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Long before I admitted it to myself or received an official diagnosis, I knew something wasn’t right.
I had inexplicable bursts of anger where the slightest inconvenience would make me lose my temper, resulting in yelling, slammed doors, and broken dishes.
Sometimes I started crying without knowing why, having to make up a reason to explain the tears to concerned friends or family.
Other times, I was lying motionless on the couch, too numb and disinterested to do anything but stare blankly into space. Being alive felt like a drag, a burden I hadn’t asked for, and I cursed the day I was born and objected to the tedious process of living.
But sooner or later, I would always manage to shake those moods off, and it wasn’t until I was doing the crying and staring into space thing while on vacation in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places in the world, that my husband intervened. He told me gently but firmly that I needed help, and as soon as we returned home he made an appointment for me with our family doctor.
That visit was life-changing. It was the first time in my life that I openly talked to someone about my depression, and the relief when he kindly told me that it was not only common but also not my fault was indescribable. He attributed my depression to a chemical imbalance in my brain that could be treated with medication, and I was all for it. Swallow a pill and be done with it? Yes, please!
He also mentioned emot, but I brushed it off. I couldn’t imagine lying on a couch and having to talk about my feelings to a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. What would I tell him? What if there were awkward silences? No, thanks.
I religiously took my antidepressant every day and thought that was my mental health taken care of.
Fast-forward to eight years later. I had just turned 40, everything was going well on the outside, but my symptoms were returning despite the medication. I was struggling so much that I decided to give therapy a chance.
I asked around for a therapist and contacted one who had been recommended to me by a friend. I was so nervous when I sent off that initial email I thought I would puke. I was terrified of therapy (for reasons I couldn’t identify then), but I was desperate. I simply couldn’t continue to live in constant fear of my own mind, always worried that it might destroy me.
The sessions were on Zoom thanks to COVID-19. I’m beyond grateful for that, because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have made myself drive to an office with the dreaded couch in it. I figured if I needed an escape, I would just shut down the computer and be done with therapy.
Still, I’ve rarely been more nervous in my life than I was before the first session. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to tell her. I seriously thought she would throw her hands in the air after a few minutes and tell me that I was a spoiled little drama queen who had nothing wrong with her and should stop acting up immediately. (Can you believe I thought therapy wasn’t for me? I clearly have issues.)
Unsurprisingly, I barely got my name out before I started bawling hard. I must not have made much sense, but my therapist was kind and patient and told me right away that she was “very comfortable with tears.” To my relief, she did way more of the talking than I had expected, which is what I needed. I was a blubbering mess. There were none of the awkward silences I had seen portrayed so often on TV, and she managed to finally put me at ease halfway through. Plus, she didn’t tell me off for wasting her time, so that was good!
I stayed with her for about six months, meeting her eight times. The talking was difficult for the first few sessions.
I had it ingrained in me that everything was fine, that I had no reason to complain, that I had no real problems. I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter who shouldn’t be there. I had a great marriage, a job I liked, a healthy body, and a “normal” upbringing. There was no major trauma in my history, I had white/cisgender/heterosexual privilege, we had no financial problems, and we had a supportive community.
What was I doing in therapy? What did I have to be depressed about?
Therapy is uncomfortable. The wall we’ve all learnt to build around ourselves has to be painstakingly taken down brick by brick, and that’s a painful process. The source of my depression was buried so deep inside me that we never even got close to it during our time together. Plus, when you happen to talk to your therapist during a good time (aka when your depression is temporarily nowhere to be seen and you feel invincible), you are convinced that you are healed. You’ve graduated therapy with honours; now you can ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.
Despite not getting to the root of my problems, she helped me uncover something major that I had not been aware of, and I will always be grateful for that. It’s explained much about my childhood that was inexplicable before and had driven me nuts all my life.
I finished therapy with her because I thought I had learnt all the tools I needed to carry on on my own. And for a while, everything was okay—until it wasn’t.
Which was to be expected since we never even got close to the issues that have been causing my depression.
When the old demons reared their ugly heads again, I decided to give therapy another go, but with another therapist this time. Even though I had liked my old one, I wondered if there might be someone out there who was a better fit.
I went again with a friend’s recommendation, and it was a lot easier this time around since I knew what to expect. My new therapist is younger and bubbly and fun, and we hit it off right away. Still, I was once again dancing around the issues, because I didn’t know what my issues were.
But I kept going and kept talking, and slowly, slowly we moved through the surface stuff (one session I talked the entire hour about the pressure society puts on women about weight and appearance and how much it sucks) and went deeper.
Together, we’ve been scratching away the shiny layer I’ve put over my childhood and my life, the one that I have spent much time and effort to create to make it appear to the world that everything is fine.
I’ve learnt that trauma comes in all shapes and sizes and that it doesn’t matter if others consider what happened to you traumatic; if it is traumatic to you, your body will react the same way no matter if it’s big or small.
I’ve learnt how damaging inconsistent parenting, emotional neglect, and emotional invalidation can be.
With her guidance, I’ve come to see that I learned not to trust myself, and how harmful that is.
Just think about it for a moment: if you can’t trust yourself and your judgment, you are in an incredibly vulnerable position. You are looking for someone to guide you, and you’re easy prey for predators of any kind.
We’re talking about gaslighting a lot, a term whose meaning I barely knew but that has been playing a huge role in my life, the effects of which I’m still dealing with today.
And I’m opening up more. After many months, I’ve told her my deepest, most shameful secret, the one I’ve never told anyone, not even my husband. I’m starting to make the connection between unresolved childhood trauma and the unhealthy habits I have developed to suppress that trauma.
Almost two years after my first therapy session, I’m finally getting it. Even though I’ve always said that therapy is for everyone, I never really knew what that meant.
Now I do. I understand it on a deep and profound level.
We are taught to smile, to be strong, and to pretend that everything is fine. So we shove down our discomfort, our pain, the many big and small hurts, hoping that out of sight = out of mind.
But that doesn’t work, of course. We’re just piling everything up we haven’t dealt with inside of us, and the pile keeps growing and growing until it gets so big that we can’t ignore it any longer.
One day, it will spill out, and that spill can come in many different forms: depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour like lying or cheating or accumulating huge amounts of debt because we try to buy ourselves happiness.
As long as we don’t deal with the unresolved problems that we’ve buried deep inside ourselves, they will rule our lives.
And I know that every single person has problems—because that’s life. It’s hard and unfair and scary and difficult at times, and we’re all doing life for the first time without a dress rehearsal; we’ve never done this before, but everybody acts like we should know what we’re doing even though nobody knows what they are doing. It’s a mindf*ck.
Therapy is kind of like an instruction manual. It explains stuff that never made sense before, shows you where the different parts go, and finds the place for the leftover screws that you had no idea where to put.
It helps me recognize the limitations I’ve lived under, the lies I believed about myself, and it teaches me to tear down the barriers that had been erected all around me—some by others, but most of them by myself.
I’m breaking out of the cage I’ve lived in all my life, and the view on the other side is breathtaking.
Therapy is giving my life a sparkle I didn’t know it could have. It’s helping me find the power I’ve had inside of me all along but couldn’t find.
It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.