I’m personally of the opinion that every single person could benefit from therapy at just about any point in their life. The trouble is, we wait until we’re basically having an emotional heart attack before we decide our pain or difficulty is bad enough to try therapy, before we decide that understanding why we respond to stressful situations the way we do is a worthwhile pursuit, before we’re willing to be vulnerable with a trained professional in order to become a healthier person for the people we love and ourselves.
In 2014, I lost 8 people in my life in one year. And I mean they died. They didn’t all leave me by a combination of moving and dying and ghosting. They died. I hadn’t seen some of them in years, but all of their deaths affected me, and because so many came in such a relatively short period of time, I didn’t really deal with them. This was on top of moving to a new city and starting a new job the year before. I pushed them all down, compacting my grief for each person until it was all one huge boulder. I didn’t feel like I could engage safely with any one person’s death without feeling the full, devastating effects of all of their deaths. I kept this up for about six additional months, until my aunt died suddenly. I learned of it an hour before I had to leave for the airport for a week-long work trip. This was the same week as the sentencing for the two men who murdered my childhood nemesis. It was, in short, one of the worst weeks of my life.
I had to push down my grief to function. I remember crying late at night, pacing in the hotel bathroom while my coworker, who I shared a room with, slept. Also in that tiny bathroom, after a 13 hour day on my feet being nice and helpful to customers and connecting with potential authors and not crying, I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote draft after draft of letters to the sentencing judge, sharing beloved memories of my nemesis, until I dropped into bed, exhausted in every way. I felt like I would never be able to accept my aunt’s death if I didn’t get to see her casket, so I called and adjusted to have my flight home moved up a day so I could go to the burial. I missed her actual funeral, but on Saturday I managed to be there with my family for her burial.
When I finally got back to town and my usual routine, I wasn’t okay. I lived inches from tears. I felt exhausted all the time. My grief was immutable and huge and impossible. And I felt like I was bleeding from a thousand pricks in my heart every day. In this highly alarming state, I looked up the number for the only counseling service I knew of, the one where a friend had gone to therapy after ending a bad relationship and where a couple I knew had gone to premarital counseling. Simply telling the receptionist that I needed grief counseling, and no, I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, and yes that day would work, knocked apart my composure. I cried throughout this short exchange, heartily embarrassed, and continued crying for another five minutes until I managed to pull myself back together enough to get out of my car and go back to work.
I scoured the counseling center’s website for instructions. I used Google maps’ street view to figure out exactly where I’d be going. A couple days before my appointment, I physically drove to the center and circled the parking lot so I’d see where I’d be, where I’d park, where the door was. And then I got off work early, citing a doctor’s appointment, and went inside.
I’d been to counseling before. As a child, I had one particularly hard and miserable year. My parents were worried there might be more to my pain than the bullying, and were concerned they weren’t doing enough to help me cope, so I had 4 sessions with a licensed child psychologist in a room at my pediatrician’s office. I remember one session where he let me just tell him all the things I was interested in and excited about, including Hua Mei, the panda recently born at the San Diego Zoo. A person who just listened the whole time and engaged with what I liked and didn’t judge or tease me was wonderful, and absolutely not what I was getting at school.
I think, in these 4 sessions, my parents were getting a second opinion by a professional about how I was doing during a miserable year. And, perhaps because of that early introduction and how he’d reassured my mother that yes, I was well adjusted, and yes, she and my dad were supporting me in the ways I needed, as an adult I didn’t feel much of the stigma seeking out therapy that many others feel. Still, my grief was hemorrhaging before I admitted to myself that I needed counseling, and then made time for it.
I’ve since described therapy as calling in the fire department. Maybe you just smell smoke, and you want to be sure things don’t get out of hand. More often, your house is on fire and you know it and you’ve been running the garden hose for hours already, thinking you can muscle through it by yourself without the neighbors noticing. But even if you could, why would you? Cost of therapy and access are real concerns, disproportionately limiting low-income people of color from health care services. But when the cost of a few sessions is not limiting, this is what fire fighters and therapists are trained to do. Why not go?
There’s no dishonor is needing some professional guidance to search out and put out any fires. Because really—and here’s where my metaphor breaks down—you’re doing all the work anyway. No therapist can change your life just by talking at you, or by listening. You do that. And if you’re doing all the work yourself anyway, why not get a professional to help point out the hot spots and help you adjust your grip on the hoses so your arms don’t grow too weak?
I friend recently tweeted that he’s gone ahead and scheduled his counseling sessions for the rest of 2020, including extra sessions around the election. He isn’t the only person who anticipates needing them, and I’m not waiting around to see if my social media boundaries will help preserve my mental health. I’m planning for regular mental health check-ups and check-ins right now.
2020 is a great year for us to do so together.
If you’d like some more information on starting therapy, I liked this article from NPR, and it’s assorted links to resources.