There are a lot of misconceptions in our community about therapy. We often think the need for therapy doesn’t apply to us because we are somehow “tough” or “strong enough” to work issues out on our own. We think that therapists will dictate to us how to live our lives. We don’t trust these professionals whom we believe are going to dispense advice from a book instead of from personal experience. Conversely, if we do actually go through with therapy, we often believe that sessions are all about faithful attendance without any actual hard work involved. To help learn the truth about seeking therapy and finding the right therapist for me, I sat down for a conversation with someone I knew who’d received and benefited from therapy and would give me an honest take on her experience. Monica* shared some incredibly helpful information with me.
Monica sought out therapy to help resolve an issue that stemmed from her childhood.
“I was having issues in my marriage that stemmed from sexual abuse I experienced when I was very, very young,” she explained. “What happened to me then was affecting me physically in my relationship. It was kind of like a domino effect. I couldn’t settle this one thing until I got to the root of what happened. I was sitting there going back and back and back and I realized the sexual abuse was the problem. Looking at it now, it would seem obvious. But I’d always thought that it was something that happened to me and I’m fine now.”
Monica had been raised in a very religious family and had attended a Christian school. Growing up in such an environment had never really provided an opportunity for open, honest conversations about sexual matters including abuse.
“I remember the one time, they (the church) talked about sexual abuse,” Monica shared. “They basically talked about how sexual abuse causes different types of characteristics to develop in girls. There was a lot of talk about promiscuity; they focused on that so much.”
Monica recalled being 12 years old at the time of this talk and did not make a connection with her own personal experience.
“I didn’t see myself in that (discussion), therefore, I figured that I was fine. That’s not me. What they didn’t talk about was how you can also be on the other end of the spectrum because of it (sexual abuse) too,” said Monica. Because the church stresses celibacy and chastity, Monica felt she was simply following those evangelical teachings to the letter.
“I felt that the message just stuck with me and it was really, really working on me. I didn’t realize that it was a problem. I thought I was just being obedient. The (sexual) desire wasn’t there and when I thought about sex, I felt fear. Not the regular kind of fear and apprehension that anybody would have; it was stepped up.”
Monica’s fears about sex had manifested itself throughout her teens and early adulthood but without having an opportunity to discuss it, she had not recognized the issue for what it was.
“My parents were of that school of thought that if they spoke about sex with their children, then we were going to go out and do it. That attitude closed the door to lots of conversations that could have led to what was going on with me and I could have gotten help way before. Instead, it took me stumbling through my 20s and it was really bad. Marriage only complicated and aggravated the matter further. And then when I was trying to get pregnant… There was just so many things my body was having a physical response of ‘no’ to. I responded the way someone would if they were being attacked. It was a feeling of being trapped. I didn’t like anyone being on top of me. I didn’t like feeling as if I couldn’t get out and run if I had to. Mentally, I was always prepared for date rape. That should not have been in my mind while being with someone willingly. In speaking with my husband about it, that’s when I realized I needed help.”
Monica’s search for a therapist was quite fortuitous. While it is a good idea to research therapists and investigate options to find the right personal fit for you, sometimes finding a good match can be simple.
“I got super lucky. My therapist’s office is literally on my way home; I have to pass the place. I chose it because I work long hours, knew I was going to be tired and didn’t want the excuse of not wanting to travel out of the way to deter me.”
Having a convenient location was a big factor, but it didn’t fully resolve Monica’s initial apprehensions.
“I was worried about being judged. I still had that notion of being considered crazy. I didn’t want my business getting out there. I could have used insurance but I just paid for it straight out because I didn’t want it noted anywhere. I was embarrassed too but I had to do something; I cared more about my mental health.”
The biggest hurdle Monica overcame was not second-guessing the process. When Monica went to her first session, she started off being incredibly uncomfortable. She described herself as doing all that she could to sink into the corner of the couch as far away from her therapist as possible. She all but grasped the arm of the couch for dear life.
“My therapist turned out to be wonderful. She spoke like a regular person and put me at ease immediately. She seemed to figure me out as soon as I came in. She saw that I was not going to be easy. I wasn’t going to be aggressive but she could see that I had my guard up. She called attention to it—not right away because that would have been a turn off—but she phrased things in way that signaled to me that she knew how I was feeling. She told me that I could say whatever I wanted. She really put the ball in my court to lead the session. She didn’t interrogate me. Instead she asked me one very open-ended question.”
Monica’s therapist was a “good listener” as she described it and that also made acclimating to the process easier.
“She made things comfortable. I knew that she was listening because she would bring back something I said that I forgot I said and relate it. While I was talking she would alert me to when I used certain phrases or gestures in discussing certain topics. She was very big on noticing and it wasn’t bullshit. I am always suspicious and ready for bullshit. I was ready for bullshit with this especially because I wanted any excuse to say that therapy wouldn’t work out.”
As Monica explained, instead of spoon-feeding ideas or theories, Monica’s therapist listened to her attentively and noticed her body language. She paid attention, and then allowed Monica to personally reflect on herself and the reasons why she spoke or behaved in such a manner when confronted with certain topics. This approach left Monica feeling good and empowered to work toward a resolution and peace of mind. Following her ongoing therapy experience, Monica is a true believer in the benefits of therapy.
“I think everyone should go to therapy. I don’t care who you are, you need to have a sounding board that is not related to you, does not work with you, and knows nothing about you. You need to be able to speak to someone without feeling like it’s going to come back at you. The people that you’re close to… you can’t help it, you’re going to hurt each other. That’s just the way it is. The people you aren’t close to, you’re not close enough to be real. If you’re talking to someone who knows nothing about you and doesn’t have an agenda and you feel as if they’re genuine, then that’s the safest space. And they’re bound by law to shut the hell up. It’s not going to come up again at dinner, or in a fight. Someone’s not just going to be talking and slip up and say something. That’s just what people in your life do. Therapists have boundaries they can’t cross.”
Monica also noted that therapy does not have to occur only when you think you have a problem.
“You should not wait until there’s something wrong or you’ve made some kind of discovery about yourself. You should just go. Also, it’s a nice time away from everybody. You have to turn your phone off. No one can find you. It’s comfortable. I think that we all need to get away from the people in our lives.”
Nikki Igbo is a freelance writer and editor who has stood in a field surrounded by dairy cows, was a contestant on the Price is Right, and was once tipped by a stripper at Clermont Lounge. Feel free to follow her on Instagram or Twitter or listen to her Rappin’ Atlanta podcast.