Therapy didn’t result in a singular epiphany that changed everything for me. There wasn’t a light bulb moment when I realized that everything stemmed from some childhood event, or that my “issues” began when a bully threw my Popsicle into the sand box. When I began therapy at the age of 17, though, that’s what I imagined it would be.
During my years of therapy, it was subtle realizations through guided dialogue — not one big AHA! moment — that challenged a lot of my unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and ultimately, changed my life.
What I thought would be a couple months of counseling turned out to be five years — five years that taught me so much, lessons I’ll never forget.
Therapy was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And although the impact is still being realized every single day, I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the many ways it has been a positive force in my life.
1. My inner critic isn’t so rough and tough after all.
At first, I didn’t even realize that I had an inner critic, but it became obvious through our conversations that I was incredibly unkind to myself, and had a lot of judgmental thoughts. I was, by far, my own worst critic. Nothing I did seemed quite good enough, and I always had a way of picking apart everything that I did and said. I was putting myself down, and not always in obvious ways. Therapy shed a lot of light on that critic.
The important thing about dealing with a tough inner critic is not silencing it, but rather, getting a dialogue happening, and challenging what’s being said. My therapist would often identify when I was being critical of myself in ways that weren’t fair, and offered a counter-narrative to all of the negative thinking. Overtime, I could anticipate these responses, and the dialogue began to happen in my head.
It was like magic.
I could “catch myself in the act,” and identify when I was being unfair in my self-reflection. And without realizing it, I started to shift the dialogue. I was such a– well, maybe that’s not fair. I was just doing the best that I could…
Eventually, the inner critic, who had manifested as unconquerable and unkind, began to shrink. I began to evaluate myself in a more balanced way. It made a huge difference in my self-esteem and in the choices I made for myself.
2. Coping with mental illness is a learned skill — not an innate one.
I assumed for a long time that, if I didn’t know how to deal with my bipolar now, I would never be able to. What therapy taught me is that coping skills can be learned, and that we aren’t born into this world with every possible resource and skill that we need.
It’s okay if, even after ten years, twenty, even decades of struggling with an illness, you feel stuck. Personal experience, though it is helpful to have, is not the only way that we gain these coping skills. Sometimes these skills are taught, whether we do the learning in therapy, in a support group, reading articles online, or elsewhere.
Living with a disorder doesn’t make you an all-knowing expert, and I wrongly assumed that struggling with the disorder meant that I should inherently know what to do.
Similarly, just because you can drive a car, it doesn’t mean you know how to get to Vancouver. Sometimes you need a map. Sometimes you need directions. Sometimes you need a GPS.
I didn’t know everything there was to know about my disorder, and thank goodness for that.
3. I have triggers, and awareness of those triggers can make a difference.
When I first came into therapy, I was convinced that my moods were random, with no clear cause or catalyst.
Truthfully, I think I was afraid to admit that there were things in my life that were stressing me out; I thought that if there were triggers, or outside factors that influenced my moods, I would be told there was nothing wrong after all and I was just overreacting to life circumstances.
It was my therapist that explained that triggers are an important way of managing the impact of mental illness. If we can identify what exacerbates our moods, we can begin to arrange our lives in a way that limits our exposure to those triggers, and anticipates them whenever possible.
They don’t invalidate the existence of bipolar. Bipolar is often defined by a dysfunctional response to stress, rather than a functional response. Having stress doesn’t undermine bipolar’s existence. I can have triggers and causes for my moods, and still have bipolar.
An example that I mentioned in a previous article: Taking on a huge course load at university has always been a major trigger for me. So I decided, when looking at graduate schools, that I would apply to programs that allowed me to go part-time, or to reduce the amount of classes I took each semester. This made a huge difference for me, and it’s a skill that I learned in therapy.
Once I understood that triggers did not negate the existence of my illness, I could finally identify different factors in my life that would aggravate my depression or mania, and work to mitigate the impact or, in some cases, eliminate the stressor altogether.
4. Safe spaces can make a serious impact on our mental health.
I didn’t know that having a therapist to talk to could make me feel better. I figured that I had friends, really great friends, and that a complete stranger wouldn’t be able to comfort me the way that my loved ones could.
I was wrong about that.
Having someone who doesn’t judge, who offers really solid perspective, and who isn’t emotionally entangled in your life makes therapy a really safe space for many folks. You don’t have to worry about being a burden on your therapist and you don’t have to worry about your “baggage.” You can just put everything on the table, dive into the scary stuff, and leave after an hour knowing that you can resume your normal life, and that what happens in that space will stay in that space.
You can be brutally honest, and the impact doesn’t extend beyond that room.
That being said, it takes a really good therapist to maintain the safety of that space. I lucked out and managed to find a fantastic therapist on the second try. If you feel unsafe, I would encourage you to seek out another therapist — it’s not uncommon to switch a few times before you find the right fit.
5. The worst case scenario doesn’t usually happen, and if it does, it’s not game over.
I had this tendency to catastrophize everything. I assumed the worst possible scenario was going to happen, and that the stakes were much higher than they actually were. Having a therapist to bring me back down to planet earth was one of the best parts of the experience.
