always talked about my feelings, they were my favorite things to talk about.
The doctor came into the waiting room and spoke animatedly with us for a few minutes, and then she asked me to come in to her office, except my mommy wasn’t allowed to come with us. Again, I was confused. I had never been asked to leave a room with my mom in it.
Her office was huge and I felt tiny sitting in the center of a lengthy couch. The doctor asked me if I liked the toys out in the waiting room; I had. There was a group of faeries that caught my attention. She asked if I believed in faeries and I said yes, of course. She asked what else I believed in.
“Everything.” I stated simply, which was honest. I’ve always been far less interested in truth if it meant disproving magic.
She asked me if my mommy and daddy fought. They did not. She asked me if my brother and I fought; we did. She asked me if he had ever hit me. Just slaps, I said, but I hit back.
She asked me what I was afraid of. I told her aliens. And nighttime, because that’s when they came out in their spaceships. Even the stars in the sky frightened me, because what if that was their way of watching me?
“And anything else?” she asked me very kindly.
“Oh, and half human half alien people.”
“Right,” she agreed, and she let me ramble on.
At the end of the session she gave me a bit of homework which I found annoying because this was the doctor and it was not supposed to be school.
“I want you to draw me what pain feels like,” she said, sliding a piece of paper across a heavy oak coffee table, “and bring it back next week.”
Draw what pain felt like? What was that supposed to mean? I chatted to my mom about it on the car ride home, and she gently told me that this wasn’t like other homework and she wasn’t allowed to help me. This had been the most confusing day I’d ever had.
I thought about it all week. What did pain feel like? What would it look like on a piece of paper? At the next session when she asked if I had completed my assignment I proudly slid my artwork over to her; I had drawn a person with a stomach ache. For the rest of the session I talked about how we really had no idea what aliens were capable of, and had she seen those documentaries where they interview real people who had been abducted?
The next week I learned that I did not have to go back.
It didn’t occur to me until several years later that my teachers and nurses at school might have thought I was faking my illness, that my constant “stomach aches” were really a cry for help. They were, but a much more literal one. It was several years after that realization until I finally thought about how hard that must’ve been on my mother: to believe her daughter but be accused anyway. To drive her sick little girl to a therapist instead of a hospital because her teachers were suspicious. And even, in a way, how terrible it must’ve been when I showed her the drawing and she was proven right.
I still think my mom would’ve rather it been her fault if that meant I would’ve gotten better and we wouldn’t have had to go through the next ten years of doctors and surgeries and hospitals.
At ten years old I did not know much about mental illness. At the time I was fighting a different battle. I was lucky, though, to have so many people looking out for me. I think that made it easier to go back several years later.
My next session was when I was nineteen. My heart was broken in the most regular of ways by a boy from my high school, but it was the first time I had ever felt so bad and that meant the world was ending.
My brother drove me this time because I was still afraid to navigate the streets of downtown, and we had to listen to the Les Mis soundtrack because that was the only music that could convey the amount of pain I was going through.
I sat in the waiting room without my mom. This time there were no toys.
When I was called into her office it looked largely the same. The long couch, the oak table, an array of pain paintings hung on the wall. We caught up for a moment, she noted that I was still tall.
“So what are you afraid of?” she asked me, nine years after the first time.
“Of… living without him, I guess. Loving him when he doesn’t love me. Losing the future I had envisioned for myself…”
She nodded, waiting for me to go on.
“And I guess of… of feeling this pain forever,” I finished, utterly hopeless. And she laughed. She actually laughed. She then tried to assure me that I would not feel this way forever in a way that, I am sure, was meant to be comforting but came across quite patronizing.
“This is just one heartbreak,” she told me, “you’re only nineteen.”
This may have been a very helpful thing to hear as a twenty-two year old when I can look back on that first jarring loss with some distance and humor. I was only nineteen. It didn’t hurt forever. I was being sort of ridiculous.
But it was not the right thing to say to a nineteen year old who was feeling everything in that moment for the first time. How was I to know that I would eventually come out of it? I had to live that part first.
Later I would find out she was going through a divorce at the time I had dragged my weepy self into her office. I like to think that a laugh at a dramatic, self-pitying nineteen year old was exactly what she needed.
