I thought very hard about making a post about this.
There are a lot of things I could talk about – the NHS, how various -isms and mental health intersect, how one day is not enough, how saying ‘just talk’ is not enough – but I decided what I want to do is talk about my experiences with therapy, because I think they are hopeful and if there’s one thing most of us need lately, it’s hope.
Strap in, this is going to be a pretty long one.
I have never been formally diagnosed with anything, but that was never important to me. All I really needed was to know that something was wrong with me and I wanted it to stop.
Here are what I’d call my symptoms:
- binge eating. I don’t mean a tub of ice cream like in the movies. Cereal was the killer really; on bad days I can still eat half a box, dry.
- intense bouts of anxiety, usually if I thought someone was angry with me. Shaking hands, breathlessness, racing heart, the works.
- equally intense bouts of nothingness that weighed me down to the bed and stopped me from caring about anything; an incredibly deep feeling of absolute pointlessness. Zero energy.
- occasional obsessive behaviours – checking the fridge is closed, the door is locked, rearranging things, not being able (or ‘allowed’) to do things until another task is complete, that kind of thing.
- an inability to assert my needs and desires because of the overwhelming fear of what happens if the person I am asking for help refuses it.
- tremendous difficulty in allowing myself to feel or express anger.
- depersonalisation: feeling like the world outside my mind wasn’t real, including my own body. Like whatever was happening to my body wasn’t happening to me.
- general feelings of worthlessness, fear, self-hatred, guilt.
To me, this adds up to anxiety, depression, and more than a little PTSD.
I am fairly open about the death of my father and that I’ve been sexually assaulted multiple times; there is also another factor which I am still too wary to write down here. I think the fact that I wasn’t dealing with any of these things led to my being in this state two years ago.
On 8 May 2015 – the day after the General Election – I was in my flat and almost literally shaking with the need to binge eat. I gave in to the impulse, and then I had such a wave of self-hatred and despair that I couldn’t breathe. Eventually, I thought “I need help”, and scrolled through the Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network for someone in my area.
The first therapist I found was helpful in that she pushed me to cry for a lot of things – the loss of my father, mostly, which I very much needed to cry about – and she helped me recognise some of my behaviours. However, she also didn’t tell me she was using CBT and told me when it was time to stop coming (a therapist should never decide that for you without discussing it beforehand). This left me feeling abandoned and decidedly unfixed. I ended my time with her feeling like a chore, not a client.
Here are the other things she did which did not help me:
- she told me I didn’t look like someone with an eating disorder
- I told her I was scared of interacting with a certain group of people because I didn’t feel that they wanted me or that I belonged; she told me to make more of an effort
- she told me far too much about her personal life
I mention these because they are all red flags to be aware of, and not just with therapists: someone who invalidates you or makes you feel blamed is not someone to keep around.
I met my second therapist on 24 October 2015 (though until this moment I was sure I met her in August because I remember the sun shining) and it was like finding a soulmate.
In our very first session, she pinpointed a huge source of my anxiety and helped me admit what I was afraid of. She saw me and I cannot adequately express what it was like to be seen.
Here are the things she did that helped me:
- read my body language. She could always tell when I was holding back. And she taught me to be conscious of it as well – to realise when I was protecting my heart or my head, and why.
- helped me think things through to their most likely conclusion, which meant I stopped catastrophising (building ‘what if’ scenarios that always come to the worst possible conclusion).
- asked me why, why, why. ‘Why is that stupid?’ ‘Why would they hate you?’ ‘Why would they do that?’ And most of the time, the answer was “I suppose they wouldn’t.” Even if that hadn’t been the answer, I know we’d have worked through it.
- helped me visualise. ‘What does look like?’ So when I told her my depression looked like a giant bowling ball on my stomach, pinning me down, she asked what could make it move. I don’t remember what my answer was at the time, but now I would say time and myself.
- celebrated every small step with me. When I said “But I’m smarter than him!” she literally cheered for me, that I was able to say that, that I had the confidence in myself to know that.
- remembered so many details. So many times, she said “ah, that reminds me of when you said the same word three weeks ago when you were talking about…” She paid attention.
- made connections for me out of seemingly thin air. She once managed to very accurately compare a colleague I was having problems with to Flowey from Undertale.
- told me, over and over again, to forgive myself, to be kind to myself, to remember that I don’t deserve my own hatred. I cannot over-emphasise how important this is.
I stopped seeing her this spring, after about 18 months. I will never ever forget what she did for me and helped me do.
A lot has changed for me. I am rarely seriously anxious any more, and I don’t remember the last time I had a day off for depression. They’re both still there, but they’re so much smaller now; 95% of the time I can squash them.
The obsessive behaviours are still there, including the binge eating; but they are not as bad as they used to be. I’ll check the door once instead of three times now. The depersonalisation has mostly stopped, and I don’t feel worthless or guilty or afraid easily any more. I am able to argue myself out of my self-hatred when it does come back, because this is my house and it’s not welcome.
Anger is still hard. But I can name it now, and let myself feel it; and I can tell people when I’m angry and why. Plus, I write poetry now, which helps.
So, I suppose my point is – everyone deserves to get better. Your way there might not look like mine, but you can find it; even if it’s hard, even if it takes a long time. You don’t deserve to live in pain.