My therapist also had a great way of pushing back when I talked about how doomed I was. I remember when I was failing my Spanish class back in undergrad. “And I’ll completely fail if I don’t pass this exam!” I told her, desperate and despondent. She shrugged, looked at me and said something I’ll never forget.
I was speechless. So what? I looked at her and, as if she hadn’t comprehended what I said, I repeated, “I’ll fail!”
I began to realize that even the most terrible things I was imagining were not, in actuality, all that terrible. I eventually retook that Spanish class that I did, indeed, fail, and although it was inconvenient, it wasn’t the end of the world. I needed perspective, and therapy offered me that. I began to learn how to tell the difference between what would have a lasting impact on my life, versus what was just a shitty, temporary situation.
And having this kind of perspective made coping with stress a lot easier. Overtime, it wasn’t my therapist saying “so what” — it was me.
6. “Should” is a deceiving word and “should” be banned.
I had a bad habit of using the word “should” where it didn’t belong. I should be doing well in school, I should be graduating on time, I should be a better partner, I should be working more hours, I should be feeling better by now, I should know what I’m doing with my life, etc etc.
I used the word “should” to judge myself and judge where I was in my life, and therapy really brought that into focus for me.
Often times, I made these judgments based on cultural and societal attitudes that dictated how I “should” and “shouldn’t” be living my life. I realized that, in my use of that word, I was relinquishing my happiness and my self-determination. I was succumbing to really dated notions about how young adults, and people in general, should conduct their lives.
I was trying to follow a script that society wrote for me, instead of doing what actually made me happy and healthy. I was prioritizing the judgments and attitudes of others over my own desires.
When I realized the way I was using this word in reference to myself was problematic, I was determined to be more cognizant of the ways in which I measured my success and my happiness. I could graduate on time, but wouldn’t taking more classes jeopardize my mental health? I could be a better partner, maybe, but isn’t it true that I’m doing the best I can? I could get straight A’s, but why is that important in the first place?
The word “should” also has this tendency of placing things in an “all or nothing” sort of framework. I was either doing it right, or doing it wrong. Life is much more complicated than that.
When I heard myself “should” and “shouldn’t”-ing myself, I learned to push against that, and think critically about where those judgments were coming from.
7. It’s not “attention seeking.” It’s trying not to disappear.
When I came into therapy, I, like many folks, was nearing rock bottom. I wasn’t looking to “recover” because it never crossed my mind that that was possible in the first place. At that time, I believed that I would die in the next three years.
I just wanted someone to listen to me, and validate that what I was going through wasn’t make-believe. I wanted someone to acknowledge that my pain was real.
And of course, that validation happened, and it was powerful. Someone finally saw me. I didn’t feel invisible anymore.
I’ve been accused, as many folks with mental illnesses have been, of “playing the victim,” “complaining too much,” or “trying to get attention.” But these illnesses seek to make us shells of ourselves, threaten to eat us alive. Every day we nearly disappear beneath the stigma, the shame, and the agony. And we question our sense of reality, wondering if we still exist beneath all of the pain.
And if I did something to make my pain visible? To be known? To be seen? It was an attempt at saving my own life, before I disappeared, before no one could reach me or help me.
I don’t believe it’s “seeking attention” so much as it is trying not to disappear. And I believe that it’s a show of strength and not weakness. And through therapy, I came to realize that what others labelled “attention seeking” were genuine displays of courage.
Once my pain was visible, and someone took the time to acknowledge that I was suffering, it was only then that I began to heal. Trying not to disappear is a survival instinct. And that’s what folks with mental illnesses are trying to do — survive.
8. I am not my illness.
Bipolar was the only thing I knew for such a long time, so much so that aspects of the disorder appeared to me like aspects of my personality, intrinsic characteristics that I would always have.
I assumed, for instance, that I was just a negative, cynical person, rather than understanding I was depressed. I thought my rapid thoughts and grandiose ideas were just my whacky creative self, instead of indications of mania. I thought the constant worry I felt was “just stress,” instead of it being very serious generalized anxiety.
And while someone can be negative and cynical without it being a disorder, or filled with worry and grandiose thoughts, the big difference is that these aspects of my experience led to an enormous amount of dysfunction in my life. I also realized, after going through therapy and getting treatment, that these “quirks” had disappeared.
I emerged on the other side of therapy and treatment as an optimistic, generally upbeat, sincere person — rather than the sarcastic, bitter, depressed, occasionally “wild” and reckless person I was prior.
I got to know myself for the very first time, without the illness as a mask or a barrier that didn’t allow me to see myself clearly. I was able to realize who I was apart from this illness — and that the illness didn’t define me, but rather, I defined myself. It was empowering to realize that I was someone separate from my struggles.
It was like encountering an old friend — a familiar and beautiful reunion. I was shocked as I began to learn new things about myself, and realized that who I was prior to treatment was not at all the same as who I was after treatment.
I truly believe, having gone through this experience of self-exploration and discovery, that this is who I was supposed to be all along. That’s the power of therapy, I think. We don’t just learn about the illness — we learn about what endures when you take that pain away.
And of everything I learned in therapy, I am most in awe of the fact that what endures beyond the pain is someone who is so much more vibrant, and so much stronger than I ever thought possible.