I saw my first therapist when I was 18 when, faced with the end of high school, the beginning of college, and my entire family moving to a new city, I began to feel sad—what I’d later know as my first glimpse of depression. I arrived at my one and only session begrudgingly. It felt like my parents, ill-equipped to deal with what they deemed a disproportionate reaction to inarguably fundamental parts (moving parts, mind you) of life that they had experienced in their many years together, decided to outsource the work of understanding and guidance to a stranger with no knowledge of just how happy and seemingly healthy I usually was. I recall being so conscious of the fact that this person wasn’t really going to meet the real me because I wasn’t usually like this.
But how would I tell her that? How could I convince her that this wasn’t normal and I am actually totally fine most of the time?
What I know now is that my parents were doing an incredibly difficult and brave thing. They were acknowledging that, regardless of their roles as my parents—the very people who gave me life, love, wide feet, and curly hair—they could not help me the way I needed. That must have broken their hearts. They created me, bore witness to my entire existence, yet couldn’t be the ones to guide and advise me in understanding myself.
Back then, I made myself believe that I was so completely and uniquely broken that I was beyond repair even by the two people responsible for my very being in the world. Not even my parents recognized the machinations of my mind and heart. How terrible of a daughter must I have been to make my parents do this for me? How irreparably broken am I that my own parents can’t help me?
I was not normal.
I was not like them, or my sister.
I was different.
I did not belong.
I can trace these feelings of difference and otherness back into my early adolescence and even childhood, but this specific moment paired with this specific action was the first time I began to think that there was something wrong with me. I was going to visit a medical professional who would ask questions, listen to the thoughts between my answers, write notes about my disordered mind, compare me to other patients, stack up my symptoms, and attempt to find some diagnosis that matched so that I could be treated and cured. I was going to be visible—truly seen by a medical professional—and she was going to find me out. She would see me, hear me, and know that I was simultaneously deficient and superfluous, a true anomaly. She would immediately detect that my intelligence was a veneer that belied pools of fear older than time itself, and she would know.
She would know me. She would discover that I was not worth knowing.
She would be disappointed.
I wish I could tell you that some of these feelings—namely, fears—are gone and that when I see my current therapist, I sit on her couch and truly relax, leaning back into the cushions with the comfort of someone who accepts and celebrates herself just for showing up to therapy, and who doesn’t think twice about how she answers questions and what those answers not-so-secretly say about her level of wellness or worth in the world.
Instead, I tell you that, after 14 years and six therapists, I still feel a little tingle of nervousness when I walk into my therapist’s office. I occasionally rehearse what I want to talk about on the ride over because I want to make sure that I really show up for myself and tell the truth, and sometimes I have to break the silence in the car alone first before I can say it to someone else. I still forget to bring my own tissues (don’t worry, they always have plenty, but I sometimes feel like I owe them a few hundred boxes). I still struggle to make follow-up appointments because it takes an act of something holy to get me there in the first place, so the very thought of committing future Kelly to a task more complicated than brushing her teeth is risky business.
When your mental illness tells you that you are nothing, it is hard to advocate for yourself. When your mental illness tells you that you are a burden, it is damn near impossible to want to inflict yourself on someone else, even if you’re paying them. When your mental illness tells you that these moments of darkness and silence are all you are, it takes every ounce of self-love you have ever had to tell someone, and tell your illness, that you don’t think that’s true. Seeking help, specifically therapy, for a mental illness is the most incredible act of self-love. By making a call, leaving a message, even trying to make an appointment, you are showing yourself that you are worthy of healing. You are worth caring for and understanding.
Finding the courage to seek help and undertake the process of finding the therapist I need has been, and continues to be, one of the more difficult processes of my life. When I saw my first therapist, I had no real choice in the matter, and I carried shame with me because of it. It has taken some time to shake shame, but it is the very process and practice of going to therapy and consciously choosing to accept the time and attention of another person that has helped me do so.
My relationship with my mental illness is the longest in my life. As in any relationship, it has pushed me to grow, shrink, accept, give, give, give, yield, fight, push boundaries, and build healthy ones. My relationship with therapy is a close second, and the person it has allowed me to become knows that she is not meant to handle life on her own. She feels more deeply than others and often needs an anchor to keep her grounded, but free enough to explore her feelings with a certainty that she will not be swept away by them. She knows that some moments, days, weeks, and months in life will seem better than others, but there are no absolutely no moments that would be better without her in them. She deserves to assume her space in the world, and she is worthy of kindness and understanding. She is worthy of a life she loves.
As such, I have put together these helpful guides that you may find useful, no matter where you are in your journey. Each guide contains checklists, questions to ask, and things you can be thinking about from the time you decide to seek therapy, through selecting a therapist and reflecting upon your first appointments. Please click the links below to download.
The primary goal for my writing this piece was to provide resources for friends in search of a therapist in hopes of making the process a little less unwieldy and scary. It doesn’t have to be, but it sometimes is, BUT that doesn’t mean that YOU are not worthy of guidance and help. Needing help in getting help? Also completely normal! I want each and every person who wants to seek help to have the resources and support required to do so. Therapy has changed my life and how I see myself; I now know that I’m a capable, loving, worth-loving person who wants everyone to feel the same joy she does. I never want anyone who knows me, or has read my writing, to feel alone.