What I Learned After 13 Years in Therapy
05.15.18

I noticed an important conversation happening in the comments of the Welcome to Duality Month post about combatting the stigma around going to therapy. Whether cultural or personal, a lot of us feel like there’s a certain amount of shame in seeking professional help. It seemed like a good time to bump this beautiful piece from earlier this year back up in case folks might find it helpful. –Nora Taylor

At nine years old, I started grappling with sudden, frequent panic attacks. At the time, neither my parents nor I could understand what was happening to me. I appeared to be experiencing seizure-like convulsions — sweating, shaking, panting — but on the inside, I felt paralyzed with fear, with no control over my mind or body.

“When is it going to stop?” I’d ask my mom.

“It should be over by next week,” she’d respond, as if we were in the midst of a war that was rumored to end soon.

But when the episodes continued, my parents sent me to Dr. H, a child psychologist. During my first session, I told him about my disturbing thought spirals and the nightmares I had about my uncle who’d died a couple of years prior at the age of 24 from a drug overdose. I remember him tearing up and asking about my relationship with my uncle.

After my first session, Dr. H diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder. Despite my parents’ prior warnings about talking to strangers, I began to see him every week. Every week, I’d tell him my deepest secrets and even accept the occasional candy bribe.

Whenever I arrived, I’d ring the doorbell, escort myself into the waiting room and enter his office only when I saw the shadow of the previous patient disappearing down the staircase, just as he’d instructed me during our first session. The protocol wasn’t foolproof. Over the years, scheduling conflicts would occur and I’d run into other therapy-goers in the slivered hallway. When that happened, I’d hang my head low to avoid eye contact, like I was in trouble.

Because I didn’t know any kids in therapy, I thought I was the only one of my kind. Then one night, while I was walking out of Dr. H’s office, I bumped into my classmate — and not just any classmate: the 10-year-old boy of my dreams. We exchanged embarrassed glances and promised to keep each others’ whereabouts a secret. It was one of the first times I entertained the idea that therapy didn’t make me an outsider if cool kids went too.

While my parents supported me and went to tremendous lengths to help me manage my anxiety, they advised I forgo telling my classmates about my weekly visits. I took their word as law and hid my feelings from my friends for years. I understood therapy to be an unspoken, taboo topic. Before I even knew what stigma meant, I felt it swallow me whole.

When I went to my pediatrician, I didn’t have to hide from other patients in the waiting room. So why was mental health treated any differently? When I’d arrive late to school because of an anxiety-fueled stomachache (a frequent occurrence), my doctor’s notes would claim I’d been sick. Would a note explaining that I’d been in the throes of an anxiety attack have made my tardiness any less valid?

For years, I was afraid of opening up about my struggle and assumed others wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t accept me. The first person I told was a boyfriend, about seven years after my diagnosis. Afterward, the world seemed a less lonely place. I felt less isolated and safer than I had in a while.

I avoided medication for 13 years. When I was on the fence last year, at the age of 22, about seeing a psychiatrist for the first time, my friend said, “If you had diabetes, would you even think twice about going to a medical doctor to scout out your options?” She was right. My anxiety needed just as much attention and care, and it had just as much validity as someone whose blood sugar level required management.

Soon after, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which helped me better understand my obsessive thought spirals and gave me the opportunity to explore more targeted tools to help manage them, like cognitive behavioral therapy and an anti-depressant prescription. What I once thought would make me seem weak became a gift I gave myself to live a happier, healthier life.

Even if the stigma of mental health has begun to unravel, I still feel it. “Things are that bad?” a friend asked me once, as if therapy were a last, pitiful resort. My boyfriend at the time, out of care, told me he was afraid to date me because our relationship might trigger my anxiety. We ended up dating for two very loving, panic-free years. A principal told me I might not be the right candidate for their school after I had a panic attack during an open-house tour. I went on to graduate from that school at the top of my class.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” another friend texted me this summer after I confided in her. She’d sensed I’d been acting different lately. “Because I thought I could go it alone. Because opening up about my struggle is deeply personal and painful to share” were a couple of sentences I typed and deleted, re-typed and deleted again.

As counseling for mental illnesses has become more commonplace and spoken about, I’ve discovered that many of my friends are now seeing therapists and slip the word therapist into conversation with ease while I, who started going in a time when it was deemed taboo, still sometimes struggle to say the word without lowering my voice to a whisper.

