Ahhhh. The word that can put the fear of God into almost anyone.
“What brings you in today?” the therapist asked. (They always do. Yep – we’re taught to ask that. I try not to. It annoys me.)
The truth was, back then, that there were days when I felt so sad that I had no words. I had no words to describe my feelings. All I had was the constant feeling that something bad was about to happen and that I’d rather not be around to find out what it was.
I thought any therapist would tell me to toughen up – especially since I’d had counselling at church “therapy” (don’t get me started) to toughen me up a few years earlier.
Looking back, I would’ve done anything to avoid sticking out, being judged as weird or to avoid that look on people’s faces when you try to explain how you feel.
I was about 16.
I had a great group of friends – *waves at my girls* – we all adored music and were probably called misfits. But they were my misfits.
Still, I told them all different things instead of the truth. This habit was ingrained into me from an early age. Embellishing my life so it looked better or more acceptable. So – as a teen I found myself lying more frequently than I told the truth.
Always for the same reason: fear of being different or rejected. But also because in my family, we had to make our lives look okay to anyone looking in.
Appearances. Appearances. Appearances.
Life continued – as well as it can when you are telling yourself lies about how you are coping. “I’m fine”. “I got this”. “Needing other people is weak.”
Until…At 28 I was ‘sent’ to another therapist – partly against my wishes – but I kinda knew I needed it.
I knew I needed help, but I didn’t want to open up the Pandora’s box that was my life and memories.
Plus – how could I talk about stuff without letting some family “secrets” out. Damned if I did. Damned if I didn’t.
Life had been rough – I’d had two very prem babies in a pretty rocky shotgun marriage. I was 24. My next pregnancy (the gorgeous girl I’d had was only 4 months old when I got pregnant again) was twins – and resulted in just one baby at term.
I couldn’t grieve because my new baby was very sick. I had two other little kids. And – the hospital was 1½ hours from where we lived.
I was in survival mode.
Until one night in 1996, after he was finally out of the woods – I ended up in a bathtub.
Hiding from my kids and begging for a curry. I don’t eat curry. I think it was Chicken Korma I wanted. Funny what you remember.
I’ll leave you guessing about whether there was water in the bath. 😊
I’m not sure what it’s like in other countries but in Australia, you have to go to a GP for a referral and then you have to contact the Psychiatrist yourself to see if they’ll take you.
Then – you’re put on a waiting list that can be up to six months long.
Then there’s the whole health insurance minefield.
During this whole rigmarole – there’s lots and lots of explaining your life to strangers. Followed by lots and lots of waiting.
It’s not a great system – but more about that another time.
Back to my story.
I waited. I waited. I waited.
Everyone (it felt like everyone) would ask me what I was going to say when I finally got there.
‘Everyone’ had suggestions.
Truth – I could barely look after myself and my kids let alone work out what I was going to say to someone in 3 months.
I had days and nights of overthinking.
Rethinking the whole ridiculous idea that I should talk with someone.
Maybe I was just overreacting.
Maybe I was too soft.
Or just too sensitive.
But – to make the people around me shut up – yep, that was my primary reason – and to make the panic attacks stop – I went.
I’d chosen a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist deliberately.
Hopefully, I could grab a prescription to take the edge off and quietly pop some pills instead of talking.
The car ride to the specialist’s office was about an hour’s drive in really heavy city traffic. I spent the whole car ride trying to think of something I could say that would make the doctor happy and feel needed.
What I came up with couldn’t make me appear needy or worse – ‘loony’. The word in our family was “delicate”.
I was going for something that wouldn’t cause a look of horror or disgust on the Psychiatrist’s face. But – was enough to justify why I was there, get me the medication and not shock anyone.
After giving my name at Reception – “could they tell I was loony” ).
Sitting in a really crusty waiting room with other people – “Was I loonier than them?”
I got into the specialist’s room, pulled my oversized clothes around me to comfort myself and went to sit down on a chair.
