Why Community Can Be More Healing Than Therapy

I love therapy. Truly, I do.

My husband and I have been seeing a therapist since he came out of the hospital two years ago. She’s great, and going to see her has improved our communication by leaps and bounds.

John also sees a therapist on an individual basis, and honestly, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with him coming home from the hospital if he hadn’t been willing to go. Seeing his therapist has helped John come to terms with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it’s given him the tools he needs to cope with it.

That said, though, I haven’t always derived great benefits from therapy, and there have been times when having the support of a community of my peers has been way more transformative than participating in therapy ever could be.

*****

I went to my first therapy session when I was 17. My mom had figured out that I was bulimic, and she set everything up.

Although I gave no outward indication of this fact, I was ecstatic. I thought therapy was going to fix me. I thought it was going to uncover some big, bad reason for why I ate the way I ate, and that once that reason had been revealed, my desire to eat until I couldn’t stand up straight would vanish in a cloud of smoke and light and flute trills.

Poof! Cured! Done!

Didn’t quite happen that way.

The sticking point, I guess, was that my therapist was thin. Although I was a normal weight at the time (having starved myself down into the 140s from 175 the winter before), her thinness meant I couldn’t trust her.

After all, what could she possibly know about my problem? It seemed pretty clear to me that she’d never struggled with food a day in her life.

My lack of trust, of course, caused problems. Although part of me still really wanted to be there, still really thought therapy was some kind of silver bullet, it was nearly impossible for me to open up. I couldn’t let go of the shame I felt around my binging, so I never got really honest with her about what was going on.

Instead, I spent a lot of time in those sessions rehashing the same old thing from my childhood: If only my parents hadn’t rewarded my good grades with candy, I’d never have developed these problems! I wanted that to be my big, bad reason for eating. I wanted our sessions to neutralize it so I could move on.

But they never did neutralize it. I’d leave her office fuming, and I’d binge to calm myself down.

So, yes, I had some unrealistic expectations, and on top of that I held back from fully engaging in the process. Not the therapist’s fault, really, but a result of my illness. Regardless, my parents spent a good six months throwing good money after bad while my eating disorder got worse.

*****

I went to my second therapist my freshman year of college. This time, the therapist was fat. This, of course, meant I couldn’t trust her. If she couldn’t get a handle on her own weight problem, how would she ever be able to help me get a handle on mine?

I went to a third therapist the next year, and she was of a fairly normal weight. Again, though, I found a reason not to trust her. She collected $85 dollars every time I set foot in her office. She didn’t care about me, I thought, she only wanted to get paid.

By this time, I had a touch more self-awareness, and sometimes memories would surface that I’d think about sharing. But my cynicism, lack of trust, and the one-way nature of our relationship convinced me to keep my shameful secrets to myself.

As a result, I didn’t allow myself to work through anything productive. Again, I spent most of the time complaining about my parents, and then leaving her office to go binge.

*****

My mom, too, had a weird experience with therapy, although I didn’t find out about it—or the fact that she, too, had been bulimic for many years—until I’d been in my Twelve Step recovery program for a couple of years.

Anyway, although I’d always known that there was something called “bulimia,” and that I wasn’t the only person out there who made herself throw up, my mom hadn’t. For along time, she really had believed that she was the only person in the world with that particular problem, and she felt very much alone.

She told me that she once tried to talk to my dad about it, but that it hadn’t gone well. He just hadn’t (surprise, surprise) been able to understand what she was doing or why she was doing it or why she didn’t just stop, so they never spoke about it again.

Finally, years later, when I was five or six, she screwed up her courage and decided to try therapy. This was back in the early 1980s, so it wasn’t as common as it is now.

She sat down and told the therapist her story. The first words out of his mouth were, “I don’t know if I can help you.” She said he kept talking, but she didn’t hear another word he said.

She’d gone there looking for some hope, a candle in the darkness, and he snuffed out the flame.

She didn’t go back.

*****

In order to recover from any kind of mental illness, we need to know that recovery possible. And sometimes therapists—experts, authority figures, hired guns—can’t give us that reassurance. They haven’t been through the same battles. They don’t have the same scars.

Sometimes, in order to trust that we really can get better, we need to hear it from people who’ve suffered the same way we have, and who’ve made it out the other side.

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4 Responses to Why Community Can Be More Healing Than Therapy

  1. Heather,

    It is very interesting to read this, and I am so glad you are so open to share your story with us.

    I personally think talking out with someone who is not judgmental can help, it does not have to be therapist, it can be friend, or family member. I wish you well.

    • Thank you for your comment! I think you’re so right about finding a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on in times of trouble and stress. My problem was that I was so suspicious of everyone’s motives when I was in the middle of my illness that I thought everyone was judging me! Finding a community of people who’d gone through very similar experiences was the only thing that opened me up to start trusting people again. It was only when I started hearing other people share about the pain and shame they’d felt around their eating that I started to think maybe I could trust them with my secrets, too.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Wow. After reading your post I feel so blessed to have found the perfect therapist (for me) on the 3rd try. I had bad/ strange experiences with the first 2 but the 3rd time was a charm!

    My first therapist was convinced that my eating disorder was the result of stress I felt at age 11 (family changes, a move, a dog that I was responsible for) and I was “stuck” at age 11 and… like if I forgave every one in my life that was around me at age 11, I wouldn’t feel the need to overeat anymore. Um… that didn’t really work. It was an interesting theory but I gained 15 pounds during my time working with her.

    I left the 2nd therapist’s office so frustrated that I never went back. She thought my problem was my thyroid which I have been taking Synthroid for since I was 15 and it functions normally now. She suggested getting off my meds and naturally jump starting my thyroid with herbs and certain foods. Right….

    My 3rd and current therapist is wonderful. He GETS OCD, he GETS overeating, he GETS anxiety and he gets the accompanying depression to those things. He works with me, encourages and affirms me and has never spent more than 5min. on my childhood or suggested I take herbs.

    Great post!
    Elizabeth

    • I’m so glad you found the perfect therapist for you! I totally think my lack of success with eating disorder therapy had way more to do with me than with my therapists — I really did need to hear the experience, strength, and hope of my peers more than the opinions of an “expert.”

      My mom’s experience, though, makes me mad, and I think her lack of success was the therapist’s fault. But as you pointed out, finding the right therapist is kind of like dating — most people don’t end up marrying the first person they date. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the right fit!

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