I am in good mental health.
Even in my darkest moments, this is what I told myself. The facts seemed to support me. I’d never been diagnosed with a mental illness. I never needed pills to cure anything more than sinusitis. I had a great childhood. I was in control—stable and calm; cool and collected.
Except when I wasn’t. Every now and then, stress would kick my brain into overdrive and I didn’t know how to take back the wheel. I’d feel attacked by bouts of insecurity, helplessness, and anxiety. I’d call my parents in exasperation and then lash out when their words weren’t what I wanted to hear. My remedies were to smoke weed, sleep, and hope that I felt better the next day. I usually did.
I was initially inspired to book a session with a therapist after making a dentist’s appointment. I thought it was basically the same idea. When I told my mom my plan, she asked, “When the psychiatrist asks why you’re there, what are you going to say?”
“That I just wanted to get a check-up on my mental health?” I replied.
“I think you’ll probably have to be more specific than that, sweetie,” she said. And so I shelved the idea.
Several months later, I attempted a personal experiment where I let my friends control my daily routine for a month (another story for another day). I thought I was strong enough to handle losing control of my life. I wasn’t. I quit 22 days in.
That month was like a catfish shuffling through the muck. I felt like a failure, an embarrassment, and a disappointment. Negative self-talk amplified. The clouds blackened. They were always there, but a fortuitous breeze usually whisked them away. But now I didn’t know how to summon the wind.
I finally got the fuck over my “good mental health” and made an appointment with a therapist. I’m so glad I did. Here are 5 reasons why.
1. I learned how to label my emotions.
When someone asks how you are, what do you say? If you’re like me, the answer is usually “good.” Sometimes it’s “fine.” On occasion, it’s “not so great.” And there you go, the three buckets of emotions as I understood them: good, fine, and none of the above.
In one of my first sessions, my therapist showed me a chart with cartoonish faces, each labeled with an emotion. It might sound silly, but that sheet of circular blobs was a revelation. When I was feeling “not so great,” that didn’t necessarily mean “sad.” Sometimes it meant “frustrated,” or “anxious,” or “scared.” And when I was feeling “good,” it didn’t necessarily mean “happy”—sometimes it meant “joyful,” or “loved,” or “excited.” Each provoked different thought patterns and behavior.
Understanding your emotions is a bit like making a stew. Sometimes it smells delicious, and you can see the potatoes, onions, and beef chunks gurgling in harmony. But sometimes something stinks. Before, it was hard to tell if the smell was mustard seed or rotten eggs. But now, I could better identify what brewed in my cauldron.
2. I practiced how to separate emotions from thoughts, facts, and behaviors.
Therapy has many forms. I chose cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is grounded in pragmatic analysis of present-day problems. It’s like learning how to rewire your brain.
Before I started, those wires were all jumbled together. If I felt like shit, it was because I was shit, and so I acted like a shithead. I didn’t understand how to separate each part of that equation: it was just shit. A good sleep was the only thing that broke the cycle.
One of the core tools in CBT is a worksheet called the thought log. In it, you take an automatic negative thought, like “I’m a failure,” and unpack it. How does that thought make you feel? (Sad, frustrated, disappointed, upset.) What is the supporting evidence for that thought? (I quit a personal experiment.) What evidence does not support that thought? (I graduated from college; I have a steady job; I won the spelling bee in 4th grade.) Given that, is there a different thought that feels more accurate? (I succeed in most things but bit off more than I could chew with an absurdly difficult experiment.) What feelings are associated with that? (More hopeful, still a little frustrated, a bit confused, but no longer sad). And repeat as necessary.
CBT was the only time I liked doing homework. I practiced the thought log several times a week. Wires started falling into place. I learned just how much negative thoughts influenced how I felt, and how liberating it felt to choose what to think.
3. I learned how to recognize cognitive distortions affecting my behavior.
I think when many think of mental health, they picture white-walled corridors, straitjackets, and cups with little pills in them. I think it’s more like a funhouse with funky mirrors. You’re looking at yourself thinking, “that can’t be me.” And yet, it is you, but your forehead is five times bigger than your torso. “Oh, right, the mirror has a funny shape,” you’ll think, and then you laugh at your gargantuan nose and move on.