There were two chairs – Eeeek. Which one should I choose? Was there a secret chair only “loonies” chose?
I plonked my ass down on the chair closest to the door so I could have a quick escape and…
I promptly clammed up.
Suddenly, while sitting face-to-face with this strange man that I knew was there to help me, I had no idea what I wanted to say.
My mind had gone totally blank.
I had gone blank.
And I decided that because it wasn’t really my choice to be there – that my best plan of action (protest) was just to be blank for the next 50 minutes.
Admittedly, I’ve always been shy, and talking to new people has always been like pulling teeth. But – I’d kinda thought it would be easy to open up to a therapist.
Noooooooooooooooooot necessarily the truth. I learnt.
It wasn’t easy. Instead, I felt so much pressure that I couldn’t think of a single thing to actually say.
I’d like to tell you I re-thought this plan of action – but I did this “mute” thinggy for 6 whole sessions.
Can you see the irony of a few paragraphs back???
I was desperate not to single myself out. And my traumatised brain decided that not talking for 6 hours, appointment after appointment would make me blend in and appear “normal”.
Six, long hours at $225/hour to have a Mexican standoff with a grown man.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. Yes – again.
Where am I going with this?
I’m going to give you some info that I wish I’d had back then when I was 28.
Read it – print it off – and stop all of the crazy overthinking that happens before a visit with your therapist.
Whether you’re like me and have difficulty opening up at your first session, or you’ve been going for a while and feel like you’ve “run out of things to say. Know that there’s no shame in being unsure about what you want to talk about.
Working that out is your therapist’s job.
Just say something. 🙂
Trust me on that one.
Comment on the window hanging I have behind me – or the crappy Zoom lighting that makes me look like I’m in Witness Protection.
It’s all good.
Let’s get these 12 things into your hot little hands asap and stop your brain trying to work out what’s “meant” to go on.
1. Actually making the appointment is tough.
You’ll want to cancel. You’ll want to change the time. You’ll panic as it gets closer, and you’ll just want to push that “reschedule” button a million times.
Re-read how I felt before my sessions above– and know I assume that it’s tough for every single person I see. I’ve been there.
It’s amazing that you’ve even got to the point of booking.
If you do cancel at the last minute – I probably will assume that you are chickening out. All good. But – you need to pull the band-aid off some time. So – just give one session a red hot go. I’ve got you.
2. Remember, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to talk about.
It’s easy to feel like you need to talk about “deep” or “serious” issues in therapy. You might want to look like you already know exactly what is “wrong” with you. Like you’ve already got it sorted. There’s no right topic of conversation. Just speak. Sometimes we’ll hear the smallest things in what you say – or even in what you don’t say. Tell us about your week if that is the easiest place to start. You can say whatever you want – we’re here for you.
Don’t know what to say? – say that. Very, very normal.
3. If you find it hard to remember how you feel between sessions – take notes.
Keep notes during the week. Even for things you don’t think are important.
You might go blank during the session. Write a script if you have to.
Normal. Normal. Normal.
I’ve been shown phones and texts and emails. All good.
4. Your therapist isn’t talking about you with their friends.
We don’t ever discuss you out of the session with our family or friends. We do have supervision to make sure you are getting the best help you can – but names and identifying details are not mentioned.
The only time that the confidentiality clause changes is if we believe that you or someone else is at risk of harming yourself or others.
I don’t discuss my clients between sessions – but I do wonder how they’re going. Short texts or emails – even months after therapy has stopped are fine. Check with your therapist about this. I love hearing.
5. Will my therapist acknowledge me if we bump into each other at the supermarket or in public?
Nup – not going to mention you are a client on any social media either. I often post stuff on my Instagram for specific clients but you’ll never know who that is.
You need a safe place. It’s likely that your boundaries weren’t respected earlier in your life and beggared (Aussie slang) if I’m going to do that to you again. No way Hosey. Nup.
If you’re unsure – double-check with your therapist so you can be reassured and feel safe to share all your thoughts.