It was our third and final session.
That same year I spent a lot of time sleeping in my best friend Kristen’s bed, talking about the boy and how much I love/hated him. Her mom noticed that I seemed to be more deeply affected by things than most people, and she had just seen a talk about a new over-excitability in particular children. It had reminded her strikingly of me.
When we looked up the number of the woman who gave the talk, it turned out that she was a therapist in Austin. I called her up, explained a bit about myself, and set up an appointment.
I went to this therapist for about five months. She had the most soothing voice and felt more like a camp counselor to me than a doctor. She would play the radio during our sessions. We talked a lot about God, which, looking back, seems like a fail-safe therapeutic tactic. Any time I started to get upset she would remind me that this was God’s plan, and who was I to argue with that?
This was not conventional therapy, but I think that it may have been exactly what I needed. At the time I don’t believe I was suffering from anything other than a broken heart and some hurt self-esteem. All I really wanted to do at all times was talk about my breakup, and I didn’t feel so guilty jabbering on to a therapist about it. I started to feel better after every session, and then I started just feeling better in general. And then she told me she was pregnant. Maternity leave is tricky with therapists, I’ve learned.
But I was leaving for the summer, anyway. And I had gotten what it was I thought I needed: my first diagnosis, emotional-overexcitability.
I say first diagnosis because over the years several tweaked or suggested diagnoses would follow. From friends, from new therapists, from people I was dating. I thought about listing them all here but decided against it because, in my own personal experience, being “diagnosed” in this way has never helped me.
Unlike Crohn’s, in which I was given medicine and transferred to a specific doctor and that diagnosis was on all of my charts for the rest of my life, these mental health diagnoses felt more like opinions. Sometimes when I told a new therapist what the previous one had suggested my issues might point to they would say, “We’ll just hold off on that and I’ll decide for myself.”
That was shocking to me. When I go to a new clinic and inform them that I have Crohn’s I’m never told “We’ll just schedule another colonoscopy, I like to decide these things myself.”
But I’ve learned that in the mental health profession, while there are proper books and guidelines about what is and isn’t a “real” disease, many doctors do not believe in all diagnoses. If you don’t have one of the more well-known mental illnesses that can be treated with medication, you can fall between the cracks, particularly when moving between therapists.
Which is not to say that having a well-known illness is any easier. Depression and PTSD are often romanticized, while bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are used flippantly in conversation and joked about. This frustrates me deeply because I have several close friends who live with these diseases and face a kind of shame that I would never have to endure for having Crohn’s, as if someone could be more at fault for one over the other.
I don’t ever want to give off the impression that I think that being diagnosed with a mental illness is negative. But there is a social stigma surrounding them that is a detriment to all people, not just those who have been diagnosed.
I can only speak of my own personal experience, which is that being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease felt like a problem that I had fixed, and being diagnosed with several “features of” mental illnesses from one therapist to the next felt like a problem that I had created. They all just seemed to be different names for the same set of traits, and each time I felt worse and worse about myself, viewing myself as something I needed to fix.
Part of me wondered if I was searching for a solution to a problem that wasn’t even there. Maybe I really was just nineteen and this wouldn’t last forever. I found myself growing more and more obsessed with knowing the truth of what was really “wrong” with me mentally.
I knew that I was too emotional. I knew that I was affected too deeply by everything around me, and that I was superstitious and I had to knock on wood and change the toilet paper roll or else something bad would happen. I knew that I couldn’t sleep after a fight, that my arms tingled and went numb and I heard a roaring in my ears if I worried too much, that sometimes I would cry and cry and nothing would be able to stop me.
This was labeled as a panic attack by one doctor, and extreme emotional distress by another. Sometimes my shaking hands and worrying were extreme anxiety and sometimes they were considered obsessive compulsive, depending on which therapist I talked to about it. I thought that if I could find the correct label then I could understand myself and it would all go away.
Things got bad when I moved to New Zealand.
An important piece of advice: if you are going through a huge life change, it might not be the best idea to isolate yourself from everyone you have ever known on the other side of the world. It might seem like the best idea because you’d like to run away and there is something romantic about running away into your literal tomorrow, but that seventeen hour time difference stops being romantic and starts being a bitch very quickly.
