Therapy: Be (a) Patient

When I began going to therapy for my OCD, I never really felt that it was much of a choice. For one thing, I was just an 8-year-old kid who had learned that he had a mental health issue, and my parents did what they felt was best for me. It just seemed like the logical thing to do, and so while I don’t really feel that I fully processed what was happening at the time (it was a whirlwind), to this day I don’t think I would have questioned that decision.

I have experienced many highs and lows throughout the last 22 years. I’ve been in and out of therapy, and have had mixed feelings about it from time to time. Looking back, I do wonder about certain things as far as my experience with therapy goes.

When I left therapy just before my 18th birthday, I felt that I was in a good place, with both my OCD and my life in general. I was heading off to college, had just lost 50 pounds and come out of my awkward shell. I had started dating, and was enjoying a robust social life with my friends. I had also been gradually easing off of my medication, and had just finished my final doses. I felt that I could manage my OCD symptoms just fine on my own. Things were going well for me, and my confidence was at an all-time high.

I had been in therapy for 10 years, and I knew the strategies for how to handle my anxiety. I no longer wanted to feel as though I needed the help that therapy provided. I also no longer wanted to make the time commitment to going to therapy, as I feared it would cut into my newfound social life.

As I began to form deeper relationships, I began to open up about my OCD to those who were closest to me. I still acknowledged it as a thing of the present (“I have OCD”), but because I stopped going to therapy and taking medication, I also spoke of it as something I had conquered. I would share this story with a select few, speaking of my OCD as if it were a dormant monster within me that I had slain.

For the next 10 years, I remained out of therapy while I continued to battle anxiety and OCD. In some ways, it fueled me; as a student, my need for things to be “just right” led me to produce quality work and earn good grades. In other ways, however, my OCD continued to be a prominent force in my life, whether I knew it at the time or not. 

The Habits,” as I called my quirky rituals, had been carefully designed to curb my anxiety without drawing much attention to myself. They had become so ingrained in my everyday life that even I rarely noticed them or gave them much thought most of the time. They were just there. What I also didn’t notice, though, was that just as I had evolved socially, my OCD had also “evolved.” 

Despite my recent weight loss, the body image issues I had developed from being overweight my entire adolescent life formed insecurities which my OCD tapped into readily. The obsessive thoughts that were once a source of severe anxiety through patterns, pathways and tapping rituals became directed towards my relationships and were driven by compulsions, irrational fears, and vivid imaginations of dramatic breakups. 

I became so afraid of losing anyone I became close with that I would constantly be thinking about what I “should” do to make sure they didn’t grow tired of me and move on. Relationship after relationship, I would go out of my way to do “the little things” that I’d heard meant so much within a relationship. But in each case, over time, I would start to overthink things. I would exhaust myself trying to go above and beyond to be there for people, and ultimately, it became exhausting not only to me, but to them. 

For 10 years I went through this cycle, all of them without therapy until finally, in 2014, I had to give in. 

That summer, I began experiencing a great deal of anxiety and my OCD was making it difficult for me to function. I became convinced that I was doing something wrong within my relationship, and was overwhelmed by a looming fear that things had changed. I could barely focus at work. Every time I looked at my phone to find no message, I would worry that I had done something to upset her. Because I’m a “fixer,” these fears only made me try harder to repair what I perceived to be going wrong. Still, everything I did only made me fear a breakup even more.

By September, I felt like I was drowning in an overwhelming wave of anxiety and at its worst, I had actual physical symptoms. My chest literally would become tighter and my breath would become shorter. I began looking into anonymous groups geared towards relationships, but couldn’t gather the courage to actually go into a meeting. Not knowing what else to do, I called the counseling center on campus at my graduate school and began going back to therapy. 

As I reflect on it now, I can’t help but wonder if there were some things I could, or should have done a little bit differently with regards to therapy. Should I never have stopped going when I was 18? Should I have found a therapist that could be a more steady presence in my life (I had gone through at least 6 therapists as a kid)? Should I have tried harder to follow the tactics I learned to reduce my anxiety? 

Hindsight is always 20/20, and so for me, while I can’t undo some of the things that I’ve done over the past 22 years, what I can do is share some insight on therapy for those of you who may be in the beginning stages on your path to improving your own mental health.

It takes a lot for me to admit that I need help. I can often be a stubborn person who doesn’t like to feel as though I can’t do something, even if I know deep down that I actually can’t do that thing. For the longest time, I felt that asking for, or admitting to needing help was a sign of weakness or inadequacy. Truthfully, I still find it hard to shake that feeling sometimes, but I’ve been trying to be more honest with myself when it comes to knowing my limitations. It’s not easy. 

