In honour of National Mental Health Day, I thought today might be a good one to talk a little bit about my journey with therapy.
I grew up in a family and a faith system where psychology was eyed with great suspicion. I’d heard all the usual fundamentalist anxiety about Jung’s heretical beliefs, and Freud’s strange obsession with sexuality. I’d heard anecdotes about how psychologists insidiously plant false memories in their patients and teach them to blame all their problems on their parents. Psychologists were seen as a danger to family values and the family unit itself.
The family I grew up in is one that could have benefitted from therapy. Mental illness was a constant presence in my home. But it wasn’t acknowledged as Mental Illness because we were primed to see any deviation from “good and holy living” as sin or spiritual issues.
Pastors were consulted with little success. We rebuked manifestations of Untreated Mental Illness with encouragement to have more faith, pray more, and just move on and get over what we considered to be strange and irrational anxieties. Because we didn’t know anything about mental health. We had no resources and we were not equipped to assess or manage mental illness.
I experienced abuse from Untreated Mental Illness*. I have vivid memories of fearing for my safety because of the uncontrollable rages that reared their ugly head. I can often still hear that voice in my mind telling me awful things about who I am.
And no help was sought.
I watched various forms of mental and emotional distress waft in and out of my family home my whole life. Never did we seek outside help.
When I finally found the strength to move and start a new life, I also had to begin the process of unlearning all the harmful ideology I’d been handed about therapy and psychology. I had to accept the fact that I was not okay, and I needed a way to find healing.
I began with my beloved friends: books. I read all kinds of books that helped me understand myself, my experiences, and my family better. The books helped. The sites I’d stumbled across on mental health helped. The support groups I found online helped. They all played a part in teaching me about mental health, self-care, and boundaries.
And yet, I was stuck. The things I’d been taught about psychology by my family and my faith culture stayed with me. My family’s refusal to seek help was deeply ingrained in me. I wanted to do it all by myself. I could fix myself if I just tried a little harder. If I just read the right books. I could do it on my own. I really thought I could.
But I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I would eventually need to reach out to a therapist to fully deal with everything.
I stayed in this limbo for years. Knowing that I needed help to sift through the trauma I’ve experienced, but yet not being able to permit myself to reach out.
Finally, this past year I hit a point where I knew I couldn’t do it alone anymore. I knew I needed help.
In April, I spent a week or two looking up therapists in my area. But I didn’t know what I needed to be looking for in a therapist. There were different degrees, different licences, different approaches. There were Christian therapists and secular therapists. Therapists of every kind.
I felt overwhelmed by the options. I closed my laptop and I stopped my search.
In July, I tried again. I asked around about what to look for in a therapist and I narrowed down the goals I wanted to accomplish, and what sort of therapist I’d need to make that happen.
I spent weeks looking at profiles of different therapists. It was a draining and exhausting experience trying to find the person who was supposed to make sense of everything I’ve experienced and help me find healing.
I finally reached out to three people.
One never responded. One responded to say that they were no longer accepting new clients. One responded to ask if I wanted to schedule a consult to see if we were a good fit or go ahead and schedule an intake session. I scheduled a consult.
It’s now been a month and a half since that initial consult. I’m looking back now at my very chaotic relationship with mental wellness, and I have so many thoughts and feelings bubbling around in my mind.
I’m so sad for my family when I think of how different our lives might be today if we better understood mental health and psychology. The notion that we had of what therapy was could not have been more wrong. I can’t help but think of how we each could have gotten the help that we needed decades ago and we could have foregone a lot of suffering if we’d just understood what therapy actually was.
I’m angry at church culture for the narrative of paranoia and fear that exists around therapy. If the stigma had been lifted in just one of the churches we attended and mental health was treated as a legitimate medical need, maybe my family could have gotten help. If just one of those pastors had told my family, “I can’t help you because I am not a licensed mental health professional, and that’s who you need to contact.” Perhaps my family’s story would have unfolded differently.
I feel sad for myself for these last several years while I’ve been trying to figure it all out on my own because it was so deeply ingrained in me that asking for help I need is wrong. Yes, I learned a lot on my own. But I think I would have gotten there faster if I’d asked for help.
Therapy can be hard. I’ve had a couple of sessions where my tears just flowed. I’ve felt physically broken from re-opening old and buried wounds that I didn’t realize I still carried. But it’s also healing work. I have already learned a lot about myself, my motivations, why my inner voice speaks to me in certain ways. And these are important things to figure out. They are small stepping stones on my path to healing.
But do you know what my biggest takeaway was?
I distinctly remember sitting on the therapist’s couch in one of my first sessions and talking about some of the hard things I’ve experienced. And just hearing my story repeated back to me through a lens in which I am validated, accepted, and affirmed… It was like nothing I’d experienced before. All I could think at this moment was, “therapy is a form of ministry. And I am being ministered to right now.”
Contrary to the message I grew up hearing, there is nothing dangerous about therapy. It is healing. It is helpful. It is necessary.
It really is a form of ministry. Everyone can partake in this ministry and reap the benefits, it doesn’t matter what your life story is. You will benefit from therapy.
I truly believe that everyone could benefit from finding a licensed therapist that they can talk with. And if you’re on the fence now about starting that process, please let me encourage you to start making those calls to find someone. Don’t wait. This is an investment in yourself and your well-being, and you are so worth it.
*This is not to be taken as a statement that mental illness is the cause of abuse. Mental illness *can* be a factor in abuse, but the mentally ill are not inherently more dangerous or abusive than anyone else. I am speaking about my experience and my experience alone. No generalizations should be taken from my personal story.