How To Do Therapy (Or Why Finding A Therapist Is Exactly Like Dating)
Let me preface this with the fact that I've had anxiety since I came out of the womb. Seriously — for the first six months of my life, all I did was scream-cry. I was a colic baby. When my mom brought me into the doctor, the only way he could explain it was "she just feels and reacts to, well, everything." 30 years later, IT'S STILL THE TRUEST OBSERVATION ABOUT ME THAT'S EVER BEEN MADE.
In 2013, due to a particularly gripping bout of anxiety, I decided it was time to try therapy for the first time in my adult life. Since then, I’ve been through a handful of them. I’ve seen old and young, long hair and short, close to my house or far away (all women, though. It’s just a preference thing). Somewhere along the way, I realized that finding your perfect therapist is almost exactly like dating. The whole “you’ll know it when you feel it” cliché applies just as much to finding a therapist as finding a non-fuckboy.
Much like my dating life, I shopped around for therapists. I met my first one in 2013 via a friend (getting setup through friends, see?!), and instantly felt better just from booking my first appointment with her. Much like a first date, I was equal parts nervous and titillated at the prospects of what would happen once we met. Would she like me? Would I like her? Would we hit it off? Would we dive straight into the deep shit or ease into it all with careful, get-to-know-you questions? I managed expectations the best I could (something I’m particularly terrible at) and went in with an open-mind.
She was jolly, that first one. Heavier-set with white hair and a charming little gap in her front teeth, I immediately felt safe inside her office. She was like Mrs. Claus during the off-season, and I liked it. I just wish she had had gingerbread cookies on deck every visit. She made me close my eyes and conjure up my idea of a safe haven. She taught me a few breathing exercises. She assured me I wasn’t completely off my rocker. But almost a year later, I began to realize she liked me too much and that's when I knew it was time to move on. You see, it's my very strong belief that therapists should not be friends. You already have friends and, if you're lucky enough, good friends who have heard your same complaints/woes/drama ten times over and are still your friend. The last thing you need in a therapist is another friend, treating you as such and reacting to you in ways eerily similar to that of your gal pals. And, trust me — I get that it's a slippery slope. By letting someone in the way you do with a therapist, it seems almost impossible to not form a friendly bond. In fact, often times, that's what patients want. But I don't. I want a warm yet distanced, involved yet unbiased source hearing me out and offering me tools to use against myself in times of great anxiety and overthinking.
So I broke up with her. As it turns out, it’d be my first of many therapist breakups and let me tell you — they’re almost as awkward as romantic breakups. Since we had been seeing each other for nine months, there was no way I could ghost her. I had to tell her and, worse yet, tell her why. “You just… haven’t helped me.” OUCH. But, I did it and was on my way to what I thought I wanted next: a colder, more scientific therapist who specialized in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and maybe didn’t like me as much.
Of course, I was still nervous this second go-round (it takes a lot of first dates before you get to the point of literally feeling no nerves but moreso just preemptive annoyance and intense, inner eye rolling). This new woman's office was no bigger than my closet at home and decorated in a way that screamed "I know I need to look presentable and welcoming and hip, but this space means nothing to me, so here are some decorative, blue velvet pillows and let's get to work." I liked her, I did. But with each passing session, I could see us going down the same road as the last one (i.e. friendship road). Her approach was inarguably different, but her fondness of me, my outfits, and my girly drama got in the way of good work. The day she expressed "we'd be good friends in real life" was the day I knew it was time to cut and run. Another year, another awkward breakup. Would I ever find The One?
Much like my serial dating the past several years, I kept on keeping on. I had my next one lined up before I had cut the chord with the old, and she seemed perfect. She was equal parts friendly and arms-length, had eye-opening insight to a few of my dilemmas, and I just really liked her. Alas, after several months and several fuckboy situations with her, I realized her guidance was extremely misguided and exasperatingly threw in the towel again.
From there, I took a break. Truthfully, I was in a better spot than I had been (read: I don't think I was dating anyone at the moment) and wanted to take a step back and reassess my approach to therapy. Yes, I enjoyed going and felt it was an invaluable privilege in which to partake, but I was tired of starting and stopping these vulnerable relationships one after the other (JUST LIKE DATING). After giving myself some time to breathe, I had decided on my new approach: interviews. Instead of getting all excited about one and locking myself in right away (do I have to keep calling out the parallels to dating?), I was going to first filter all potential therapists based on whether or not they took my insurance (because duh), and then set up "interviews" or first appointments with at least three. Process of eliminations at its finest, conducted by an overly anxious girl who means business.
I met a 75-year-old woman with grey hair down to her ass inside her duplex in which she lived on one side and used the other for storage. Her office was on the storage side, so we walked through literal towers of paperwork, books, binders, and god knows what else to reach her even more cluttered office. I found space on the couch to sit as she proceeded to blow her nose the entire session while suggesting I read a couple of Bible excerpts in relation to my woes. She also handed me a CD-ROM of meditation music before I left. I never saw her again.
I met a 60-year-old vibrant woman from the northeast who fell in love with me as soon as we locked eyes. She wanted to know where my top was from, referred to the douchebag I was dating as a fucking asshole, and her office was 50 shades of purple. Although I wanted to drink wine with her and have her stroke my hair while softly singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to me, I knew it wasn't what I was looking for. I never saw her again.
Then, I met her. She was the only one who suggested we talk on the phone before our date, er, I mean appointment. Instantly, I loved the sound of her voice. Something about it was so deliciously stereotypically soothing, I wanted to hear more and more and more. I left her office the day of our first appointment and knew. The "you just know" feeling had finally happened to me! Every part of me was sure this was it. I texted my friends "OMG, I love her." "YES!" they replied excitedly. "IT'S HAPPENING!"
She didn't (and still hasn't) try to be my friend. She's given me invaluable tools to use against my own unrelenting thoughts, both rational and irrational (more so irrational, though). She's challenged me to look at things from multiple angles, gather information wherever I can, and slow down. I'm still a work in progress and I always will be, but it feels good to be working on a project as big as myself (not, like, literally big) (I mean, yes — I've been pretty heavy-handed in the carb department lately but whatever) (diet starts tomorrow).
I know I've written A LOT today, so if you're still here — thank you. For whatever reason, sharing my journey to finding the right therapist was really important to me. Because therapy isn't just for when you're going through a rough patch, and I think that's what gets lost so easily. It's something for the every day. Something that needs as much nurturing and maintenance as your haircut or gel mani or meal prepping. It's something you can gain incredible things from as long as you put in the effort, and something that doesn't always involve 50 minute sessions full of tears and tissues. In fact, a lot of the time you'll go into it thinking, "What will we even talk about today?" But let me tell you — something always comes up.
If you want to try it, you have my support. And if you're already there, I'm there with you.