For years, I struggled with my mental health treatment. Not only was I considered “treatment resistant” because no medication my doctors prescribed seemed to even touch my illness, but I had become increasingly disillusioned with the therapy aspect, as well.
In theory, I have always believed therapy was a good thing. Better out than in, as Shrek says. I believed that people need to be able to talk about the issues in their life so that they did not build up, escalate and cause further issues down the line.
However, my personal experiences with therapy and counseling were disheartening to say the least.
When I was a child, my mother briefly took our family for therapy together. On the very first appointment, when my brother and I both attempted to speak up and share our perspectives on the situation, we were cut off. Our “family therapist” informed us that they were the parents, we were the children, that whatever they said goes and that our opinions on the matter were irrelevant. From that point on in his sessions, I didn’t even bother participating because he made me feel irrelevant, as well. The whole experience left a horrible taste in my mouth and made it harder for me to trust or open up to therapists from that point on.
As a teenager after my mother shot my father, I was briefly placed in counseling again. The therapist that time did not seem interested in who I was or how I was feeling. They simply wanted to know whether I had any plans to try and harm myself or anyone else. Once they felt reassured that I was not a danger to myself or others, they saw no reason to see me any further. Again, I was left feeling like I did not matter.
In my twenties, I had my first serious breakdown and my first true glimpse into the mental healthcare system. I now not only was assigned a therapist but a meds doctor, as well. I also had doctors that I saw for group therapy sessions. I had a bonafide mental health team.
My therapist was always watching the clock and would interrupt me each session when we had ten minutes left, telling me to “wrap it up” because our session was almost over. She chose the direction of our sessions, insisting we always talk about current issues because she didn’t believe I was ready to talk about my past. I had no control over my own therapy. I felt irrelevant to the whole process, like I was just going through the motions of getting help and she was only listening because she was being paid to do so. If I ever needed to contact her in between sessions, I was directed to leave a voice mail, though her mailbox was often too full to leave one.
My meds doctor was equally as bad at listening. He would prescribe me whatever the current flavor of the month antidepressant might be. When I would explain that it was not even touching my symptoms, he would continuously up the dosages or add other prescriptions into the mix until the side effects became unbearable and I felt like a walking zombie. Every time I spoke up explaining that nothing was helping and that I felt worse than before I began taking anything, I was disregarded and told that I had to give the medications time to work.
My “therapy groups” were laughable at best. Everyone in the groups were told that we were not allowed to talk about anything too personal, nor were we allowed to discuss any topic that might be triggering to anyone else. What we were left with was a room full of people sitting there uncomfortably, some wanting to cry, others wanting to rage, as we all muttered through gritted teeth that we were fine because none of us felt we were allowed to say anything more.
The mental health clinic I attended also had an impatient wing at an area hospital. I was admitted there a handful of times over the years. As bad as their other services were, those stints on the mental health floor of the hospital were the worst. It always took over a day to get my medications approved so I felt even more unbalanced from the start. On an average three to seven day stay, I only saw a doctor for ten to fifteen minutes on the day I was admitted and again on the day I was released. In between, the only option for any sort of therapy were groups. I was assigned groups with the same rules as my outpatient groups so nothing was ever talked about or resolved. No one was allowed in their rooms during the day so you had hallways full of clinically depressed people walking endless laps around a secured wing, biding their time until their next mandatory group or meal. Patients openly sobbed or sat around with numb expressions as if life itself no longer made sense. Nurses sat in a large locked cubicle in the center of the wing, laughing and talking among themselves and largely disregarding the patients unless they had to intervene with a “behavioral issue” or direct someone somewhere. There was no real treatment. It was a corral to hold the mentally ill until the staff could pass them off to be someone else’s problem.
More than once, I stopped going to my treatment over the years. I felt irrelevant, unheard, unhelped. It all felt like a complete waste of time. However, with or without treatment, my mental illness raged on and periodically I found myself having another breakdown and needing treatment again. Unfortunately, there was not a large selection of mental health clinics in the county where I lived, and the others all had long waiting lists, so whenever I needed mental health treatment I was sent back to the same clinic that had already previously let me down. Over time, I became so disenchanted with the mental healthcare system that I just couldn’t see the point anymore. I may have had a bonafide mental health treatment team but I walked away without any real treatment for my illness.
