I was reminded this morning that it’s World Mental Health Day when I posted an article by Dr. Walid Abdul-Hamid over on Expat Focus about mental health in the workplace.
In the past I’ve talked a bit about mental health on this blog, and most years I just reshare that post because
I’m lazy I think it might be helpful to someone.
But this year, after reading through Dr. Walid’s article, I thought it might be worth having a brief chat about therapy.
‘Therapy’ is one of those words that can really freak people out. Suggesting that a friend ‘might want to go and see someone’ is one of those sitcom jokes that’s been used in almost every show I’ve watched. My view on humour and mental health is too complex to discuss in a post that isn’t devoted entirely to that subject, but put as briefly as possible: I think sometimes being able to laugh at oneself is a good thing and can be healing, but not when it’s done in a way that belittles or stigmatises the challenges a person is facing.
I had a pretty difficult childhood and, all things considered, I’ve turned out to be remarkably sane. However I can’t expect to be completely unaffected by my prior life experiences, and I think it’s important to keep an eye on how I am, work out my pressure points and warning signs, and learn to deal with myself effectively.
If you’ve struggled with mental ill health in the past, you probably won’t be any stranger to the concept of therapy. Even if you’ve never had it, you’ve probably considered it as an option.
But I think therapy can be a good thing for everyone, regardless of the state of their mental health.
Personally, I am a big fan of the inscription over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know Thyself.
The thing is, we never know when something is going to come and hit us right out of the blue. You might have had a wonderful childhood, you might have a job you love and great relationships in your life, you might want for nothing and be completely satisfied with absolutely everything. (Unlikely, I know.) Even then, though, you’re not impervious to the crap life can throw at us.
The person you love most in the world might die. Your country might go to war. There might be a recession in which you end up losing your job and your home. You might be struck down by a sudden physical illness that limits your ability to live the life you love.
It’s really hard to predict how we’re going to react to situations like this. When life throws you a curveball, what do you do? Duck? Run? Try to catch it? Toss it back?
But what makes it a bit easier to predict is getting to know yourself really well. Not only does this allow you to understand your own motivations a bit better, it also provides you with an arsenal of bespoke tools at your disposal in case anything ever should go wrong.
I have a friend whom I’d describe, for want of a better term, as “pretty normal”. Solid family life, positive childhood influences, good job, stable relationship, comfortable lifestyle. A while ago his company started offering free therapy sessions to all their employees, and he went along because… well, why not? It was free, there was nothing to be afraid of, and he was curious. Therapy didn’t uncover some sort of massive terrifying childhood nightmare experience he’d forgotten. It didn’t somehow ‘make him crazy’. It did, however, help him to understand himself better. “It’s so interesting,” he said to me a while ago, “I never knew why I did some of the things I do. But now I know! I understand not only what I’m doing but why I’m doing it. And it’s nice to have a place where I can just talk about myself for 45 minutes and not have to think about anybody else.”
That’s the thing: therapy is your space in a way nothing else generally is. Even if you have a supportive partner and a great group of friends, conversation will inevitably flow between various different subjects. You’re unlikely to get a solid 45-minute slot in which you’re allowed to talk about anything you like, dig deep into your motivations and experiences, and know no one is going to judge you for it.
And of course, even the most balanced of people experience bad days. Everyone has a frustrating day at work from time to time, or grieves when someone dies, or has to deal with a break-up. Therapy can help with all of these things, because it’s not some kind of terrifying monstrous thing that you only attend if you’re certifiable. It’s a tool; a process that can help you discover more about yourself and aid your interactions with life.
If I’d read this post ten years ago, though, it still wouldn’t have persuaded me.
You see, I didn’t have great experiences with therapy the first few times I tried it. I assumed that, with a few exceptions, any therapist would probably do. Assuming you find one through an accredited body or through your country’s healthcare system, they’re all probably trained, accredited and regularly supervised. So Therapist A vs. Therapist B is pretty much six and half a dozen, right?
The first time I sought therapy, I did so at the encouragement of one of my lecturers at university. I went through the NHS, which in the UK means it’s free but there’s a long waiting list. I was paired up with a lady in her 50s who apparently had been a therapist for quite some time. The doctor reassured me that this person was very experienced and would be able to help.
But she wasn’t the right one for me. She was very focused on wanting me to break down sobbing; every week she’d inch her box of Kleenex slightly closer to my chair, and she’d repeat “It’s OK to cry.” This pissed me off. I’m not much of a crier. I was being open and honest with her, but she seemed to refuse to believe that, because I wasn’t in pieces on the floor. It was OK to cry, she kept telling me, but it didn’t seem to be OK not to.
