Richard Payne was the name of my first therapist. I was 16 and liked to call him “Dr. Payne” because it sounded like “Dr. Pain” and was such a contradiction to his demeanor. He had silver hair, kind eyes and a gentle voice. He also liked to gently remind me that he wasn’t a doctor; he was a therapist. I went with my mom to my first appointment with “Dr. Pain” and told him why I was there.
“I’ve been having panic attacks,” I told him.
“I’m always scared.”
“I think I’m dying.”
“I keep feeling like something bad is going to happen.”
“I feel like I’m choking and have been to three doctors. None of them have helped me.”
I didn’t really know why I was there. I thought the root of my panic attacks was due to the fact I had a chronic lump in my throat that made breathing and swallowing difficult. I didn’t need a therapist, I needed a doctor who could diagnose me with throat cancer — which is what I knew I had. Except I didn’t. The lump in my throat wasn’t the root of my anxiety. Anxiety was the root of the lump in my throat.
“Dr. Pain” administered a couple of assessments and diagnosed me with severe generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. He encouraged me to see an OBGYN because they could prescribe the medication. Great, another doctor.
But he was right. He validated me. He gave a name to the demon I was facing. I saw him off and on for a few more years, but our sessions would taper away as my anxiety tapered off.
I became fascinated with how the mind worked and the connection it had to our bodies. I enrolled in Park University and got my BS in Social Psychology when I was 23.
Mary Catherine was my next therapist. I was 24 and had just moved to Virginia Beach a couple of months before I made my first appointment. It had been a few years since I struggled with anything more than moderate anxiety, but I could tell things were getting worse. I began experiencing physical symptoms again (which for me means the slightest pain or feeling anything out of the norm leads to the immediate conclusion I am dying from an undiagnosed terminal illness). I got stuck in a worst-case-scenario, a completely illogical and irrational thought pattern.
Mary Catherine was older, kind and had what is known in the therapy world as “unconditional positive regard” — meaning she didn’t judge me no matter how ridiculous my anxieties were. Mary Catherine taught me two things:
First, there was a pattern to my anxiety. I was pretty good at holding it together whenever shit hit the fan. But afterwards, I would fall apart. I had seasons of intense, severe anxiety that would last anywhere from a couple of weeks to four months. My first season of anxiety was shortly after my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The second was after I had a health scare and had to have a cervical biopsy. The third was after I moved back to Georgia from California. The fourth was after our move to Virginia (which was a shit show). The last (and most intense) was right after I had a baby. I was able to hold it together during these events but the aftershocks would wreck me. It was ridiculously obvious once she pointed it out, but sometimes we need an objective professional whose job is to point out patterns to realize what’s actually going on in our lives.
The second thing Mary Catherine taught me was the way I was thinking — the worst-case-scenario thinking — was actually pretty common with anxiety. I had a “cognitive distortion” (which just means my pattern of thinking was distorted) called catastrophic thinking. I’ve said it before but it’s amazing how much power being able to name something gives you. I was able to terminate our sessions because I began seeing so much progress with my anxiety. I was able to function again.
My love of psychology and the inner workings of the brain continued, and I was accepted into the master’s program at Regent University’s School of Psychology and Counseling. This was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people who struggled like I struggled.
Then I got pregnant.
I saw my third therapist one time. I was pregnant and could feel the rip tide of anxiety trying to pull me out to sea — but I was still in control at this point. I just knew I couldn’t let it get worse, so I called the practice where I saw Mary Catherine. She had moved but they could schedule me with another therapist named Diane.
Diane was a tall, willowy woman in her 50s with white hair. She was nice, but was an absolute nervous wreck in session — which as you may imagine, didn’t vibe well with my own anxiety levels. I may have been her very first client, like, ever.
I gave her the rundown — a timeline of my anxiety up until this point. When I told her even right at that moment I kept getting lightheaded because of anxiety, I thought she was going to keel over right then.
“Oh dear. Oh. I’m sorry,” she said. I found myself comforting her.
She moved on to administer what I now know as a mental status exam. We jumped from me spilling my guts to her asking questions like, “Can you tell me who you are? Where you’re at? The date? Why you’re here? Can you count backwards from 100 to zero by tens? Can you touch your nose? Now your knee?” It was just fucking bazaar.
Then, in what was quite obviously a prank played by God, the fire alarm went off. Now I’m on the fifth floor of a building with a bunch of other clients.
“You have got to be shitting me,” I think.
I ran downstairs and out of the damn building, carrying a clipboard with the intake form I’m supposed to have filled out before the session. I went straight to my car, drove home and never spoke with Diane or stepped foot in that building again. Clearly, that was a sign from Jesus above that this was not the right practice for me.
I was able to wade through the unknowns of pregnancy and the low-buzzing anxiety for the next six months. I fought and clawed and scraped for my sanity. And for a while I was OK. Until I wasn’t.
