After seven months of talk therapy

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 - 12:53pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

My clammy hands clutched my car’s steering wheel as I carefully obeyed Google’s directions, guiding me towards an unfamiliar office building fifteen minutes away from campus. My internal monologue was offering me constant reminders to calm down. Take slow deep breaths. There’s no reason to be nervous. It felt like I was heading to a Tinder date, yet instead of a college boy, my handpicked match was a therapist I found off Psychology Today. In a few minutes, I’d be pressured to reveal my pacing inner thoughts and feelings with a stranger. 

I ventured up the stairs and entered the waiting room, decorated with peaceful paintings and all-beige furniture. I dug at the skin around my thumb with my fingernail, an anxious habit I’ve had since seventh grade. It was the end of December — about five months after my mental health started its downward spiral. 

I was there for a combination of symptoms, which all mostly stemmed from a traumatic experience during high school. My past found a clever, sinister way of creeping back into my life, and since I had never dealt with the trauma when it happened, it began slowly bulldozing the protective walls I thought I had built against it. 

Once my mental instability began severely damaging the relationships I had with my friends, my boyfriend and, most of all, myself, I finally realized I couldn’t maneuver my way out of this alone. I needed to talk to someone. I needed to go to therapy.

Thankfully, my support system, including my mom, was encouraging me towards the idea. But I was lucky. Although my generation has been successfully trying to dismantle the stigma around mental health and therapy, the shame associated with mental illness is still pervasive in older generations, various cultures and communities and our society as a whole. In fact, according to recent data, 56 percent of Americans said they’d feel uncomfortable talking about mental health with their family and friends. Approximately 60 percent of adults who have a mental illness don’t receive any mental health services.

Mental health advocates are working to make people recognize that mental health services — specifically talk therapy — aren’t just for people with diagnosable mental illness. The phrase “therapy is for everyone” encouraged me to quit self-gaslighting myself and my trauma, and welcomed me into a world of much-needed self-analysis I’ve never been before.

My first few sessions were emotionally draining. I revealed the distress I was experiencing to someone I trusted, in full detail, for the first time. In our week dedicated to unpacking the event from my past, I felt physically sick and lightheaded. But it was the first time I allowed myself to unreservedly feel those emotions, rather than shove them to the back of my mind — a coping mechanism I’d known far too well for years.

She helped me dissect my scattered emotions, jotting down notes, and circling back to things she thought we should work on. We made lists of actionable items on how I could take care of myself outside of sessions, including decompressing strategies and ways to repair my harmed relationships. I left every meeting feeling lighter than the hour before.

Although I couldn’t consciously see it at the time, therapy was shaping me into a person I was truly proud of — someone who sought to be self-aware, and open to exploring their negative emotions instead of suppressing them. I escaped auto-pilot, and ultimately took back control of my mind and body.

That part is specifically mind-blowing to me: the complex, subconscious personal growth achieved through effective talk therapy. Through being honest with my emotions, I accessed the power to blossom as an individual and grow from a pain I thought was impenetrable. My wound was being mended behind the scenes of each session, even if we ventured off-topic and discussed my stressful class schedule or the work I was doing for a club. And it wasn’t until my last (virtual) appointment, in July, when it registered — talk therapy healed me. 

After nearly seven months of weekly sessions, chatting with my therapist became a critical part of my week. But we both knew I was strong enough to move forward on my own, with casual check-ins rather than full-length sessions. I tried to tell her how much her work helped me, but the gratitude I hold for our journey together is indescribable.

“This moment is a bittersweet one,” she said. I agreed.

Being able to write this piece about my positive experience with talk therapy and its impact on my mental health offers me a sense of closure to my past. My history with trauma is still there, and it always will be. But now, rather than hiding it, I’ve been able to accept the life-changing scar it left on me. 

Although I’m aware I’ll experience many more emotional battles, and will most likely return to therapy in the future, my time with talk therapy taught me to prioritize self-understanding and my mental wellbeing — and it made me a better person because of it. 

If you’re mentally struggling, especially during these incredibly difficult and unpredictable times, remember you’re not alone. I hope my story and countless others inspire you to reach out for help, and potentially add talk therapy into your weekly or monthly schedule. You deserve to feel better, and most of all, you deserve to be happy. 

U-M has free counseling sessions and mental health services available, which can be found on the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) website. Another resource is BetterHelp, which offers virtual and affordable professional counseling with a licensed therapist. If you’d like to browse for in-person or virtual therapists in your area, check out Psychology Today for more information.