Why you need to go to therapy, and why you probably can’t

therapy

In theory, every single person would benefit from regular therapy. Just like you get an annual physical to check your blood work for issues you can’t see, like cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation, and more, a regular check-in with a therapist can help you maintain healthy levels of psychological self care.

When I meet with my psychiatrist, she goes through a depression and anxiety inventory and scores it. From the time I went on medication in December 2017 to my checkup in February 2019 (and quarterly follow-ups between), my scores consistently dropped. It was a quantitative way to check in and realize I was making strides in my mental health that could not have been noticed by just considering if I was feeling “less depressed.”

We developed a plan to wean off meds, and I’ve been off them entirely since May 2019 (the same month my book launched and I broke up with a boyfriend of over a year — it was a great time to go off meds! Sarcasm!) The moral of the meds story is that once I was out of an abusive marriage and actively working through my trauma in therapy, I was managing my mental health without the use of medication. If it turned out that I still needed it, I would have gone back on.

However, even if you don’t see a psychiatrist for a diagnosed mental illness like depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline, OCD, C-PTSD, etc., and even if you don’t take meds, mental health care helps everyone.

You would benefit from therapy

Yeah, you. Whoever you are and whatever you’ve been through, even if you think you’re fine.

We live in an extremely stressful society that is not set up for our well-being. We are over-worked, minimum wage doesn’t cover rent prices anywhere in the U.S., we’re drowning in student loans, and we have concentration camps. That’s just one country. Globally, there’s genocide and rampant homophobia/transphobia and the Amazon is burning and the ice caps are melting.

Watch the news for five minutes and you could benefit from a therapist.

Some of my readers who attend (or have attended) therapy said:

  • “My health insurance is good about covering therapy and visits to a CNP who can prescribe medication. I absolutely needed therapy almost three years ago and it’s led to me rising high above much of my depression and anxiety, and to just see more of my own worth. All of it was hard. Making appointments. Going to appointments. Having my therapist tell me things that were hard to hear. I don’t regret any of it.”
  • “For an hour I slow down. It isn’t deadlines and juggling, it’s take time, process, feel, reflect. As a single mom, there’s very little time for that. It’s always putting out fires and juggling other people’s needs. My therapy is my one self indulgence, the one thing I completely do for me. It’s like the bare minimum of self care and it still feel selfish for it when I’m doing the schedule shuffling to make our weeks work.”
  • “I have been going to therapy for three years now and it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done for myself. I went from being on 7 different medications and still unable to function as a human with C-PTSD and DID and now I take one medication and have a full time job with normal to low anxiety.”
  • “It’s been amazing for me and helped me leave my emotionally/psychologically abusive marriage, start healing the trauma from that and from my childhood, improve lots of areas of myself that also have helped improve my parenting. I recommend it to others every chance I get.”
  • “I go to therapy to find myself again. After so much abuse I’ve gone through I’ve lost the real me. My therapist has helped me so much. I’m so very grateful for him and would recommend therapy to everyone.”
  • “I used to go to therapy. It helped me process some stuff that I desperately needed to work through, like realizing just how abusive my parents truly were. I’m tempted to go again because I’m barely functioning again, but I worry they won’t help, just use me as a lab rat to satisfy their curiosity.”
  • “My therapist is always calling me out, and, don’t tell her, but I like it.”
  • “Finding the right therapist is key and worth being patient.”
  • “Without therapy I would never have identified I was being abused.”
  • “I have been to multiple therapists in the past. The only one I’d say had a real impact was my PTSD specialist (EMDR therapy). The others… by and large, I usually left sessions feeling more confused than I did when I went in.”
  • “I have been in and out of therapy since I was 5. I go because while I have figured out how to process and unpack my trauma on my own, I currently and desperately need to undo some learned behaviors and deal with my most recent bout of abuse and deal with my PTSD. It helps to have a space space to break down or soundboard once a week. I personally think everyone can benefit from therapy. EVERYONE.”

The key is that everyone would benefit from a therapist with absolutely no biases that preclude proper supportive care, and that’s not always possible.

