How therapy helped me start living and how it can help you too
It took me 16 years to really admit to myself that I needed help. For many of my teenage years, and my entire adult life, I soldiered on through a mental to-do list, never really stopping to properly admit to myself that which so plain for others to see — I was miserable.
Yet, if you didn’t know me, I hid it well, as many of us do. From the outside in my life may have even seemed pretty rosy. I left the rural town I grew up in, a town that claims many of its residents as it’s own, to embark on what may have seemed like a life full of exciting adventures. The first in my family to go to university, off I went to pastures unknown, into a brave new world of my own making. I fell into a career after I graduated and moved to the Big Smoke. In London I made my way steadily up the ladder, pausing on the way up to travel and make interesting new friends. My life gave me great facebook fodder and Instagram account was awash with pictures of far away places and happy faces.
But none of it ever truly felt real.
It all felt a bit fuzzy. Like watching someone else’s life through a smudged screen. And through those dirty fingerprints peered the sinister grin of my inner narrator “It’s just a fluke,” she’d whisper. “You don’t deserve any of it.” And so, I never really felt like I’ve accomplished anything at all.
I just kept running on the hamster wheel that was my life. 'Round and 'round I went. Meeting people but never really connecting. Smiling but never feeling joy. Eventually though, I got tired. I couldn’t run anymore. And though my depression wasn’t a complete shock to me — I’d dabbled with medication and prescribed talking therapies for years — I could no longer run from the fact that it was holding me back. I didn’t want to watch my life through a dirty screen anymore. It was time to really live.
And so, instead of being led by my mental health, I decided to take the lead. I jumped off the hamster wheel that was my life (and my depression) and decided to go at my own pace once and for all.
The first step I took on my own was towards a therapist’s office. And there began the journey of my now, as far as possible, consciously lived life.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t instantly become a shinier, happier person. Facing your demons is hard and, after 16 years of burying my head in the sand, I found their voices had got very loud. But therapy is helping me face them, one step at a time and, as I do so, I come closer and closer to planning the next leg of my journey instead of being dragged along for the ride.
So if you clicked on this article because you either already have a therapist, or you’re curious about what it would be like, then buckle in. After around 150 hours of therapy in different guises, and over many years, I’ve learnt a thing or two about how to make it all feel worthwhile.
Therapy will enrich your life in ways you can’t anticipate
Although the virtues of therapy aren’t exactly undocumented, until you’ve actually got stuck in it’s hard to imagine how sitting in a room with a stranger for an hour a week can have such a profound effect on your life; so I guess you’ll just have to take my word on that. If you’re feeling curious though, maybe take a leap of faith. I promise it’ll be worth it.
It’s probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do
What folk are less quick to tell you though, is just how hard it can be. And so it bears repeating. Therapy. Is. hard. Like, really super mega difficult. There’s a reason you’re sat in that chair and often that reason is because you’ve spent a lifetime trying not to think about the things that led you there in the first place. Digging that shit up is gonna be painful. I stayed on my hamster wheel for years because I knew how to go ‘round and ‘round — a classic case of ‘better the devil you know’. But, as my beloved likes to remind me, nothing worth having ever comes easily.
You need a support network
Yes therapy is usually an individual pursuit but that doesn’t mean you have to process what you learn in there alone. Even if you’re a very private person, that’s fine — you don’t have to share details or even talk about it at all. Whether you’re the kind of person who wants to analyse your feelings with your friends or someone who’d rather have a beer and forget it for a while, just be sure you have people around you to support you in the ways that work best for you.
You have to be ready
You should never feel pushed or pressured into seeing a therapist. In these cases the likelihood is that it won’t help you anyway. When I was sent to a counsellor as a teenager I hated every second. I wasn’t ready to shed the protective armour I’d grown because I was too fragile underneath. Needless to say, it didn’t help. You need to feel safe, psychologically speaking, to ‘go there’ so if you don’t, that’s ok. Maybe one day you will.
Some types of therapy won’t ‘work’ for you
There are tons of different kinds of therapy out there from psychoanalysis to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and from counselling to behavioural activation — and not all of these approaches will suit your needs. Personally I hated CBT, and I got more out of art therapy than I ever expected to. And that’s ok. If you can, and you need to, it’s ok to try a few.
You won’t work well with everyone
While type of therapy is important, it’s more crucial that you find someone you click with. Most of the work done in therapy takes place using the relationship you form with your therapist. Naturally it may take a few sessions to feel comfortable with them but if, after a while, it just doesn’t feel right it is ok to move on and find someone new. I learnt this lesson the hard way — spending lots of money and shedding lots of tears forcing myself to go to sessions I hated. I was worried that the discomfort was part and parcel. And while yes, therapy can be painful, the relationship with your therapist shouldn’t be. Trust yourself and move on if you need to.
The more you give, the more you get
When someone goes poking around under your bonnet it’s only natural to feel defensive from time to time but when you do, it’s crucial to lean in. Instead of holding on to anger or blaming your therapist for your feelings, get curious and ask yourself why. In my experience, the most valuable lessons come from being willing to work through these difficult feelings.
Trust in the process
Sometimes therapy will reward you with wonderful, neat, tidy epiphanies; moments of absolute clarity about feelings you’ve struggled with for years — enjoy them, they’re precious gifts for all the hard work you’ve put in. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel utterly bogged down and jaded. Occasionally it can feel like the harder you work, the more lost you get. Try to remind yourself that that’s ok too — the gifts don’t always come wrapped in a tidy little bow. Trust in the process and know that, eventually, the reward will come.
And so, here I am, around 2 years into my new journey. I can’t tell you I’m a totally different person, or that I never feel depressed at all, but what I can say is that I’m in the driving seat now. For the first time in my life I know where I’m heading and, occasionally, I even enjoy the ride.