My first experience with talk therapy was uncomfortable, awkward, and unfulfilling. I have since had fantastic experiences, but the beginning was anything but.
Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.
Therapy can seem mysterious and intimidating before experiencing it. I know it seemed that way for me. As I have shared about mental health with others, I have found it helpful to relate my first exposure to therapy, and I hope it can help you as well.
Misconceptions of therapy
As I grew up, therapy was not mentioned or normalized. It was reserved for those who were “crazy” and about to be hospitalized, or for broken families or failing marriages. I cannot remember any adult or peer ever mentioning talking with a therapist. The one exception was grief counselors being offered at school after the death of some students.
Even as I married and had children, I still saw therapy as the necessary dose of psychological medication prescribed after some traumatic event. The idea that someone would meet with a therapist on a regular basis never occurred to me. One of my best friends was a middle school counselor, so I at least had the perspective that counselors or therapists could be normal people. I have always enjoyed talking with people, and in particular listening to what they care about most, and I had heard people compare me to a therapist in a way that I could tell was meant to be complimentary.
By the time that I had back pain and panic attacks in the summer of 2018, I had some concept that meeting with someone to talk about life could be helpful. I still had no idea what to expect, but I was ready for some kind of help, and asked the chiropractor for a referral. The person he recommended had no openings for the next month and a half, and I had trouble seeing that far in the future. I felt an urgent need for help.
I reached out to a friend from a previous neighborhood who was a therapist at a clinic, and told him that I was interested in learning more about therapy and what I could expect. We went to lunch, and I received what I can see now as a free therapy session from a caring friend. He asked about what was going on in my life that was making me interested in therapy, and helped me process some of the intense feelings I was having.
One of the most poignant lessons I took away from our conversation was the idea of fit as I looked for a therapist. It was important to give someone a couple tries before deciding whether to commit to a longer term therapeutic relationship.
A major concern that I had was not knowing what to tell a therapist that I needed. I felt like I needed to have a clear picture of the help I required in order to properly ask for it. My friend assured me that a skilled therapist would be able to ask me questions and figure out what my situation and needs were. The only preparation necessary was to go in with an open mind and a willingness to listen and share.
In order to be seen as quickly as possible, I got on the internet and found some options close to my house, and called and set up an appointment with the first person available. I still had no real sense of what therapy would be, or what it could do, but I hoped for some relief and understanding of what was happening to me.
When the date of my first session arrived, I took the afternoon off from work, and my wife let me know that she would manage the house when I was done. There was a good chance that I would be emotionally raw, and need some time before reengaging with the family, and she wanted me to know that I had space for that. I waited in an uncomfortable lobby after checking in with the young receptionist and filling out all sorts of forms. A middle-aged man came and called my name, and then looked for an open room where we could talk—apparently the facility just had a number of shared offices.
As we talked, I felt some of the fear and uncertainty melt away. “This wasn’t so bad. It doesn’t seem to be helping, but it’s at least not painful,” I thought. We discussed my background and upbringing, particularly my difficult relationship with my father. He gave me good advice about making sure to exercise regularly, and to let go of the pressure to be productive during that time. Instead of listening to sermons, or self-help books, or informative podcasts, just enjoy the time and listen to music, or fun fiction, or nothing at all.
About half-way into the session, he announced that the good news was that I clearly didn’t need any kind of medication. Not knowing how to respond, I stammered, “Oh, ok. Good.” Clearly needing medication was a negative thing, and I was lucky to not be in that situation. Looking back, I wish I had known enough to stop him right there. How could he know from the first thirty minutes of talking with me whether that was something that I would need or not? And how could he bias me so strongly to not considering that?
Giving another try
I left that first session and went straight home. My overwhelming feeling was, “Huh. That’s therapy. Interesting.” I talked with my wife and told her that I did not think I would go back. I felt no connection with him, and could not see that being helpful. I remembered the advice from my friend to try two or three times to explore the fit before deciding, and booked another appointment.
We met the second time in a different room than the first session. Even though he had his laptop, presumably with notes from the first session, it seemed that at least half of the session was a verbatim repeat of the first one. Apparently, I had “perfectionistic tendencies” that were causing me some trouble in my life. I am sure that he had more to say, but for the life of me, I cannot remember what else there was.
As we ended, he did not even bring up meeting again. Frankly, that was a relief, because I was stressing about how to say that I never wanted to see him again. This way, I was able to walk out of the room and straight out of the office, knowing that I would never have to be subjected to that again. As far as I was concerned, therapy was a bust.
In so many ways, therapy seems like a ridiculous setup. Let me walk in to a total stranger, and share the deepest and most intimate details of my life. Hell, no! This is exacerbated by many of the stereotypes portrayed in media. And frankly, that reluctance felt justified after my first encounter with a real therapist.
Fortunately for me and my family, my story did not stop there. In the next installment of my story, I look forward to sharing the life-changing experience of finding the right fit with a different therapist, and getting diagnosed with OCD.