In one of my final sessions with Dr. H, he told me he knew my uncle well. He said it was mere coincidence that I walked into his office all those years ago as the niece of one of his former patients. I was stunned. “I didn’t know he died until you told me,” he said, teary-eyed. “He tried getting help. He wasn’t proud of his actions.” I couldn’t blame my uncle for doing drugs or for living in shame when I had felt the same way.

After 13 years, I sit on my cognitive behavioral therapist’s couch. “Try doing your breathing techniques when you’re on the train this week. That’s not a weird thing to do in public anymore.” She lets out a light laugh. I think of 10 things I’ve seen on the subway that are much weirder than openly taking long, calming breaths. I decide to take her advice.

As I walk out of her office, I see the patient after me shuffling in. He wears a suit and carries a briefcase. We make eye contact. He says hello; I say, “How are you?” We both smile. I keep my head held high the whole time. It’s not everything, but I’m getting there.

Bonnie is a writer living in Brooklyn with works published on Coveteur and Harper’s Bazaar. Follow her blog, bontobewildblog.com.

Collages by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Olivia Lauren Hawk Moore

    I absolutely love this. I have started seeing a counselor within the last 6 months and I have never looked forward to something every week as much as meeting with her. Mental health is so so fun/hard/rewarding to take care of.

    • Rewarding, indeed! Self-care for the win.

  • This is beautifully written and so poignant (I find myself tearing up a little as I type this which is fine!!).

    I went to a therapist for the first time when I was 10. I remember not telling anyone about it, ever; not my classmates, not my teachers, not my closest friends, not my dad, not my brother. Only my mom and I ever discussed it.

    I walked into her office absolutely terrified to chat about the weird, distressing thought spirals in my head that I couldn’t seem to shut off. I walked out with a diagnosis: obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    I still feel shame in discussing that I have OCD; even now, 17 years later. But I’m SO thankful that it’s becoming more societally accepted to discuss therapy and mental health disorders. They’re much more prevalent than we realize, and posts like these help to break the stigma that surrounds them. THANK YOU for sharing.

    • Thank YOU for sharing! This year was the first time I told my older brother. He didn’t even know what a panic attack was. We need to be more open and vulnerable if we want to experience change. We need to educate people who aren’t privy to mental illnesses or how to treat them.

      • Kiks

        Like you, Bonnie, I’ve struggled with my anxiety disorder since I was about nine years old. I remember the stomachaches; by my teen years, they’d evolved into a pit of fear and dread that greeted me every morning when I woke up.

        In university I spiralled into an eating disorder and over-exercising as ways to feel in control. It took until my mid-twenties, when I came close to failing out of my professional degree program due to depression & insomnia, to seek help and medication.

        This past year I’ve learned that I basically cannot drink alcohol anymore at all. It gives me such bad rebound anxiety for days afterward. It’s completely not worth the short-lived escape from reality.

        I am completely open with my employer, friends, and family about my struggles. I had a panic attack — my first in years — at work a few months back after a particularly bad bout of insomnia had left my mind worn out and fragile; I was too exhausted to focus on my usual cognitive coping strategies.

        It’s a long road and I’m still, in my mid-thirties, learning how to care for myself. But I will talk about this to anyone who wants to listen, because I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way we did for so many years. Thank you for sharing your story with us. ❤️

        • I can relate to this completely. Thank you for making me feel less alone <3

  • Stacie Dweck

    Beautifully written, I was tearing up. Having more articles like this will continue to break the stigma. Thank you for sharing.

  • cecilrahn

    so beautifully written!! thank you for sharing your experience that so many of us can relate to

  • Amelia Diamond

    i love this a lot

  • Fayla Garcia

    I love this so much!!

  • Kattigans

    I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was 8. My parents divorced when i was young and their separation was brutal. When I was 10, I wanted to kill myself because my life was torture with them. That sounds really, really dramatic but I was seriously very depressed. I shifted in and out of counseling for years and had my first panic attack when I was 14. This piece is beautiful and really hits home. Mental health is a hard thing to address and talk about. I got back into counseling last year and stopped seeing my therapist regularly after 10 months. The best advice this one gave me was, “My hope for you is that you don’t become a life long patient of mine. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel like I’m not doing my job”. I know everyone is different but it felt good to hear that and let me feel less guilty when I told him I wanted to pull back on sessions. Now, 4 months later I’m thinking of going back regularly because of some stuff thats resurfaced.