I knew I needed to see another therapist. I talked to my grandmother, who had worked as a therapist for years before retiring, and she told me about something called cognitive behavioral therapy. I did some googling and found a woman in my city who specialized in it; she lived on the other side of the town on top of a great big hill. As I had no car and there is no such thing as uber in Dunedin, New Zealand, I walked.
The whole ordeal took about three hours: one treacherous hour to get up the hill, one to cry on another kind woman’s couch, and one more to gently roll down the hill and back to my flat out of sheer exhaustion. She was kind and had long white hair which I associate with wiseness, but I did not have the time or the leg strength to go back.
My next plan was to try to see a counselor at the university’s health center. This is a nice idea in theory, as it is free and close to campus and they are obviously understanding toward young people, but it was near impossible to make an appointment. I would spend nights overwhelmed with emotion, terrified that I was disappearing from the lives of everyone back home.
I would get so worked up if my friends didn’t respond to a text that I would convince myself that I no longer existed at all. It became almost routine for my cries to wake my flatmate, EJ, at some point in the week. He would sit on my bed with me and hug me while I cried, desperate, unable to articulate anything I was feeling. Over time I sensed his weariness with the whole arrangement, but he never stopped coming in. He once told me that we were family out here, and we had to look after each other. While comforting, I could feel the words cementing me to my new home in New Zealand and erasing me from my home in Texas. I needed to talk to a professional and I knew it.
When I finally managed to get the counseling center on the phone I was told that there were no openings for the next four weeks. It was a Wednesday morning, it was cold. I remember standing in front of my space heater, choking on my own words. “Okay,” I said shakily, “I’d like to make an appointment for four weeks from now.”
Once my name was written down in the books, the receptionist stayed on the phone with me. I was shaking, standing in front of that heater, but I couldn’t get warm. “You really need to talk with someone, don’t you?” she asked, and I broke into sobs. She just stayed on the line with me, listening. I was so terrified that day, and she made me feel real. I don’t even remember her name.
Four weeks later I sat on another couch in another office, this time for a consultation. There were an exhausting number of hoops that I had to jump through in order to be matched with a counselor, and it struck me how very dangerous that was for students who were far worse off than I was.
I expressed my frustration over another waiting period to the therapist doing my consultation and she offered to let me come talk to her in the interim, for which I was very grateful. But it only reminded me how unhelpful that first session always is, and how draining it can be to retell the story of your life, what’s happened to you, the names of all of your friends, to a new person over and over and over. Things don’t really start to get helpful until the third week in.
With this interim therapist we did a lot of deep breathing and visualization, which helped me not at all. If my fear was impermanence in people’s lives then envisioning myself floating away was probably not the best way to go about helping me, but I could see where she was coming from. Meditation was particularly abhorrent to me as it was a long stretch of silence that gave me ample time to worry over everything I usually worked so hard to block out. I was relieved when a spot finally opened up with a new therapist.
She was an incredibly blunt woman. I’ve never been able to figure out if that was just her own personality or a cultural difference, but she was not warm and fuzzy. She was not even, necessarily, what I would call kind. But she was all I had.
At the very end of our third session she said something to me that deeply upset me. It had surprised both of us, and she looked genuinely regretful. “I’m so sorry,” she sputtered. I tried to slip my coat on and rush out of the room, but my arm was caught in the sleeve. She helped straighten my sleeve out very gently as I wept, mostly, I think, in an effort to get me out of the room faster. “I can arrange for you to see another therapist, if you’d like!” she called after me as I rushed down the hall.
But we had only just finished the third session. That’s when it’s supposed to get good. I didn’t want to start over. So I just kept going back.
I thought that maybe my fear of disappearing would go away once I returned from New Zealand, but it didn’t. I kept having the panic attacks (or whatever I am supposed to call them) but instead of having EJ to rush into my room I had only my baffled parents. It didn’t help that everyone in the States was still in school while my term had ended months ago; I drifted aimlessly from Austin to Houston, worried and desperate for attention from my friends all the time.
