IMAGE: Genevieve Pizzale
It’s often spoken about in hushed tones, but seeing a therapist can make a world of difference for anyone who struggles with mental health issues.
I first started seeing a therapist when I was 15.
Grade nine had been tough. It was a crash course in social hierarchies and the way age and setting can change the dynamics of childhood friendships. So, delusional in thinking high school would be a seamless continuation of middle school harmony, I began to spiral when it wasn’t. I felt lost, unseen, disappointed and sad and, because I’d yet to learn how to articulate my feelings, I began acting out. I told everyone who would listen how desperate I felt and how much I related to Girl, Interrupted. (Not great.) And was shocked when my revelations were received with anything but grave concern and a place at the lunch table.
Which only led to me flailing more. And so, after a year of tears, poems and a short story my English teacher flagged as disturbing, my parents took me to our family doctor. And because I am lucky and he took the time to listen and explain all my options, he referred me to a therapist I connected with immediately. And with her help, I finally found myself again.
Of course, circa Y2K, therapy had a stigma attached. In many circles, it still does. In fact, until my best friend started seeing a therapist a few months after I did, I was the only person I knew who “got help.” But perhaps surprisingly (particularly with my zest for attention), I didn't care. I loved that I could talk to someone who didn’t know me or my friends or my family. I loved that therapy felt like—and continues to be—a mirror; an activity in self-reflection as opposed to passively being told what’s wrong and how to fix it. I left my appointments feeling like I was in control—like I had the tools I needed to get through the next day, or the next week, or the next year. Therapy made me feel strong. Which is why I’m still a big fan of it. I wouldn’t be who I am without therapy or my therapists. (And I certainly wouldn’t have gleaned enough perspective to be able to write about my first foray into it.)
But like I said, I’m very lucky. I’m lucky that my parents and family have listened instead of judged me. I’m lucky that my friends and I engage in big conversations about our mental health regularly. I’m lucky that I found therapists who I got along and felt safe with, and luckier still that I have a doctor who takes mental health seriously and has worked with me to find medications and solutions I feel comfortable with. And I’m lucky that I have a career that allows me to speak openly about myself like this. In my world, the stigma that comes with therapy doesn’t exist. But I’d be an idiot to think that I’m the rule, not the exception.
It’s strange the way so many of us talk about mental health; the way we have big conversations in hushed tones as if helping ourselves is something to be ashamed of. We equate strength or adulthood to being solitary and even isolated, and internally cite a need to “talk to someone” as a source of weakness. And of course we do. Day-to-day, we don’t talk about our mental health with the ease we talk about “physical” symptoms or disorders. And then, when tragedy befalls someone we know or have heard of, we rally over social media and urge anyone listening to seek help if they need it. As if it’s easy.
It isn’t easy for many reasons. When you’re being smothered with anxiety, high-highs, low-lows, and everything in-between, it can be hard to get up and eat, let alone reach out far enough to ask for mental health help. It’s not easy because there are also many steps and barriers: There are wait times for therapists or there can be lack of support from friends and family or a lack of financial ability. And it’s not easy because when we do talk about mental health, we reserve our discourse for days sponsored by telephone and cable companies, or treat every conversation about it with such heaviness that it negates any and all senses of normalcy. (I mean, look: If we’re going to normalize conversations about mental health, let’s do that by simply talking about it. Without the fanfare of hashtags or short novels explaining why “it’s about time.”) The stigma can’t—and won’t—disappear without our choice not to overcorrect. I mean, hi: Even when going back to therapy last year after taking a few months away, I hesitated to really talk about it because I didn’t want to be reminded about how “brave” I was being. I just wanted to go therapy, please and thank you.
And I’ve been going to therapy on and off for almost two decades. Imagine how someone just starting out would feel like.
The thing is, stigma exists because understanding does not. And while it’s easy to champion therapy from the outside, it’s not until we talk about what it actually looks like from the inside can it be as “normal” as we’re trying to make it. It’s important to acknowledge that starting therapy can be scary; that it can be terrifying to go into past traumas and to uncover the layers of armour you’ve built to keep yourself alive. It can be daunting to think about having to find your own solutions—to accept that a good therapist will not tell you what to do or what not to do, but urge you to look inside and acknowledge truths you’ve buried. It can be tedious to do the work, to talk for an hour and then sit with your realizations until your next appointment and then process all of it accordingly (which is equal parts exhausting and boring). It can be hard because it’s, well, hard. And on top of that, there’s the worry about what other people will think. Because what if those people think you’re crazy?
Well, those people are the worst. (And they can go to hell.) But where some people will never understand the importance of tuning up one’s mental health, most are adults who respect the importance of it. Ultimately, your mental health has nothing to do with other people. Your choices to see a therapist and to find someone you can talk to and connect with isn’t anybody else’s concern, unless you want it to be. Creating normalcy means defining it on your own terms, which means you can talk about it (or not talk about it) the way you want. When it comes to prioritizing your mind and yourself, the opinions of outliers have no place in your narrative. It isn’t your problem if they can’t understand the work you’ve chosen to do.
Which I know is easier said than done—and rich, coming from someone who just admitted how lucky she was to find a mental health plan that worked from the onset. But in-between those plans, I found myself succumbing to stigmas, too. I’ve isolated myself because I believed that’s what grown-ups did. I stopped going to therapy because I wanted to have it “all figured out.” I locked friends and family members out, and I self-medicated to bury the feelings and symptoms that got more and more out of control. I have failed, and I have floundered. And now I am just too tired to care about the comfort of strangers when dissecting the way my brain works. Which is how I’ve chosen to fight stigma: by being loud, honest, and open in my approach to mental health and my continued visits to my therapist. How you fight it is up to you.