It’s Been a Year Now and I Still Miss My Old Therapist

The image features a single white flower standing tall beside a window.

“I count myself lucky to feel this kind of sadness.”

This is one of those “I’ll write this article and assume that I’m not the only one” sort of posts. I’m going to pretend that at least one other person out there is still hung up on an ex.

An ex-therapist, that is. Because I have to confess this: I miss my old therapist.

Veronica* was an extraordinary therapist. When I met her, I was seventeen years old and, let’s be real, I was the poster child for Mental Health Crisis. She was compassionate, non-judgmental, sensitive, and perceptive in ways that I had not expected.

I spent three years (and a half, to be exact) in awe of her calm, even when I sat curled up on that couch, describing my depths of my suicidality or my utter despair for things ever improving. She created a safe space for me to explore the darkest parts of myself, with a passionate and relentless commitment to my well-being.

The cherry on top: Despite not being a gender specialist by any means, when I came out as transgender, she told me it was her responsibility to provide the best possible care. She educated herself, sought out resources and guidance, and did a damn good job at helping me embark on my transition.

By the time we parted ways, I had gone from being completely despondent to being the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. It’s no coincidence that some of my most important realizations and growing happened under her care.

So I’m not sure that anyone can blame me when, in the midst of a crisis, I find myself thinking, “Ugh, shit. What would Veronica say? What would Veronica do?”

Followed by an ever-so-small part of myself still grieving for this person who was so significant and yet, for professional reasons, is completely gone now from my life.

If this sounds anything like your own experience, I suspect we aren’t alone in this. When you spend a good amount of time with someone, divulging difficult experiences and intimate secrets, an attachment happens whether you mean it to or not.

I certainly never meant to get so attached that I would actually miss my old therapist. In fact, when I entered into therapy as a depressed teenager, I was convinced nothing could help me. Oh, how wrong I was.

I like to think that the occasional sadness I feel for not having Veronica as my therapist means that she did something incredibly right. It means that I felt supported and cared for, but not so much so that I couldn’t move forward without her.

In fact, the happiness that I have now is fostered, in part, by the many tools and skills that I learned during our time together. Whether or not I understood it when I first left, I was ready for this next chapter, and our sessions laid the groundwork for the life that I’m leading now.

Nonetheless, the sadness still comes around once in a while.

I count myself lucky to feel this kind of sadness. Lucky because it meant that I was one of the fortunate ones who could find a therapist that had such a profound impact on me. A therapist who could disarm me, who could provoke such unwavering optimism in me, and could create a safe space when it was difficult just to feel safe inside my own head.

Finding a therapist can sometimes feel like a cruel game show, auditioning total strangers with the hopes that you can trust them with the deepest and most important work you’ll ever do.

But if we’re lucky, really lucky, some of us are able to find the Veronicas of the world – the therapists whose empathy and validation convince us that there is, indeed, some good out there – and we trust them with this work, forging the kind of bond that’s needed so the real healing can begin.

I am the person I am today because there was a therapist who believed in me. I can honestly say that, even at my worst, there was never a moment when Veronica seemed to doubt my potential to do something meaningful, to do something important with my life.

She was the first to hear my authentic voice and to teach me of the power that my voice really had. In a way, the work that I do now was made possible by her conviction that my voice mattered.

If you haven’t found this therapist yet, fear not: They exist. They’re out there. Sometimes it requires jumping through obnoxious hoops and navigating a health care system that doesn’t look too fondly on us neuroatypical folks. Sometimes it requires paying out of pocket and dealing with an empty wallet at the end of the week. Sometimes it means getting yourself out of the house when you’d rather hide under the covers.

Whatever it takes, if you can, find the person who deserves your trust. Find the person who deserves your time. Find the therapist that is worthy of taking this journey with you.

And years down the line, when some smashing opportunity arises and you decide to move to California or something equally spontaneous, you’ll have that moment when everything goes awry and you start to think about them. You’ll start wishing they could offer just one more bit of advice or lend their ear, calmly reclining in their chair as you rant and rave about the way that things never go as planned.

