Twelve Things I Learned From My First Year of Therapy
Here at The Attic on Eighth, we strongly believe in talking about mental health and in sharing experiences in a world that likes to pretend mental health struggles are a rarity. We aren’t alone; you’re not alone; and we’re here to talk.
In sharing portions of my life online, I liked to think that I was open about mental health – I talked about my experiences, from dealing with depression as a teenager, to being diagnosed with anxiety as an adult, yet, I didn’t start regularly seeing a therapist until a year ago. I always figured I could handle things myself (with the help of my GP but also with friends who were available for commiseration), but a year ago, I decided enough was enough. I was at a breaking point professionally (/academically), dealing with severe burnout, but also about to get married and enter into a new chapter of my life where I was less willing to make any room for toxically glamorized stress. I wanted to get better, but more importantly, just not to be ill all the time. When it came to it, I wanted to head into the future with more support. Based on the vocal experiences of others, I decided to fight the stigma that I’d unintentionally given into (“but I don’t need to see someone!”) and finally see a therapist myself. I cannot express the difference it has made in my life, and so as my one year of therapy approaches this coming week, I wanted to share some of the realizations it’s brought to me in hopes that anyone on the verge can see that it’s okay!
It’s important to feel your feelings. It’s easy to think something is “just” in your head or that it’s a feeling not worth feeling and to consequently put it away into a little compartment, but that means that it can fester and get worse and worse. If you let yourself feel a feeling, then you can either naturally move past it or think about why it is that you feel that way. (Also, anger is not an ugly feeling. It’s an unpleasant one, but thinking about its roots is so important.)
The psychological can and does have physical ramifications. It’s not just in your head. One of the first things I realized in therapy was that it isn’t normal to feel exhausted and drained and achey all the time. Headaches, neck pain, stomach pain, back pain. Inability to breathe (properly). It turned out that a lot of what I felt and that many of my chronic pains were coming from stress, over-exertion, anguish, and burn out. Not everyone wakes up in the morning after eight hours of sleep feeling exhausted, and there’s no reason why you need to keep feeling that too. You can ask for help. (And it’s okay if it takes you time to realize that. It took me six months of thinking I had an ulcer because I was in so much pain before I realized it.) Also I hate to break it to you, but that does also mean that moving can help with your mental health, whether that means sports or stretching or taking lots of walks.
Communication is key, not only with others but with yourself. It prevents resentment, sabotage, and lets you (and others) know what you’re feeling and what needs to be done (or avoided).
You DESERVE help. We all deserve the help we need, and you aren’t “spoiled” or “weak” for asking for it. It took me over a decade of struggling to regularly see a therapist. And then it took me about four months after realizing my aches and pains were related to my mental health to accept that I needed to get a physical therapist. I didn’t think my mental dealings were serious enough not to handle on my own or that I deserved to get things like massages because they would be a form of pampering. Funnily enough, it turns out both kinds of therapy can be essential.
It’s okay to say “no,” to hit the brakes, or even to stop something completely. If you’re feeling drained or if something is making you miserable, you do not need to do it. You can say no to meeting with people. You can take a weekend to sleep and lounge around and recharge. You can quit a toxic job or drop a program that’s slowly killing you, even if it means turning to others for help. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. It just means you know to put yourself first and are willing to invest in yourself and your future.
Who you surround yourself with is important. You don’t owe your time or your friendship or your love to anybody, and who you choose to have in your life is just that, a choice. If any of your relationships feel toxic to you or even if it doesn’t bring you joy, then you have no obligation to continue pouring your energy into it. If you dread seeing or talking to someone or if you feel that mutual respect isn’t a core aspect of your relationship – be it a romantic, platonic, or even family relationship! – then it’s okay to decide to put yourself and your feelings first and back out of it or change the nature of your relationship! Someone who cares about you will listen and adjust, and someone who won’t isn’t a loss anyway.
Boundaries are gold. However many of them you need is up to you, but once you establish your needs, then sticking to them can make a world of difference on lots of different levels, from putting certain times of day off limits so that you can take care of yourself, to deciding that a particular person’s opinion on a topic never matters, to even deciding that you need to go to bed at a certain hour to get the amount of rest you need to function the way you want.
Just because a thought pops into your head doesn’t mean that it means something. Thoughts can be intrusive and they can pass just as quickly as you observe something out the window of a bus. They come to everyone, and you don’t need to overthink them.
Your health always comes first, not your career, not the feelings of others. If you don’t put yourself first, no one else will if only because no one else can feel what you feel.
You’re not overreacting – if something is upsetting you, then it needs to addressed in one way or another. Your feelings are your feelings, and even if they aren’t always justified (or right), they still deserve to be addressed in order to be understood (even if personally, to yourself!).
Nothing that brings you comfort is silly or frivolous (within reason and the law, obviously). If lighting a candle allows you to slow down and breathe and feel a little bit of comfort, it’s good. If surrounding yourself with pretty things calms you down or motivates you to start your day, then that’s good! If taking a hot bath relaxes your muscles and slows down your mind, then it’s therapeutic. So many things that bring joy to people – from home decor to clothes to the way we groom ourselves – have been stigmatized by the patriarchy as being negatively feminine, frivolous, and even silly over the centuries, and it’s a shame (to say the least).
Needing medication is not a weakness. Medication (obviously, when prescribed by a qualified professional) can make a world of difference and is no different than needing glasses. Get the help that’s offered you, and let yourself live your best life.
Here’s what I’ve learned!
Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She has multiple literature degrees and is dedicated to reading her way through the world while trying to stay as calm as possible.