“It’s okay Carole, you’re safe here.”
There’s no doubt, those are some of the most important words I’ve ever heard. Who said them?
My mental health journey has been long and tedious, I’ve been shuffled through doctor after doctor, seen by multiple therapists, social workers, and counsellors. But I’d never seen any consistently, until this year.
My first encounter with therapy was when I was about 15-years-old. I went and saw a family counsellor with my parents, who my mom booked me to see after I told her I was first experiencing anxiety. It was a new experience, scary even. I felt incredibly embarrassed, my palms sweating and my head down the entire time. When I left, I had the feeling that I never wanted to go back, clutching a sheet of “bad mindsets/coping mechanisms” that were supposed to help me identify what was leading me down the mental illness rabbit hole.
I don’t remember going back to “traditional” therapy for a while after that. I was seen by school guidance counsellors, a lot. I remember every time I sat in that office with the big glass walls that looked out into the school atrium, I sagged my shoulders low and looked down at my tightly squeezed hands resting on my lap. I didn’t want people to look in and see me. The first guidance counsellor was friendly, he had a kind face and genuinely wanted to help me. We talked for a bit. I was having problems in class. I was getting good grades and all, but I was crying. A lot.
When we talked, he noticed one thing about me, despite being an optimist about everyone, I was extremely pessimistic when it came to myself. I always looked down on myself. I was always trying to please people. I was crushing myself under the weight of expectation I had conjured up myself.
“You have to change the way you think,” he told me. “There is some good in every day. I promise.”
He opened the top drawer and pulled out a dark blue notebook. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Every day, I want you to reflect on your day. The good things and the bad things. I think you’ll start noticing everything’s not as bad as it seems.”
And I followed that for a while. Every night, I’d write the date and I’d start with the bad things. My terrible moods, or things that upset me. Then I would write the good things, food that I ate that made me happy, or memories I shared with my friends at school. Before long, I found that my school guidance counsellor was right. The positives really did outweigh the negatives.
That helped for a while. It definitely taught me to start thinking in a new way, but it wasn’t quite enough.
The next year, I was in the guidance office again. I was struggling to finish tests in my math class because of severe text anxiety. I cried after every class to the point where I couldn’t attend my next class, and my teacher told me I needed to get help. This time was more embarrassing than the last. My face burned with shame as I sat in my new guidance counsellor’s office (they had moved to an alphabetized system rather than a by-grade system, so I got moved to a different counsellor). Admitting I needed help was embarrassing. I felt like a failure. I was a smart kid. I was supposed to be able to write tests just like everyone else, just like I’d always been able to. But something about sitting in a room full of people with a test I had studied so hard for made my whole body feel fuzzy and numb. It was so frantic in my head, I couldn’t even read the questions. The sound of people’s pencils, the ticking of the clock, the sweatiness in my palms, paralyzed me. I looked at the ground. How did I explain that to someone? What would I do? What would they do?
Of course, I cried in there too. But my guidance counsellor, a gentle and compassionate woman, looked at me in a way that I just knew that she wanted to help me. She helped arranged for me to write tests in the guidance office by myself, with a little extra time so I could start to clear my head. My test scores sky-rocketed. Of course, I still had an excruciating level of anxiety, but those things helped me.
Along with that though, my guidance counsellor made me see the school social worker.
Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t like her. She was a sweet woman. She just… Didn’t understand me. It felt like I was talking to someone who thought I was 4 years old, like I didn’t understand my own feelings, and it made me feel like my problems were so much smaller than they felt like to me. We did ten minutes of meditation. She asked me if it helped. “I mean, I guess,” I remember saying, after 10 minutes of uncomfortable silence. Meditation, to me, didn’t really do that much. It just gave me time to do nothing but overthink. There was no such thing as “emptying my mind”. Thoughts just seeped into my consciousness and spiralled around in my head until they became monsters. But at the time, I didn’t know how to articulate that, and she didn’t understand what I meant. I stopped seeing her.
After that, my therapy journey is pretty much on par with what I’ve written in previous personal mental health stories. This year though, I had the opportunity to see a therapist consistently for about 6 months, I believe? Getting to see the same person who knew my story already was extremely helpful because we were able to make a lot of progress with each session.
Sometimes I would go in thinking I knew what I wanted to talk about, and we would end up talking about something else that I had no idea bothered me. Other times I had no idea what to say, but once she asked me a question, all these words just poured out of my mouth.
Therapy confirmed to me what I already knew, I am an extremely empathetic person who wants to make other people happy. All my life, this has been extremely hard for me to deal with, as I find it difficult to separate my own experiences from others. Things don’t just “roll off my back” but affect me in a much deeper way than people mean to. I’ve always considered this one of my faults, until my therapist taught me otherwise. She taught me its a wonderful thing to be able to connect with others on such a deep, emotional level, but with that ability comes the challenge to self-protect. I learned in therapy what it means to set boundaries for myself, and to be assertive when other people try to push my boundaries.
She followed me on my life journey these past few months and was able to understand where I was coming from by taking the time to get to know me and my experiences, both present and past.
What meant the most to me was the day we dealt with some of my deep rooted insecurities and pain, and I just started to cry. For the first time, it felt like I really saw who I was, and someone else did to, and they understood completely. It was cathartic, and taught me that I am the person I am because of all my experiences, the good and the painful, but it’s okay to be sad or angry about things that have happened. It’s okay to feel lost and afraid. It’s okay to feel.
I used to be afraid of how I felt. I’ve grown up being “oversensitive” and “overdramatic”. I was afraid of feeling something deeper than just the surface. Therapy taught me what it means to genuinely be myself, and not to be afraid of who I “thought I was” and who I “actually was”. Because we are who we want to be, and its up to me to make that decision for myself.
What I’ve learned from my multiple attempts at “therapy” from social workers, guidance counsellors, family counsellors, etc. is that it takes time to find someone you are comfortable with. When you’re able to connect with someone and feel safe with, the real work begins, and sometimes it takes time. But the things you learn about yourself can make the struggle worth it.
Have you ever gone to therapy? If not, would you try it? If so, how did you find it?