I was surprised when I first started seeing a therapist. The experience was completely different than I expected. That’s a little bit odd given how many therapists there are. It appears to be a booming business, which must mean that many people go to see therapists. But what actually happens in therapy remains a closely guarded secret.
Before I went, all I knew about therapy was what I got from pop culture, mostly movies and TV. I figured that therapy consisted of lying on a couch with the therapist sitting just out of sight. Then, the patient and the therapist talk about the patient’s childhood until they hit upon that moment when everything changed which is causing the current problem. Once the root of the problem is brought out into the open, the patient is cured. Knowledge is power after all. It all seemed pretty new age-y and self help-y for my tastes.
I live by a general rule of trusting experts in their areas of expertise. So when my doctor decided I was depressed, he suggested I start seeing a therapist. I took his advice, and was shocked to learn how un-new age-y and un-self help-y it is. Therapy is downright practical.
I knew going in what started my depression. It was my marriage and divorce. I was a little afraid that the therapist was going to try to find the cause behind the cause, but that wasn’t the case. My marriage and divorce were plenty good enough for her.
One of the first questions she asked me was what I was hoping to accomplish through therapy. I didn’t quite know how to answer. Then she rephrased the question and asked how I will know when I’m ready to stop therapy. I was taken aback. I had never really thought about stopping therapy and I had no idea how to answer, but I appreciated the fact that this was never seen as an open ended commitment. It may be hard to see, but there is an endpoint out there.
A lot of therapy is spent learning my tendencies, patterns and triggers. On my own, it is easy to see each thing that happens to me as discreet. My therapist helps me see the connections. Not that seeing the connections does much of anything on its own. But seeing them allows me to behave differently the next time something similar happens.
We spend a lot of time on focus. I have a lot of anticipatory anxiety. Basically, instead of focusing on whatever is happening now, I’m always thinking ahead and worrying about what might go wrong. It makes me hesitant on a good day and can paralyze me on a bad day. It’s funny in a way, it’s almost the polar opposite of the way I used to be. To combat this we work on mindfulness. I hate the term, but it makes a lot of sense. My therapist gives me exercises to help me practice focusing my attention. One exercise is breathing. I like that one. It reminds me of practicing a wind instrument, really noticing how the air moves through me. It can also be rather silly, like brushing my teeth with the other hand. Doing so definitely forces concentration, but it’s also weird being bad at something as simple as brushing your teeth. Whatever the exercise, though, I have a clearly defined problem and my therapist has given me a practical way to deal with it.
Another thing that’s helpful about therapy is just talking to someone with knowledge and experience. Everything that happens to me in depression is new and weird. It’s nice having someone who has seen it all before to act as a guide. She helps me keep things in the proper perspective.
My therapist is also unfailingly honest with me. That’s not the easiest thing to find. Friends and family try to make me feel better. My therapist calls me out when I’m wrong. It seems that in depression, I’m wrong a lot. I put a negative spin on everything. It’s nice to have someone to put a realistic spin on those same things. It’s not all sunny optimism, it’s fairly neutral. But that gets through a lot better than someone telling me that everything is, or will be, great.
So, that’s the gist of therapy for me. It’s just high level, I don’t have the time or energy to get into the real details. The details are very mundane and boring anyway. We look for solutions to my problems, that’s about it. But, it is very helpful and I definitely feel much better since starting therapy.