When you can’t go to therapy

There is a huge problem with access to therapy. Many people are without insurance, transportation, or income to be able to access a therapist. More, it can be difficult and daunting to find an inclusive therapist who is open and accepting of all gender identities, sexualities, relationship styles, ability levels, etc. or who is informed in a specific need if you have one. As a result, marginalized people face even more hardship because they cannot even access the services and tools to help them cope.

I asked readers to chime in if they go to therapy or not and why. Here are some of the negative responses:

  • “I’ve been told by basically everyone I’m close to that I need to go to therapy, and I want to, but I can’t afford it and I’ll never be able to at this rate.”
  • “Every therapist seemed wholly overwhelmed and some cried”
  • “Not anymore. They spend more time studying me than helping me. ‘Oh you’re nonbinary, I have a lot of questions.’ While some of them never mention ‘the autism’ some brought it up to congratulate me for being so functional. And some were really helpful – that’s the bitter pill.”
  • “No insurance, so no. Probably not once we have insurance, because nothing I can find that we can afford covers it. When I did, I found it largely unhelpful due to the profession being dominated by people who don’t think people with breasts can possibly know their own mind. Never mind trauma-informed, educated on chronic illness, accepting of autism self-diagnosis, etc. When I’m having to educate my therapist constantly, it doesn’t make for a good relationship.”
  • “Even if I had insurance, it would be near impossible to find a non-racist, trans inclusive, queer positive, non Christian therapist with a good praxis on ableism here. When I have had therapy it was not helpful because the therapist could not understand my life experience and was not comprehending of the support I needed, which resulted in me being gaslit and given harmful advice that increased my abuser’s control over me.”
  • “I have insurance but I have phone anxiety and anxiety about not knowing how to set up appointments. I also have some trauma related to bad counseling I’ve had. That’s not getting into being a neurodivergent creative weirdo and also accidentally stunning them with my trauma. It honestly feels like having to translate a deeply personal internal language with other people outside myself for every basic communication.”
  • “No. Because the stigma means that if anyone knew, they would think less of me. Like there’s something wrong with me.”

Others who are able to go to therapy can only do so because of special access programs.

  • “The only way I can afford to go is because I signed up with Open Path. I go because I finally realized last year that I needed to talk to a professional about my past traumas and talk about my depression and anxiety issues that stemmed from them. My therapist has helped me totally reframe the way I think about my past and change the way I talk about it. It’s gonna be a long process, but I feel more optimistic now than I ever have before.
  • “The only reason I’m able to is because of a local organization of therapists who volunteer their time for the uninsured. I chose to go when I was having daily suicidal thoughts, but I should have been going for the last 20 years. I’ve been going for 8 months now and so far it’s been extremely helpful just to be able to talk without fear of judgment and without feedback or bias. The entire experience has been extremely validating and I think absolutely every person on this planet should see a therapist regularly.”

This system is letting people down

People don’t have access to safe, inclusive, reliable, affordable mental health care — and that means that people are not safe. We are letting down trans people, domestic violence survivors, veterans, and everyone else including people who just need a safe space to unload their mental burdens. We are mainlining stress and gating the resources to manage it in a healthy way.

In a new study published in 2018, researchers found that “mental health services in the US are insufficient despite more than half of Americans seeking help. Limited options and long waits are the norm, but some bright spots with 76% of Americans now seeing mental health as important as physical health.”

Barriers cited in this study include:

  • High cost and insufficient insurance coverage
  • Limited options and long waits
  • Lack of awareness (not knowing where to go for service)
  • Social stigma

We’ve created a world that is too stressful to bear, limited the access to mental health care, and stigmatized those who seek or use it. Not to mention we raise boys to avoid emotional expression, thereby ensuring a huge chunk of each generation doesn’t even know how to express that they’re feeling stressed or angry or hurt without violence, lest they be seen as weak.

We need to do better.

Read more from me!

If you enjoyed this post (enjoy is a strong word, it was kind of a downer), you might also like my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a five star review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

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There’s no timeline on healing or love

time

When I turned 25, I made a five year plan. Become debt free and a mother by 30, in April 2018.

