My therapist of 16 years died last month. She had been fighting cancer for a long time and, from what I understand, she was ready to go. I was both expecting and dreading the news. I knew she was dying but nothing can soften the heart-dropping reality that someone you loved has passed away. I am grateful to her for so many things: she taught me not to be afraid of my bipolar disorder, to understand other people and how to maintain healthy boundaries. It is a little hyperbolic to say that she saved my life, but she certainly equipped me with the tools I needed to save myself. I could write at length about how charismatic, funny and insightful she was, but she wasn’t a family member or even a friend. The relationship between client and therapist is unique; intimate but also, necessarily, distant. It’s important that I respect her boundaries and those of her family. As a tribute to her, I thought it might be useful to talk about the benefits of therapy and how to find a good therapist.
I started seeing her aged 18; I was suffering with anxiety, panic attacks, bulimia and trichotillomania, amongst other things. I had deluded myself into believing that I didn’t really need therapeutic intervention and I should have been able to ‘pull myself together’. I had a vague idea of what to expect from therapy because I had seen the school councillor, but talking to my therapist was very different. She asked me questions about my life, my childhood and we analysed the attitudes that I had formed in my 18 years. Slowly, we unravelled the tangled mess of my psyche and gradually, she helped me understand myself and those around me. I learned to connect the dots between my behaviour and its origins. I still made self-destructive mistakes, particularly before my bipolar diagnosis, but I had the support of someone warm and kind who was also detached enough to make objective observations. One of the most valuable lessons she taught me was that you can have complete compassion for a person’s situation and subsequent behaviour, but still hold them accountable for their actions.
For years, my therapist suggested that I see a psychiatrist because she thought there was a chemical imbalance that was effecting my mood and decision making. I stubbornly refused until I was 30 and I wish I’d taken her advice sooner, once I had the diagnosis for bipolar disorder, my mental health became easier to manage.
There’s a perception that you has to be really screwed up to need therapy and analysing your formative years is somehow a betrayal of your parents and a tacit accusation of their failure. Worse still, there’s also a destructive and toxic notion that therapy is an exercise in self-indulgent navel gazing. This is not true; if anything going to therapy is one the most loving things you can do for those around you. If you make the effort to be as emotionally healthy as possible, you will no doubt be a better family member, partner and friend. The author Richard Rohr said ‘pain that is not transformed is transmitted’. When you work through your own emotional baggage, you’re less likely to impose it on other people.
The purpose of therapy is to process one’s life, figure out the origin of certain behaviours and hopefully find solutions for negative patterns. Understanding your own history means that you are able to move forward positively. However, not all therapy involves in-depth analysis. There are lots of different forms, some of which are designed to deal with a singular issue; it may be that you are recently bereaved, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks as a result of trauma, or dealing with the fall out from a breakup. Therapy can help with so many things and getting the right treatment may only require a limited number of sessions, depending on the situation. As well as seeing my regular therapist, I’ve had EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) for the post traumatic stress I experienced after my dad died. I’ve also taken part in group therapy and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). These treatments were very powerful and helpful for different issues. I won’t explain each of them in detail because this post will go on forever, but there is a lot of useful information on the Mind website.
It would be remiss of me not to state that I am coming from a very privileged position and I was able to access therapy privately. Unfortunately, the waiting lists on the NHS for therapy are very, very long. Our healthcare system is an amazing institution but its mental health provisions are often inadequate. However, the NHS is a postcode lottery and some areas will have better services than others, so if you think you would benefit from therapy it’s always worth speaking to your GP first. However, if you’ve been put on an interminable waiting list, there are charities that offer free or low cost therapy. Your local branch of Mind, Rethink Mental Illness or Turning Point may be able to help. There are also groups that you can join, particularly if you are struggling with addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous and its affiliate groups do amazing work, all free of charge. Therapy can be expensive but if you can possibly make it work, it’s worth it. Explore what is available in your area, there are centres that offer more affordable therapy and counselling. Some therapists will even negotiate their fee and ask that you only pay what you can afford. Think of it as an investment in your health as there is really no difference between mental health and physical health, the brain is an organ in the body after all. Don’t expect therapy to fix you over night, it takes time for it to pay off. However, with patience, persistence and a little bravery, you’ll reap the benefits.