The other day a friend of mine asked why I went to therapy.
‘Because I wasn’t sure I was going to make it if I didn’t,’ I said.
It startled me to say it like that, so harsh and blunt, but at the time it couldn’t have been more true. I went to therapy because six years ago life had become un-livable. I was struggling through my second year at university and though the people who loved me were doing their best, my head was dropping below water. They couldn’t look after me. My daily existence was full of fear, travelling to and from my boyfriends house, terrified to be alone, barely eating, barely sleeping… what I was doing wasn’t living, it was the opposite. Some days I felt like my depression was killing me. Maybe it would have done.
In the car on the way to my first appointment my kind friend who had agreed to drive me asked why I finally agreed to go. I had already done one go-around of putting myself on the waiting list and declining a spot when it came up, and she had been the one who dialled the number and watched me make the call the first and second time. She had probably expected me to decline this time too.
‘What made you decide to do it this time?’ She asked, keeping her eyes on the road.
‘Because I don’t have a choice,’ I said. I was exhausted from crying.
‘I don’t know what else to do.’
I went to therapy because I had run out of options.
The funny thing is, I went to therapy to get something that I was never going to get. I walked in and told the counsellor exactly what I wanted: I wanted to know how. I wanted to know how I was supposed to live like this. Was there a way I could talk my mind down from what it was doing to me? I wanted quick solution, I wanted what my counsellor called ‘a magic wand.’ I had never considered myself to be that type of person, and it took me a while to realise that she was right.
I didn’t want to change who I was. I didn’t want to ask why I was so afraid of eating, so afraid of sleeping, so afraid of being alone. I just wanted to eat, sleep, and be alone. I wanted her to teach my how to do that, and not ask too many questions. When I walked in I thought of her as the person with the tricks, the answers, the sneaky life-hacks to get me through the mess. But she wasn’t that.
I cried all the way home. Partly because I was exhausted and I had finally done what I said I would never do. Mainly because I realised she didn’t have the solutions. No one did.
There were no solutions. Only me, and the mess that I was. And that was the scariest thing of all.
So why am I writing about therapy?
Well, because on the surface I am possibly the most unhelpful example to people of who needs therapy, and I want to change that. My story does nothing to dispel the fears or cliches that you have to be troubled to need therapy, I was literally at the end of my rope when I got in that car. But that’s not how it has to be.
Most of the time when I suggest to a friend that perhaps therapy might really help them with their problems they all say the same thing:
‘Oh I don’t think it’s as bad as that.’
As a culture we tend to think you need to be one of a few things to qualify for therapy: You need to be suicidal, you need to have some kind of scary ‘disorder’, you need to be in a troubled marriage, or someone needs to have died. We don’t associate therapy with self-esteem problems, money problems, struggles to settle in, or relationship anxiety even though we know that these things can lead easily to the things we do think qualify as therapy-worthy.
So why don’t we make the connection?
Why do we wait for it to get ‘that bad’ before we think about consulting someone?
I think there are a few reasons, and I was guilty of all of these thoughts. If I hadn’t been, maybe I would have gone to therapy when I was much younger. Then maybe I wouldn’t have teetered on the edge of a breakdown years later. I want to dispel some of these thoughts, wipe them from your minds. They are not reasons to wait. They are not reasons not to go. There is only one real qualifier for needing therapy: Do you think it might possibly help you?
So here they are – 5 reasons we have not to go to therapy.
1st reason: ‘They’re going to tell me there’s nothing wrong with me’
This taps into our underlying belief that you need have something ‘wrong’ to go to therapy, when in reality you don’t. TV has taught us therapy is for ‘abnormal’ people, for people who have suffered terrible abuse on crime shows or are addicted to something hilarious as the butt of a joke. It hasn’t taught us that for a lot of people going to therapy is as normal as getting a cup of coffee and is usually undertaken with as little drama. Therapy isn’t always about dramatic breakthroughs and tackling demons, most of the time it is literally just about talking and being heard.
I understand the imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are taking someone else’s spot, or that someone is suddenly going to tap you on the shoulder and tell you ‘Hang on! You’re not crazy! NO THERAPY FOR YOU!’ It was part of the reason it took me so long to get into that little room with a therapist. Maybe I wasn’t having problems, maybe she was just going to scoff at me and tell me to go home, I was wasting her time. But she didn’t. Because she wasn’t expecting a certain type of person. She was just expecting a person.