  • Amelia

    Unbelievably poignant and needed right now. I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year (been seeing A therapist for over ten years) and somehow, she is still the only one who can actually ground me.

    I’ve actually referred her to several friends of mine. (Anyone need a therapist rec in NYC hit me up! She’s the best)

    Note: I’ve been on anti depressants for ten years. No amount of holistic approaches could clear the smoke and make me live my life with more clarity than my pills do. It’s a chemical imbalance in my brain! Glad the stigma around meds, too, is fading a bit.

    • Thank you!
      Re: meds– I can’t believe stigma hindered me from taking them sooner! I’ve tried every holistic approach in the book too, it was time I tried what my body and mind truly needed.

    • Liza

      Hi Amelia and Bonnie! Thanks so much for sharing. Any advice on how to find a therapist in NYC? I recently moved here and haven’t been having much luck. I’m 22 and have been in therapy for my anxiety since I was diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 11.

      • Natty

        Check out the Village Institute for Psychotherapy in the east village. They take the time to match you with the right therapist for your needs, and offer a sliding fee scale based on your income. Even after a price reduction the sessions are still expensive, but after several years I can confidently say it’s the best investment I’ve ever made in my life.

      • Amelia

        I found mine on Zocdoc and she’s amazing- I mostly read through the comments from people who have been going to hear for years and really liked what I saw.

    • doladex

      I’d love to know about your therapist! Finding a good one here has been tough.

      • Amelia

        I see Clarissa Slesar – her office is on the corner of Houston and Broadway!

        • doladex

          Thanks so much! I’ll check her out. Always great to hear recs from other people. Curious – does she prescribe for you, or do you see someone else for that?

          • CM

            Not OP but Clarissa Slesar is a clinical psychologist, so she wouldn’t be able to prescribe medication.

          • doladex

            Thx!

  • Megan Greffen

    This is so powerful! I’m a mental health professional, and it wasn’t something that my family accepted until just recently. My conservative, Catholic stepmom and dad kind of just glossed over my job and never really valued therapy as a coping resource. Shame, even if passive, hurts!

    After my biological mom (who suffered from bipolar) died last year, I re-entered therapy and have been in it for over a year. I see it as a strength, and I tell my patients all of the time that they are setting great examples for their children, and others, by acknowledging their feelings and building coping skills to enhance their lives. You go girl!

  • Holland Kennedy

    <3 <3 <3, I remember going to a therapist for the first time in like 6th grade after I'd said something about wanting to die on FB and my mom found out. I felt like whoever I told would think I was absolutely insane. I felt absolutely insane. I couldn't understand why I was always so sad, crying, annoyed. I would cry in the middle of class.

    Push forward to when I was 19, I started having panic attacks and was diagnosed with general anxiety & panic disorder. When it first began happening, I was annoyed with having to answer "are you better today" "well, what's wrong" because I knew no matter what I said unless you've experienced it'll make very little sense to you. I found myself starting sentences with "ok this is gonna sound crazy but…."

    Now that I'm more adjusted to it and know that I am in fact not dying, I'm much more open about it. Antidepressants help keep it under control and I'm thankful for my SO and family who are both very understanding.

    Let's keep pushing towards normalizing mental health issues!

  • My therapist in SF did so much for me! It’s so funny that you mention not seeing other patients, because after 6 years of going, I rarely ever saw another soul – which is especially weird given the joint waiting room for 7 different practitioners. I remember first encountering the white noise machines, scattered up and down the hallways so that no one could hear others’ conversations.

    I never thought about the shame – perhaps because I so desperately needed help at 23, and my parents were very supportive. But there was still a lot of misunderstanding about seeking help.

    Also have you heard of TalkSpace? It’s basically a text/skype therapist who you can get help from 1 or 2x a day if necessary. My sister loves it! https://www.talkspace.com/

    Wishing you the best, Eva <3

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Lindsey

    This is so beautifully written, it’s bringing me near tears! As someone who has gone off and on to therapy for years, had many panic attacks and finally found help with a CBT specialist, I resonate with this. Another aspect of my life is that my husband has bi-polar, and it’s been a recurring factor in our relationship (moreso when we were dating and he was yet undiagnosed on not on any medicine). Therapy, and prescriptions for mental health are SO IMPORTANT. Your friend is right about it not being any different than a physical disorder, but I completely feel the same as you that sometimes, having a “mental healthy day” doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as a “sick day” (and other similar circumstances). It definitely is becoming more common to talk about therapy, being on anti-depressants, etc., which is fantastic.

