There is a lot of stigma surrounding therapy. Most people think of a serene office decorated in funky art, a couch to lie down on, and a man sitting in a chair with a notebook. And now he’s about to ask about your childhood, right? At least that is what I pictured. I think I pieced my stereotypes together from a mishmash of pop culture references (anyone else miss Frasier?) and just assumed it was truth. I also assumed that only crazy people go to therapy. No, wait. Crazy, weak people who have too much time on their hands and need to look outside themselves for a change, or just need to adjust their attitude.
It’s not hard to see why (at least in part) it took me so long to reach out for help when things spiraled out of control after my daughter was born. The last thing I wanted was to be one of those people. People who need a therapist…people who can’t quite cut it…failures…people who are broken. The self-deprecating name-calling got pretty ugly in those days. But eventually “broken” became a better alternative to the life I was (or rather, wasn’t) living. So I made a call. It was honestly the hardest phone call I’ve ever made. I’m not sure how something can be so liberating and devastating at the same time.
I approached my first visit with Diana like you would a trip to your PCP for a head cold. I mentally prepared a list of symptoms and hoped she would have a simple answer for me. Perhaps a “take two and call me in the morning” kind of answer. When I walked in, I noticed the childrens’ art covering one wall, unframed; taped almost in a grid, but not quite. The A/C vent was covered with a kleenex box in an attempt at climate control, and a chair in the corner was missing an armrest. Diana, a tall thin woman perhaps five years older than me, sat across the room from me in an equally dilapidated chair, and assured me that her notepad would only be present for our first meeting. This met none of my expectations…how could this possibly help me?
She asked me what brought me in, and I started rambling. It’s honestly all a bit fuzzy. What I do remember is that at some point I stopped and said, “I know I look all put-together with my makeup on, my diaperbag stocked, and my daughter happy in her carrier. But at home I completely fall apart. I cry almost constantly and want to leave my baby in her crib and run away. I’m screaming at my husband for mismatched bottle pieces. I have no idea what I’m doing and I am terrified of being her mom.” For the first time in five months, I spoke my truth. As I look back now, I can see how brave I was. I want to go back and tell that woman cowering in the office chair how proud I am of her, but in that moment, I felt like a failure. The postpartum depression diagnosis I left with that day only took the edge off my despair. I was relieved to have an explanation for my feelings, but the (completely unnecessary) guilt and the feeling of “what now?” that accompanied the diagnosis were almost as crushing as the depression itself.
I spent over a year and a half with Diana. True to the stereotype, we sludged through hours of childhood memories. I journaled. She validated my feelings and mirrored back to me what she heard. She asked me insightful questions designed to let me change my perspective if I was ready. But there were also so many sessions when I don’t think she got a word in edgewise. I think Diana’s greatest strength was her ability to know when I needed answers and when I just needed a trusted ear. Slowly but surely, she helped me put the pieces back together. And what started as treatment for PPD led to a realization that I had be struggling with generalized anxiety disorder and mood swings for years.
I will always wish that my first year with my daughter wasn’t terrorized by postpartum depression and anxiety, but I believe I had to hit rock bottom before I could see I needed to get help. When I started treatment, I just wanted to be myself again. But because I was brave enough to go to therapy, honest enough to speak my truth, and strong enough to put in all the work, I came out of it an even better version of myself. I spent years denying and then months dreading therapy, and it turns out it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.