I am now 31 and neither of those things happened.

In fact, as 30 approached, I was facing a lot of other huge life circumstances. In August 2016 I got married and immediately started trying to conceive a much wanted baby. In January 2017 I stopped speaking to my mother, until February 2018 when I unwittingly made contact with her through my stepdad’s phone. She tersely let me know he had cancer, and through speaking with my siblings I came to understand that she had deliberately kept the news from me to punish me for cutting her out of my life. (I wrote about this experience here).

Within a ten day span in March 2018, I left an abusive marriage, packed everything I owned and moved into a new apartment, endured transatlantic cyber bullying at the hands of my husband, and watched my stepfather die of lung cancer. Oh, and accepted a book deal.

Life did not give one iota of a shit about my five year plan. I still have student loans and I never did get pregnant (thank goodness).

The timeline of healing

After I left my abuser, I committed to only casual relationships on a non-monogamous basis for at least a year. And then I fell in love. And I fought it. I didn’t want to be in love, I wanted time to be single and to heal.

My sister gave me some sage advice: There’s no timeline on healing or love. You’re allowed to fall in love whenever you fall in love.

I decided I could work on healing from my abusive upbringing and marriage at the same time I was enjoying a relationship. I continued going to therapy and reading books that helped me process my trauma, and I had fewer panic attacks and C-PTSD episodes as time went on. I was healing.

And then our relationship imploded, as did another year-long relationship of mine, and I found myself newly single again.

But I noticed something important. While it had taken me years to realize my marriage was harmful, it took me only months with my boyfriend and mere weeks with my girlfriend. Of course, looking back, I can see that there were signs of the unhealthy patterns long before I realized them, but it was proof of my healing. I was doing the work. I wasn’t putting up with unhealthy behavior once I realized it was happening.

The timeline of love

Letting myself feel my feelings and fall in love was important. Fresh out of an abusive marriage, I really needed to feel loved again. I am a big fan of taking time to be single and focus on self-love, but I’m also not upset that I spent my first year away from my ex feeling loved and supported by two partners.

When those relationships ended, I was much more able to take time to be single. Seeing that I had fallen into similar behaviors (serving as one partner’s sole emotional support to my own detriment, allowing the other to continually violate my boundaries and forgiving them because each time seemed individually like an honest mistake) as I had in my marriage, because on some level I was still scared of being seen as too hard to love, was something I needed to realize. And now that I’ve had those experiences, I have realized them.

This has given me new targets for therapy.

Your responsibilities in a relationship

Some fundamental truths I’ve stumbled upon in therapy include the following:

  • I am not responsible for making my thoughts and emotions comfortable for other people. How many of us do this? We feel hurt or upset but keep our pain internalized until we’ve either ignored it or whittled it into something tiny and non-offensive that we can bring up to our partners apologetically and hope to stand up for ourselves about it. The trouble is, when we’ve been taught over and over again that our hurt feelings aren’t valid, we just start invalidating them ourselves. “I won’t talk about this with him, I’m probably just overreacting.” No, we’re not doing that anymore. If you feel hurt, tell your partner. The discomfort of this conversation is important: if the discomfort gives way to healing and repair, then that’s a sign of a healthy relationship. If it gives way to invalidating blame, then that’s a sign you aren’t with someone who values you and wants to treat you well.
  • Managing my partners’ behavior is not a normal part of a healthy relationship. I’ve always been the PR spinner in my relationships. With my abusive ex, I would post cute stories about our conversations on Facebook and my friends fawned over how sweet we were. “Get a man who makes coffee in the morning and does the dishes!” I’d say, to a chorus of “He should teach a class on being a husband!” and “Can I borrow him so he can teach mine??” But the man only had three regular chores and didn’t do any of them completely. If I wanted to continue getting coffee in the morning and have him washing dishes at 50% competency, I had to put on the happy face and brag about him in a public way so he rewarded me instead of punishing me. I also had a habit of staying mentally two steps ahead of partners’ behavior to make sure they didn’t do something problematic. I also did this with my parents: I’d have to watch to make sure dad didn’t harass a waitress with a sexist comment or keep an eye on mom’s mood to warn my sister to behave. I have always had to stay aware of everyone around me to reduce the risk of danger/abuse. Turns out this is not a normal part of a relationship.
  • I give my love away freely so people never feel like they have to earn it. Realizing this was hard. I have always felt like I had to behave properly in order to receive love – I had to earn it. If I was a bad kid, I didn’t get love. If I was a bad wife, I didn’t get love. Subsequently, I wanted to make sure no one ever felt like that’s what I was doing to them. I didn’t want to paywall my affections and make someone earn them… so I had no boundaries because I always wanted people to have access to my love. This is unsustainable. Love is unconditional, but access is not, and sometimes I have to say no to something or someone in order to take care of myself and avoid burning out. Boundaries are a form of love too.
  • I am not responsible for making other people love me and treat me with value; that is their job. Seriously. If you are in a relationship with me, I shouldn’t have to convince you I’m worth loving, appreciating, or being with. Having to perform at this level with so many partners has been exhausting, and I don’t do it anymore. If you don’t want to be with me, stop being with me. I should not have to earn your time and attention.

