Therapy saved my life.
I say that neither lightly nor with hyperbole. Therapy really did save my life which is why I am always therapy this, therapy that on the blog. I am not saying that I would have committed suicide if I did not go to therapy, though there was a time in my late teens that I struggled with suicidal thoughts. What I am saying is that if I did not go to therapy before my mum died I would probably have lived out the rest of my life as a shell of a human being who is not really living but merely existing. And what is the point of that?
My mum was the absolute love of my life and during her battle with cancer I would tell her that when she dies they will have to bury me next to her because I do not want to do life without her. I know that is a very morbid conversation but we had a million such morbid conversations over the five years my mum battled cancer because dealing with a terminal illness really brings one’s mortality to the forefront. Therapy saved my life in that it immeasurably increased my willingness to want to carry on in a world where the love of my life no longer exists. And not just to carry on, but to live a full and passionate life filled with love, happiness, intentionality, gratitude, purpose, hope and courage.
In May my BFF and I recorded a podcast to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month where we shared some of our experiences with therapy. If you did not previously listen to it I recommend that you do so now that way I do not have to repeat myself in today’s post.
Though I would like to reiterate that it absolutely annoys me how society tends to stereotype therapy as for the weak and/or crazy while that could not be further from the truth. I would like anyone struggling with their mental health to know that there is nothing to be ashamed about in asking for help. That there is great strength in the vulnerability and honesty it takes to open up about stuff society usually frowns upon.
I have so many things to say about therapy but I will keep most of them for my post on World Mental Health Day next week. For today’s post I will focus on two things:
- How to find the right therapist
- How to make therapy work for you
Research has shown that a good rapport between the therapist and the client plays a big role in the success of therapy. Therefore my first piece of advice would be to try and find a therapist that you like because it is so much easier to build a relationship with a person you genuinely like. The relationship between a therapist and a client is different from most in that it is both professional and personal. Professional in the sense that you are paying the therapist for their services but deeply personal in that you are opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone who is essentially a stranger.
Therapy can be very awkward at the beginning and that is to be expected. Like any other relationship it takes time to find your footing but after a few therapy sessions you should be able to determine if your therapist is the right fit for you. Keep in mind though that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to therapists and what works for one person may not necessarily work for you. That being said if you are certain your therapist is not a fit you are well within your rights to respectfully end the relationship in search of someone else. Do not feel the need to push through with a therapist you are sure will not help with your healing as that is a waste of both your time and your money.
There are different approaches to therapy and your therapist ought to communicate which approach they intend to take should you wish to do further research on the same, which is something I strongly advice. For example, if I were to see a General Practitioner (GP) and they diagnose me with X and recommend Y course of treatment, you can be very sure I will read up on it because to be forewarned is to be forearmed. This same principle should be applied to mental health as it is not exclusive to physical health.
Speaking of GPs, if I have a toothache I will go to see a dentist and not a GP and this same distinction applies to therapists. Different therapists have different focus areas (marriage & family, mental health, substance abuse etc.) so before deciding on a therapist please do your research to establish if they can meet your needs. The therapist should also be able to communicate that they are knowledgeable with your issue through training and experience.
Another thing that is important is to find a therapist who is a good listener. Consider your gut feeling to see if it feels right talking to this therapist but generally you can tell if a therapist is a good listener if you feel heard and understood when talking with them.
Lastly, look out for therapists who just watch the clock or who you feel are pushing their own agenda. For example, I am not a religious person. So if I found a deeply religious therapist who continually urges me to pray and leave my problems to God despite me clearly stating that I am not religious, I would definitely look for someone else.
All that being said, a therapist is not there to fix your life for you but to provide the necessary tools to help with your healing. You and your therapist should agree on a treatment plan with specific goals and objectives. The plan should include strategies that your therapist believes will help you reach those goals and might even include a time frame for getting there. After all, therapy is expensive and you want to make sure you are getting your money’s worth.
Now on to point two. In the podcast I open up about how I once tried therapy for a few months in 2011/2012 but it did not work as I was not ready to put in the work. Because let no one cheat you, therapy is difficult AF and it only works if you do.
In 2017 I was finally ready to do the work as I came into the year knowing it might be my mum’s last one alive. When my mum was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 2012 she was given five years to live and it weighed heavily on my mind once 2017 rolled around. Of course I hoped for the best but her doctor proved to be pretty accurate with her timeline as my mum died on December 13, 2017.
In addition to feeling scared, angry, helpless, anxious and overwhelmed when 2017 rolled around, I was also carrying a lot of unresolved baggage from my childhood. Baggage that I knew if I did not start to unpack before my mum died I would be crushed under its weight and want to die as well. I was under no illusions that I would undo 20+ years of trauma in a single year but I knew that I had to begin the journey before my mum died. So I reached out to my BFF and she referred me to Kendi Ashitiva and we did nine months of therapy.
The first thing I will say about making therapy work for you is that you have to commit to your appointments and show up no matter what. This is the main reason why I failed at therapy the first time around in 2011/2012. I would make appointments and not keep them. One day my mum randomly passed by my therapist’s because she was anxious to learn if the therapy was working. She wanted me to find healing more than she wanted anything else in her life at that point, only to learn that I was not keeping my appointments. To say that she was furious is quite the understatement. To date that remains a leading example of a time I failed and deeply disappointed my mother. I did much better in my second round of therapy and never missed an appointment unless due to unavoidable circumstances, and I always made sure to reschedule ASAP.
Another thing is you need to be honest with your therapist but more so with yourself. For therapy to work you have to be completely honest and allow yourself to be vulnerable, because only when you let your therapist in can you both begin the healing process.
Honesty goes hand in hand with trust and it is important to build a level of trust with your therapist where you are comfortable sharing things with them that you find difficult to tell anyone else. In my nine months of therapy I shared things with my therapist that I had never said out loud before, even to myself, and it made a difference in how fast we progressed in my journey to healing.
It is also imperative that you keep an open mind. In therapy you will spend hours and hours challenging beliefs you have held for a very long time and you can only do this successfully if you keep an open mind.
Most therapists will give you “homework” in between sessions so please take this seriously. And even if they do not give you any homework, be proactive and do some yourself that way your therapy stays top of mind even in between sessions.
In conclusion, a lot of the time therapy will get harder before it gets easier. In the words of Iyanla Vanzant:
You can accept or reject the way you are treated by other people, but until you heal the wounds of your past, you will continue to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex, but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.
Sounds scary right? I will not lie, therapy can be scary sometimes on top of being difficult AF but it is so worth it because life is not meant to be lived in pain. There is beauty in this life and while some of us have to work a little harder to find it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If you are thinking of trying out therapy but do not know where to start, feel free to DM me on Instagram/Twitter (@misslwile) or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help where I can.