I stopped going.
A few years later, after a particularly freaky health scare, I started again. This time I found a therapist I liked more, and who wasn’t so fixated on crying, although it did still seem to be a big expectation on her part. We got on better, but something still didn’t sit quite right. I didn’t feel like I could be fully open with her, because she seemed a bit judgemental. I was too nervous to be honest about my reservations, so I cancelled the sessions instead and dealt with things on my own, like I was used to doing.
A few years after that, following a period when I lost everything, considered suicide and developed OCD to a level that was severely limiting my ability to do almost everything, I decided following a friend’s recommendation to try CBT. I joined an online CBT course because at that point in my life I couldn’t leave the house. The course involved videos to watch, exercises to do, and online calls and chats with a team of therapists. I found it really useful: it helped gradually to manage my symptoms, until eventually I was able to live my life to the full again.
Fast forward to 2016, and a singing lesson with a teacher here in West London. He’d said something nice about my voice, and my brain had started to freak out. I had no idea why. It was by no means life-limiting and was certainly something I could have dealt with by myself and moved on from, but I was intrigued. I’d noticed a bit of a pattern in myself when it came to self-improvement, in that I’d get so far and then stop as soon as someone else commented on my progress. I wondered why this was, so I figured it might be a good idea to find a therapist and go along for a few sessions to see what could be prompting this intriguing psychological habit.
And that’s important to note: I wasn’t motivated to try therapy again because I was mentally ill and my life was falling apart. I was motivated because I was intrigued by something I’d noticed in myself, and by a natural interest in human psychology.
I combed through the UKCP’s website and found a few people near me. I emailed several of them, and most replied. Some weren’t taking on new clients; a couple sounded quite good but were further away than I’d thought; and a few sounded even from the initial email like we might not get along.
Then I got an email back from someone who seemed promising. Her prices were very reasonable and she was offering a free consultation session. I went along with very low expectations, based on my prior experiences with therapy.
We hit it off immediately.
I told her about the intriguing trait I’d noticed in myself, and she agreed that it was interesting. We talked for a bit about my background, and then she asked whether I’d ever completed a full course of therapy other than the CBT I’d done a few years earlier. I said I hadn’t, and she suggested that it might be a good idea. I wasn’t 100% sold on the concept at the time, but I agreed because I liked her and I thought, well, why not give it a try?
We’ve been working together for over a year now and I can honestly say it is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t spend every session talking about miserable subjects. We don’t always delve into the depths of my childhood. I haven’t cried in any of the sessions, and she hasn’t pushed me to. We often have a laugh. I come away from each session feeling physically lighter, like I’ve dumped stuff on her and now don’t have to worry about it. Frequently we have a lot of fun in our sessions; sometimes they’re more serious. But I trust her, which is a big thing for someone who learned from an early age that no human is to be trusted.
So, what went right?
- I found someone whose practice was close enough to my house that I wouldn’t back out of going.
- I found her through the website of an accreditation body, so I knew her credentials were up to date.
- I shopped around before deciding on someone I liked.
- I went to the consultation session still very undecided on whether I was going to have therapy at all, let alone with this person. That meant that when I realised I wanted to go back, I knew I must really like her.
- I found someone with a similar life philosophy to my own. While part of therapy is about challenging your internalised beliefs, finding someone who disagrees with most of your life choices probably won’t end well. This was the problem with the second therapist I saw – while I liked her as a person, we didn’t agree on a lot of things.
- I found someone who was willing to laugh with me, and who didn’t care if I never cried in sessions. You might not want to have a laugh with your therapist, and you might want someone who’ll encourage you to cry. But that’s the point: finding someone who’s the right fit for you is really important. My therapist is intelligent, irreverent and shares many of my interests… and that’s a large part of why I trust her.
To summarise a long post into a shortish overview:
Therapy isn’t just for “crazy” people. It can help everyone, even if you’re not going because of a specific issue or challenge you’re facing. When done right, it can help you to understand yourself better and provides you with tools to help get you through the less easy parts of life. If you’re thinking about therapy, try it through the NHS if you’re in the UK; or if you’d rather go private, search using an accredited body rather than just googling. Most importantly of all, make sure you and your therapist gel. If you don’t gel with the first one you find, don’t be afraid to move on; therapists understand that not every combination of personalities work and they won’t be offended. Once you’ve found one you get along well with, you’ll reap the benefits.