I’ve been to see a therapist two different times. That is: I’ve been multiple times, at two different points in my life. The first time, I went following the divorce of my mom and stepdad when I was 18 or 19 years old. My mother encouraged me to go, just to talk to someone who was impartial and unrelated to me or to the situation. I remember very clearly driving out to the doctor’s office, which was in a beautiful old house, and waiting for my turn. It was all warm wood and earthy tones. I could see the backyard and a garden through the window. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t upset.
It turned out the doctor had double-booked or something, and I couldn’t get in to see them that day. I had to reschedule for a week or so later. I cried the whole way home. I couldn’t stop. I cried and I cried and I couldn’t even say why. I hadn’t realized how much I had been preparing to release in that office or how much I had been holding onto. It was like trying to replace the lid on a pressure cooker mid-boil.
Eventually, I did see the doctor a couple of times. After the second or third session they told me there was no need to continue making appointments – that I seemed really well adjusted and healthy – but I was welcomed to give a shout anytime I felt like I needed another visit. I never did, but I definitely would have and it was so nice to know that I could have.
The second time I saw a therapist, I was a bit older. I wanted to check-in with a professional about some patterns I was noticing in my own emotional development: relationship stuff, nothing too dramatic or devastating. Similar to my first experience, I didn’t go because I was cracking up or in the throes of depression, I went seeking a non-partisan conversation with someone who might be able to offer the kind of challenging insight my friends and family were likely too kind to speak. I wanted to be able to say things that were mean or stupid or embarrassing without repercussion or backlash. I also wanted to establish a relationship with a therapist and bring them up to speed on my state of mental health so that if things ever did go sideways I wouldn’t be faced with the daunting task of searching for a therapist and starting from square one before we could begin to tackle the issue at hand.
I really, really think this last piece is key for a couple of reasons: first, because the relationship between a therapist and a patient/client/whatever is not a given. Considering how much time people spend finding the right hairdresser or yoga studio or go-to local pub, imagine the difference a compatible therapist can make. Waiting until the wheels fall off and you’re in a state of emotional emergency is not the ideal time to be trying therapists on for size. We would all be much more likely to call a professional and set-up an appointment if we already knew them and had faith they were going to be able to respond to our crisis in way that worked for us; if they weren’t a total stranger.
And that leads to my second reason for pre-emptively finding a compatible therapist: it takes a long time, sometimes several visits, to unravel your personal history and establish potential triggers or emotional challenges. You can’t walk into someone’s office on Day One and assume to treat an issue-in-progress without consideration of potentially pre-existing conditions. Going through a divorce or a break-up? Let’s talk about your relationship with your father. Oh, there’s a stepfather as well? Hmmm, better make another appointment for next Wednesday. In fact, how about we go ahead and block you in for every Wednesday until, let’s say, Thanksgiving? Laying the groundwork, establishing a rapport and keeping a therapist up to date on your mental health puts both of you in a position to recognize red flags and address them in a timely and appropriate fashion.
I know I’m not the first to say this, but I’ll add my voice to the choir in asserting that we need to treat mental health the same way we treat physical health: they are one and the same. And let me be clear: when I say we, I don’t only mean we, the patient. I mean we, the society. It needs to be more accessible, financially and otherwise, to everyone. How often do we go to the dentist for a check-up? Once every year or two, and we feel guilty if we haven’t. It’s all about what’s stigmatized and what isn’t: there’s a certain shame in not looking after your teeth and, yet, I can’t find a single example of someone whose toothache was so debilitating they resorted to suicide.
And so, to link this post to current events and the news of his passing, may Robin Williams REST in PEACE, and may his struggle with mental wellness be as loud and inspirational as the incredible body of creative work he left behind.