How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Therapy Already
It can take a long time to decide you are ready to get the help you need
I have a new therapist.
I liked her the first day because she was kind and a little bit older and not a totally silent human being, which is something I look for in a therapist (and is not a given). The second session we got into a small fight, and the third one was fine but imperfect, so the jury is out. In general, it takes me about six sessions with a therapist to warm to them, to click into the thing they have to teach me.
I’ve had a lot of therapists, and some aren’t even memorable. My first time going to therapy I was young and found it confusing. I guess my parents worried that I was too wiggly? Like, they took a survey that some concerned doctor had forced into their hands, and the survey convinced them that something about me was a little off. To be fair, I was often getting in trouble at school for shit that I didn’t know was bad or wrong, and then instead of getting a regular punishment, I had to go see the school counselor. The school counselor at my elementary school was a distinctly ’90s woman with one of those shiny short haircuts (where she probably went into the salon and was like, “I’ll have the Winona”) and a ’90s name like Anita. And she would just sort of stare at me and wait for me to be beset by problems.
What were the things for which I got in trouble? Good question. I remember once making a sort of gay comic about how I was in love with my best friend, and I wanted us to keep omelets between our legs that would help us to understand each other’s secrets. Sure that sounds disturbing now, but I did not know what an omelet was; I thought it was just another word for “locket” (which should have been obvious based on the accurate heart-shaped drawing that was in the comic). And second, there wasn’t anything sexual about it! It wasn’t like I was envisioning putting a magical cooked egg in my friend’s vagina. I didn’t even know she had a vagina! I was not thinking about vaginas because I was a child. I was picturing, like, a cool, mysterious, heart-shaped locket that sort of hovered between your knees, where no one would see it if we were wearing long skirts. I guess that’s still weird. But was it truly worthy of a trip to see Anita?
That’s just one example, but it’s indicative. I liked making art that no one could understand. You could say that this was a concern, but you could also say that I was a young genius. My parents went with “concern.” So I got sent to a therapist in Multnomah Village who had kid therapist things, like board games about empathy with titles like “Tough Stuff” or whatever and cool crayons you were supposed to use to draw your traumas—that kind of thing.
I have no memories except that I thought the therapist had a lot of potentially great toys in her room and it seemed unfair that I had to just talk to her and didn’t get to play with any of them. Then I didn’t have to go back. I must have passed.
But when I was in high school and started cutting, I got in trouble again. I had to go to the same therapy place in Multnomah Village, and this time, I sat in a room with way fewer toys and a woman who kept writing down what I said and sighing. She wanted me to come up with a list of things that I enjoyed doing that I could do instead of “the carving.” I found her term “carving” hurtful. It felt as though she was trying to verbally lessen my behavior, to imply that my self-destruction was somehow not as dire as a real cutter’s might be. To this day, I feel like grown-ups are constantly trying to make kids feel like whatever big thing they are feeling is not actually that big, and they should get over it already.
This woman was one of those adults who clearly did not remember what it was like to be a child, and she spoke in awkward, half-fake-soothing-half-trying-to-be-cool turns of phrase. “And what would be something awesome you could really dig that might make you calm in moments of crisis, hmm?” I told her that I loved eating Mentos. She said that was an acceptable alternative behavior. Then I never had to see her again, either.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I self-selected therapy. My school, Whitman, gave you unlimited free therapy sessions, and they let you choose from a menu of award-decorated therapists. When I went through my second college breakup, I took advantage of this. It was easy to make appointments; you could do it via email, so you didn’t have to endure an actual person’s human voice when admitting that you were not doing okay. This is kind of essential, and all therapists should have electronic communication options, I think.
I saw three therapists there, and one was a man. The man was actually terrific, which I wasn’t expecting. I don’t remember much about going to any of these people except that the man had a hoarders-level of clutter in his basement office, which struck me as charming. I liked that he had a statue of Freud with a trillion papers smashed on top of it. How does a person get to that point? I would wonder in his office.