Eventually my mom suggested that I try going to talk to someone at the Anxiety Center of Austin, and because I didn’t know what else to do I agreed.
That was back in November. I stayed with that therapist for nine months. She was not nice like the second therapist, she did not call me sis and tell me that everything was God’s plan. And she was more understanding than the fifth, though she could also be brutal with her honesty. She was nowhere near as flippant as the first. I did not always like her, but she helped me the most.
She made me realize that some things are my fault, which is a very hard thing to have to tell someone, and I respect her for it. She helped me understand that my permanence as a lovable person has nothing to do with which friends want to keep me in their lives. They were terribly difficult lessons, ones I am so very glad I learned.
I think about the different labels I have been given in terms of my mental health every single day. The phrases are thrown around in the media or by friends. I overanalyze all of my reactions as if I were a psychologist studying myself, trying to figure out exactly what it is that I have “wrong” with me.
A few years and several therapists ago I was casually seeing a guy when I brought up my emotional-overexcitability, which I still believed I had at the time. I can’t recall why I brought it up, but I think it was a means to get to a story and not some huge reveal, because I was surprised when he accused me of lying to him.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, completely taken off-guard.
“There’s just this huge thing about you that you omitted… and I feel like you lied to me. I deserved to know that about you before we got involved,” he said, and I sat across from him, a man I liked, feeling so very damaged.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. He forgave me and we moved on. But that feeling never left me, the need to disclose to the people around me how flawed I am so that they can make an informed decision about me.
I don’t know who was right or wrong in that situation. I don’t think it’s as clear as that. I can see where he was coming from. But I also can’t forget the way that made me feel.
This has been terrifying to write down. I am used to being revealing and vulnerable. I love to tell my secrets and set them free. But in this case, I worry about who will read it. I worry about proving people who don’t like me right– that someone will read this and say, “See, I knew she had a problem. I knew she was difficult and I was right to stay away.”
But I used to worry about that in terms of my Crohn’s, too. I used to be terrified that someone I liked would find out that I had surgery on my anus and that I will probably have to have surgery again one day and use that as justification to dislike me. That fear seems so laughable to me right now. It seems so silly.
Therapist number seven is kind. I sought her out when I moved because she doesn’t emphasize diagnosis as much as she emphasizes feeling okay, and that is what seems to work for me right now.
I have too many negative thoughts about myself bumping around in my head. Too many of those are contradicting thoughts from medical professionals about how to name the problems I have. And maybe everyone is right and if I found the right name for it all of those problems would go away. And maybe therapist number one was right and I really was just nineteen and I really would get over it. It’s impossible to say, and I’m getting tired of trying to figure out the answer.
As long as I’m still going in and working on my issues, what do I care what they’re called? What does that matter in the long run? Not every person fits the perfect mold of a diagnosis, and not every set of problems has a name. I will never be able to clearly state to someone the exact mental health issue I have, because I have never clearly been told. But that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to be in therapy, working on my own issues, just as much as anyone else.
Sometimes I wonder if my life would be better if I hadn’t gone to therapy, but I don’t think that’s true. I think I would worry about whether or not I needed to go to therapy, because that’s who I am, a worrier. And for now I don’t need to call it any more than that.
I really do believe that everyone should go to therapy if they can manage to. You need someone to tell you the things you don’t want to hear about yourself. You need someone to help you with the aspects of your life you find most difficult. It doesn’t have to mean that there is anything wrong with you, and if someone treats you like you are damaged because of that then they are clearly in need of some therapy themselves.
Everyone has something they could work on. Not everyone is brave enough to sit down with another person once a week to confront it.
I do feel like a better person because of it.
And on the days I don’t feel better, on the days I just feel like a sad person or an anxious person or a worried person, I can go to number seven’s office. She greets me the same every time, with a “How are you today?” and I know I am allowed to answer honestly.
On those days when I say I’m not good she tells me “Well I’m glad you’re here, then.”
And I am, too.
If you have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and take medication for it, it is extremely important to listen to your doctor and follow through with what they recommend for you. I do not endorse the skipping of therapy or doctor’s appointments or skipping medications. Your health, mental and physical, is the most important thing, and listening to your doctor is paramount to staying healthy.