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Hello, and welcome back to the blog.
Therapy has taught me so many things, but the most important thing it’s taught me is that I can very slowly, over time, push the limits of what is comfortable and what is not.
For instance: driving often makes me anxious. Like, anxious to the point of physical nausea and headaches. Especially if I don’t know where exactly I’m going and require the use of a GPS or a map or a navigating friend in the passenger seat.
However: every time I force myself to make a trip like this and succeed, it causes me to have a reason to celebrate. “Yay! I did this little thing! And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be because I didn’t die in a fiery fifty-car pileup!”
Now, the best way to think of things like this is a scientific experiment, as follows:
Question: if I have to drive by myself to X place, will life go on and will I survive?
Hypothesis: if I successfully make it to X place (and back), life will go on and I will have achieved something.
Experiment: I drive to X place.
Results: There is no car accident and only one person honked at me, and it’s because they’re rude, not because I was driving badly.
Conclusion: Driving to X place was not so bad, because there was no fiery fifty-car pileup, I am not dead, and I didn’t puke. I will probably be able to do this again.
It doesn’t always work this way, of course. Life cannot and should not be a series of constant risk-taking. Doing that to yourself is unhealthy. If Z activity scares the living willies out of you like driving does for me, then you would be constantly living life in an adrenaline-fueled hellscape. There’s no reward in the scenario, and so you are even less motivated to do the thing again.
The pattern goes like this: take a small risk, succeed, reward. (The reward may be entirely psychological motivation to do scary things again, or it might be a giant slurpee or chocolate bar.)
Now, ordinary life doesn’t allow for you to do things at your own pace. There’s no time or space or money for you to reward yourself for doing little things that “normal” people manage to do all the time, every day. So you have to add a bit of a recovery period in for yourself, and it’s simply impossible to make it work by the timeframe, space, or budget of a “normal” person.
Now we get to my main point: this is why I believe we need a universal healthcare system, a better mainframe for mental healthcare specifically, and for people to not make jokes about things they don’t really understand— i.e. triggers and safe spaces.
I wouldn’t have realized ANY of this about myself without therapy. Before I was in therapy, I was a complete mess. Sometimes I wanted to die, sometimes I was very glad to be alive. Sometimes I would cry for absolutely no reason and sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night because my brain wouldn’t shut up and I couldn’t figure out how to make it do so in all of the chaos. Sometimes I would go to a ward activity at college and jump when someone tall walked right behind me. Sometimes it felt like being in a room with more than five people in it was TOO MUCH and I needed to get out, CLANG CLANG ALARM BELLS CALL OUT THE CAVALRY and “Wait, Sarah, where are you going?”
Uh, I left something in my room. I’ll come out when I find it. (I won’t find it.)
Anyway, I was having all of these weird thoughts, and sometimes I would do weird things and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t understand how my brain and my body were cooperating because to me, it felt like they weren’t.
When I finally got to therapy, it was just venting at first. I talked to my therapist, Anne, about all of my problems. She listened and nodded and wrote things down, and occasionally asked me questions.
After a few sessions, it occurred to me that… something had changed. I was calmer. I didn’t have the same need to hold everything back until I had to word vomit into Facebook or blog posts to get it out. I was more controlled.
Then she asked me more questions. Questions that probed deeper into the stories I told her about my life and my trauma and my brain.
They were simple questions.
“Why do you think that you’re not pretty?”
“When did you start feeling bad about your body?”
“What makes you think that (X event) is your fault?”
And when she asked those questions, I had to think about them. I found myself crying a lot. Anne always had about ten boxes of tissues in the room and she would just hand me a box and wait for me to be able to speak through the tears.
I was finally beginning to find something, in the chaos of my mind, that I could hold onto. And once I said things out loud, they became so much more real.
She taught me about the risk-reward thing related to anxiety. This technique is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in which a person struggling with anxiety over a specific behavior or action (which is called a “trigger,” now stop making fun of it) deliberately performs or exposes themselves to that behavior or action in a controlled environment (which may be called a “safe space” depending on your therapist). By creating a situation where the trigger will have a greatly diminished risk (or no risk at all), the person with anxiety is able to rewire their response to the trigger to reflect a lack of risk, and therefore prevent the anxious response. TL;DR— it’s some next-level, positive Pavlovian brain-programming and it’s freaking amazing.
Anne gave me ways to practice this type of CBT. It’s been very helpful with driving and making casual conversations with people. I have future plans to apply it to things like phone calls, opening the oven door when I’m making food, and eating in front of other people.