Single part two

As I mentioned, after these two breakups I’ve been spending time being single and casually dating, but I’m not in any serious relationships. I still consider myself single. But I’m also feeling like I may be ready to start dating a little more seriously soon. My plan is to stay single until the new year, but we all know that life laughs at my plans. And if I end up feeling ready before then, that’s okay too. Because I decide when I’m ready, and it doesn’t mean I can’t dial things back if I find I still need single time later.

The same is true for you. You can’t heal on a timeline and you can’t control when something happens off your plan. But you can choose to lean into your vulnerability and your love and let something wonderful happen. (And you can also choose to pull back and say no, I’m actually not ready yet. It is up to you!)

Read more from me

If you dig my brand of encouragement, you might like my Patreon page, where supporters receive a weekly pep talk post! You can sign up at varying levels for different content access, starting at just $1 per month.

You can also support my work by purchasing my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

 

 

Breaking the silence of parental emotional abuse

Trigger Warning: Emotional abuse. Cancer. Loss. 

Breaking the silence

May is tough for me. It’s tough at work, because I have spent the last several years in marketing for a crib mattress company and a greenhouse. It’s tough on social media, because all the ads and posts are about how to honor the woman who gave you everything. It’s tough on my mental state, because I have to realize again and again that I was raised by an emotionally abusive mother.

This is not something I have talked about publicly, because protecting the secrets is deeply ingrained in people who have experienced emotional abuse and trauma. When a book-on-CD at the library caught my eye, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” I hid the case in my car so no one would see. I did the same with “Toxic Parents” later. No one could see me doubt my upbringing. No one could know.

Unpacking a traumatic childhood is a lot of work. I’ve realized I don’t have very many memories of my home life from roughly age 6-12, and the positive memories I do have are from school.

It’s hard to piece together enough evidence to convince myself and others that I was abused, because emotional abuse is like “death by a thousand cuts.” Any one example on its own can be brushed off as a rough patch or a bad day. There aren’t bruises or scars I can point to in order to show you where and how I was hurt. The behavioral responses from emotional trauma develop over time amidst issues like depression, anxiety, and complex PTSD.

I started seeing a therapist when I was 14 after I started writing in my diary about wanting to die. Mom thought the therapist was indulging me and that there was nothing actually wrong besides routine teenage angst. I went until age 28 before being diagnosed with not only anxiety but severe anxiety.

The messages I had ingrained into my head from puberty onward were things like:

“No one is going to want to date you if you eat like a pig.”

“I’m going to put a tape recorder in your pockets on dates so I can see if you eat so sloppy.”

“That isn’t flattering on you.”

“Your inhaler is a placebo, you just need to lose weight.”

The criticism of my appearance, coupled with forcing me to eat a restrictive diet from a young age, led to a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body. It has taken decades for me to love my body, even though it’s fat. I’ve also finally found my own sense of style and I dress for myself in a way that makes me feel good and happy. I wear form fitting clothing as a fat woman, much to the hisses of fat shamers on the internet (and probably mom). I have stopped hiding behind baggy clothing.