Then I moved to New Orleans, and after my (new) boyfriend broke up with me, I dropped to a new low. A lot of things felt dismal. I worked at a high school where I was totally ill-equipped to work. I didn’t always know what I was supposed to be doing there because my job wasn’t traditional, and I was terrified to ask. Sometimes I’d sneak into the girls’ bathroom, put my feet up on the locked door, and read Scott Pilgrim for way too long of a time.
Someday, I hope to write 10,000 useful words on my first year of teaching, but I don’t know how to be useful yet. Two things are true: First, I learned quickly of my enormous privilege in this world, and second, this knowledge kept me from ever admitting to even myself the way the system impacted me. I am still coming to an understanding around all of this.
In my first therapy session with a new therapist three weeks ago, talking about this work was the only time I started to cry. “It just isn’t fair,” is what I said. And by “it” I mean all of it—but mostly that there are children whose entire lives are trauma, and for them, there is so often no way out. And here I was, sitting in a therapist’s office, able to pay $90 to sit there and cry. This, and so many other things, are not fair, and I can’t fix them because I am small. I didn’t cry about my mom or about my recent breakup. Just the teaching. This, to me, is telling.
Anyway, in my first year of teaching, I found a great therapist who was undoubtedly unprofessional and whom I loved. She smoked constantly and drank a gallon of Diet Coke from one of those 7–Eleven plastic containers whenever we spoke. Her voice was all rasp, and she sometimes talked about her own ex-lovers who had died. I loved her anyway. She was a hinge (you know, those tiny bits of metal that bring together two bigger bits of metal; one side is going one direction, but on the other side, the hinge can make everything change direction. A visual helps). And my life was different after we worked together.
I saw a lot of other therapists in New Orleans, and none of them stuck. I gave six sessions to a blond woman who rolled her eyes visibly when I said “polyamorous” and who had a wooden painting in her office that said “Happiness is a choice.” The others didn’t get six sessions, and maybe I regret that.
When I moved to Chicago, a driving force was that I needed a do-over with mental health. I decided this had to become a priority. Because, at the time — and maybe you will recognize this in yourself and maybe you will not, because even with the new, hip, confessional attitude everyone seems to have about their lives, mental health still remains something that so few people (me included) are really all the time honest about — I had fits where I screamed into the toilet from the floor of the bathroom and could not breathe, and I still cut myself (Mentos no longer held the pull they once did, I guess). I knew that I was not actually healthy.
I’ll pause to say I’m not 100% sure what constitutes “actually healthy.” It is perhaps more accurate to say that I was not always safe or, at least, that I did not feel very safe with myself a lot of the time. And you know how these things so often manifest: This is all my fault, and I should just get over it because my life is great. I mean objectively great. So what in the actual hell am I whining and screaming about?
I signed up with a counseling center that had a psychiatrist on staff because I wanted a medical consult. For a long time, this was not something a person just came out and told the world, but things have thankfully changed and now it’s okay to say on the internet that maybe your chemistry is a little wonky. I had to see a therapist for six weeks before I could see the psychiatrist, and I was paired with a mousy lady named Barbara. Her name was not actually Barbara — it was an even more perfect-for-her name, a name that, if you follow, was even more Barbara-y than Barbara — but I don’t think I should write it because something about that feels like I am breaking a rule. I did not like her for the first five weeks. She was too quiet, and she always seemed like she was going to cry. And, a small thing, but I didn’t like her sweaters. They always had pills on them, and I wanted something better for her.
Week six, though, I started to like Barbara. Trust was setting in. Barbara had begun to know what to say to me. I started taking seriously Barbara’s suggestions about having sessions of long breaths and canceling plans when I was spread too thin.
