March 24, 2017

How Therapy Helped Change My Life

Sitting on an exercise bike last night, I was messaging a friend about some issues he’s been going through this summer. I know, don’t text and ride, but this was important.

After a string of messages, he wrote something that almost threw me over the front of the (static) bike. Other gym goers looked at me perplexed.
“I don’t think I could ever do therapy because it would mean admitting there’s a problem, a problem I can’t fix by myself, and I could never be open enough to do it.”

Woah.

This is somebody I’ve always considered to be emotionally available, in control, and who I really enjoy spending time with.
And he’d just expressed what I think many of us, of all genders, consider the biggest block to going to get help for whatever mental health issue or gripe we’ve got going on: Admitting a weakness and asking for help is incredibly hard.

The conversation started because I’d told him that I have just gone back into therapy. At this point, roughly a year on from starting, I’m much more comfortable with the idea of me as somebody who goes to therapy. However as I emailed the woman I go to in a nice-smelling room in a central London, I wish I could say I felt no shame or anxiety about what I was doing. I wish I could say it was as easy as ordering my regular moisturiser order from Amazon Prime (DON’T JUDGE ME), but it wasn’t.

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Over the days before I went to see her, I had moments of shame and regret as to what she would think:

Therapist thoughts:

“I haven’t seen this guy in 6 months. I thought he was all fixed up. And now he’s coming back to me?! HA! What a loser.”

On the day of the appointment I cycled (real bike this time, variety keeps things interesting) into the office, not having told any of my friends or family I was going, and told the receptionist who I was there to see. “She must know who she is” I thought. “She must know I’m fucked up in the head. She’s probably thinking it right now.” If I’d had the forethought to look over to her computer screen, I’d have actually seen she was browsing the instagram of her ex-boyfriend, who was getting who was getting inter-species surgery that week, combining himself with a two tongued sloth. C’mon Sam, not everything’s about you.*

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But as soon as I saw my therapist everything was fine. We talked for an hour or so. I told her about what I was feeling at the moment, and what steps I wanted to take to remedy these feelings, and I left feeling much more in control of my emotions, and better off for having talked with someone who truly, deeply listened.

And that’s not a slight on you mum, but very few people listen as well as a therapist. Like they went to school for it, they spent hundreds of hours training to do it, and not only to listen, but to direct your thoughts in a protective and strengthening way. I mean they’re paid to be good listeners! We pay people to do sports in front of us, we pay people to play music in front of us, we pay people to talk funny in front of us, (some) even pay for sex… in front of them! Why can’t we pay somebody to be a good listener?

But cut back to this time last year. I was pretty thrown out. I’d been having recurring anxieties, and eventually had a panic attack (also in the gym — perhaps there’s a pattern emerging) from a variety of things happening at once that I felt were completely out of my control. It was a feeling of being so exasperated by the emotions that kept coming back, that no matter how hard I tried to avoid, repress, or hide from them, I had to do something about it. So it was desperation, in a way, that got me into therapy.

I told a few of my closest friends, and my mum, but couldn’t bear to tell my dad or my brothers, the men closest to me in my family life. Why was that? To this day I still don’t quite know, although I have a hunch. I think I saw it as admitting a fault, and admitting a fault to guys I respected and wanted respect from so deeply that it was too hard a conversation. It was just easier with somebody more emotionally available, like my mum. Because she’s amazing at that and I love her for it.

That’s not a slight on my brothers or my dad, but on me. I assumed they couldn’t handle the information. I assumed they couldn’t help me or wouldn’t care. There’s every chance that they would have been totally fine with it, even actively supportive of it.

So I did it, almost every week for about 4 months, and it was the key that opened a number of doors in my mind. I started connecting dots I hadn’t connected before: Incidents in my past that will have informed my decision making and mentality in certain situations since. I then developed tools for coping with these situations that I knew would bring up the feelings I had been having before. The tool kit got bigger, I got calmer and more in control, and I felt better and better. It wasn’t a solution, because there is no simple solution. Just as becoming more physically healthy doesn’t end once you reach a certain goal, you never really stop working on your mental health, especially when you’ve suffered in the past. It’s a journey, but a joyful one.

And what I would say to men out there is you’re not alone if you’re dealing with something and don’t feel like you can reach out for help. The estimate from scientific sources is that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year (not neccesarily “depression”, not necessarily “bipolar”, not necessarily anything labelled or specific, just a problem), and so many more will experience huge life events that require help of some kind. Those people include builders, accountants, prime ministers, 007 field agent folks, big tough army blokes, and, maybe, you. Are those people lacking willpower or grit? Are they unsuccessful, weak, or failures?

No. They’re human.

Society puts pressure on us to be none of these things at any time. It asks perfection of us.

Don’t be vulnerable.

Don’t be weak.

Never fail.

Never give up,
never give in (thx Churchill).

Fuck Churchill! He psychologically Fucked. His. Kids. Up.

Only through opening up and seeing a problem can we hope to solve it, and protect those we love from that problem growing into something that will hurt them in the future, or cause them hurt by seeing the pain it causes us.

So I say Be vulnerable. Be weak. Give up. Give in. Then rebuild. It’s so much more freeing to be open to these things than to repress them.

If it feels like it needs to happen, allow it happen, then please, seek help, talk, communicate, and you will be one step closer to alleviating those feelings that have been causing you pain.

Illustrations by Lali Pagès.

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