Every therapy session I go to costs a little over a hundred dollars. My family’s insurance covers most of it but we do a co-pay of about thirty bucks. I used to go every two weeks, but I only go every three weeks or once a month now. If my family wasn’t so lovely and understanding about the whole thing, if they weren’t willing or couldn’t afford to pay for it, then I would still be a complete mess. The helpfulness of people on the internet can only do so much— emotionally, mentally, financially.
And that is why we need universal healthcare. That is why we need a better system for diagnosing and treating people who have mental health issues. That is why people need to stop making childish jokes about things they don’t understand.
Mental health issues don’t care about your socioeconomic standing, but people in a lower income bracket are more likely to go without treatment for their mental health issues, because they can’t afford it. They can’t worry about their mental health; they have to worry about the roof over their heads and the food they can afford and the families they have to provide for. People who cannot afford mental healthcare don’t have the luxury of recovery, of risk-and-reward, of CBT. If they can even afford therapy in the first place, then taking time off work to go and spend money on it could mean an entire week’s groceries. It absolutely sickens me that we live in a world where people have to live in unnecessary misery because they can’t afford something that should be a human right.
Like, capitalism, what the actual crap. If you were really beneficial for people then you would be doing something about this.
Mental health issues are so often misdiagnosed because it’s a “soft science” and “it’s not always medical.” (Hint: it’s pretty much always medical.) I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fairly official diagnosis from a psychiatrist, accompanied by prescriptions for the pills I need to take to prevent myself from wanting to not exist anymore. But other people have far more vicious and complex problems than I do. Because the mental health field has far fewer professionals than it needs, not everyone can be seen for their problems right away. I go to therapy in the next county over because the waiting lists for therapists in my county are nine months long. That is completely ridiculous— both that we don’t have enough therapists to cover as many people who need it, and that nine months worth of people need a therapist and can’t get one. Say what you like about exercise, sunshine, omega-3 fatty acids, or essential oils— the most effective treatment for mental illness is a combination of therapy and medication.
And finally, the joking about triggers and safe spaces really has to stop. Putting a political charge on this is unfair to people of any political alignment who suffer from mental health issues. Like cool, I get it, you disagree with me, but there’s no need to be deliberately unkind to people who are already dealing with a whole lot of crap. A safe space, to me, is the risk-free zone where I can practice my CBT techniques. It’s a place where I will not be punished if I break down crying over having to make a phone call. It’s a place where I can allow myself to relax a little. Safe spaces are places, like my bed and my room. Safe spaces are people, like my therapist and my parents. Safe spaces are things, like this blog and my small army of stuffed animals and the playlist on my MP3 player that I designed for Bad Days. And triggers, to me, are things that might cause me to have a panic attack or a particularly bad depressive episode or a return to suicidal ideations. Triggers are phone calls I’m not expecting. Triggers are The Great Hard Drive FUBAR of 2016. Triggers are wanting to say something, to speak up and argue in defense of an idea that I have— but not having the words for it because I write so much better than I speak.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, it’s due to one of two possibilities— firstly, you don’t have anxiety; or secondly, if you do have anxiety then yours manifests differently from mine. But keep in mind that anxiety isn’t rational. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. There’s no practical reason for me to feel nauseated every time I have to drive somewhere, but it happens anyway. Why? Because my brain still views it as a threat to my existence. Logically, I am aware that I am a fairly good driver and that I am an extremely careful driver. It is statistically unlikely that I will be in another car accident anytime soon. I can have all these thoughts, simultaneously, with an overwhelming tidal wave of DEAR GOD I AM GOING TO DIE MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP, because anxiety doesn’t care about logic. Logic can be a tool I use to reassure myself, but it doesn’t magically stop me from having enormous amounts of stomach pain or headaches whenever I go somewhere.
The point of this entire post is that I was a hot mess, but thanks to therapy, I now understand how my brain works. (Mostly.) And now that I have experienced this magic, I want it for everyone else. I’m not better than any person on this planet and I am no more deserving of help than anyone else; so why should I get to have therapy while others suffer? Everyone should be able to have help for this, if they need it.
And even if you don’t need therapy for a specific thing, I recommend it anyway. Therapy has not only helped me deal with some of my issues, but it’s helped me learn how to organize my own mind. I understand why my brain does what it does, and I can even recognize the difference between the rational and the irrational thoughts. I know when I need to take a pill and when I need to leave a room. I know when I need to disengage from something in order to keep myself from being hurt. I know what risks are okay to take, and I can accept the rewards I get for taking them.
Seriously, therapy. 11/10 would recommend for all 7 billion and change on the planet.