By that time, I got to see the psychiatrist, and although I didn’t want to like him because he was fit-looking and had a lightbulb smile and often had Freshii smoothie cups on his desk, I liked him a lot. I only ever got to see him for 20 minutes at a time, but he read Barbara’s notes, and he seemed to get me. He diagnosed me with cyclothymic disorder, and he prescribed me Wellbutrin, and my life has not been the same since then.
That’s because it has been exactly the same, but less. There are highs and lows, but they’re fours and eights, not ones and 10s. And this makes me feel safe all the time—even though I am not all the time happy and I am not all the time behaving totally appropriately. Drugs aren’t supposed to fix those things, and you’re meant to sort them out with more therapy. I did more therapy with Barbara, and then she left the practice, and I got way worse health insurance, so I left the practice too.
It’s difficult to find a therapist in-network when you’re not a part of a fancy-beyond-reason PPO health care plan.
Next was a brief encounter with a woman who, on the plus side, made me tea and had a small dog, but on the minus side, talked too much about her own daughter and told me that I looked “thin enough” that I didn’t need to worry myself about it. One time, I started to cry, and she said, “Oh, don’t cry!” I cry when I see a pretty bird, so I didn’t give her the full six sessions. We did three, and I moved on.
Next came a student-therapist who could consult with me for $40 while she was getting her certification at the queer-friendly therapy collective in Lakeview. I had a crush on her immediately, and she was younger than me. Then I found her on both Tinder and OK Cupid. We had a super-high match percentage. I feel like this all got in the way of doing the real deep work that I wanted to do. She finished her program, and then I couldn’t see her anymore even if I’d wanted, so it was on to the next therapist.
It’s difficult to find a therapist in-network when you’re not a part of a fancy-beyond-reason PPO health care plan. The truth is that $80 is the absolute low-end of the certified-therapist spectrum if you’re paying out of pocket. I didn’t go all summer and briefly decided I was healed of my suffering and actually didn’t need to go to therapy anymore. And then later, I spent a whole afternoon in the corner of a closet crying so hard that I was sure I was going to throw up. And then another afternoon like that. So, begrudgingly, I went back to the internet to Google “therapists near me.”
So now I have this therapist who I think I like. I am pretty sure I like her. She is the right age, and she wears the right kinds of sweaters, and her name is a name that’s more like “Rachel” than like “Barbara.” Not that these things matter, but first impressions spring from somewhere.
During our first session, when I told her I wanted to confess to her all of my sins and that this was a goal of mine, she said that I should not do that yet because I didn’t know her well enough. “You don’t have to trust everyone just because they are alive and human,” she said. “Trust has to be earned and built over time. That’s what makes it so valuable.”
Or something like that. I thought to myself, If I was a therapist, I would be gung-ho about hearing my clients’ deepest secrets. So this woman is truly the real deal.
Anyway, I wrote this not to tell you my history of therapy (whoops), but to tell you about the necklace my new therapist wore on the first day I met her and the thing she said about it.
The necklace was an ammonite fossil. I complimented it because my husband, Luke, has been buying those lately from a store in Evanston that sells fossils. He likes them because they are the cheapest fossil, and they are beautiful. I told her that my husband liked them, and she wanted to know why. Not wanting to say something shallow about how expensive the really good fossils are, I pivoted and asked her why she liked them.
She said that it was because of something a poet she liked had written about them. (I couldn’t find it, but I looked.) The spiral on the shell of the ammonite gets bigger every year it is alive. I looked this up to understand it better. The living animal only lived in the last chamber — the body chamber. As it grew, it added new and larger chambers to the open end of the coil. So the ammonite is constantly building its shell. And although to the ammonite it may feel like it is doing the same thing over and over again, from the outside, we can see that it is growing. There is no going backward, even if it feels like the patterns are exactly the same. There is only forward and becoming.
(Author’s note: I wrote this in October 2019. I have been seeing this same therapist ever since. I love her. She is the first real-life person who has helped me truly believe that it is possible to heal.)