So...What's Therapy Like?
Two years ago, I decided to do something I've always wanted to do but was also too afraid to try: therapy.
I always believed therapy was meant for those who were mentally ill or those who had professional diagnosis of mental instability. And I didn’t want to think I was mentally unstable because I didn’t want to perceive myself as broken to the point of impossible self-repair. I was conditioned to believe that therapy was for the “crazy” or “insane”, as most traditional Asian parents would teach their children. To admit that you needed professional help meant you were weak and to be weak meant to be nothing. If you were going to make it into this world, you can never, ever break. Or even show it.
It all stemmed from my childhood. I grew up in a house that exhausted me mentally and emotionally, almost constantly. I found myself crying alone in a hidden corner a lot of times, spiraling down with dark thoughts that ate at my mental core. There were times I truly felt like I wasn’t going to make it out of this black hole and letting go seemed easier than drowning in this personal affliction of internal rage. I was scared of my own thoughts and the weapons they expertly conjured when I was at my most vulnerable. And it was a battle I continued to engage in throughout my life.
Every time I thought I’d be closer to mental normalcy, something within me would snap me back and my dark thoughts would engulf my reality again. It felt as if the furthest I’d get to fresh air from the sinking pit was only nose-deep. But the older I got, the better I became at concealing that part of me within a mental closet, until it seeped into my closest friendships and relationships. My last relationship ended rockily due to many simmering issues that ultimately took a plunge for the worse and I knew that for me, my inner demons were ravaging on my insecurities again. I found myself back in those lonely corners I knew so well, with pain I felt so familiar with, and the only kind of control I could obtain without hurting others. All that meticulous work to conceal that side of me and yet, it still overtook my life as forcefully as it did.
Sadly, it wasn’t the fact that I was physically harming myself that made me realize I needed help. It was seeing how helpless and hurt my closest friends and family felt when they learned about it. Not only was I losing people I loved, but I could see how my relationships were feeling strained by my selfish stubbornness to not understand how it affected them as well. I just thought it was my burden to carry and not theirs. But the more I did it, the more I felt isolated because I was too guilty to let anyone else in. That's when I knew I could no longer live like this. I could no longer grow like this. I needed help but it wasn't a desperate cry to be fixed—it was an acknowledgement of my humanness and the fact that I am going through a journey that took a slight detour in the wrong direction and needed guidance to help me find my way back. I didn’t decide on therapy because I didn’t want to be broken anymore. I did it because I wanted to love my broken parts and learn to see the light through my cracks.
Seeking professional help shouldn’t be shameful or negatively judged. It is the first step to becoming self-aware and loving your best you with the right and healthy kind of push. So I’m sharing my most frequently asked questions ever since I became more outspoken about my own journey and how therapy has positively impacted my life.
How do you know which therapist to go to?
Initially, I didn’t really know what I was searching for. I knew I wasn’t looking for a psychiatrist because I didn’t want to be prescribed meds until I fully understood what sort of help I needed. I later found out my therapist is considered a Licensed Social Worker, which means she helps deal with issues involving mental and emotional health. I wish I could tell you the different types of therapists, but I don’t know much other than that unless you strongly feel you need meds for a mental illness, start with an LSW. The first step of even acknowledging that you want to seek professional help is the hardest so take your time in considering it and make sure you are ready.
How do you even look for a therapist that’s affordable or takes your insurance?
For me, I searched on Zocdoc first because I wanted to find one under my health insurance. Then I searched for practices near my work so I could conveniently go before or after work during the week. I read up on all the reviews and finally decided on a practice I was comfortable with. I received an email shortly after I reached out. Unfortunately, they didn’t take my insurance (something to do with different types), but they were extremely kind enough to work out a different payment plan with me where I could afford to pay out of pocket. I suggest contacting the practice and asking. I found that people in this field want to help and will do the best they can for you.
But I’ve had people tell me other search sites that help you find affordable therapy. These are some that have been shared with me by others:
(Feel free to send over other options/methods you’ve heard of! I love sharing what has worked for others.)
Were you afraid to go and how did you get over that fear?
I was terrified. I think it’s worse than going on a first date or to a job interview. Before my first session, I thought of all the things I could talk about—lists upon lists and I didn’t know where to begin. But I also thought about how I wasn’t ready to open up like that to a complete stranger. I mean, I could barely open up about those things to myself and when I did open up to friends and family, it either tarnished that relationship or made me feel wrongly judged for who I am. Then I thought about not connecting with the therapist. I didn’t want just anyone to listen to me every week; I wanted to make sure I truly felt understood by this person. But in the end, I was more excited to finally work on myself—to do something for myself—and that overcame any qualms I initially had.
What was your first session like?
It was reserved? I had my guard up. I talked to her like I was being treated or like I was being admitted to a mental institution. I answered like it was a job interview. Of course, we had to get the logistics out of the way first. Then she had to have me fill out paperwork that asked things about my health history and my emergency contact. Not going to lie, I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to feel like a patient that needed assurance in case she fell off the rails. But once that was all done, she asked about me. I don’t remember what I said or how I started but I know I started crying at some point. And for the first time in a while, crying in that room felt more like letting it out rather than giving up. It felt good. And that’s when I knew this is what I needed.
