by: Dennis Scimeca
One of the scariest parts of being mentally ill based on my experience and from the stories of people I’ve talked to who also suffer from mental illness, is getting into therapy. It’s a choice that’s loaded with stigmatic judgments, and that makes it so easy to think something is wrong with us. It can be terrifying to think about completely opening up about all the stuff going on in our heads which, if we’ve shared it with other people, might have frightened or horrified them. The possibility of taking meds inspires fear that we may become someone entirely different than who we are.
I’ve never met someone currently in therapy, or who was in therapy in the past, who said that the decision to seek help was easy. When I ask people why they finally went for help the answer has been just as consistent. They got tired of feeling the way they were feeling, they say, whether it was depression or anxiety or mood instability. They listened to the part of themselves that said, “We don’t have to put up with this anymore.”
Going into therapy or any other kind of treatment ultimately has to be our choice. Therapy is hard work, and unless we’re engaging with it of our own free will, in my experience, its effectiveness is always limited. If I can encourage you to do anything it’s to listen to any voice within yourself that says it’s time to seek help, because I wish I’d listened to it so much earlier than I did.
My parents realized something was wrong much earlier than I was willing to admit it to myself. The first time they sent me to a therapist was when I was 15. I wasn’t just a typically surly, moody teenager. There was something else on top of that, an instability that led to violent bouts of anger and dark depressions, and it scared them. They didn’t ask if I wanted to talk with anybody about what was going on. They just sent me off to the therapist’s office because they thought it would help, and they didn’t know what else to do.
I remember sitting in a high-backed, cushiony chair next to a table filled with knick-knacks, like animals made of colored glass. I spent most of my time fidgeting with the glass animals instead of paying close attention to what the therapist was asking me. When she gave me a paper test evaluation I breezed through it without taking time to really think about the answers.
I didn’t want to be there. When I’d told a classmate earlier that day that I was going to therapy, a classmate I thought was a friend, he threw me a disgusted look and said “Get away from me!”
A girl in our junior high school was emotionally disturbed. She used to lose her temper in the morning before classes began, throwing chairs at the kids in the lunchroom crunching out the homework they should have done the night before. Everyone teased her to her face and called her a freak behind her back. Sitting in that therapist’s chair, I felt like a freak as well, and didn’t want any part of it.
I only remember having the one session. I don’t know whether it was because the therapist reported back that I was uncooperative, or because by being uncooperative I was giving no sign that I was having problems beyond what any 15 year old boy might be having at that age. Even though I would spend high school swinging between bouts of suicidal depression and manic ranting about hating the world, that single session was the closest I ever came to getting the treatment that, looking back on it now, I clearly needed.
It wasn’t until I was 26 that I voluntarily went to see a therapist, after a counselor in my grad school’s health care center offered a recommendation if I wanted it. I’d been a drug addict for seven years, self medicating my mania and depression away. I’d been the abused in an abusive relationship and ruined another relationship of my own accord, but had finally met someone I genuinely loved and wanted to be with. I’d wasted an entire year of graduate school getting high and had to work full time at an office job before transferring to another program at a different school so that I could start all over again. I hated that job so much that I started using drugs more than ever before.
So when I started the new graduate school program and was by then living with my girlfriend, I decided that I’d had enough. My mother had been in therapy for years and I’d seen it work for her first hand. She helped me get past the shame of feeling like going to therapy was an admission that I was intrinsically broken, or the fear that therapy would somehow change me into someone I didn’t recognize.
I began an intense three-year program of four days a week psychoanalysis, psycho pharmaceutical treatment, and then maintenance therapy which continues to this day.
I’m healthy. I don’t use drugs. I practice self awareness and gratitude, and I’m not perfect at either, but I’ve felt them improve my life so I keep at both practices. I’ve managed a modicum of success as a freelance writer, which offers me types of stress I never could have dealt with before I was in treatment. I’ve even had a daily exercise regimen for the past month, which is something I thought would happen around the time Hell froze over.
Mental illness doesn’t go away. Those of us who suffer from it have to be mindful of our depression or anxiety or mood swings well after treatment allows us to live a “normal” life, whatever that means for different people, if we’re fortunate enough for treatment to be successful. We may have to keep working hard in treatment to claim that relative normalcy or to keep it in our possession, but it’s possible to reach a point where mental illness doesn’t have to dominate our lives. We don’t have to be mastered by whatever ailment we suffer from. We can fight back.
That means listening to the voice that tells us we can. Hopefully, as you realize that you’re not alone, you’ll also realize that there is no shame in seeking help. That we’re not responsible for any stigmas around our conditions, and that really the problem isn’t with us, it’s with anyone who lacks the compassion to care. The voice that said you don’t have to put up with feeling the way you’re feeling may get louder as you realize all of this.
I try not to regret, as part of my practice of living in the moment. I’m not very good at either, but I keep trying. I can’t help but wonder, all the time, how my life would have been different had I been open to listening to that voice when I was 15 years old. If you can hear that voice, listen closely. It’s not a voice that reproves for not getting into treatment up until then. It’s a voice that cares about you and offers hope.
Listen to it.