by Elana Duffy
When a friend suggested I seek mental health treatment for my post-military anger I begrudged the concept, the therapists, and even the friend who made the recommendation. Like many people, I thought of therapy only for when something is really “abnormal” or “wrong”, or at least feeling “bad enough” to need professional help. I didn’t see self-isolation, lack of sleep, or general frustration with humanity as problems. They were pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, I thought. Therapy hinted at labels, drugs, and talking about feelings a little too often for what I saw as an uncertain return.
I went anyway–to prove my point of not needing it, of course. Roughly four years later, I’m still going to weekly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – a logic-focused treatment that involves remarkably little feelings chatter. It turns out therapy isn’t only for extreme situations, nor will it turn you into a drugged-out husk, and it may create unexpected but tangible benefits. Just a few examples, from personal experience and as shared from fellow therapy-seekers, of the returns:
- Getting to the gym during rush hour even though the F train keeps. Stopping. Under. The. Stupid. East. River. Why is rush hour – when people are packed in so tight you feel the need to empty the change from your pocket to get a few millimeters of personal space – the only time the train gets stuck in this same spot, no one knows. What is known is before therapy, the chaos, and closeness, and agitated energy was too much to handle. With treatment, you no longer have to rearrange schedules or shell out for a cab to get to a workout without panic.
- Marching in the largest pride parade in the world to support loved ones while in a sea of strangers. You never thought your level of alertness would allow you to spend an afternoon with thousands of partying new best friends, but here you are. Still feeling nervous? Sure, but just a year ago you wouldn’t even set foot out the door to go watch an event this size.
- Eating cake at your best friend’s wedding across the country despite years of crippling fear of flying. Some types of therapy address specific issues, fears, or traumas with a specific goal in mind. Sometimes that goal is to watch a friend get hitched after they moped, “I’d understand if you can’t make it.” Good therapy lets you taste that oddly-flavored wedding cake, and you’re making plans to come back and visit.
- Gaining “mastery of the professional poker face” even when smirked at and summarily dismissed in a professional or public setting. All you want during this hour-long exercise in self-control is to punch that guy’s smug, greased hair, former infantry, Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho face until he realizes women deserve the same amount of respect as the puffed-up guy he’s rambling on to impress. But you don’t even cut him down using snide comments and condescending inferences, instead flashing a professional smile and handshake. It works: resisting the old urge to take a “he-bro” down a few pegs shows a level of professionalism that earns you praise (and additional follow-up requests).
In actuality, treatment isn’t just for the person who “needs” therapy – which is a good thing when there are so many of us who get help from these day-to-day wins. In fact, there are multiple methodologies for maintaining good mental health among different people. You might prefer psychoanalysis, the old “is this all unconsciously related to when I was 3 and peed myself at daycare” method; or humanistic approaches, where you talk things out to make better decisions; or cognitive therapies, including CBT, to address how your thinking affects behavior. What works for your buddy might not work for you, but what’s normal is what gets you to a goal.
So don’t wait to look for a bigger problem, until you feel you “need” mental health care. The reality is most people receive treatment to address seemingly vague things – like stress or worry or temper – and see every day improve. That packed F train is still going to stall two minutes short of your stop with just a fan going in the dead of summer, but you deserve to just roll your eyes and maybe rage tweet the MTA (Metropolitan Transport Authority) instead of feeling such a sense of dread you avoid the ride altogether. Get to the gym, go to the wedding, do whatever you’d like to do… that’s normal.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on July 8, 2019.