We Need To Talk About Therapy

[This is based on personal experience, from only my point of view. Image Source.]

posted by Priya

My anxiety first surfaced in my mid teens. I used to feel self conscious all the time, with friends, in restaurants, at family parties. All eyes felt judgmental, all words seemed like jibes. It didn’t take long for self consciousness to spiral into self loathing. No one wants to be fifteen and sit outside an Airtel store for twenty minutes, too afraid to talk to some random customer support guy. I hated the part of my mind that put me, every so often, in that awkward position. I hated myself.

It wasn’t until there were physical effects of my “fear” that I sought professional help. Blank periods, dizziness – we had real, tangible signs of something going wrong inside. The hardest part was admitting that I did not have control of my mind. A physical injury is visible. You can point at it, see it turning black and blue, and say, “Well, that needs fixing.” Not so with your mind. You are your mind. Who likes to admit they need “fixing?”

Like any cocky teenager, I was so sceptical about the whole thing. I went into my first consultation with a smirk planted on my face. The psychiatrist started out by asking me to write a letter to my father. I responded with a significant eye-roll. I said, it’s been ages since my father passed away and I’m very open about it. I talk about him with friends, relatives, family friends… This consultation is not about THAT, I’ve dealt with that.

He let it pass, took a different tack and asked me how many people I had befriended in the years since my dad’s accident. That stopped me in my tracks. Literally, no one. That answer was so telling – yet I had never connected the dots. It was so obvious, I almost suppressed a laugh. Five years and there was no one new in my life. There were friends’ friends here and there in college, but nothing meaningful. At that moment I realised I hadn’t confided in a single soul that my Dad was no more. I am an introvert, but really, how had I spent so many years without talking to anyone who didn’t already know?

I wrote the stupid letter. He told me to read it again, but in Marathi. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell him why, but I couldn’t. Marathi just made it too real. I burst into tears, I apologised for crying about something that was obviously old news. Weirdly, I told him not to tell my Mom that I’d cried. I felt ashamed that I had the audacity to get all undignified and sobby about a shared problem that wasn’t ‘my own.’

Was my anxiety neatly, singularly linked with unexpressed grief? Of course not. We had just peeled back one layer. But a single hour had brought out stuff I never knew was buried inside. What else had I missed?

Growing up, I prided myself on being “self aware.” I wasn’t the strongest or the fittest, but damn it, I could think. I was an old soul, wordy and expressive, and pushed into “growing up” faster than my classmates. If anyone should have control over their mind, it was ME. Not making those connections, not seeing those patterns in my behaviour did not take away from my “being a thinker.” Sometimes, you need a third perspective. Sounds odd, but you’re just too close to yourself to see the big picture.

I continued therapy with a psychologist next, also a brilliant influence on my life. I remember these joint therapy sessions with a kid my own age. I would spend long hours at the clinic puzzling over this cool-looking teen who had the most “happening” social life and loved to brag about it – wondering what his self consciousness might stem from, when it clearly wasn’t introversion. Unlike me, he just wasn’t that “sad, lonely, depressed-type,” you know? Somehow, even my small wins with the psychologist hadn’t dissolved that deep rooted stigma about ‘needing therapy.’

I stopped seeing the psychologist after about two years, when the anxiety no longer crippled me. While the meetings restored my self confidence, they added a new kind of insecurity. For the longest time I was afraid of saying no… Should I stay in this relationship? Should I call up that friend? Am I quitting this workshop out of fear? When am I governed by logic and when by anxiety? How will I make the distinction? Let’s stick it out, I told myself, constantly. There is strength in not giving up.

I came to view my treatment as a kind of personal failure. I hadn’t managed to “deal.” My inability to handle my own mind had made it necessary that I seek assistance. Others didn’t seem to require it. The idea of control had been built into me so firmly, so systemically, that I didn’t once question it. I see this as a failure of the world. Not one person or one event, but a permeating attitude – that it is easy to be in control, that everyone does it all the time, that we should take charge, that it’s weak not to. 

There’s an ancient anecdote in my family about my grandma bearing the pain of a bleeding toe to avoid going to a doctor just because she had “better things to do.” We’ve shaken our heads in disapproval over this for years! Why is it silly to avoid doctor’s visits but not “mind” check-ups? Why do we talk about mental health in waves of social media activism? Why not during monthly health-check reminders to our overworked spouses?

Whenever I complain of a sore throat, my mother says, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but it doesn’t hurt to check.” When will we say that about counselling? 

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