I often tell my son that a big part of life is how you react to it. This advice rings true for a lot of situations in life. You can’t always control if your car breaks down, but you can control whether you call AAA or curl up and cry on the side of the road. You can’t get back the time spent on a failed relationship — friendly or romantic — but you can decide to learn from the experience, or allow resentment to build and build.
Our physical health is very much the same. You get a cut, you put on a bandaid. You break a bone, you go to the doctor. You get a fever, you take medicine. Physical ailments can be easy to react to, because they’re, well, physical. (And nearly impossible to ignore.)
Mental health’s a mysterious thing. It falls somewhere between seeing and believing. We can often see when someone’s upset. The downward stare, the eyes that refuse to open more than necessary, a certain tone of voice. But, unlike a cut or a rash, we can’t see anxiety. We can’t see depression. There’s no thermometer for determining if you’re mentally unwell.
Mental health is, simply, hard to react to. How can you react to something that you can’t see? The irony being, therapists help you work toward a system of better reactions to unending problems. But, nearly 60% of those in need of mental health treatment won’t receive the help they need.
The truth of the matter is, mental health and therapy share one giant stigma. Progress is being made: 87% of people in the United States believe mental health disorders are nothing to be ashamed of. But, in the same survey, 39% of the respondents admitted to viewing someone differently after finding out about their mental health disorder. There’s clearly progress to be made yet.
Life is largely how you react to it. So, I’m choosing to react by sharing my story, in hopes of inspiring even one person out there to seek the help they need.
Realizing you need therapy
The past 12 months have been nothing short of a whirlwind for me. I’ve had ups, I’ve had downs, I’ve had a job that destroyed me, I’ve found a job that rejuvenates me, and I’ve started going to therapy.
Realizing you need therapy isn’t easy. In fact, I’d argue you don’t even realize you need it, you just find yourself there one day.
It’s this open-endedness that makes therapy so elusive. Sure, some people have court-mandated therapy. Others wind up in therapy as the result of an intervention. But, what about those lost in the shuffle of day-to-day life?
You go to work, take care of your family and loved ones, spend time with friends, squeeze in time for something you enjoy, and then go to sleep and repeat. Some days you don’t even have time for all of those things. When are you supposed to sit back and think, “Am I okay?”
For me, therapy just kind of happened. I knew someone going to therapy and they asked me, “Hey, want to come to therapy with me to offer feedback on my progress?” Always happy to help a friend, I went.
Watching “Good Will Hunting” was as close as I’d been to therapy, so I didn’t know what to expect. A leather couch? Questions? Crying? The smell of mahogany?
While there was a couch and some crying, everything else was nothing like the movies. This was a place of true neutral ground. No shame, only compassion. It was incredible. Unfettered by the eyes, ears, and judgment of those that know you, you were truly free to speak your peace here.
After an hour of watching my friend share, cry, and laugh — so much laughter — the session was over. As if it were an impulse I suddenly found myself asking, “How soon can you see me?”
I’m not okay
I used to fancy myself quite the writer. I wrote on the side, I wrote full-time — I wrote a lot. And you know what? I felt like I was pretty damn good at it.
Then, early last year, I got a new job as a senior content marketer. I felt like I’d finally made it. And for a few weeks, maybe even a month, I believed it.
Then the cracks started to show. I wasn’t meeting goals, my mind was wandering more than ever, and most importantly, I was miserable.
I’ve never been a master of focus. Spacing out here and there? My mind feeling a strong urge to veer off into the weeds when I know it’s time to hit the road? Both fairly common. But, I’d also never been one to do a bad job. My work was always turned in on time, and I was always proud of it. So, why was I suddenly falling apart at this new job?
I finally had an aha moment when Valerie, my wife and best friend, said to me, “Are you okay?” Normally I’d reply, “I’m good!” But instead, I did something I’d never done: I broke down and sobbed into her shoulder for half an hour. Clearly, something had to give. It was time to take stock of my job, my life, and everything in between.
A funny thing happens when you allow yourself to take a step back and act as an objective observer of your life: you see the glaring problems that have been right under your nose. I had gotten so used to treading water that I failed to notice my head was nearly submerged.
I wasn’t bad at this job. I wasn’t falling apart. I was simply hired for a job I never should have applied for, and that job was exposing every single personal and mental issue that had plagued me for years.
After several months of being at that job, I realized something. To paraphrase the immortal wisdom of Gerard Way, “I was not okay, I promise.”
Day 1 of forever
I’ve been going to therapy for several months. I can honestly say the decision to go to therapy was so much harder for me to come to, than going to therapy itself.
It was only a month after going with my friend that I found myself sitting across from my therapist. We shook hands, both sat down, and then it came out — the dreaded first question.
“So, John, what brings you in here today?”
The question hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. Or maybe just a few seconds.
I didn’t know how to answer. Well, I didn’t think I knew how to answer. But, a big part of life is how you react to it, so I reacted. And out it came: early memories of school, fears of disappointing others, insecurities about my abilities, and a whole bunch of anxiety about everything.
In only one session I was promoted from Therapy Amateur to General Anxiety. Well, it’s actually generalized anxiety, but that’s besides the point.
The point is, I had a name for the thing that was causing me so much trouble. With that name I was at least able to start making sense of what it was I was going through. You can’t get out of the woods if you don’t know which way home is, just like you can’t get better if you don’t know what’s wrong.
The never-ending road to wellness
In the beginning, a part of me was waiting for something to just kind of “click.” You go to the doctor and get medicine for a cold, the cold goes away. You have an infection, they give you antibiotics. You break a toe, they — well, they kind of do fuck all for a broken toe, but it still heals. I half-expected therapy to work in a similar manner: you talk about your problems and things just kind of get better. But that’s not how it worked, or works, at all.
It’s been such a gradual process. First, it felt like grieving. Coming to terms with the fact that I’d been carrying around so much for so long without knowing it. I found myself wondering, “Where would my career be if I knew all of this years ago? How would I be different as a person?” But that kind of thinking isn’t conducive to progress. It hinders it.
So, I let go. I dropped the expectations of suddenly feeling better, along with the thoughts of “what if.” And you know what? It’s been wonderful. I no longer tread water, as I’ve learned how to keep myself on the boat. If my mind wanders, I know to at least try lassoing it back in.
And all that anxiety? Well, it’s still there. But, I know it’s there, and I know when to take a step back and let myself breathe. That’s so much better than just wondering why I’m on edge, distracted, unable to start a project, or some mixture of the three.
There is no magical cure-all for mental illness. Mental illness encompasses so many ailments, and even then, each one of those can be different for each person. In short: mental illness is one elusive, mysterious beast.
But, therapy can help. If you take nothing else away from this long, rambling mess of a story, let it be that. Therapy has changed my life, it’s changed the lives of many friends and coworkers, and it can change yours.
Parenting is tough. Life is tough. Work is tough. We’re only human and it’s okay to need maintenance from time to time. If you can’t afford therapy, contact your HR rep or a friend or a family member and ask for assistance. There’s always a way to make it happen.
I’ve always told my son that life is largely how you react to it. If and when the day comes that life simply feels like too much to react to, don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements.
-The Thrifty Dad
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers a directory of free resources for those needing help with mental illness, those coping with substance abuse, and more.