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.