I attended my first therapy session eight years ago. The experience was markedly different from what I’d seen in the movies. All those after-school specials, prime-time sitcoms, and paranormal dramas had given me the Freudian slip.
There was no goateed fatherly Austrian or bespectacled hippie matriarch scribbling indecipherable shorthand into a yellow legal pad. There were no Rorschach blots or Jenga blocks, no supine stretching on a leatherette couch. I spent fifty minutes in a comfortable setting with a mental health professional who let me do all the talking.
I felt welcome. I felt safe. In time I almost felt understood. I had allowed myself to allow someone else access to my private province. I knew I lived on the other side of you, I just didn’t know what to call it.
Over time and with patience, both hers and mine, I began to develop an insight into my inner world. When I finally found the courage to ask, I received my diagnosis. That hurt. I felt betrayed by my own mind, by my very life. In a word, I was devastated.
I sought the oft lauded Second Opinion. I took the psych evals. Based on tangible measurable results, it was evident that I had to practice surrender to accept the truth. I needed help, and I wasn’t willing to waste any more time. I had to learn to trust, which was difficult for me, but it worked.
Together we created the foundation for a treatment plan appropriate to my needs.
Psychotherapy feels natural to me now, a heightened version of the best of friendships. It’s like having a mind outside my own, a brain that doesn’t have my disorder, one that can guide me through the maze of everyday life that many people seem to take for granted. Most importantly, there is someone who listens.
If I want to maintain an effective relationship with my therapist – and if I want to stay healthy myself – I need to be dedicated, purposeful, and unflinchingly honest. I need to believe that she is doing the same. Our job together is to help me make sense of my symptoms, to develop new coping strategies, and to prepare me for the more challenging situations I will face. Maintenance of my mental health regimen ensures that my next break has a better available recovery rate. I say “next” because, in my particular case, various levels of instability are inevitable.
Sometimes I forget that the standards of honesty, acceptance, and trust observed in the safety of my therapist’s office are not always practiced in the Real World. Being able to speak to her without wearing the mask of shame isn’t always the two-way street that Normal People traverse. It takes a leap of faith. Without trust – that firm belief in the strength and reliability of another person – my private world can start leaking through, giving discrimination and stigma a regrettable beachhead.
Six months ago I woke up in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. I was consumed with the idea that my life had no meaning, that I had no value. I stopped eating. I lied about it. I isolated. I lost sight of myself. My body began to fail me and I let it. The result was a trifecta of panic, trauma, and psychosis. Self-stigma held sway, and I caved. What saved me was a simple action that I learned in therapy: when things don’t make sense, tell someone.
I called my best friend. He called my therapist. They ran the emergency plan. Police, ambulance, and First Response teams came to the scene. Reaching out to a trusted person saved my life. Regrettably, it also cost me that friendship.
There is a pervasive misbelief that every person living with schizophrenia is a time bomb waiting to explode. This stereotype must have instilled some resistance to associating with me, because, since my last break, my friend has seemingly chosen not to. The loss of that relationship is indescribable, but not entirely unexpected.
Before my diagnosis I lost everything to this illness, and not by choice. Regardless of the progress I’ve made since then, stigma and discrimination continue to hold their ground in a world I want dearly to belong to, but can’t find a foothold for the fear. Not mine. Theirs.
The lesson in this is clear to me: trust implicitly those who share a mutual perspective. Open up to them. Be brave. Accept that the nature of your relationships will change. Be honest, be authentic. Stay in the conversation, and never give up. Never. Find a treatment plan that works for you and stick to it. You are worth every moment of your life. Believe that above all else.