I saw my next therapist a little over a month after giving birth to my son. I was an absolute mess. I had severe postpartum anxiety, along with postpartum depression and agoraphobia — and I was just a train wreck. I had my postpartum checkup with my OBGYN and sobbed the entire way through until finally the doctor was like, “Yeah…I’m gonna have to refer you to a therapist who specializes in postpartum issues.” I just nodded because I couldn’t form words.
I trembled, prayed and cried the entire 30 minute drive to my first session with my baby in his car seat, happily riding along. It was across Virginia Beach and I had not been able to get in my car and drive by myself since I had my son — but I knew my life depended on it. I made it there without passing out or dying or having a panic attack, which was a victory.
After waiting in the lobby with my 6-week-old baby for 30 minutes, Elaine called me back to her office. Elaine was in her 60s, and the combination of her zen office and her northern accent made her seem like she could just as easily rip you a new one as meditate silently for 30 minutes. Elaine was confident and calming, strong and soft, firm but gentle. She was exactly what I needed. I explained to her the absolute shit show of emotions I had been struggling with. Not being able to get off the couch, crying so much I was dehydrated, wanting to die but being terrified of dying.
“I don’t even know how I was able to drive here,” I said.
“Honestly, I don’t either,” Elaine responded empathetically.
Elaine had this gift of being more empathetic than sympathetic. I felt like she understood but she didn’t pity me. It was liberating. Elaine listened to me, gave me interventions to work on and didn’t sugar coat anything.
“Honey, you’re in a bad place. Let’s meet once a week.”
I would have met with her every day. Once a few weeks had passed and my anxiety didn’t improve with therapy, we both decided I needed to add medication to my treatment. Elaine went out of her way to try to get me an earlier appointment with a psychiatrist at her practice. When she couldn’t, she contacted my OBGYN to tell them I needed an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication, like, yesterday. Elaine walked with me through that shitty, shitty season in my life. She advocated for me and validated my feelings. She helped save my life.
A Backpack of Rocks
While getting my master’s degree, I learned we all carry around a backpack of hundreds of rocks. Each rock is different — one rock is our family, one is trauma, one is self-worth, one is our toxic ex, one is our emotionally distant father, one is fear, and so on and so on. These rocks make up our lives. Therapy is allowing someone to unpack your backpack, one rock at a time, and examine each rock. You hold it in your hand, feel its bumps and edges, and describe the weight and feel of it. After you have examined the rock, you get to decide if it’s a rock you want to put back in your backpack or a rock you want to leave behind. And after some time, your backpack gets lighter and easier to carry. You still have rocks but they have a name. You’re familiar with them.
Therapy hasn’t solved all of my problems. Hell, I became a therapist and I still struggle with mental health issues. But they don’t control my life anymore. I’ve been able to get intimately familiar with a number of rocks in my backpack. I’ve been able to leave some rocks behind. And I know at some point in the future, I will have packed some more rocks I’ll need to examine with a therapist.
What Therapy Isn’t
So why don’t people go to therapy? I’ve found that the people avoiding therapy usually have a collection of misconceptions they’ve gathered about what therapy is. Let me help you with that.
Therapy is not:
- Lying on a couch and talking to an unspeaking Freudian figure about your father (if you’re into that, certain forms of psychotherapy would be what you’re looking for)
- A sign of weakness (it takes giant balls to take the step to talk to a mental health professional)
- A last resort (try not to skip out on therapy just because you feel you can “handle” your situation for a little bit longer)
- Only for those with a diagnosed mental health disorder (a big change, a loss, mood swings, negative thoughts, unhealthy patterns and more are all reasons to see a therapist)
- Only for women (men need therapy too. Therapy gives men a safe space to talk about emotions, something often not afforded to them in our culture)
- Only for people who can afford it (many community service boards take all insurance and no insurance, and most charge on a sliding scale)
- For “crazy people” (whatever that definition means to you)
- Something you always have to go to forever (a lot of the time, it’s meant to be temporary — but sometimes it’s not)
- A one time thing (progress is gradual)
- A waste of time (change will happen, if you allow it)
- Coaching (therapists don’t necessarily give you advice. In a lot of cases, you’ll do a lot of the work)
- Easy (it takes a lot of hard work to dive deep into your mind and your past to create lasting change)
In the end, you really should consider going to see a therapist.
Friend, whether you are struggling now or not, whether you’ve been through severe trauma or not, whether you have a diagnosis or not — you may also have a backpack of rocks. You should really try seeing a therapist to have someone walk you through the unpacking and the examining.
Maybe you’ll get a Richard who gives your demons a name.
Maybe you’ll get a Mary Catherine who points out patterns in your life.
Maybe you’ll get a Diane who you don’t vibe with. That’s OK, keep looking. The therapist-client relationship is a sacred one, and you’re not going to mesh with every therapist you meet. Keep trying.
Maybe you’ll get an Elaine who validates you and advocates for you.
Maybe you’ll get someone completely different who changes your life in another way.
Go see a therapist. Take care of yourself. The path to self-knowledge and wellness isn’t an easy one, but it’s something you deserve.
A version of this story was previously published at Haley Hardin West’s blog.