The sooner we see that people who use therapists are just like us, the sooner we can actually step up and have those conversations that we really need to have.
2nd reason: ‘They’re going to make me take medication’
They’re not. They are literally not. No one is. Even in the most extreme, advanced cases of serious mental health disorders and conditions the priority of all those people around the individual is to allow them to have as much agency as they can possibly have without being a danger to themselves. And in the case of a therapist who you might casually see on your lunch break, their priority is not to diagnose you. Their priority is to listen to you and make you feel as if you have been heard. If they see red flags sure, they might recommend you see a doctor, but they’re not going to lock the door behind you and force something down your throat. It’s not 1840.
I was so scared of medication. Part of the reason I was terrified of therapy was that I was simultaneously desperately concerned that they would tell me nothing was wrong as well as telling me I was really sick and must take medication RIGHT NOW. In reality, I sat in a quiet room, ate a biscuit and talked to a soft-spoken woman about my week and what was on my mind. I came to the decision to go on medication independently with my doctor, and it was for my physical problem of depression and anxiety, not because I saw a therapist or felt I needed to see a therapist. My therapist didn’t know it was happening until it happened. She expressed no opinion on the topic. She just asked me how it made me feel.
3rd reason: ‘It’s too expensive.’
A practical one. Straight up, it can be expensive, and there’s no way to spin it otherwise. But it’s a myth that therapy is unnecessarily expensive with no alternatives. The two times I have been in therapy I haven’t had to pay – the first time was through a charity and the second was through a University. Seriously, if you are at university and worried about paying for therapy don’t dismiss your own student services. Even if you have had a bad time with one individual at student services (as so many of us might have) don’t give up. The therapists are usually freelanced from outside and could be someone perfect for you. I wound up with a female minister, which was completely suitable for me as a lot of my anxieties related to my faith. Who knew??
Also, thank god for the good old NHS. They can refer you to all sorts of therapists, (I knew a girl who saw a nutritionist for her eating disorder on the NHS), and you don’t have to pay anything. Also they can refer you to great local charities and also programs through the local council. Often there are great initiatives out there that don’t get nearly enough press, and can take some searching to find, but they are there to utilised. As with everything that is free it is not usually immediate – often times there are long waiting lists and I have waited for my fair share of therapy – but it is there if you are looking for it. And sometimes the wait isn’t as long as you think, and varies depending on need. Sometimes if you really need a chat but they haven’t got regular slots you can take a cancellation, or a phone chat. Speaking of the phone, you can access trained counsellors through Samaritans and other places – see the list at the bottom of this post.
Aside from these options, the prices of private therapy can vary. Have a look around, and if you are concerned about price call a therapist and ask. Maybe they can work out a payment schedule that works for you, or maybe they run a discount. Maybe it’s helpful to look at your money and ask where you are spending, and if you could maybe redirect it to a counselling session.
Whatever you choose, remember that therapy isn’t necessarily as expensive as they say it is on TV.
4th thought: ‘It makes me look weak.’
I was brought up in a Christian home where mental illness was viewed as a very specific type of spiritual battle, and also, in some regard, a spiritual weakness. As a teenager I was too afraid of looking weak to ask for help and therapy, and the one and only time an older friend suggested I see a counsellor I shot him down with my anger. I wasn’t weak. I could do this.
But I couldn’t. But still I rejected help as soon as it was offered. Whether it was from the Children’s counsellor I had called at the NSPCC late at night, or from my teachers who tried to reach out to me. I blatantly lied about how bad things were, how the scars on my arms were from our pet rabbit and I was eating, just to keep the help at bay. I wanted to cover up what I perceived as a lack in my faith, and I would do anything to avoid it. I was so scared of being weak.
But what therapy taught me when I finally went is that therapy is not for the weak – therapy is for the strong. Therapy is a place where people come to face their problems and try and actively change their lives. It’s a place where they demonstrate tremendous awareness, where they act like a grown up even if it means crying like a baby. Therapy is not just for people at the end of their rope, it’s for people who are wise enough to feel the rope getting shorter and want to deal with that. Therapy is a place for strong people who want to get stronger. Because that is what therapy does. It makes you stronger.