Do people judge you when you say you see a therapist?
I think a lot of people are thrown off or uncomfortable when I mention it so casually. I used to hide it but after a while, I felt so empowered by this personal investment that I felt like it needed to be talked about if anyone wanted to really get to know me. So I’ll bring it up in conversation nonchalantly like, “Yeah my therapist would tell me to do this…” and people either ask me about it or just ignore it because they’re unsure whether that’s something I want to discuss further. I get it, it can be a hit or miss with certain people. And maybe some people do judge me, but I’ve done the hiding thing all my life and I’ve learned that it’s brought out the worst in me rather than the better in me. I hope to subtly break the stigma with therapy, one conversation at a time.
Does your therapist just listen and take notes? Does s/he prescribe meds for you?
I don’t even think she takes notes. Yet, she somehow remembers every detail mentioned to refer to it in succeeding sessions. But she’s always fully attentive with her eyes on me, listening intently. And she’s not just listening but she talks to me like a friend, giving feedback, advice, etc. It simply a conversation between two people with the topic being completely about me (which is something I didn’t know I needed in order to learn and love myself). She has asked if I felt I needed to take medication for my depression, at one point, though she did advise me that she didn’t think I truly needed it and that I could overcome it holistically.
How often do you go?
I used to go every week. In the beginning, I was really at my lowest point and I didn’t think I could go through each day so once a week was exactly what I needed. After a year, I lessened it to about once every two weeks. It varies depending on how I feel like I’m progressing.
What do you talk about?
Anything. Everything. Sometimes, throughout the week, I’ll keep mental notes of things I want to bring up. Other times, I don’t know what to say because nothing particular happened to me during the week to bring up. But on those days, as much as I think I’ll have nothing to say, something comes up anyways and it catapults an entire discussion about something about me I didn’t know before. I love it. It’s learning about yourself every time and someone is there to witness the growth. She is always reminding me how much I’ve grown, and I’m not the type to credit myself, so whenever she nudges these compliments, it feels so nice to have someone believe in me like that.
Do you only discuss the bad things in your life with your therapist?
Not at all! There are days I talk about all the good in my life, which is equally as important as discussing the bad. Like I said, the goal of therapy is learning about yourself and loving those new personal discoveries. You don’t have to feel like you need to be “fixed” every time you walk in the room. There have been times where my sessions were simply me talking about the amazing things that have happened and she’ll tell me that that shows my growth—to be able to feel proud about myself and want to share it out loud with someone else.
Why do you pay for someone to listen to you? Why can’t you rely on your friends and family?
As much as I love my friends and family and I know they’ll be there for me no matter what, we are all dealing with our own baggage. We are all figuring ourselves out and growing on our own, too. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the human capacity to attend to every issue that our loved ones go through, and sometimes, it’s because we don’t even know or even know how. I’ve realized that I was lacking the belief in myself because I ignored my inner self. My therapist focuses all that neglected attention to me so I can finally address the parts of me I failed to nurture. And because she is professionally trained in knowing how to guide people and practice specific coping mechanisms catered to each individual, she knows the exact methods that make sense to who I am. Not everyone requires the same avenues of peace and therapists are thoroughly educated in understanding what works for each person. My friends and family are my unconditional support system, but they are not expected to know how to mitigate my mental tribulations.
What if I don’t really like my therapist? Do I keep going or should I find someone new?
Finding a therapist is a lot like dating (hence the “matchmaking” part). You’re not supposed to like every therapist you get paired up with. Just like how we all have our significant other preferences, we also have our preferences in who we choose to open up to. It isn’t easy opening up to ourselves, let alone a complete stranger, so don’t force yourself to vibe well with a therapist. I mean, it’s not to say don’t give your therapist an initial chance, but if you’re just not feeling his/her methods after a few sessions, maybe it’s time to look for someone new. It’s nothing personal and at the end of the day, you’re doing something for yourself in a big way, so of course you’re going to want to make sure it’s worth the investment.
What have you learned after going for all this time? Has it really helped you get mentally better?
There is so much I can say about what I’ve learned through therapy. Overall, I am better and more wholehearted in my well-being. And that was what I initially went to therapy for. I told her I wasn’t looking for a fast-track towards happiness—I wanted to find fulfillment within my heart. I wanted to feel my feelings, and love them on the good days and bad. After about 2 years of therapy, I can say that I truly feel in tune and aware of who I am. I’ve learned that the “bad” parts, the ones I once desperately wanted to get rid of, are actually what have shaped me to be the resilient person I love being so much. I’ve become more connected to my humanness and willfully feel aligned with my internal being. I no longer feel like I need to live a double life between the person I was to the world and the person I was hiding inside. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that the more I loved myself, the more beautiful life became for me. I didn’t just find happiness, I found wholeheartedness. As a good friend once put it, “I love feeling empowered by my own life!”
If you’d like to learn more or would like to discuss this topic with me further in private, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org