I’ve been thinking about counseling lately. The kind where you go and sit in a room with a stranger and tell them all of your feelings. I’m not considering going at this moment myself, not because I don’t “need” to, (we all “need” to in my opinion), but because I’m in a pretty good place right now. Again, in a perfect world, that wouldn’t matter. We would get to go to therapists once a week or month and talk about our how we’re affected by this often effed up world around us, whether we’re “in a good place” or not.
I’ve been thinking about it lately because I’ve had a few friends recently talk to me about going to therapy, either alone or with their partners. This was always said in a bit quieter voice, or accompanied by a specific reason why they were going. That makes me sad, though I must admit that I have done the same myself. I finally took the approach of “It’s 2014, who isn’t in therapy these days?” It’s sort of weird if you haven’t gone to some sort of counseling session in your life. Kind of like divorce. “What? You mean you haven’t been divorced yet? You’re still on your first marriage? Oh. Well… don’t worry too much about it, you have time.”
I’ve been thinking about counseling in general and remembering the first time I went. I was in college and it was offered as a free service to all students. It was the late 90s and I felt both very nervous and hyper-modern and empowered at the same time. Not in a “I’m finally going to take time to take care of me,” sort of way, more in a “Look at you go, girl! I’m a real independent woman, going to her therapy session before my other fancy adult appointment I have somewhere in the city, vaguely sexy and important.” I had no idea what I was doing.
I don’t remember a lot about those few sessions, except they involved a grad student of some kind saying things like “That must have been difficult for you.” It didn’t really help me feel any different, so I stopped going.
Most of all, I didn’t really get what was supposed to happen. I didn’t really understand the point. I go in, I get asked questions, I get told some things and BOOM! A light would go off and I would feel better. And then I’d leave and continue to feel better and say, “Wow, I’m so glad I went to therapy and learned how to be ok! Look at how ok I am now! Phew, I think I’ll go for a jog.”
But no light ever went off during any of the counseling session I ever attended. The next time I went to a counselor was while I was in the Peace Corps. In my mid-twenties, I was living in Paraguay, South America. I was homesick, body sick (I had giardia for two years!) and depressed. The Peace Corps said if we needed to talk to someone, we could travel to the capital (a three hour bus ride for me), talk to their staff psychologist and stay in a hotel for a day or two (on their dime). Once a month I’d take the bus to Asuncion to get the hell away from the stresses of being a celebrity norteamericana in my town, visit the psychologist and lay in a real bed in an air conditioned hotel room and watch According to Jim or Los Simpsons in poorly dubbed Spanish. It was great.
The Peace Corps staff psychologist was a woman who’s mother was American and father was Paraguayan (or maybe the other way around?). She went to college in the US and spoke perfect English as well as Spanish and Guarani. She operated out of her very nice house. I would go to her house, sit there and talk about being stressed out and depressed. She’d listen and say that it sounded like I was stressed out and depressed. I would say yes, yes I am. I then asked her a bunch of questions about her life, what it was like to be bicultural and why on earth would she choose to live in Paraguay if she didn’t have to (sorry). She was more than happy to talk about herself, which I loved, since she was fascinating and I was starved for meaningful American-ish interaction.
She was the first therapist to give me drugs. She wrote a prescription for some sort of anti-depressants which I was reluctant to take, simply because I’ve always been reluctant to take any sort of mood-altering medication, for better or for worse. But I was on a rotating variety of pills for my rashes and diarrhea, so I figured, what’s one more?
I did not like the effect the pills had. It was what I had thought would be the stereotypical effect of anti-depressants. I was sort of zombied out all of the time. I took them for about a week or two then threw them away and never went back to her again.
Years passed, I was back in Chicago going through the normal ups and downs of life. I believe I have always been prone to clinical depression. I remember being little, probably ten or so, and hearing about some species of whales dying off. I laid in bed and cried and cried. That’s normal for a kid, I think, but I remember I couldn’t shake it. I walked around for weeks, weeks!, weighed down by this fact. What was the damn point of it all, anyway? Why even live? We’re all born to die, man-made or not. There was no point. I didn’t even want to be in a world where whales died off, where I would die, I mean, why wait? Life was pain and it hurt too much. Let’s just get it over with now.
