The first time I went to therapy was when I was in college. I was severely depressed, and as desperate to hide it as I was for help managing it. Getting out of bed was so hard at one point that I didn't think I'd survive if I didn't try reaching out. So, on a winter's day during my freshman year, I made the decision to get help. I can't quite remember the straw that broke the camel's back, but I walked into the campus counseling center with tear-stained cheeks, eager to feel something other than deep sadness. Once there, I filled out the world's longest questionnaire with a few truths but mostly lies. While I was partly ready to seek help, there was also a nagging sense of familiarity to the sadness I had spent the majority of my life with, and in that familiarity, a comfort I wasn't ready to admit to explore the true depth of my depression.
Did I experience suicidal thoughts? My answer: "No, of course not." Truth: "Yes, daily, even right now as I am filling this out." Have you ever experienced disordered eating? My answer: "No." Truth: "Well, I restrict my meals to once a day and I feel as though I have to earn the food I do eat. Plus, I always feel guilty after meals, no matter what I eat. Sometimes I skip food altogether and chew gum instead." Have you ever self-harmed? Answer: "No." Truth: "Yes, small cuts in places no one will see, and I punish myself by making my skin sting."
In hindsight, given that I lied on a questionnaire meant to give professionals an idea of what they were working with, I can't really blame them for matching me with a therapist who was the wrong fit for me. She was a young, white woman who seemed skeptical of me from the first session, unsure of where to begin with a girl who was both begging to be helped and also pulling away. Despite the certainty with which I felt it was a bad fit, I really tried to make it work, but, the effort did not feel reciprocated.
Brynna Pawlows, a social worker and therapist who has been practicing for over three years, says people shouldn't feel obligated to stay with the first therapist they meet — the point is simply to attend therapy (if you can) at all. "I believe people should attend therapy for a significant period of time — typically six to eight months — at some point in their lives, even if they are relatively happy. It's important to take a real look at ourselves, unpack some maladaptive behaviors or thoughts, and then use the skills taught in therapy to tackle any future issues, adjustments, or lapses in mental health. Therapy isn't a cure-all, but rather a space to open up, explore, learn new skills, and find the connections to presenting problems and how they connect with early-to-late childhood themes and family dynamics."
My first therapist and I parted ways the following year, a decision that was for the best. I was assigned to another therapist, a woman I'll refer to as V. She was an older white woman who handled me with the kind of care the therapist before her had not. V was professional and kind, yet honest and practical. Near the end of my junior year, she suggested I try group therapy sessions that my college had been developing, convinced that we had done all the work we could do together during our individual sessions.
We'd spent nearly two years in her office, me on her couch talking about friendships I'd lost, familial deaths I experienced, and how these experiences affected the way that I saw myself and the world. We also talked about the danger of vulnerability, and how for me it created a fear of getting close to people. We had done truly exhausting and rewarding work, and I was better for it. So for my senior year, I heeded her suggestion and started group therapy.
In my first group, I was the only person of color. In and of itself, this didn't surprise me, as I attended a primarily white institution. However, in this group, I never felt like I could be completely honest because my experiences were so vastly different from the other group participants. I made an effort, anyway, and so did the other group members. We worked to be there for ourselves and each other, to show up and trust the process.
That group taught me that I needed to open up more and to give as much as my other group members were. Once that set of sessions with that group ended, I was left during holiday breaks to put into practice the coping techniques suggested to us. My experience with group therapy was the opposite of how I approached group projects. In college, I often gave too much in group projects, out of a desperation to be sure that everything was done both on time and to my satisfaction. But in group therapy, I gave very little because I was scared of judgment. It felt as if there was a regression taking place, and I did not want to let V down.
I thought happiness meant the end of sadness, and in turn, that I'd never need to return to therapy.
I entered another group in the spring semester, determined to open up in a way that I hadn't in my first group sessions. While I managed to be much more open, I still felt like I wasn't being heard, that no space was being made for me, and the members were not really listening to me. This group had other people of color, but I found that even that did not give me the sense of comfort I was hoping for because we did not connect in any way either. The lack of connection, despite my vulnerability and openness, left me sad all the time and living with depression. I dealt with suicide ideation less and ate more, but no one broke my heart daily quite like I did. Old habits die hard. I was the first person to tear myself down at the first sign of frustration in school, work, and life, although I knew how much it hurt me to do so. Once college was over, so was my exploration in therapy.