Other messages I internalized were about laziness and cleanliness:

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

“Lazy, worthless, good for nothing kids.” (Said while kicking dirty clothes on the floor).

If momma was cleaning, everybody was cleaning. Well, the girls were. My sister and I were treated differently by mom but both were expected to maintain a robust schedule of chores and housekeeping. Laziness was not an option, and my worth was tied up in what I looked like and how well I could keep a house clean.

Chronically low self-esteem led me to marry the first man I ever dated, because I didn’t expect anyone to ever love me, let alone want to have sex with me. The second time she met him, my mom told me that she knew I’d marry him. When we got engaged, she told me he wasn’t good enough for me. I married him anyway. And I divorced him.

I lived with my mother and stepdad (her live-in partner, they weren’t married, but I considered him a parent) for six months after the divorce. We got along pretty great. I paid my rent in chores and job applications and was able to move out into my own place quickly. She and I remained in close contact for several years, while I heavily identified with the “mother knows best” train of thought. After all — she knew my ex husband wasn’t right for me and I should have listened.

After living on my own for 18 months, I moved in with the man who would become my second husband. We hadn’t always planned on getting married. Both divorced once already, we were wary of marriage and thought we might just live together long-term and have a life without legal documentation. I told my mom this over lunch.

“So… S and I are thinking we might not get married.”

“Oh, good. You were settling.”

I explained that we were still planning on living a life together, just not marrying. We got through lunch and I continued a relationship with her. Then I started reading the books and realizing that she had a huge control over my psyche and mental well-being. Her voice was a broken record in my head, pointing out all my faults and failures. I started to pull back.

My husband and I were engaged in April 2016 and after Mother’s Day went by with just a “Happy Mother’s Day” text from me and no gift or visit, I was talking to mom on the phone one day on my way home from work. She told me that she had started a project and was writing each of her children a letter, and she started with my sister, the youngest, and would work backwards. She told me this supposedly to make sure I wouldn’t get jealous if my sister mentioned her letter to me. Then she told me she was upset with me because I didn’t do anything for Mother’s Day and because I wasn’t involving her in my wedding planning. I told her I had pulled back to work through a lot of my childhood issues and she pulled out her favorite refrain:

It’s in the past, I don’t understand why it still bothers you so much.”

At a loss for how to explain that trauma doesn’t just dissolve because it happened a long time ago, I made plans to go wedding shopping with her and things were relatively fine. Post-wedding, she confessed that my stepdad had to talk her into getting us a gift because she had wanted to just send a “Happy wedding” text, in response to my “Happy Mother’s Day” text.

I recall coming to their house one day and sitting down with my stepdad to explain that my issues were with my mother, not with him. And that I didn’t hate her, I just needed space. He listened, he understood. I felt better knowing I had told him a little piece of my truth.

After the wedding in August things were relatively calm, aside from the fact that really any time I spent with her, I’d come home and end up picking a fight with my husband over something. We came to the conclusion that my mom was getting into my head and I was bringing home doubts about him and our marriage.

I chose to stay home for Thanksgiving, partly out of not wanting to deal with the obligation and partly out of wanting to plan and create my own vegan meal and not just eat some sides and desserts I made myself while everyone else ate “normal things.” I also didn’t want to see my brother, whom I had cut contact with for various reasons.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Her snarky response aside, my husband and I had a nice quiet vegan Thanksgiving. Christmas was another story.

My sister came to town and we set off to mom’s for Christmas morning, knowing we’d have to see our brother and deal with the general unease of family gatherings. My husband actually stayed home, because he had hurt himself falling on some ice and wasn’t up for a day out and about. Mom mentioned to me that she had mailed a lot of my sister’s presents to her already, so I shouldn’t be worried if I had more presents than she did. We had roughly the same amount of presents. Also we were 28 and 24, and gift jealousy was about a decade too late to be a thing.

We got through Christmas and returned to our lives, and then on January 22, 2017 I finally had enough.