Because, oh man, do they ever go as planned?

You’ll miss your old therapist and, like me, you’ll be glad that you do.

*Editor’s Note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

I Take “Crazy Pills” and I Am Not Ashamed

fuckyouitakemeds-lesscolor

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

[The illustration features a place mat with an array of breakfast foods and coffee. A pair of arms rests on the mat. One hand is holding a spoon; the other hand is clutching onto a pill bottle.]

I remember the first “crazy pill” that I ever took. I was on vacation in Tennessee, sitting on the edge of one of those generic motel beds with a hideous blanket covered with — what was it? Seashells?

Pill bottle in hand, my mother looked at me with apprehension and said what many folks would say to me for years to come:

“Are you sure about this?”

I nodded, looked her in the eye and without hesitation, I said, “Absolutely.”

In the years that I have been taking psychotropic medications, never for a moment have I regretted my decision. Have I been afraid of what happens in the long term? Sure. Have I contemplated the impact of “big pharma” and my piece in that frightening puzzle? Definitely.

But for me, trying to survive each day trapped within an agonizing depression was not an option. Attempting to end my life again was not an option. Continuing down the path that I was on? Not an option.

When I looked back at my life, I realized I had spent more time struggling than I had spent truly living. And I knew that if something didn’t change, bipolar disorder was going to kill me.

Everyone and their brother has an opinion on my decision to take medication for bipolar and anxiety. But have you tried meditation? What about acupuncture? Have you changed your diet? What about fish oil?

Initially, I entertained them. I explained that I had tried everything that I could, and that medications had been my last resort.

That is, until I realized that I was under no obligation to justify my decision, especially to those who did not understand my struggle.

People who did not know what dissociation was, or what it feels like to be in the midst of a paranoid delusion; people who had never felt anxiety that stripped them of their ability to function in our society; people who had never felt emotional pain that seemed to throb from inside the marrow of their bones.

Complete strangers would badger me, presuming to know what was best for me without actually knowing the relentless, devastating pain that mental illness had put me through. Strangers who thought that they knew better than me, the person who had lived through this for years, what my body needed to heal.

Sometimes, it was well-intentioned. But most of the time, it was coming from a judgmental place.

They may as well have been saying, “I know nothing about mental illness, but I’m going to tell you about this random treatment I read about on the internet because clearly you don’t know what you’re doing.”

And it made me so, so angry.

No, medications were not a “cop out,” they weren’t the “easy way out,” they weren’t a “quick fix” that magically made me happy and high and light. They weren’t easy, they weren’t quick, and they definitely weren’t fun.

Taking medication for my illnesses was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, and it took incredible courage to make that choice. It was a process that took years — years of side effects, years of false hope, years of judgment, years of doubt — to finally get it right.

But eventually, with the right doctor and with a lot of patience, we did get it right. After four years of being the equivalent of a human guinea pig, my body responded at last and I could begin to do the important work of healing. Combined with therapy, my transition, and self-care, I was able to begin again — this time, completely present and alive, no longer struggling just to keep my head above water.

And you know what? I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry for exercising my bodily autonomy. I’m not sorry for making the choice to take care of myself. I’m not sorry for taking control of my life.

Most of all, I’m not sorry for having the strength to choose life over death. Each day that I swallow these pills, I am reminded of the tenacity it took to keep myself alive, in spite of every fiery and relentless urge to end it all. I did what I needed to do to keep myself alive, and I’ll never apologize for the fact that I’m still here.

To be clear: Meds aren’t right for everyone, and they aren’t accessible for everyone, either. We need to do better not just for folks who take meds, but for those who do not or cannot. We need to protect a person’s right to dictate and choose what’s best for their body, and advocate to make those resources available to them — no matter what they end up deciding.