Don’t worry about running into us at a restaurant and hearing “Hey, glad to see you out and about!” while you’re on a date or with anyone. . The general thang is that therapists won’t acknowledge you in public unless you initiate it. Even then, they won’t acknowledge that they are your therapist unless you do it first.
So feel free to say hi and introduce me as your therapist/yoga teacher/neighbour, or ignore me. It’s your call, and it’s something you can talk to me about ahead of time if you’re worried about it. My clients are 100% remote but social media still connects us – and we could possibly end up with mutual connections. YOU have control over what people know. I am a vault.
6. Just turning up to therapy won’t help. You have to participate and try some of the suggestions you’re given. Soz.
Okay – so here is where my whole “mute” thing fell apart.
I just went from session to session and didn’t change anything in my life. Believe it or not – my psych did suggest things to me. Even when I was saying nothing.
It wasn’t until years later that I found my “person” and felt safe enough to be honest and actually trust her suggestions.
I did get medication that first visit– and it did help a lot – but at some point, you need to address the memories held in your brain and body.
You sometimes need to say stuff.
You sometimes need to do stuff.
It’s also much easier if you do actually tell me things.
I can try and guess.
I have a superpower that helps me question people – but you are paying for these sessions – and I hate wasting people’s time.
It’s not a game of “go fish” or “20 questions”.
If a client is willing to talk about what brought them in and what they’d like to work on, it can make the whole process more collaborative and efficient.
7. Therapy doesn’t have to be a forever commitment.
The first session is usually a “meet-cute” – well, without the romance stuff of course. Use it to see if you are the right fit.
But – you should get some concrete strategies after that that you can try in your life. These might need fine-tuning, but you should get some new ways of interacting with life that you can use.
They might feel weird and uncomfortable or even dumb at first. But persist.
Some people have a small immediate issue – like a wedding or date or birthday coming up that they want to get through. I can do that in one or two sessions.
Life stuff takes longer – but the last thing I want to do is put anyone under time or money stress. That would make me part of the problem.
Be honest with your therapist about how often you can see them, how long you can see them and about structuring the visits to fit your budget.
Email them if you find it too confronting in person.
I find that therapy sessions ebb and flow according to people’s lives. I’m not a 3 times a week kind of gal. Some therapists are.
You might have a few weeks where nothing much happens and then a month of chaos. That’s life. Flexibility and communication are the keys.
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask questions about a therapist’s approach in the first session or two.
Things like: What would treatment look like? How long are we going to be working together? How will know I know if it is working?
8. You have to find your person.
You could be seeing the best therapist in the whole world, but if they don’t feel like your person- it’s likely it isn’t going to work.
You are better to see the right person less often than to persist with the wrong person for you.
Not every match is perfect the first time around.
Sometimes you need to search a little to find the right fit.
Therapy should be slightly uncomfortable but that refers to the process, not the therapist.
You should feel comfortable. You should feel heard. You should feel understood. You should feel respected.
It was important to me that my person had some life experience and knew what I meant when I didn’t have the words to describe something.
You should feel challenged. Your therapist should be pushing you. If they are pushing too hard – try letting them know. We need feedback.
You should feel safe. You should feel accepted.
Again – you should feel heard.
Can I explain how that feels? No.
But – you will know if you don’t feel heard.
9. Stopping therapy doesn’t mean you can’t go back.
One of my clients calls me her “Polly Pocket” – I’m there as part of her mental health toolkit – in her back pocket.
Another one says she hears my voice when she asks herself questions about how she should approach different situations.
This is what I’m going for.
I want you to know better than me what’s right for you.
We weren’t all taught coping strategies and it’s my job to fill that toolkit of yours up.
My goal is for you to fly the proverbial nest. But still, know where the nest is.
Life happens. Things change. You can go from feeling strong to feeling like you need help. That’s how life goes. It’s not all onward and upward.
People have booster session/s often. And because we have history -we can get stuck right into it.