    I’ve also been wondering lately about how often I hear someone say, “It makes me so anxious” or “Oh, it’s just my obsessive compulsive tendencies”. On occasion, I hear it from very good friends who I actually know (because we’ve discussed it) do not have anxiety disorders or OCD. But because we all have times of needing to check on things multiple times, or we all feel anxious, or any other similar example, the language is easy to fall back on. Sometimes, it feels like it diminishes the realities of those who really do have mental health issues and makes it more normal as something that everyone does or thinks, and not giving it the weight of the disorder that it is. Does anyone else feel that? (BTW, I’m *NOT* saying this is what you’re doing; I’m speaking generally.) Am I just making something out of nothing? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on language regarding this topic.

    Thank you for such a vulnerable, thoughtful essay. I’m so grateful for your words and your candor.

    • Thank you for sharing! I’m glad to hear you found solace in my story. I’ve thought about language and the role it plays in mental health— like the word ‘retarded’ we should be sensitive to words that have greater implications.

    • Kiks

      You’re totally right. One of my good friends talks about having anxiety because she feels stressed out when she drives to work in the morning. I’m like, no, pretty sure most people don’t feel like going to work sometimes.
      Last month I shared with her that I had been having a bad time with my anxiety and she replied that she’d been feeling “really anxious too” but then she “just decided to say F—k It!” …I was like, again, that’s not how an anxiety disorder works. Please don’t say that to someone who at this time last year was contemplating suicide because my brain would not shut up, ever, no matter what I did.
      It is quite frustrating. I’m glad more people are talking about mental health but I also feel like there’s a large faction who really don’t understand what it is to live with this every day for your entire life.

    • doladex

      I am sensitive to that same thing with friends, when they talk about being ‘depressed’ etc when I know they generally do not experience depression. On the flip side, it also bothers me when close friends of mine who DO have mental health issues like myself talk about their issues as if I do not have my own (despite knowing about mine for years). For example, when one of my best friends says ‘Right, but for people like me with depression, it’s even harder because…’ and I’m thinking, dude you know I’ve been struggling with depression since my teens, we’re both going through things. I definitely think I’m being oversensitive in those cases, because I can’t expect them to necessarily think about my issues when talking about their own, but it kind of stings and feels invalidating, especially when I find such solidarity in being able to share such personal things with people and it’s not easy for me to open up like that. I have two friends who do that regularly.

  • Anna Curran

    Thank you for sharing. I really regret not starting medication sooner. I think I could have saved myself a lot of heartache.

  • Catgirl

    This is the first time I saw some of my own childhood experiences reflected in someone else’s writing. I too had crippling panic attacks starting at age 9. Stomach pains kept me from experiencing and remembering many parts of my time in middle school and early high school. I never went to therapy because of my fear of being thought of as incapable of taking care of myself. I’ve always had this desire to do everything on my own, and especially solve my own mental problems. I have finally (at 21, too many years after my first attack) understood my body and how to deal with my anxieties. However, I also wish that I went to therapy when they first started so that these falsehoods about me being less capable because of anxiety were dispelled at a younger age.

    Thank you for writing this. I hope that someone unsure of what next step to take can find inspiration in your words, and I hope that I too can be honest and vulnerable with the world about my own mental health.

    • Thank you for sharing— choosing not to seek medication was definitely because I was afraid it would mean I’m incapable, weak, and dependent. I realize now that it oppositely enabled me to be more capable, strong, and independent.

  • Lizzie

    When I was three years old I went to a psychiatrist who told my parents I was fine and then a therapist who actually helped me work through my anxiety. Yes, even toddlers can have anxiety, and it was more challenging for me to deal with then because I didn’t understand it or know how to manage it/cope with it.

    I don’t have OCD specifically but I have similar obsessive thought patterns that have come up several times throughout my life. I just started going to a therapist again last week because my anxiety has started up again and I want a better way to handle it. Even though I know it’s okay to go, I still find it hard to talk about sometimes. Thank you for reaffirming that getting help takes strength.

  • Lydia

    If anyone is feeling like therapy is something that is out of reach due to financial considerations:
    many insurance plans cover visits to mental health providers (I pay a $20 copay per session).
    Therapists will frequently offer sessions on a sliding scale based on income.