Ultimately, this is not about medicating every single person with a mental illness. It’s about giving us the power to decide how to heal, be it with medication or otherwise, and defending our right to make that choice without pressure, without shame, and without obstacles that prevent us from exercising those choices.

I am not ashamed of these pills. I am only ashamed to be part of a society that still believes it can dictate what’s right for my body, and what’s right for my community.

 

Editor’s Note: The use of the phrase “crazy pills” is not being endorsed as acceptable for mainstream use, but rather, reclaimed in a way that the author finds personally empowering.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

I Have Generalized Anxiety and I’m Anxious Just Thinking About It

cliff

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

[The illustration features a house, seemingly unstable, perched precariously upon a cliff. The author, Sam Dylan Finch, is standing at the edge of that cliff, looking down with uncertainty. Inside the house, there are words in frames that read, “Everyone feels stressed sometimes.”]

I know this is an unexpected entry, seeing as I usually blog once a week. But it feels like the right time to talk about this.

One of the scary parts of bipolar disorder is that it often begets company. Co-occurring disorders are not uncommon for people who have bipolar, and yet they are conversations we tend to have behind closed doors. There’s something about having multiple labels assigned to us that really terrifies us.

Or at least, it really terrified me. I’ve been very open about my experiences with bipolar disorder, and have even discussed my history of disordered eating, yet I’ve never talked about my anxiety publicly, despite it being a disorder that has disrupted my life in undeniable and painful ways.

Not long after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I was given a second diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). And I promptly told no one.

The stigma associated with one disorder was already overwhelming. But a second disorder? It hardly seemed fair.

I was afraid of the judgment that came with not one disorder, but two, as so many people with co-occurring anxiety disorders feel.

While people were comfortable thinking of me as having bipolar after years of advocacy surrounding it, what would they think if they knew about my anxiety? I was afraid that I would be less respected as a survivor and advocate, and instead, be seen as “too crazy.”

I’m not alone in that, either. Sometimes when we talk about mental health, we feel pressured to be selective about what we share, or pick and choose how much we disclose. It’s like we’re allowed to be a little unstable, but we can’t be unstable to the point of being unapproachable. It’s a sort of respectability politics that many neuroatypical folks are constantly navigating.

Yes, even me. I was afraid at first to talk about my anxiety. Even the person who went viral for talking about co-occurring disorders.

And that kind of juggling act? Crazy-but-not-too-crazy? It takes a lot of energy.

GAD is not the easiest thing to put up on a shelf, and it became difficult to hide. As someone who has suffered from panic attacks and debilitating anxiety for as long as I could remember, it has been a consistent obstacle that has only worsened as I reached adulthood.

My tendency to lock myself in and frequently cancel plans, for example, did not go unnoticed by friends. Take the bus? To your house? But that’s a bus route I’ve never taken! And I could get lost! And what then?

Simple things were daunting – visiting a new place, taking the bus, even going outside – and in order to soothe my anxiety, I had a system of complicated rules that eventually descended into dysfunction.

Never take a new bus route without practicing it first.

Never take the bus after nine o’clock pm.

Never take the bus without a friend.

Never take the bus.

Never leave the house.

The “what then” and “what if” scenarios were never very likely, but felt real and threatening enough to discourage me from doing what I wanted and often needed to do. I was intimidated by seemingly simple things, stressed to the point where I eventually decided to do nothing at all. I would self-isolate or make excuses to avoid the things that scared me.

After one too many unexplained disappearances, cancellations, and panic attacks while I hid in public restrooms, I had to fess up: my bipolar had a companion, and that companion was called GAD.

If I had to describe generalized anxiety, I would describe it as chronic fear.

Fear of public transit. Fear of strangers. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of being abandoned. Fear of failure. Fear of mold. Fear of bugs. Fear of judgment. Fear of big crowds. Fear of being alone. Fear of talking too much. Fear of not saying enough. Fear of being disliked. Fear of the future. Fear of natural disasters. Fear of the “what ifs” and all the things that could go wrong.