Needing more help is NOT a failure. Or a setback.
10. Therapists don’t have all the answers.
Different therapists have different approaches. Different education. Different experiences. Even their own individual life experience.
Find someone who will admit they don’t know everything.
Sometimes they’ll try and find out themselves– or they might suggest you see someone else with a better knowledge of your problem.
This can feel like rejection – and I’ve written something on that here.
But just be grateful that they are acknowledging that they don’t have the strengths that you need.
Truth – you might have lots of therapists over the different stages of your life.
No – you aren’t cheating on them.
You need to advocate for what you need at all the different stages of your life.
A good therapist should have a list of resources to help you find your next step.
And – because I know my clients well – I can prescreen new therapists to make sure they will be a good fit.
For example, I find a lot of my patients store memories in their bodies – and I have a list of bodywork therapists that I know will perfectly complement my approach.
I don’t want a therapist who has had a perfect life, free of conflict or turmoil.
11. I’m not a mind reader.
I can’t ‘analyse’ people at parties for fun. I don’t judge everyone I meet, and I don’t rely on what other people might have told me about someone or you.
You have a clean slate.
12. Therapy is tiring for the client and the therapist.
I suggest the same self-care for you after our sessions that I do for myself. Get back into your body – have a shower, a walk, dance. Be gentle for a few days – you can have a vulnerability hangover.
13. If it seems like I care about you – I do.
I’ve been taught to be cautious and to respect boundaries like they are Aladdin’s cave.
I keep secrets for a living.
If you think I am “off” or tired, know that it isn’t about you. You are not a bother. Ever.
Please check if you think I’m cross at you. I’m going to guarantee right here on this page that I am not. I probs ran out of tinned tuna just when I got a taste for sushi and I’m mad at myself.
14. It’s likely that you’re so scared of telling me is the exact things I want to hear.
No explanation needed for that. You won’t shock me. You won’t disgust me. I won’t disconnect the Zoom call and pretend my internet isn’t working. I am here for you. Hit me with the whole story.
15. When I ask about your alcohol or drug use I want the answer. It’s a question, not a judgement.
It isn’t a test. The right answer is the truth. I won’t be shocked. I’ve heard it all.
I need to know in case you are self-medicating or if your meds might be affected by other substances. I need to know just like I’d need to know if you were exercising too much trying to control your life
It all tells me part of the wonderful story that is you.
The more info I have – the more I can help you.
AND – I want you to stop carrying shame for choices you are making in your life.
Tell me – I’ll just nod then feed the info into the computer of my brain.
And there it stays.
16. We do care about you.
We may appear to be detached at times, but we are trained to remain objective.
We can’t help you figure out your issues if we become as entangled in them as you are.
But there is no way we could sit across from you day after day, witnessing your pain and suffering, if we didn’t truly want to help you.
17. You may not be ready for therapy right now.
Just as you need to be sure you are working with the right therapist, you also need to be sure you are seeking help at the right time.
If you aren’t truly ready to change or do what it takes, you’re wasting both your time and ours. Nothing aggravates a therapist more than someone who reserves an appointment, and then either doesn’t participate fully and honestly or doesn’t show up at all.
How quickly you heal is ultimately up to you.
18. Therapists have therapists.
In my case – my own therapy experience was why I wanted to help other people. We don’t talk about you during our own therapy sessions– I talk about ME. I have a commitment to you to stay mentally healthy so I can help you to the best of my capacity.
Back to whether I eventually opened up to that Psychiatrist. Um – only after a lot of medication loosened me up. Turns out that that wasn’t my time to heal. But every little bit helped.
Life happens. And we all need support and help. Hardening the f##k up is really not an option. Stuff leaks out.
My best advice is for you to take control of where and when it comes out. So that you can do it safely and in a place where you are heard, understood and accepted. Do it before these choices are taken from you.
Any questions? I might write a second article about this so let me know.
Hit that “schedule appointment”BOOK NOW button. You can do it.