  • Jeanie

    I’ve had friends who used my anxiety and the fact that I went to a therapist against me. It happens. But in the end, I felt not ashamed for myself, but ashamed for them. These girls had their own problems and could have benefited from therapy too. I’ve grown so much and am so happy now. Don’t let anyone shame you into thinking you’re less than just because you are brave enough to admit you can use some help.

  • mariana

    LOVE THIS!!! So relatable, thank you :. )

  • abby thigpen

    Thank you for sharing! I so appreciate your vulnerability as I share similar experiences- especially on a specific topic which I’d like to dive into.

    Something resonated when I read about your parents supporting therapy but encouaraging you to avoid telling peers. I experienced this and didn’t realize until I was older that even my siblings were unaware. I didn’t find this helpful because they had a hard time understanding my actions, reactions and behaviors. Because I was under the impression they were informed of my condition/treatment at the time, it stung when I felt they didn’t understand me.

    I have thankfully overcome these things through therapy and eventually without medication. But- now my mother is struggling (and rightfully so as she has experienced a lot of grief this past year). I lovingly + carefully suggested she see someone and she was extremely offended. I thought she’d be more accepting because of the supported therapy for me.

    It raised the question if their generation (she’s a Baby Boomer) rejects it for a specific reason. Perhaps shame as a result of a common upbringing trend at the time? I’ve tried to research to understand, but haven’t come up with much. Thoughts?

  • withcurioushair

    Ah I loved this essay!
    Last year I moved to the Netherlands (from the States), and I came from a very therapy-friendly environment to a more private one. I used to feel comfortable saying to my friends/coworkers that I had to run to go to therapy (and they would do the same)- it was like a gym class, something proactive people did to take care of themselves. Here, I’ve noticed less openness with respect to therapy- and more judgement – so i’ve been trying to keep it on the down low, but my lies are getting complicated and i’m sure they wonder why i need to leave early every Tuesday. Just wondering if anyone else has had experiences with attitudes towards therapy in Europe/foreign countries?

    • Well first off, welcome to the Netherlands!
      I’ve lived here all my life so I can’t tell you what the attitude is in other countries, but I’m def not very open about going to therapy/mental health issues. over the years, telling people has gotten me 2 kinds of reactions:
      1. awkward: oh, well, good that you’re doing that I guess (never mentioned again) or
      2. almost too empathetic, with very direct personal questions about why you’re seeing a therapist and usually some (not very helpful) story about someone they know who’s also in therapy for xyz.

      For a long time the ‘national motto’ was “just be normal, that’s crazy enough”. A lot of people were raised not to be overtly emotional, or put the dirty laundry out so to speak. I think that’s why the older generations have a difficult time understanding why you’d pay someone to listen to private things, things you’re ‘supposed’ to keep to yourself.

  • tmm16

    “For years, I was afraid of opening up about my struggle and assumed others wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t accept me.” – hit me hard. Beautiful piece.

  • Julia

    Thanks, Bonnie! And if any of you lovely readers are in the Los Angeles area, I happen to be a therapist there (here). I work with women with OCD, eating disorders, and anxiety and would love to help! http://Www.juliamusker.com

  • doladex

    Late to the game here, but thank you for writing this beautiful and thoughtful piece. As a very private person who struggles with the stigma of seeking help with my mental health, it’s really important for me to remember that, as you discussed, it really was much worse in the past, and is getting better all the time. Still, I often find myself surprised when people I don’t know well bring up their therapist, or medications, or other mental health topics, and I envy their confidence in being so open about it. This piece reminds me that it is important to share a bit more.

  • I have never related to an MR article so much. I finally went to therapy last October after experiencing such frequent panic attacks that it became debilitating. I learned so much about myself there and how to cope with my mental illness. It will never go away, but once you have the tools to deal with it it’s so much better than asking yourself “why is this happening to me?” I too have OCD, and being able to recognize that the thoughts I am having are abnormal and knowing how to label them as abnormal were a huge help for me. Having someone telling you, “hey, there’s nothing wrong with you” vs “I’m not sure what’s going on either” is also a game changer. My therapist described cognitive therapy in the most beautiful way. At my first or second session she told me to imagine a backyard with a shed in it. Every day, our brain takes the same path to the shed so that path is worn down. What cognitive therapy does is it helps create a new path so eventually the grass on the old path grows in and we take the right path going forward. I am so grateful that I picked up the phone and made an appointment because it changed my life.