And fear of absolutely nothing, fear for fear’s sake, fear of just being alive in a world that was inexplicably scary to me.

My life, on paper, could be going perfectly well. And yet I would still find something to be anxious about. My brain was incredibly skilled that way.

It was the kind of fear that gave me aches and pains, exhaustion, and nausea for weeks on end. The kind of anxiety that makes it impossible to eat or sleep, further draining my body and weakening my defenses.

There was a continuous dread that I felt in the pit of my stomach – the unwavering conviction that something terrible was going to happen, and I would be helpless to stop it.

I spent years at a time in a panic that I could not control or affect.

And when it reached a peak, I would have awful panic attacks – hyperventilating in a car, my hands going numb, my heart palpitating wildly in my chest, tunnel vision, unable to speak, cold chills sweeping over my body, unable to breathe and gasping for air that never seemed to reach my lungs.

I felt constantly on-edge, as if I were at the top of a roller coaster that was suspended, prepared to drop at any moment. And yes, in case you were wondering, I’m also afraid of roller coasters.

Bipolar and anxiety were a toxic combination that, alone, I could not overcome.

It took years of therapy, self-care, and medication before I began to make a dent in my anxiety. It has taken time, and to this day, it is something I’m still in the process of overcoming. And like everyone else that lives with chronic anxiety, I have my good days and my bad days.

Co-occurring anxiety disorders, and anxiety disorders in general, are not rare. But the stigma surrounding these disorders is all too common.

We are often faced with invalidation (“everyone feels stressed!”), disbelief (“I’m pretty sure that’s not a real disorder”), or worse yet, misguided advice that seems to suggest that we can simply “think” our way out of anxiety. All of these responses misconstrue chronic anxiety as something it isn’t – in our control and of our own choosing.

The reality is, people with anxiety disorders can’t just “fix” themselves. It’s an uphill battle, and one that warrants compassion, patience, and understanding.

As a mental health blogger, it would be against everything that I stand for to allow the stigma around anxiety disorders to discourage me from sharing my experiences. So I offer you this glimpse into my struggles with GAD with the hopes of creating a safer space for us all to talk about it — not just now, but in the future, too.

Yes, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety too often go hand-in-hand.

But no, I’m no longer ashamed to say that this is what I’m up against.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

For the Last Time: Mental Illnesses Are Not Adjectives

Ugh. So let’s talk about this mess:

ratiochristi

Pictured above is a flyer that reads, “IS THE BIBLE’S GOD BIPOLAR?” in a large font. It includes the name of an organization, “Ratio Christi,” in a stylized text below.

It’s been said before, and it should be common knowledge by now, but apparently it isn’t.

So here’s a fun fact: Mental illnesses are not adjectives.

I’m angry. I’m angry because this isn’t the first time I’ve seen “bipolar” used in such a frivolous, insensitive way, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Do people honestly think that bipolar disorder is just a happy/sad rollercoaster of fun times? Because I’m pretty sure the word you’re looking for is “moody” or “dramatic” or maybe “volatile,” none of which are synonyms for “bipolar.”

Have you considered that maybe God is just really irrational? Because if anything, I think the more accurate description for bipolar would be a place you all describe as “hell.”

When you take a mental illness, and use it to flippantly describe a behavior or mood that has no relevance to the disorder, you completely trivialize the illness. You’re mocking a painful disability, perpetuating stereotypes about these illnesses, and undermining the seriousness of these struggles.

And yet, folks still do this, and they do it often. Apparently mental illness is just really fun to some people.

But here’s the reality: These aren’t descriptors. These aren’t jokes. These are illnesses, and they are experienced by millions of people around the world.

When people use “bipolar” as an adjective, or any other mental illness this way, they’re not actually talking about the illnesses themselves, nor giving visibility to the very real people who struggle with them.

They’re talking about their oversimplified, stereotypical, juvenile understanding of the word, and applying it to something that it isn’t. And what happens when you do this? You make the illness into a joke. You make our lives into a joke. And you render our struggles meaningless.

