Talk therapy is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest things to do. As if the internal battle wasn’t hard enough, the true struggle comes in trying to find the right therapist for you.
Many people try therapy once, are unimpressed with the first visit and never go back. Usually, it’s the therapist that failed and not therapy.
Therefore, it’s important that you take the time to find the right therapist. Once you have, doing the work of talk therapy will be much easier.
What follows is my experience of the bad therapists I had to go through before I found a good one.
I can’t help you
One of the first talk therapists I saw was a man who practices out of a room on the back of his house. Now that might sound scary, but it’s an elaborate house in an affluent neighborhood.
I was a little intimidated when I pulled into the driveway, because I was of little means. In fact, my blue 1989 Toyota Corolla looked very out of place in that neighborhood.
Still, I fought my fear and went into that appointment.
It was obvious in the first 20 seconds that I was not the type of patient that this therapist was looking to help. After asking about 10 questions, the man looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’m the one who can help you.”
My brain processed that as, “You don’t have enough money for me to be interested in you.”
Truth be told, at the time I didn’t even know what I was dealing with. It was before I received my bipolar disorder diagnosis, and my GP was treating me for depression with a high dosage of Prozac that was only making things worse.
So for this Mr. Man to tell me he couldn’t help me was a major gut-punch. I went back to my friends who knew that I was trying to find a therapist and told them talk therapy wouldn’t work for me.
You must be an alcoholic
One couple I knew told me they were seeing a wonderful therapist that was helping them with their marriage. The vital piece of information that they left out was that the husband was an alcoholic. I only say that because it’s important to what happens next.
Pulling up to the office of the new therapist, I felt a bit better because it was a real office. There were several therapists who worked in the office, so when I walked in I saw people like me sitting in the waiting room.
I thought, “Maybe this is the right one.”
Dr. Addiction, as I like to call him, was nice enough on my first visit.
If you’ve never been to talk therapy, the first session is a very much like a first date. It’s awkward, has some uncomfortable conversation, and makes you feel like you’re trying to sell the best version of yourself.
I didn’t feel entirely uncomfortable with Dr. Addiction, so I made an appointment to go back.
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On the second visit, the subject of my suicide attempt came up. That incident led to my receiving the correct diagnosis.
The therapist asked if alcohol was part of my end-of-life plan. I answered honestly as the night in question I had been drinking a lot.
Little did I know that answer would dictate the course of all future sessions.
The 12 steps are very important in addiction recovery; it’s just that I wasn’t an addict.
Dr. Addiction, a recovering alcoholic himself, became fixated on the alcohol part of my story. What he never discerned was that alcohol was a tiny part of my story.
While I had entirely too much to drink on that dark night, alcohol was not part of my daily life. I was never one who longed for alcohol, drank in secret, or hid alcohol from others.
I drank both socially and at home alone, but only when I had a taste for alcohol. Drinking was a habit I could give or take. It was never about reaching a high or getting drunk.
Every appointment that followed was about how I needed to work through the 12 steps.
Don’t get me wrong, the 12 steps are crucial in addiction recovery; it’s just that I wasn’t an addict.
It took three months for me to realize Dr. Addiction was more concerned with talking about his battle with alcohol than in learning what my real problems were. Nothing in those sessions was helping me, and so I ended that relationship as well.
And the tears kept coming
A few months later, I was referred to another talk therapist. This woman was kind and easy to talk to, but also entirely forgettable. In fact, I have no idea what her name is.
On my second or third visit, we started to dive into my childhood.
I didn’t have the worst childhood. My parents are still together after almost 50 years. I was never physically abused. There was always a safe and clean house to live in. We never went without food.
Yes, there were some terrible events in my childhood but not all of them shaped me.
When I started to talk about some of the darker times I experienced while growing up, I noticed tears form in the therapist’s eyes. I thought it was a little odd but didn’t say anything. After all, I thought, maybe she’s got some personal issue she’s thinking about.
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On my next visit, she again wanted to talk about my childhood. In just a few minutes there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
I stopped my monologue several times to ask her if she was okay. Each time she assured me that she was, yet the more I talked, the more she cried.
The following week she was to be out of town, so I made my next appointment for a few weeks later. I hoped that by giving her some time, she would be able to come to terms with whatever was making her cry during my sessions.
My next visit, it became painfully clear that I was what was making her cry. Even though my story isn’t entirely tragic, the things that I experienced were devastating to her.
As we dove deeper into one of the darker periods of my life, the tears again began streaming down her face. She cried with such intensity that it became uncomfortable for me to be there. I never went back.
The right one comes along
Clearly, therapy wasn’t for me. I was sure that all therapists were mentally ill themselves and trying to work out their problems through conversations with their clients. Disgusted and discouraged, I was unwilling to try again.
About this time, I started to see a new doctor for my medications. The new doctor was smart, empathetic, and listened to me without bringing her own baggage into the room. When she suggested that I see another counselor, I was more inclined to give talk therapy one more try.
I committed to three sessions fully expecting another epic fail.
I felt like Goldilocks after my first visit with Suzanne. I clicked immediately with her and could sense that she cared about her patients. Her goal was to help people learn coping skills, and she wasn’t afraid to call you out along the way.
That began a six-year relationship that changed my life.
Take the time to get it right
I live in a small town in southeast Tennessee. There are no mental health options in my city. I have to get my medications from my GP or be willing to drive an hour to the closest mental health professional.
I say this so that you know I understand that finding the right talk therapist is a difficult endeavor. I drove an hour for every appointment with Suzanne, but it was absolutely worth it.
It’s essential that you take the time to find the right therapist for you. It’s no different than interviewing someone for a job. Rarely is the first applicant the one you want to hire.
If you find during your first session that you don’t click with the person, feel unusually uncomfortable, or the chemistry is off, it’s okay not to go back. But please don’t give up. Keep going in your search to find the right therapist for you.
It might take several bowls of proverbial porridge, but there are good therapists out there. In time, you will find one with the right personality.
It’s not hyperbole for me to say that therapy changed my life. It’s been almost 20 years since the last time I saw Suzanne, but the coping skills I learned from those six years of therapy keep me going every day.
Talk therapy is incredibly valuable. If there are therapists available anywhere near you, I strongly recommend that you at least try it. You’ll be glad you did.
Scott Ninneman is a bookkeeper by day and a writer by night. He maintains the blog Speaking Bipolar and writes about living with bipolar disorder and chronic illness. He also enjoys writing short stories, poetry, and inspiration for personal development. His interests include reading, cooking, and entirely too much TV.