Whether mental health is the one thing you’ll never ask for help with, or if you simply refuse to ask for help under almost any circumstances, pride can be a powerful motivator behind our behaviors, especially when it comes to therapy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either; frankly, I believe that it’s human nature to have a sense of pride. Still, there are times when pride can get in the way of our better judgement and prevent us from seeking out the help that we may actually need.

Needless to say, the decision to go back to therapy in 2014 was not an easy one for me. In a way, similar to when I was 8, I almost felt that I didn’t have much of a choice (although this time as an adult, I absolutely did). My mistake, however, was waiting so long to admit that I needed help in the first place. It took me until I had very much reached my wits’ end to look for help, and in many ways I wish I hadn’t let it get to that point. I got caught up in the idea that going back to therapy, after 10 years without it, was admitting some kind of defeat, or that it meant I had undone of all of the progress I had made years before. 

If you’ve never been to therapy before, going to therapy does not mean you’re crazy, or deficient, or inadequate. Most likely, it simply means that there’s a need within you that is calling to be fulfilled. If therapy is something you’re even remotely considering, I recommend making every effort to set aside pride and be honest with yourself about where you’re at mentally. On the other hand, if you’ve “quit” therapy previously and are resisting the idea of going back because you feel it would be admitting “defeat,” I hope that you can find it in yourself to see it differently.

Instead of viewing it as defeat, perhaps you can take the perspective that you’ve already beaten your anxiety (or other diagnosis) before. You’re a champion. And now, you’re defending your title against a new wave of challengers (anxiety, depression, or whatever it is you’re facing). Rather than taking pride in not going to therapy, perhaps be proud that you have the self-awareness and honesty to acknowledge that you’re struggling, and that you’re owning it by doing something about it.

If you’re at a point where you’ve accepted that therapy is needed, but are having trouble choosing a therapist, I understand. Going to therapy generally implies that you’re going to candidly share some of the most deeply rooted things which are most troubling to you in your life. The things discussed in therapy are often things that we tend to hide from the rest of world. As a result, there is an immense amount of trust that is required to walk into therapy and spill your heart out to a complete stranger, and this can be overwhelming in itself.

The patient-therapy dynamic is a unique relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless. Much like friendships and dating, having an idea of a few characteristics you’d like in a therapist may help you to identify what you’re looking for. In this regard, my best advice is that you may need to be patient with being a patient. It may take time to develop a rapport with a therapist, and so you may not necessarily have an instantaneous connection. If you do, that’s wonderful, but it’s especially important to be realistic and give it some time if you don’t fully click right away.

Now, that doesn’t mean to stick with a therapist you’re uncomfortable with, or to wait too long to make a change if you’re not a good fit for one another. However, having been the patient of what is now at least 7 different therapists (that I can remember), I believe that consistency is a key component of getting the help you need through therapy. Switching therapists may not be entirely within your control depending on the program your therapist is part of. This is important to keep in mind when you start with someone new, as some therapists are assigned to a center for 2-3 years before “graduating” from that program and moving on in their careers. I recommend that it would be helpful to ask whether a therapist is able to commit to working with you for the long haul, and not just for a short-term period.

Lastly, try your best not be ashamed of the fact that you’re going to therapy, even if that’s your initial impulse. The stigma surrounding people in therapy can be a deterrent, and one that I myself struggled with many times in the past. Now more than ever, people are advocating for mental health patients, with social media campaigns such as #EndTheStigma aiming to promote acceptance and compassion for those who struggle with mental health diagnoses. Remember, you’re taking steps towards taking care of yourself, and that in itself is something to be proud of, whether others can see that or not.

It’s up to you whether or not you decide to share with others that you’re going to therapy. You have every right to keep these things private if you so choose, and every right to share this information on your own terms when you’re ready. Keep in mind that just as you may need to be patient with a therapist, you may also need to be patient with the people with whom you share the fact that you are going to therapy. Some people may take longer to absorb, process, and understand this information than others will. Ultimately, if you do decide to share this part of your life, I recommend seeking out those people who you know you can trust, and who will be supportive of you in what you’re going through.

What I’ve shared here comes strictly from my own personal experience, and much of what I’ve gone through may be different from what you are going through. I realize that what I’ve shared is not likely to apply to everybody directly. Still, my insight is rooted in my own truth, and by drawing from the experiences I’ve had along my personal journey, I believe that much of what I shared can be helpful to you in some way.

Trust yourself, seek others you can trust, and remember that you’re a champion simply for taking care of yourself. As hard as it might be, there’s no shame in asking for help if you really need it. Therapy can be a great resource when you have the right fit. Try your best to be patient.

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© Copyright Whatismyhealth, January 22nd, 2017