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Monday, 23 May 2016

Therapy Is Not a Dirty Word

Has anyone ever quietly pointed out to you that you have a bit of food stuck in your teeth? Or that there's something weird going on with your hair? Something you didn't notice yourself but are glad someone was there to pick up on? You're usually embarrassed, but at least thankful that someone pointed it out to you. I think it's safe to say that our perspective of ourselves is very different from others' perspective of us. Sometimes it just takes that outside point of view to help us to see things that we couldn't on our own.

When I was 17 (cue the song), I went to see a teenage psychologist. Nothing was going well at home or at school and I was finding it really hard to function anywhere. During those sessions, I happened to mention a friend of mine who was also struggling.
'Do you think this friend would benefit from seeing a professional?' the psychologist asked.
'Yes I do,' I replied.
'Do you think he will?' she asked. I thought about it for a second.
'No, I don't think so. I think there's still a stigma attached to the thought of seeing a psychologist. It implies that you can't deal with life and you need someone to handle all your problems for you.' As I said this, the psychologist grimaced. I could tell that this was something of which she was painfully aware.
'Yes I think you're right, and I wish that would change,' she said in a rare show of emotion.

A few years later, I was sitting down to dinner with most of the members of the Buttercup Gang. One of them was casually confirming what I'd hypothosised in that therapist's office.
'I'm just saying, who needs to see a psychiatrist?' he said. 'If you've got issues, sort them out yourself! You don't need to pay someone $100 to tell you things you can work out for yourself. It just means you can't handle life.'
The rest of us exchanged glances that were both disapproving and knowing. There were eight people at the table that night and I happened to know that at least half of them (including me) had seen a professional therapist at some point in the past. And yet we were all happy, wonderful people. We all silently lamented his claim that we couldn't handle our own lives.

Cut to earlier this year. I found myself in a really bad headspace. I was being plagued by what I called "demons" - a barrage of negative self-talk that I couldn't seem to shake and that would make me very depressed. It would happen mostly when I was idle. One of my many jobs is handing out free food samples in grocery stores, and I'd often find myself standing there for the duration of the four-hour shift, nobody approaching me, giving me time to mull these awful things about myself over and over in my head. The worst part was that sometimes this self-talk wasn't even anything specific. I just felt... inadequate. Inadequate as a person.

Remembering my comments in the psychologists office at age 17, I resolved many times to try and see someone about it. But then the demons would go away on their own and I would think "Ah, it's not that bad, I can manage." It's very easy to forget what pain feels like after it subsides. But then it would come back and I would become even more resolved; "Okay, I definitely have to see someone." Finally, after the worst attack yet, I made the call. I spoke to our family GP - one that had known me since I was born but that I hadn't seen in years because he's always in high demand. We spent a couple of minutes catching up before he asked the question;
'So what brings you in here today?'
'Well... I'm worried about my mental health.'
There was a look of surprise on my GP's face, but he was very understanding about it. I described what I'd been going through and my own thoughts about it. He gave me a questionnaire called a DAAS - Depression, Anxiety and Stress - survey and told me to fill it out at a time when I'm feeling low. It was one of those questionnaires that makes a series of statements and asks you to rank them into "Never", "Sometimes", "Often", "Always" etc. There were statements like "I find it hard to keep control of my feelings," "I find it hard to get excited about anything" and "I feel my heart beating without any physical exertion." I filled it out and brought it back.
'Well Michael,' said the GP at my next visit. 'I've added up the scores. This tests for a person's levels of depression, anxiety and stress. For anxiety and stress, you scored very low - which is good, the lower the better. But for depression, you scored in the range that we would consider appropriate for someone with mild depression. This is certainly enough to qualify you for a referral to a psychologist.'

Our wonderful, amazing system of healthcare in Australia covers us for 12 visits to a mental health professional in a period of one year. The amounts that the system will cover us for vary from doctor to doctor, but as I intended to pay for these visits myself, I agreed to go to one that had no GAP. That means I was able to get 12 visits to a psychologist absolutely free. The first visit was, as this new psychologist called it, a "getting to know you" session. One where he just collects information and sets up a plan for future sessions. I got along with him really well. He was clearly just out of school and inexperienced, but I could see he'd be able to help me out. At the end of the session, he asked me a question that took me off guard.
'The last thing I'd like to know Michael, is what do you hope to achieve by the end of our sessions?'
I hadn't actually thought of that. Part of the problem was that I didn't know exactly what was wrong. It felt like trying to find a light switch in the dark. But then I remembered that that's the point. The reason one should go to a professional is simply to have a set of eyes looking in from the outside. One that can help you see things that you can't from your point of view. There's nothing to be ashamed of about that. It's nature. Humans get ahead by teaming up to solve problems. I simply told my psychologist that I'd like to get a better understanding of what I'm feeling and why. Because understanding it takes away its power.

It didn't take very long at all. I was retaking that DAAS test at the beginning of each session, just to get a snapshot of my progress. With each session, my scores for everything got lower and lower, to the point that in the last three or four sessions, I had zeros across the board. My psychologist wrote a letter to my GP saying that my scores had "plummeted" and that in his professional opinion, what I was going through wasn't depression. It was just stuff I wasn't dealing with at the time. I wouldn't have gotten to that point if I was afraid of the "stigma" of mental health. I didn't view it as "I can't deal with my own life". I viewed it as "I'm missing something and there's a person here that's trained to help me see it." If you're struggling too, I encourage you to seek help. It takes more strength and courage to do that than to try and handle it yourself.


  1. The saving grace here is the fact that you were self aware enough to seek help.

    Unfortunately, so many people who truly need professional help try to wing it, just like you said. It can be tragic.

    A friend's son seemed to be the only one in the family that was handling the loss of a family member well. Weeks later, he hung himself. He was such a sweet guy and we will never know why he suffered in silence; he hid it well.

    Always talk to someone.

    1. That's so heartbreaking. You may recall at the start of last year a friend of mine also committed suicide. He was also the last person you'd expect. Why is that always the case?

  2. For some reason we happily go to the doctor for physical concerns and stay away in droves when the concerns are mental/emotional. Which is silly. And we don't expect someone to fix a broken leg without professional help and do expect them to fix a misfiring brain. Also silly. And dangerous.
    Yay you.

    1. You'd find this talk very interesting, it raises that exact same point.


  3. You're a very wise young man, Michael. I'm glad the sessions helped and that you're feeling better about yourself and about life!

  4. I've never had to, but I have friends and a family member who saw therapists and they do make a difference.
    Really glad yours helped you find that light switch in the dark.

    1. They help if you can make the effort to let them. Mine told me that people often don't turn up to their appointments.

  5. You seem self-aware. At least self-aware enough to look into what's going on.

    IT's like physical pain. Theoretically, I suppose, the evolutionary purpose of feeling pain is so that we know something is wrong and stop the pain. Otherwise, what use would pain serve? Creatures that didn't feel pain would be at an advantage - except then they wouldn't know that their finger was stuck in a door.

    This comment didn't go the way I wanted it to, but I am sincere in my sentiment. This post made me think.

    1. Don't worry Nasreen, between you and me you're one of my favourite commenters. I get what you're saying here.


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