What I've learned from 16 years of therapy: 'There's no shame in seeking help'

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Melissa Blake
·7 min read
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Melissa Blake started receiving therapy following her dad's death by suicide. (Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Blake)
Melissa Blake started receiving therapy following her dad's death by suicide. (Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Blake)

It’s 2004 and I’m sitting in the waiting room of my university’s counseling center. My mind begins to race as I think about my first appointment; I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure of one thing: I may be nervous, but I know I need to talk to someone about my grief.

Just one year earlier, my father died from suicide following a four-month battle with aggressive sinus cancer. His death was sudden and unexpected, the kind that you can’t prepare yourself for and that leaves you broken and rudderless. My father was my anchor in so many ways and I didn’t know how to process his death; for the first time in my life, I felt stuck and without direction. At 22, I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to try therapy.

If you had asked me back then how long I’d be in therapy, I probably would have said something like, “Oh, maybe a year or so.”

Well, that “or so” turned out to be 16 years. And although I’ve seen several different therapists over the years, I really felt like I hit my stride with my last therapist and made so much progress. In fact, I had my last session with that therapist — remotely, of course — last April, but honestly? I’m still not sure the finality has sunk in yet, even though it’s been a whole year.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a month designated in 1949 to highlight the importance of mental health and wellness. The American Counseling Association has since joined the movement to raise awareness about mental health.

In recent years, we’ve seen celebrities like Britney Spears and Demi Lovato speak openly and candidly about their own struggles with mental illness. Seeing them share their stories helped to shine a spotlight on the importance of mental health and the need to remove the shame. There is still such a stigma around seeing a therapist or seeking any type of mental health treatment; people think it makes you weak or means that you can’t handle life’s ups and downs. We’re constantly told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “just think positively,” and those phrases are actually incredibly toxic.

Because when it comes to mental health, nothing is ever that simple. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. There’s not one “type” of person who struggles with mental illness, not a “one size fits all,” especially when you consider the fact that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (51.5 million in 2019), according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Mental health is something that’s so important to me — especially how we view it and how we treat those who are struggling with love and compassion.

Therapy was one of the ways I found myself again following my father’s death, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it was the most empowering decision I’ve ever made. For me, each therapy session felt like peeling back the layers of my life and my personality. Not all at once, but slowly — a little bit at a time as I worked through feeling and emotions. And over the years, as I kept peeling back more layers, the more I discovered different parts of myself, and it turned out to be incredibly eye-opening. So what started as going to therapy to process my father’s death by suicide and work through my grief ultimately became about so much more. I learned about myself, reflected, changed and grew in ways I never imagined. And, I ended up talking about things and processing other aspects of my life that I couldn’t have predicted, like a severe bout of depression and coming to terms with my disability.

My emotions have run the gamut during sessions. I’ve cried. I’ve raged. I’ve questioned everything in moments of confusion. I’ve talked through my anxiety. And, believe it or not, I even laughed a time or two. But no matter what emotions I was feeling, I always felt safe to express them. Sitting across from my therapist in that tiny room, she never judged me, never told me how to feel and never once did she tell me that my feelings were wrong. I always felt validated and seen, and maybe that’s really the beauty of therapy; maybe that’s what is truly meaningful about those 50-minute sessions. You don’t have to be anything or anyone other than yourself.

My therapist gave me the freedom to feel. I’ll never forget the greatest lesson she taught me. One day, I was talking about how I missed my father so much, yet I was also so angry with him for leaving us the way he did. I just couldn’t reconcile those two emotions, I told her.

Her wise words? You can feel opposite emotions at the same time and that’s perfectly fine. Life isn’t “either/or” and neither are your feelings.

What a revelation, I thought. It was such an empowering moment — one that has stuck with me and one that comes to mind every time I find myself having those sorts of conflicting feelings about anything, not just my father’s death.

But in our society, we don’t associate therapy with empowerment, do we? During my years of seeing a counselor, I could have easily been hard on myself, saying things like, “why are you still seeing a therapist? What’s wrong with you?” — but I never did.

Therapy is healthy and healing. Taking care of yourself is a beautiful thing, I’ve learned. I often think about the three biggest takeaways about mental health that stick with me the most.

1. Mental illness is the same as physical illness. It’s not simply a matter of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Would you say that to someone who had cancer? Would you say that to someone in a wheelchair? No.

2. There is no shame in seeking help. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or a coward. It means you’re strong.

3. Never underestimate the importance of asking someone, “How are you?” It’s loving and powerful and caring. And those three words could very well save someone’s life.

Therapy has been a big part of my life for nearly half of it, so how can I possibly sum up what the experience has meant to me? In short, I don’t think I would be here today without it. Lots of tears over the years, but also lots of healing. I’m grateful for both.

When my therapist moved last year, I took it as a sign that my therapy journey was coming to an end. I’d been thinking for a while that I was in a good place and now had the skills too, so last April felt like a natural and healthy time to say goodbye to that part of my life.

At the end of my last session, we talked about pain and how the worst moments in life can lead to the best moments. We’d never want to relive the bad times, of course, but they’re a part of us. They’ve shaped us into the person we’ve become. It’s pretty amazing to think about life as one giant thread, isn’t it? It’s all connected.

I consider therapy to be the most beautiful gift you could ever give yourself. There should be no shame in taking care of your mental health. 

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