This story still seems to petty to me, but it was the moment I finally saw through everything and finally realized nothing would change and that her effect on my life had been there forever and was not something I could overcome in her presence. So I am being completely honest and telling the real story of what made me cease contact with my mother.

I asked what we were going to do for my birthday in April. Her response: “Well, what did you do for mine?”

In this moment, I realized every aspect of the love, affection, and validation I had ever gotten from my mother had been a transaction. What did I do to earn that love? What did I do to earn a treat, to earn a break, to earn a hug?

I stopped speaking to her the next day, without explanation, without ceremony, without premeditation. I simply decided I couldn’t keep her in my life.

This may not make sense to readers. I don’t write this to make sense. I write because it helps me and because breaking my silence helps me.

I went without contact until February 28, 2018.

Unbeknownst to my mother (at least, I think so), I had reached out to my stepdad a few times in 2017. I sent him a card addressed with my left hand from a PO box, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I explained that I needed to not speak to her, but I didn’t want to lose him. I offered to buy him lunch.

He called me and said that he’d love to get lunch. I cried with relief. He said he’d call the next time he had a job out near where I worked.

We spoke a few more times, about once every few months. I sent a Father’s Day gift, he thanked me. I’d call him or text him if my car was acting funny, he’d give me advice. I called him when I hit a deer and totaled my car, he called back to check on me a few days later. I texted him when I started a new job. We were still trying to coordinate those lunch plans.

At the end of February, our furnace was acting weird and the house wasn’t heating. I called my stepdad and didn’t hear back. The next day I texted him and received a response from my mother instead.

“[Stepdad] is sick and can not help you at the present time. Unfortunately. He stopped working and is unable to drive”

“He says try turning off and back on”

“Okay thank you.”

“Is he okay?”

“He has lung cancer.”

“Getting chemo treatment. Is on oxygen 24/7.”

“How long has he been sick”

“December 2nd he was diagnosed at the ER”

Between my mom and stepdad, there are six adult children. Four of them knew about the cancer. My sister and I were not told. It became apparent as we spoke to the rest of the siblings that we were deliberately not told. For three months he had been dealing with cancer, and we were not told.

My sister called mom and was told that our stepdad specifically wanted me to not know, because if my mom wasn’t in my life, he couldn’t be either. My sister reported this to me gravely and sadly, and my response genuinely shocked her: “I don’t believe that, that is not true.” It hadn’t occurred to her that our mother would lie.

My sister came to visit him and she actually caught him on a good day. He was alert. She asked him if he wanted to see me and he said yes, he did. She told him what mom said, that he hadn’t wanted to see me. He looked surprised.

We expected him to be stable for a year or more, but complications arose and he ended up hospitalized with fluid in a lung. It looked bad. My sister told me when my mom left the hospital and I was able to go see him. He was sleeping. He woke up briefly and asked how I was doing before he drifted back to sleep. I stayed for a couple hours and went home again. He was able to leave ICU.

A couple days later, things were bad again. My sister got a call that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night. She told mom that I would be coming. Mom said that was fine. I was able to see him that night, though he wasn’t aware or alert. I held his hand. I whispered to him, joking that this was a pretty extreme way to get my mom and I back in a room together. I almost remember him smiling.

Eventually the decision was made to take him off the machines. It was time. We waited, surrounded by family, and eventually my sister and I had to leave. We could no longer bear to be there. And he passed moments after we left. I think he was waiting. I don’t think he wanted us to see.

We attended a family funeral at mom’s house that weekend. Things were flawlessly normal. We talked, joked, acted like always. It was very jarring to know that we hadn’t spoken in so long and could still put the masks back on. I did not feel comfortable.

After the funeral, I went right back to no contact. Every day I think about calling her to see if she’s okay. Every day I think about sending her a gift or a card. I think about stopping by the house. I think about reaching out, knowing she is in pain.

But she leveraged a human life in a grudge against me. She kept me from someone I loved, on purpose. I never got to see him in a way he deserved to be remembered. My last memories of him are sick and weak in a hospital bed.

I do not forgive her. And I do not have to.