They aren’t attempting to open up a discussion about a painful illness that disrupts and devastates our lives. They aren’t trying to create a greater understanding of our community and the complicated, challenging, and at times, inspiring lives that we lead. They aren’t trying to raise awareness about mental health or illness, which is one of the leading causes of disability and suicide worldwide.

Instead, they use it as an adjective, undermining both the gravity of the illness and its impact on real, living people.

I don’t particularly care what Ratio Christi’s intentions were when they used the word “bipolar” in this flyer. I’m talking about the impact when you use these words so carelessly. When you use mental illnesses as adjectives, and do not treat it with the seriousness it deserves, you take someone’s lived experience, their struggle, and turn it into a descriptor that gives people the wrong idea of what these illnesses are, and what they really feel like.

It trivializes and erases the very real, very human struggle of living life with a mental illness.

And when I see someone using the word “bipolar” as an adjective or, worse yet, as a buzz word for a flyer, I get angry. Because the only time we should use “bipolar” is when we’re talking about the disease and the real people who are impacted by it.

And as a graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where this flyer was carelessly plastered, I am ashamed.

I want to know why it was approved, because yes, all flyers require approval to be posted on our campus.

I want to know what the institution intends to do about it.

And most of all, I want a firm commitment, on the part of everyone involved, that there will NEVER be another flyer that upholds the stigma, stereotypes, and oppression of people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

The idea that any university would give the go-ahead to post flyers that effectively dehumanize their students with disabilities is unconscionable.

So unless you’re about to start saying “she’s so breast cancer!” or “he’s totally dementia,” I suggest you reconsider your word choice.

Take Action! Tweet the UM-D Chapter of Ratio Christi; respectfully let them know that their flyer is problematic, and does not align with their claims of “engaging with integrity” and “moral character.”

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

I Believe in You: An Open Letter to Teens with Mental Health Struggles

unsplash

Photo: unsplash.com

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my battle with mental illness began, but I do know that by the time I was a teenager, it was in full swing.

I can also say that when I was fourteen, I started to question if I wanted to be alive anymore.

Though I haven’t been a teenager in some time, I can still remember what it felt like to be that young and to be struggling with mental illness. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through.

I won’t claim to know exactly what you’re going through. I don’t know all the details and I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be. But as someone who was a teenager in the grips of mental illness, I wanted to write a letter to the folks who may be going through something like what I’ve been through.

Because, first of all, being a teenager struggling with a mental illness of some kind can be the loneliest feeling in the world.

Some of my friends told me I just wanted attention. Some of them told me I was “playing the victim.” Some of them told me I was crazy. Most people, though, told me that I was too young to know what mental illness was, too young to know what suffering was, too young to know my own reality.

I want to tell you that your suffering is real, and I believe you when you say that you are hurting.

There may be people in your life who are in denial, or who simply don’t understand what you’re going through. And I’m sorry that those people don’t get it. I want you to know that there are people who do get it, people like me and many others, too, who have lived through this to tell the tale.

As difficult as it is to face people who refuse to listen, refuse to hear you, refuse to acknowledge your struggle, I can promise you that there are people out there who understand.

When I was a teen, I started to experience deep, agonizing sadness. I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I just knew that I felt heavy and I felt hurt. Sometimes I cried for hours, and sometimes I cut myself. Sometimes I did both. And throughout these depressive episodes, I couldn’t explain why I was in so much pain. It seemed like pain had become my default setting.

And even though I felt all of this pain, I didn’t reach out for help for years. I didn’t want my parents to know what was happening to me, because I didn’t trust them. When I did have the guts to share, most people brushed it off, and told me I was being dramatic, or that I was too young to know what depression was like. A lot of people didn’t believe I could have depression if I didn’t fit their definition of what a depressed person looks like.

But we know ourselves. And we know when something is off. We may not be able to articulate or explain what’s happening inside, but as the experts on our own bodies and minds, we can tell when something isn’t right.

