Can we stop acting like therapy is easy?

Sometimes I wondered if my counselor was made of marble. Her poker face – cold, impassive, like the beady eyes of a goldfish – just never broke. It seemed like I could strip naked in front of her and get nothing but a cough.

But when I had my breakdown in front of her, crumbling under pressure I couldn’t articulate, her armor cracked. Months of unexpressed trauma came bubbling forth, through hot tears and dripping snot – but instead of the gentle understanding I longed for, I saw a look of panic in her eyes, a frenzy in her speech. 

She wasn’t in control of the situation, I couldn’t talk through the frog in my throat, and she didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t think I can help you anymore,” she said.

I’d always held out hope I’d reach some miraculous breakthrough, as though a revelation would strike down from the sky as light streamed through the clouds. But sitting there on the squat couch across from her, my face flushed in shame, I’d never felt more alone.

For people dealing with mental illnesses, therapy suggestions beat like an ever-present pulse – but when it comes to the practical realities of visiting a therapist, the conversation tends to go mute. We need to have a more honest, open cultural conversation around mental illness, even if the truth can be discouraging.

Therapy just isn’t easy as it’s made out to be. And oversimplifying the conversation by not acknowledging that fact, while comforting in the short term, is setting people up for failure and disappointment.

A therapist is not your friend – and that’s by design. To underwrite them as a friendly Mr. Rogers-type figure is undermining the complicated line they have to walk. Their job is to point out the illogical, harmful, and counter-intuitive thought patterns that perpetuated your mental illness in the first place, and sometimes, the truth stings. 

It’s incredibly uncomfortable to look your demons in the face, to realize you could be making your own problems worse for yourself, or to be told point blank that your hygiene has deteriorated in the past month.

And it’s not a revolving door. You don’t just walk out after a set number of appointments feeling better about yourself. There’s rarely one solitary epiphany – improving your mental health is a long, bumpy road, and you have to be prepared for detours on the way. 

Don’t treat therapy as a simple solution. It’s anything but.

That’s not to mention the fact that not every therapist works for you – and vice-versa. It’s not unheard of for a therapist to refer a client to someone more equipped to deal with your circumstances, or perhaps someone the client may simply better connect with.

Therapy is a relationship, and sometimes, they just don’t pan out. Frequently, you have to shop around.

My counselor wasn’t a bad person for referring me to other therapists, and I assume she was perfectly qualified. But when therapy is treated as the be-all, end-all to recovery, rather than an evolving, often messy process, it’s hard not to feel like a bump in the road means game over.

Therapy is not a promise of salvation. It’s not guaranteed to work the first time, the second, the third, or any, for the matter.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to a therapist when you’re in need. It means we need to be more compassionate and understanding about the realities of recovery, and give clients and counselors the credit they deserve for the challenging process they overcome.

Therapy isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always work – but don’t let that discourage you. Acknowledge to yourself, your friends, and your family that this is going to be a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable journey.

The rewards are worth it.

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