Not very long ago, I believed therapy wasn’t for me. Sure, I had problems - I would occasionally have nightmares from barely remembered incidents, and loud noises upset me much more than anyone else, and I was anxious a lot and yes, my family did tell me I had to “let go” of all my unresolved anger, but those weren’t real problems. Millennial wokesters like me know that mental illness is real. I had very courageous friends who had shared their stories of depression and bipolar disorder. Those were real illnesses, like diabetes or hypertension. The people who dealt with them needed all the support and compassion they could get, from therapists, from psychiatrists, from their families and from their friends. Me? I just needed to grow the hell up. I was fine. I had a partner I loved and a job that made me happy. I mean, I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs to cope. It’s not as if I was lying in bed all day - I was at work each day. I exercised and ate my vegetables. I was ok.
Ok until that one evening, after what felt like aeons of staying home through the lockdown when I sat down on the couch after dinner with the dawning realisation that my normal was not very nice at all. No, scratch that, it was horrible. I felt inexplicably sad, as if a dark cloud had attached itself to me and wouldn't go away. Worse, I felt helpless, as my hands and feet were tied and I could do nothing to make myself a better person. The facade of ok-ness had broken down, and I realised I had finally run out of the will to build it up again. I felt frozen, paralysed and sad. I was clearly, obviously, undoubtedly, not ok. So I took my first teeny-tiny baby steps - finding a therapist and working out how to attend sessions in the middle of a pandemic. I found a service that allowed me to email a counsellor if I was uncomfortable with talking on the phone. The first time around, the only words I got out were “I think I’m stressed and I wish I could be better.” The second time, I managed to tell the counsellor what bothered me - I was angry and confused and didn’t know how to manage the turmoil in my head. I braced myself to hear what was wrong with me, and what I needed to do to change myself.
To my surprise, that isn’t what I heard at all. I feel your pain, the counsellor wrote back. You’ve experienced trauma. The feelings you have are normal responses to trauma. And guess what? It can be healed. When I read this, I cried with the relief of finally being heard, of finally not needing to pretend any more. That’s when it hit me. The real reason I hadn’t asked for help, was that I was deeply, deeply ashamed. I couldn’t comprehend my own behaviour, and I certainly did not feel proud that my facade of ok-ness was just that, a facade. With all my privileges, I felt guilty for even wanting help. I was so ashamed, and so sad, that I couldn’t even get the words out to ask for help. Somewhere, I had convinced myself that my own needs didn’t matter, that I didn’t deserve the kindness that I received from my therapist. I didn’t say it that way though. Instead, I maintained a facade of being busy and productive - not drinking or doing drugs, but working, cooking, exercising, reading, fidgeting, anything to not deal with the belief that I was wrong and broken. But somehow, through all that noise, a professional had told me what I needed to hear - that there was a better way of dealing with trauma than simply pretending it didn't exist. A few days later, I signed up for telephone counselling.
Now therapy didn’t magically turn me into a “normal” person free from trauma. I still have intense visual flashbacks, where I'm back in a situation that made me feel scared and unsafe. I still struggle with feelings of anxiety and guilt. I didn’t walk out of each therapy session feeling better - confronting my trauma in therapy was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I often felt drained after each session. Going to therapy meant that memories I had suppressed for many years came bubbling up to the surface, along with the full force of emotions that had been bottled up for decades. There were tears and angry outbursts. My therapist taught me grounding and self-soothing techniques for when I felt afraid or angry, but those took a while to practice. But until I learnt them, I felt like an emotional Molotov cocktail.
It was worth it. Six months after that first email, I’m far happier. Therapy has helped me acknowledge my trauma and to see understand the guilt and shame I was holding on to. Most importantly, therapy helped me go from crisis management mode to growing and thriving as a person. It helped me feel kinder to myself and by extension, to those around me. I might bear scars from trauma, but I’m all the more resilient from them. Today I know that it isn’t just an act of courage to talk about mental health, it’s an act of immense kindness and generosity. To talk about therapy is to tell anyone who might be suffering that there is a better way. I’ve benefited a great deal from people who have normalised the conversation on mental health and I think I owe it to them to pay it forward. And so, reader, I have this so say to you:
You are not alone, and you certainly don’t need to be alone in your misery. Your problems are real and important and you should have the opportunity to get qualified, professional help to discuss your mental health. Like me, you might discover that your problems aren’t even that unique, and that professionals have actually worked out how best to help you. Don’t let your fear or guilt or shame hold you back from doing this for yourself. Most importantly, you deserve to love yourself and give yourself compassion. If you do decide to take the leap and get help, I will be cheering you on in spirit.