5th thought: ‘It won’t work for me. I’m not a therapy person.’
This all hinges on what our idea of therapy is. And what is that idea? Popular culture tells us therapy is the place for secrets, the place for dramatic revelations, the place for cringe-worthy self exposure, and above all, crying. Therapy is a place for people who cry.
Now, I did cry in therapy, but that’s because I am a bit of a crier. Ask my partner, I cried when we saw a puppy waiting for it’s owner outside a post office. It was cold. The puppy was cold. I cried. He didn’t know what to do with that.
But the reason I cried in therapy is not because it was a crying space, it’s because it was my space.
Therapy becomes your space. If you’re not a crier then you are not expected to cry. If you don’t want to share details of your sex life then you won’t be expected to. If all you want to do is sit there and talk about what your typical day is like, then that is what you can do.
When I went to therapy my eating was terrible and I was pulling out my hair. But the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it. The last thing I wanted to do was talk at all. So I didn’t. I was mostly quiet and silent for the first few sessions. But I kept going back. Because that was the space I needed.
You are a therapy person because there is no such thing as a ‘therapy person,’ – a therapy person is a person who shows up to their therapy session.
A therapy person is a person who walks in the door.
It’s not pre-determined by anything other than that, the act of showing up. Saying there is such a thing as a ‘therapy person’ is as ludicrous as saying that a person who turns up to a doctor’s appointment is a ‘doctor person,’ as if something in their personality makes them innately better at seeing a doctor. I don’t like going to the doctors. I don’t like have my blood pressure taken or having injections. That doesn’t mean when I have a punishing UTI (as I sometimes do) that I’m going to say ‘the doctors won’t work for me, I’m not a doctor person.’ Just because some of the things I associate with a doctor sound like things I won’t like, doesn’t mean the experience is irrelevant to me.
Because maybe I don’t need an injection. Maybe I don’t need those things. Maybe those things have nothing to do with what’s going on inside me.
Maybe I don’t need to cry. Maybe I don’t need to talk. Maybe who I am and what I need dictates what therapy is, not the other way around.
As for it working, well! It doesn’t really ‘work,’ per say. The word ‘Work’ implies that there is some kind of definite article, some kind of magic spell or ointment that needs to be applied and by that you determine success or failure.
I went into therapy wanting answers. What I got was a lot of questions.
Did it work? Not like I wanted it to.
But if you ask me if therapy was good, I would tell you yes.
Because I wanted to walk out with a cure, but instead I walked out stronger.
I walked out with a deeper understanding of who I am and why I do some of the things I do.
Therapy taught me to be kind to myself, it taught me about how I deal with anger, how I handle disappointment, what I really fear when I’m afraid, and it also taught me to hope.
Hope that things could make sense. Hope that things could be lived through.
Hope that things could be overcome.
Would I go into therapy again?
Yes, definitely. Things have been hard recently and I have been thinking about it. Not as an answer or a cure, but as a prevention. A way to strengthen myself for the future.
So let me tell you about the second time I went into therapy.
The second time I did therapy I walked in because I felt like things were maybe sliding towards bad. I was stressed, I was poor, I was feeling overwhelmed, and I knew that was more than enough. I only did about eight sessions over the course of a summer, but you know what? It was what I needed. Therapy isn’t always for years and years. Sometimes it’s just a summer. Sixteen hours of talk to help you see yourself in a different light.
The second time I went to therapy, I went with a different reason than the first time.
I didn’t go because I felt like I had run out of options. I didn’t go because I felt like I might die if I didn’t. Instead, I felt like something was pushing my buttons and I was starting feel worried. I felt like I was tired and I wasn’t managing it well. I felt like I could see the path ahead of me and the dangers that lay there. I was seeing the signs that I needed help.
And those were all things I learnt to notice, things I learnt to see about myself, in therapy.
Here are some links to things that might help:
- How to use the NHS to find a therapist
- Call the Samaritans for someone to talk to
- A great, comprehensive list of services throughout the UK (This is a great resource from Sirius project, who have put a lot of time into putting together lots of pages about how exactly you can find someone to talk to who is suitable for you.