Like most college kids, I went home after graduation, eager to start a new chapter of my life with a job I knew I deserved and was qualified for. A full-time job never came, but, in its place, I got the opportunity to write for dream publications on a freelance basis and chances to fall in love with myself as a black disabled woman. I was learning to see my worth through my work, and I developed a practice of saying in the mirror every day four things I like about myself.
By 2016, I was truly happy for the first time in my life — happy enough to believe the work I had left to do on myself after college was completed. I thought I was fully healed, fixed; that I'd found my own happy ending forever, and there was nothing that could possibly go wrong or change my mind. I thought happiness meant the end of sadness, and in turn, that I'd never need to return to therapy. Dear reader, I was wrong.
Pawlows might agree. She believes that the biggest misconception about therapy is that you get to a point where the work stops and you're good to go. "We are beings in progress, and we must constantly put in the work. Everyone is in need of 'work' in terms of mental health," she tells me. "What we see as people who are 'fine' is typically people who are just highly functional, though still struggling in some way. Many of my patients report being seen as 'totally put together' and 'stable' by their friends and loved ones. This is not because they don't have anxiety or trauma, but rather because they are extremely high functioning withanxiety, trauma, or other issues."
The saying that you don't know what a person is dealing with based on what they look like rings true to me. So many of us are considered high-functioning but could benefit from therapy, if we all had access and could afford to go.
Another therapist, Aimee Lori Garrot, whose training is in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT, agrees that going to therapy when you're relatively happy — or going back during such a time, as I did — is as important as seeking help in times of distress. "I think if a person is in a good space, they can often work on things in a more successful manner than if they are in the middle of a horrible depression," Garrot tells Allure.
However, Garrot also acknowledges that being in a bad headspace may help a person clearly define what they have problems with. "There are clear benefits to starting therapy wherever you are in life," she says. "There is no need to wait until things get bad before beginning, and there is no reason to wait for them to get better first either; you just have to start."
She tells her patients that therapy isn't just about your relationship with your mother, for instance, or digging through your childhood. For Garrot, therapy is just as much about learning all the coping skills that you weren't taught.
Most of us who have had the privilege of going to therapy know the impact it can have on our mental health, even if it takes hard work. For those who are still debating whether or not it's worth it, Garrot shares a few reasons why she believes it's a valuable tool: "It can take away all that shame you have inside yourself when there are areas of life you think you don't handle well. And lack of shame breeds natural joy. I can be fully myself and engage with others and love who I am. And I think that the process of normalization and shedding shame is just pivotal."
While I am still relatively happy, I believe that's why I now need therapy more than ever, and started seeing another therapist at the end of March. After walking into my doctor's office and requesting a list of places that accepted my insurance, I made an appointment with a woman who comes into my doctor's office for sessions, because convenience is key. We'll call her D. She has been great, and exactly the kind of therapist I need: honest, open, professional, and an excellent listener.
What therapy has taught me is that fixing one "problem" doesn't mean all the others will disappear. Learning to love myself after years without therapy did not mean that it was no longer necessary for me. What it did was allow me to recognize the other things I needed to work on. Before restarting therapy, I spent a lot of time feeling confused as to why I was having bad days and sad spells when they were no longer tied to the way I view my body and worth. I finally realized that these bad days are things I simply cannot navigate alone.
I am still working on navigating these issues, but I need help. With the gifts of time, distance, and the wisdom that comes with both age and knowledge, I know now that lying only hurts me in the long run. This knowledge enables me to truly face therapy with a sense of pride that was not there when I first began, all those years ago. Therapy is not the only worthy tool of self-improvement; however, what it has given me since I started going again is a reason to try to hold myself accountable every day.
Working at happiness now, putting in the effort every day, even when it feels ridiculous, is keeping me on track. When I started therapy in college, I wasn't fully ready to give myself to the process. But now I give all that I am to the process, because I want to be the person saving myself on a good or bad day.