Have you checked in with yourself today? After I started doing yoga, I became more aware of the way I breathed. I started to notice that I breathed irregularly, similar to the way that I stutter if caught off guard. I was always this way growing up. Always holding my breath, letting it out in erratic bursts when it felt safe to breathe again.
I also noticed that I clench my jaw all the time, especially when I’m feeling anxious. I became consciously aware of my anxiety in senior year of high school; I had already been aware of my depression since junior year of high school. Later on in therapy, I learned that I’d actually developed both throughout childhood, but it took me a long time to get to that realization. That’s why I wanted to share about how I started therapy today.
Two of my friends in my first year went to a CAPS informational session for free pizza — and they also brought me back flyers because they had seen me struggle with panic attacks. I thought that going to college and being away from home would help with the symptoms I experienced in high school, but that’s not how it works.
I had a hard time opening up with my therapist. He and I seemed to exist in vastly different worlds, and it took a long time to “click.” He told me that he didn’t particularly like diagnoses because it sets a criteria to “qualify” for a certain disorder, whereas in reality, mental health lies on a spectrum. We all lie somewhere on this spectrum, and we can always exhibit characteristics of classified disorders.
Therapy was incredibly frustrating for me. It felt like a feeble attempt at putting out the fire that was always burning in my life. Rather, it felt like little fires kept lighting up all around me and I spent therapy trying to put them out instead of constructively understanding the root of them. I also didn’t get to see my therapist as often as I wanted, and it felt like I spent most sessions catching him up on what happened instead of learning useful coping mechanisms.
I was often preoccupied with the notion that because I was clinically diagnosed, that meant I was sick. One of the reasons why I was so averse to therapy in the first place was because I didn’t think my symptoms were so serious that I needed to see a licensed professional regularly to discuss them. I didn’t want to seem weak. I didn’t want to feel broken, or at least be actively reminded of it.
But I’ve learned that therapy is just time, space, and undivided attention that someone gives you to listen to what’s on your mind. In my experience, cognitive behavioral therapy is that simple. I used to be ashamed when I had to ask to reschedule my work shifts to accommodate therapy, especially when I started to go more regularly off-campus. In fact, I didn’t even prioritize therapy. If something I felt was more important came up, I would rather not go to therapy than miss what was on my agenda.
I realized hundreds of sessions later that I avoided therapy because it was hard. It’s hard to talk about yourself, to be openly honest about your own character. I had a lot of difficulty looking myself in the eyes and admitting my strengths and weaknesses. It was also difficult to elaborate on a lot of the thoughts swirling in my brain, especially because there are so many colliding into each other at any given moment. With time, I learned to untangle the thoughts slowly and focus on each one instead of burying them below the surface when I didn’t want to deal with them.
When I moved off-campus, I was paired with a new therapist, and I was hesitant to start over. Finding the right therapist takes an immeasurable amount of patience, which isn’t easy when you’re barely making it out the door in the morning. As I slowly started to have more sessions with my new therapist, I picked up on little things she did that made me more comfortable in her presence. She remembered small details I mentioned to her and followed up with me, and she was always respectful of the boundaries I set on our first session together.
Even though I am no longer seeing that therapist, I am eternally grateful for the way she slowly coaxed me out of my shell. Without her, I wouldn’t have started unlearning a lot of toxic behaviors and mindsets I had adopted by gently pointing out every time I berated myself or made light of my pain. I started to see therapy as a blank canvas on which to paint my story, allowing me the opportunity to look at myself from another angle, a new perspective. Sometimes, that helped me feel like I had a way out of the rut I was in.
In therapy, I am my truest self. I don’t necessarily feel raw and drained because of all the talking I have to do. Rather, I am truly in touch with every feeling and thought passing through me, and instead of ignoring them, I acknowledge their existence and how they affect me.
It was in therapy that I began to see that my understanding of the scope of mental health was quite limited. While anxiety and depression are more common, I had never heard of most of my diagnoses. It took me many months to understand the distinction between my comorbid borderline personality disorder and bipolar II disorder, and how the symptoms of both exacerbated the triggers of my complex-PTSD. But with time, I learned not only to accept my symptoms, but also myself because they will always be a part of who I am.
My therapists have always been patient with me. They never faulted me for getting choked up while I was talking or having a panic attack in front of them. Instead, they walked with me every step of the way, celebrating my victories with me or coming to my corner when I was too depressed to verbalize anything. As they helped me piece together my symptoms and my past, I slowly began to feel more centered. The raging anxiety I carried inside me day and night started to subside into a dull ache, and my depressive episodes gradually became more manageable. You know how you go to chiropractors to help realign your bones? For me, therapy served a similar purpose, but for my body, mind and soul.
I pay a lot closer attention to my breathing now, and I’ve noticed that my jaw isn’t quite so sore at the end of every day. And on the days when the sky above is grey and there’s nothing I can do to change that, I sit with myself and my thoughts. Therapy has helped me build a toolkit to reach into whenever part of me feels a little broken. Sometimes, I just need to open the windows of my mind to air all the thoughts out.
Most importantly, I learned that therapy is a powerful tool that helps me unjam the windows when they’re a little stuck. I actually look forward to every therapy session now, because I know that going doesn’t make me weak or crazy or sick. Going to therapy makes me feel stronger because I realize now how hard it is to take that first step to seek help when it seems like the world is out to get you. I remember how I felt and acted before I started therapy, and I have more compassion for that girl now. Because despite how much she was hurting inside, she pulled herself out of bed on the hardest days and made it to one more session. And she’s still standing strong today.
I hope you take some time to be in your own corner today to think about your journey and see how far you’ve come. It’s easy to get caught up in daily trivialities, and even if life is a little hard today, I believe you are strong enough to make it to tomorrow. Take care until next month!
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.