I was ten fucking years old.
This heaviness has probably always been with me (as I know it is with many people, I know I’m not special, nor are any of us in the grand scheme of things, we’re just dust in the wind, waiting to die like, damn it, there I go again…). How to manage it was the question. I had found ways over the years to manage it using techniques and adopting practices that work for me. Maybe I’ll talk about that another time, but for now, let’s just say it was a long process develop something that worked for me.
Back in Chicago, I was dating the wrong person who I knew was not good for me in the long-run. I knew I needed to end things with him and it hurt so much that I knew I would need help doing it and the emotional aftermath left in its wake. I went to a counselor in the city with this very specific task. “Look,” I said, “I need to break up with this guy, I know I do, but I’m going to need help doing it. I know I’m prone to making excuses to myself about why it’s ok to continue a crappy relationship when I know deep-down it’s not good. I need an unbiased third-party to remind me not to do that. To keep me on track.”
The therapist was a man probably in his late 30s. “Ok,” he said. “You sound like you know what is best for you, what you want and how you want to get there. I’ll go along for the ride.”
Once a week for the next several weeks I went to see him and process my current relationship, the reasons why it was good, the reasons why it was bad, and ultimately the reasons why it was not healthy for me and needed to end. He listened. “Don’t just sit there, listening,” I finally told him. “I’m paying money for this. Give me homework or something.”
He told me ok, if that’s what would help me. He said “Next time you come, I want you to bring me a list of ten reasons why blah blah blah,” or something like that. I did. The next time, I suggested I write a list of how I was going to X,Y and Z. He agreed. I did that, too.
Finally, I broke up with my then-boyfriend. I went to the therapist and talked about it. I went back several more times and talked about, while it hurt, how smoothly it all had gone and how good I was doing. And I was. I was doing really good. This was by far the best counseling experience I had ever had.
And that’s when it hit me. I realized how one was supposed to “do counseling.”
The whole time I thought the point of therapy was to sit and learn some magical technique that would make things better. Maybe for some it is, but not for me. I realized I already had the tools to deal with my issues, I just had to be honest with myself and use them. The therapist, if he or she is good, is just along for the ride. A witness to your processing.
And THAT was the key to doing counseling. Being 100% honest with yourself. And that was the hard part.
It was hard for me, and I am pretty much an open book. I then realized that not everyone in life was as open as I was. I met many people who were very closed up to not only their feelings, but even the day-to-day events going on in their lives. I encountered entire families that were like this, passing down this “we don’t talk about it,” and “just bury your feelings” philosophy from generation to generation. How would one know any other way? And if no one can talk about the basics of what is happening around them, then how can they possibly talk about what is going on inside of them? And how to even begin to deal with that?
I am very, very lucky that I have always had a solid core of family and close friends who have made that very possible for me. And whatever it is that has made me an open book, perhaps at times too open (have I told you about my vagina yet? Let me tell you about my vagina.), has made me capable of laying out my dirty laundry and sort it by color and care. This shit can go in perm press hot, while this shit needs delicate cycle. And this shit? Hand-wash only, dry flat.
This is how I have learned to do counseling. You go in. You introduce yourself and you say “I am going to be 100% honest with myself, and then 100% honest with you.” Then you talk about stuff. And before you answer any question, you stop and think about the True answer. Ugly or embarrassing or not. And once you are truly honest with yourself, you can finally start to process and identify what it is that you want in the first place, then make a tangible plan to get there.
I got a tattoo on my 30th birthday, six years ago now. My first tattoo ever. I’ve always wanted tattoos ever since I was young, but I never got one. “You’ll regret it!” some said. I told myself as a teenager that if I still wanted tattoos at 30 years old, I could get one. That seemed very responsible of me at the time. See? A little on the crazy-side, but ultimately practical. “Choose Light Over Darkness” as a reminder that, for me at least, it could be a choice.
I haven’t been to a therapist since that last time five or six years ago. I’m guessing it won’t be my last time, either with a professional councilor or a trusted friend who knows how to be a good sounding board and cut through my bullshit. Because sometimes we all need to be called out on our BS and forced to speak the truth.