I am quite the Goldilocks of therapy, having seen four different therapists by the age of twenty-two and finding none of them quite right. It felt like they didn’t get me, like they were placing their ideas onto me rather than reading between the lines of what I was saying. But looking back, I have to admit that I was a big part of the issue too. I wasn’t ready to get better. I wasn’t ready to abandon my harmful coping mechanisms and adopt healthy ones. I wasn’t ready to be honest about how dark the inside of my mind actually was.
Then my fifth therapist came along and finally diagnosed me correctly. It turned out that all this time, I had been struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder. It wasn’t the label that made the difference, but rather her specialisation in treating trauma and personality disorders. She could recognise what I wasn’t saying, when I was adapting to her and more than anything, she assured me that other people felt the same way as I did. I wasn’t a freak; I just had more baggage and hurdles than non-BPD people do.
I spent a year and a half doing weekly sessions with her, most of which I left exhausted with mascara running down to my chin - I eventually gave up wearing it on these days. It is hard work, and don’t underestimate how exhausting therapy can be. Finally, our time began to draw to a close, something that terrified me to my core. It was a combination of insurance regulations, as we had already exceeded the number of sessions they usually offered, and the fact that we were running out of things to talk about. I was still mentally ill, don’t get me wrong, but there wasn’t that much more to say about it, that much more to do about it. I was reaching my therapy threshold.
Something that I feel the need to clarify is that I am entirely in support of therapy. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a focus on Clinical Psychology, and even though I chose not to pursue that route further, I think it is such an important field. I believe that everyone could benefit from therapy at some point in their lives. I truly do. We all carry baggage in some shape or form, and openly confronting it with the help of a trained professional could allow us to work through it and not pass it on to our children or partners. No one had the ‘perfect’ upbringing; there’s always something. So I think that a therapy trajectory could be enlightening for every single person. Some of us need to go more often, but everyone should go at some point. I recognise that this isn’t always possible due to insurance complications, accessibility of services and financial restrictions.
So I am 100% Team Therapy. But even so, I have to acknowledge that therapy isn’t where you thrive; instead, therapy gets you to the point where you can thrive, and then it is up to you. Therapy is about many things, like acknowledging your struggle, feeling heard and confronting your trauma. It’s the chance to speak freely and not feel like you’re burdening someone. Inadvertently it acts like reassurance that you both have it bad enough to feel this way, and yet you’re capable of being saved, as they’ve undoubtedly heard worse.
Therapy gives you the chance to unload, and then your therapist can provide you with the tools. These are usually tools that the two of you come up with together: what to do if you feel anxious, if you have the urge to self-harm, if the dark voices come back, or someone disrespects your boundaries and needs. Together you form a game plan, a route to take instead of the dark one you’ve been on this far. But whilst your therapist provides you with these tools, they can’t do them for you, and they can’t force you to use them. So you leave therapy with an overflowing toolbox, but you still have to make an effort to pull out a tool and do the work.
Leaving therapy is like removing your training wheels. Because learning to ride a bike is hard, and you cry a lot, but it gets far more difficult when you remove those safety wheels. That’s when you really learn to ride a bike, and whilst someone showed you how to pedal and hold the steering wheel, they can’t do it for you; it’s your turn to listen to them. Once those training wheels are off, you’re going to fall; it’s a fact of nature. You’re going to come up to sharp turns or bumps in the road, and instead of braking as they taught you, you’ll panic and fall.
Life after therapy is when you actually begin to grow and thrive, because no one is holding your hand through it all. You’re confronted with difficult situations, and you have to choose to act in your best interests. And in all honesty, you won’t always manage. Sometimes you’ll slip up and do the thing that you shouldn’t, or self-sabotage even though you know better. You’re only human. What matters is what comes next, whether you decide to give up entirely and continue with destructive coping mechanisms, or whether you learn from it and take a big step forward.
Life after therapy is a mix of emotions. The joy and pride of coming this far are followed by the stark realisation that everything isn’t suddenly easier. Life after therapy is when you begin to heal, as you have time on your own to work through everything you discussed, to form your own opinions and to actually respect those opinions.
Healing isn’t an exponential growth curve. You don’t finish therapy cured because many mental illnesses simply can’t be cured, my own included. Instead, you learn to manage them, live with them, and thrive despite them. So, unfortunately, this means that some periods will be worse than others, even after therapy. It also means that you might be returning to therapy at some point.
This can be a confronting experience. When I realised that things were getting bad again, only a year and a half after I finished my therapy trajectory, I felt like I had failed. How could I go on the waitlist for therapy again so soon after? Why didn’t it work the first time, would it ever work?
But with enough time and space, I could clear my mind and recognise that it had worked. I had worked through my initial diagnosis and a lot of the factors involved, I had taken steps to co-exist in a healthy manner in my relationship. But I wasn’t cured because I couldn’t be cured. Since leaving therapy, many things have changed in my life, and since my breakup, I’ve had a lot of time on my own to work through my emotions and thoughts. So I’m returning to therapy with a new set of issues, with a new set of questions and an entirely different situation.
Returning to therapy is not a failure; it’s taking the right step for you at this point in time. It’s recognising that we are constantly changing. It’s acknowledging that we need help, and that admitting this is a strength and not a weakness.
It’s okay to leave therapy and not feel cured or even that much better. Because after therapy is when true healing begins. Leave therapy with a confirmed set of tools, and then take the step to use them, take the strength to choose what is better for you rather than what feels good in the moment. You deserve to be happy, and you can be, and reaching that point involves a lot of difficult choices and confrontations. Take the time after therapy to grow and heal, to become the best version of yourself at this point in time.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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