“So you, like, talk about your week?” one friend asked when I told them I had started therapy again. Well, yes and no. I’ve been in and out of therapy for six years, and I’ve tried out a few different types. The way I see it, I don’t like how my mind responds to what’s happening in my life. Things as innocuous as going to class, meeting up with a few friends or even waking up, can be enough to make me begin to panic. My mind’s reaction can range from mildly inconvenient to downright debilitating. I don’t talk with my therapist as I would with a friend because my goal is to train my mind to process stimuli differently. My loved ones, as great as they are, aren’t equipped to help me in that regard.
For a while, this involved Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For a couple of weeks, I had to fill out a spreadsheet of moments I found particularly distressing. Then, with the help of my therapist, I filled out other parts of the spreadsheet that helped me process these thoughts: what would I say if it were my friend going through the same? If the worst-case scenario came true, how would I handle it? The aim is to train your mind to eventually do the same, to stop catastrophizing and calmly process what’s going on around you. This helped improve my quality of life immensely.
As a society, we’ve become a lot more open in discussing topics related to mental health and recommending therapy to one another as a course of action. However, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what is actually involved once you step into a therapist’s office. For me, the Hollywood-fueled perception of lying down on a chaise with a box of tissues is still immensely pervasive. It’s frustrating to deal with these stereotypes when trying to be open about mental health issues, as it can reduce the whole endeavour of therapy into a trivial need to complain about your life to a paid professional. Comparatively, filling out a spreadsheet doesn’t seem quite as cinematic but, for me, was far more helpful.
These stereotypes can be especially damaging to those who are starting therapy for the first time. By its nature, this can be one of the most vulnerable periods of a person’s life. If you’re not aware of what is actually out there, it’s far too easy to end up in care that isn’t suited to your needs — or worse, to give up entirely. When I was 18, my attempts to get better were hindered by two medical professionals: one who told me that I was “probably just homesick,” and another who told me not to self-harm, as I was “beautiful and the scars will last forever.”
With the benefit of hindsight, I see that I should have pushed harder to find a therapist who would properly care for me. However, there was a stereotypical narrative that had led me to believe that going to the doctor was all I needed to do; if that didn’t work, it was my own fault. I was referred to other specialists, but I didn’t understand that getting suitable care can mean having to meet with lots of different people before finding the best fit. I just gave up and continued to spiral downwards.
We need to shift the conversation around mental illness to its treatment, not just the illness itself. We can’t stop the conversation at “go see a therapist,” but rather encourage transparency in the successes and pitfalls in the journey to better mental health. The first therapist you might see might not be the perfect fit, and people should be prepared for that. Perhaps part of this can involve pushing for better resources that more specifically outline what to expect when booking the first therapy appointment. With that, we can be better equiped to tackle mental health from an informed standpoint.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition.
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Email Natasha Jokic at [email protected]