A couple years ago, I had yet another severe breakdown, this time thankfully in another county. With the help of a coordinated care provider, I was able to get an appointment at a clinic that normally had a long waiting list and was not currently taking new patients. Again, I would be assigned a mental health team. I wasn’t going to hold my breath, though. I had been through this process many times before. My expectations were low.
I have never before been so pleasantly surprised or so grateful to be proven wrong. The difference was like night and day.
My meds doctor actually listened to my previous experience with different prescriptions and did not try to push a large pile of pills on me. Instead, he had me take a genetic test to determine what medications would work best for me based on my genetic make up. Lo and behold, based on the results of this test, over half of the medications previous doctors had placed me on were listed as causing moderate to significant interactions for me. The genetic test also revealed a genetic mutation I had that greatly contributed to my treatment resistance. We worked together to create a treatment plan that actually suited me.
All my groups encouraged open dialogue, even if the topic was grief or pain. My groups laughed together and cried together. We fought our battles side by side and all felt heard. This clinic offered a wide variety of groups beyond traditional therapy groups, as well, such as transforming anxiety through art, meditation, tai chi and yoga. I found myself signing up for every group I could fit into my schedule. Not only were they treating my mental illness, they were contributing to my mental wellness, as well.
My biggest blessing and godsend at this new clinic was my therapist. She lets me control the flow of our appointments and choose what I feel I need to address each week, never prodding or rejecting the topics I select. She made allowances with her scheduling so that if we ever went over the session time, she never had to cut me off or make another patient wait. She understood my struggles with verbalizing sometimes in between appointments and readily agreed to communicate via email or texts because that was what worked best with me. Whenever I have emailed or texted her, she has responded back in under a day. Most importantly, she truly listened and cared.
When I was struggling to find housing, she brought in resources and connected me to organizations that might be able to assist me. She helped me navigate through registering my sugar gliders as emotional support animals. She took the time to introduce me to others I would be attending groups with so I did not feel so awkward about not knowing anyone there. When I was on bedrest following surgery, she did sessions over the phone so that I did not have a lapse in treatment. She has helped and intervened with more than one personal crisis time and again. She regularly went above and beyond in every way imaginable.
Perhaps the grandest gesture she had done was only a couple months into our visits. My mother had passed away on Thanksgiving day 2010. In one of our early sessions, I had expressed to her how hard this day still was for me years later. On Thanksgiving, she took time out of her day and her own family celebrations not once but twice to reach out and call to make sure I was okay.
Again and again, she has shown me that I wasn’t just a patient that mattered during those 50 minutes penciled in on her schedule. She helped me to feel like I mattered even when I had trouble mattering to myself. She always made me feel like my mental health was a priority, that I was a priority. I have never felt more heard.
I honestly feel like I won the therapist lottery. In under two years time, I have gone from hating therapy and thinking it is a joke to believing it can truly make a difference in someone’s life. My life. Everyone’s life. Whenever I hear anyone talk about needing a therapist, I refer them to my clinic, insisting that even if there is not an opening right away, they are worth the wait. I often share stories about my experiences with my therapist that end in “what therapist does that?!”. The only difference is that now my stories come from a place of gratitude instead of disbelief and disgust.
There are wonderful therapists out there. There are clinics that genuinely want to help their patients heal, who see them as people that are suffering instead of a steady flow of dollar signs in and out the door. I understand how easy it is to become disillusioned with the mental healthcare system when it feels like you are unheard and irrelevant to your own treatment. I’ve been there. I went through a revolving door of sub par and inadequate treatment for years. But please know that not all clinics and not all doctors are like that. Some genuinely care about their patients and their well-being.
If you are feeling unheard or untreated, please don’t give up hope. Don’t stop your treatment because your doctor is not hearing you or is not working in your best interest. Keep looking. Find a new doctor. Your mental health matters. Don’t settle for clinics that make you feel irrelevant. Find a place where you feel heard, where you feel like you truly matter. Find a place that makes you look forward to getting the treatment you need. Trust me – It can make a world of a difference in your life.
I want to end this piece by taking a moment and thank Mary B. and everyone else at my mental health clinic for making such a dramatic impact on my life. You are all truly a blessing not only to me but to all those whose lives you have touched. Thank you sincerely.