I want you to know that I believe you. Your pain is real, and no amount of denial from anybody else can change the fact that it’s really there.

Whether it is anxiety, depression, numbness, mood swings, whatever your struggle may be – I believe that it’s real, that it affects you, and that you aren’t making this up.

After one too many nights of self-harm, depression, and hopelessness, I decided to go to a teacher at school. She took me to a crisis counselor, who helped me find a therapist and other resources. The great thing about the crisis counselor was that she wasn’t required to call my parents, so I was able to talk to my parents in my own way, when I was truly ready.

Getting help was the best decision I ever made, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. I felt like I’d squeezed all the toothpaste out of the tube, and I’d never be able to put it back inside again. At least with my depression, I knew what to expect. It was predictable. But now I was going to have to learn to live my life another way. I was going to have to learn how to cope and get better. This was a big deal and it was scary.

But you know what? It was also worth it. Because eventually, I did start to get better. I also got a diagnosis – bipolar disorder – which helped me understand exactly what was going on. With a therapist and psychiatrist in my corner, and eventually family and friends, I was able to start putting the pieces of my life back together.

If I could say anything to teenagers with a mental health struggle, it’s that you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to suffer in silence. You have choices, even if it feels like those choices are too difficult, too scary, or too risky.

I am here to write this letter because I made those scary choices. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale. There is no doubt in my mind that, if I hadn’t gotten help when I did, I would have taken my own life.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand that the pain wasn’t going to be forever. Back then, I thought I would always be depressed, and that there wasn’t a future waiting for me on the other side of my illness.

But I was wrong. I pulled through. And I would like to believe that we all can pull through, especially if we look out for each other. I want you to know that I’m looking out for you. I want you to know that you are valuable and worthwhile. I want you to know that you belong here, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Most of all, you need to know that your life can change at the drop of a hat. Everything you thought you knew could be proven wrong next week. Your life could change. Your life could change completely. And you deserve to stay alive to see it.

In the time since I was a teenager, I went to and graduated from college. I moved to California and became a writer. I got engaged to the love of my life. And along the way, I had the amazing privilege of touching hearts and changing lives in ways I never thought I would.

The amazing thing about our struggles is that we all have the potential to make something meaningful come out of them. Our journeys may not look identical, but I believe that we all have something special inside us that we can tap into to make this world just a little bit better.

So if you haven’t already, reach out. Keep searching for that someone who will understand, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Hang in there, and remember that the life you’re living as a teenager will likely not resemble the life you will live as an adult – you just have to hang in there.

I’m so glad that you’re here to read this letter – and I want you to be alive to write your own in five, ten years, even twenty.

I hope you know that I believe in you, and I want you to get through this. And even if it seems impossible, I hope you know that there are so many others who have struggled and have made it through. You can be one of them. And I believe that you will be.

RESOURCES:

Don’t be afraid to call a hotline if you need someone to talk to:

If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

If you are planning on taking your own life, please call 911. I can’t lose you.

If you are an LGBTQ teen who needs someone to talk to, please call the Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386

Check out these great websites, specifically for teens and young adults:

Teen Mental Health

Strength Of Us

CopeCareDeal

Here are some other articles I’ve written about mental health:

From One Survivor to Another: An Open Letter to Suicide Survivors

So You’re Bipolar: Advice for the Newly Diagnosed (Useful advice for anyone with a mental health struggle, not just bipolar.)

8 Things That I Learned in Therapy

Feel free to share more resources, ask questions, offer advice, or write your own open letter in the comments section!

Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and queer activist, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a queer and feminist perspective on current events and politics. His twitter can be found, unsurprisingly, at @samdylanfinch.

Visit his official website: www.samdylanfinch.com

8 Things That I Learned In Therapy

whatilearned

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

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.

“So what?”

I was speechless. So what? I looked at her and, as if she hadn’t comprehended what I said, I repeated, “I’ll fail!”

“So?”

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.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!