Cognitive distortions are like those funky mirrors, but they’re far more sinister. In the clinical sense, cognitive distortions are exaggerated thought patterns which distort reality and feed depression and anxiety.
Take a common one—all or nothing thinking. I did this all the damn time. Ever find yourself saying something like “He never pays attention to me”? Or “I always ruin things”? Boom: cognitive distortion. The situation is rarely that black and white. Chances are, it’s not “always” or “never” because life is rarely that extreme. Usually it’s somewhere in that vast grey area.
Cognitive distortions work because they’re simple and predictable. It’s as seamless as trying on a pair of sunglasses. And once that darkness takes over, logic and reason shut down.
For me, learning to spot them was half the battle. If negative thoughts looped through my head like a broken record, usually it was fueled by a pernicious cognitive distortion. When I unpacked that thought and looked for a cognitive distortion, the spell was often broken.
4. I invested in myself.
Know this now: therapy is not easy. I didn’t find it particularly therapeutic either, at least not like a massage or spa treatment. It can also be expensive—one session ran me $140 an hour. Yes, there are plenty of cheaper (and even free) options. But there’s no question it’s a commitment: with money, time, and emotional wherewithal.
Other than the examples I’ve given, I don’t want to delve into the specifics of each session. What’s shared in therapy should stay private. I will say that in the spectrum of struggles, mine were probably mild. But I still felt like I got in my own way a lot—with friendships and relationships; as a son and a co-worker; as a dreamer and a doer.
In our first session, I set goals for myself. They had to be tangible, like “Develop strategies to keep negative thoughts from ruminating for more than an hour.” I would’ve given my pinkie toe to overcome that one. When to comes to “return on investment,” I can think of few better payoffs than clear thinking.
Sessions in therapy were like signposts on a journey into my brain. Everyone’s journey is different—some longer, more arduous, and fraught with obstacles—and there’s no shame in walking with a guide for as long as you need. After a lot of practice in and out of therapy, I felt like I was sturdy enough to continue on my own. Note that doesn’t make me “cured”—because that’s not how mental health works—just that I felt knowledgeable enough to keep administering the antidote.
Therapy produced such clear dividends. I deconstructed my clock to see what made it tick. I developed a mental health toolbox that I’ll carry with me for life. And now, I actually feel like I’m driving my life as opposed to letting the road drive me.
5. I let go of pride and quelled my fears.
I feel like many think going to therapy is admitting weakness. That it must mean there’s something broken inside. I hate that. It’s like saying lifting weights is for weaklings. The ones that are strongest get their ass to the gym.
But have I always thought that way? Not even close. Why do you think it took me so long to make my first appointment? Therapy was for Zach Braff’s character in Garden State. That dude was messed up. I’m fine.
Yes, there were moments when I was not fine. But that’s just life, right? I didn’t need help to get through life’s ups and downs. I was too proud to work on my mental health.
What a massive irony. We don’t hesitate to sign up for a painting class, but when it comes to understanding the brain, an incredibly complex and precious instrument that humanity has worked for millennia to demystify, we’re all like: “Nah, I got this.”
It’s a ridiculous notion that needs to stop. I know now that hidden beneath my pride was fear. I felt scared that I wouldn’t like what I found when I started looking. I was terrified of friends finding out. If it hadn’t been for the encouragement and acceptance from loved ones, I doubt I would have gathered the strength to go.
I feel loved for having their support. I know many aren’t as lucky. That sucks. I’m frustrated that talking about mental health is still stigmatized. I’m upset that some stereotype therapy as a weakness. And I’m sad that those stigmas and stereotypes turn away those that need therapy most.
And so, here’s my attempt to rewire that thought.
Instead of being ashamed to go to therapy, I’m proud to admit that I don’t have all the answers. I’m proud to ask for help. I’m proud to look my demons in the eye and make them blink. I’m proud to seek mental stability. I’m proud to believe that I can be better.
And if you feel the same? Well then I’m proud of you too.
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