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I Had My First Therapy Session In Over Six Years—Here's How It Has Helped My Mental Health

'I learned that I am surrounded by people in my life who love and support me.'
PHOTO: COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ
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BRB, Taking A Break is a new Cosmo series that's all about hitting the pause button on whatever's stressing you out and taking the time to rest and reflect—two things we all need to do more of these days. 

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The first time I attended therapy was when I was 16 years old and in third year high school. The next, I was 21, a college senior. And the last time, I was 24 and new in the workforce. I'm not new to therapy because I've sought help from therapists in several points in my life and it was always to deal with my anxiety and suicidal ideations. I'd come and go as I pleased, and abruptly stop my sessions when I thought I was "healed" or when I didn't feel comfortable going deeper in our conversations. In short, I wasn't ready at all and only used therapy as a quick fix to make me feel better.

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How the pandemic affected my mental health

2020 was different. I turned 30 in the first few weeks of the pandemic and, just like everyone else in the world, felt helplessness, despair, and so much anger. At that point, I had already made steps to "fix" my life in the past few years—I had quit my vices (alcohol and cigarettes), I got out of a long-term relationship I was highly dependent on, I worked out regularly, kept a healthy diet, and was thriving in my career. I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I had healed—without doing the hard, inner work of facing my traumas. But then, COVID-19 happened. Being stuck indoors with family members who I didn't have the best relationship with made me feel a sense of doom. I was literally stuck and there seemed no way out. So, everything that I had refused to acknowledge—from my childhood to my adulthood—came crashing down on me like a flash flood. I was suffocating in emotions, thoughts, and traumas I convinced myself I was healed from.

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But I didn't get help just yet! In true Cindy fashion, I repressed them so much and found pockets of escapism in work, media, and friends. It obviously didn't last because I found myself having bouts of anger and becoming violent with the smallest of triggers. It became apparent though that I needed professional help when I was hit by a series of anxiety attacks in mid-December 2020. The last time I experienced this was when I was 24, so I knew it was serious. The biggest difference though was that this time around, I knew I was ready.

I'm lucky to have a mom who's not only in the medical field but is wholly supportive of me getting mental health treatment. My mom was the person I turned to when I decided to see a therapist again. She still kept the phone number of the clinic I last went to and just took the chance and called them to see if they were operating in the pandemic. As fate had it, they were, and even better, my old doctor was still practicing with them. It was fairly easy to book an appointment because things fell into place without any bumps. The only drawback was that I had to wait a few weeks until I got to book my slot. So in the last week of January 2021, I had my first therapy session in over six years.

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In-person therapy vs online therapy

I remember always being so antsy before my in-person therapy sessions. From having to wake up early (I always got Saturday morning sessions), to choosing what to wear, to the long drive to the clinic (or what felt like a long drive), to anxiously waiting for my turn in the clinic—there was an overstimulation of external energies and situations that already left me so depleted even before my session started. That's why I am so, so grateful for Zoom therapy! I still take Saturday morning sessions—9 a.m. to be exact—but now I have the time to chill out before we start. By the time 9 a.m. rolls in, I've already had my toast and coffee and my mind is relaxed (no bath for me yet though, LOL). I noticed I'm much more vulnerable and open now online because I feel more safe being in my own home, an environment that is my own. Also, there is no "walk of shame" from my therapist's office to the waiting room where a bunch of other people could see my puffy eyes. Haha! Nowadays, I can just cry it out in the comforts of my own room and no one would have to see how I looked.

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I noticed I'm much more vulnerable and open now online because I feel more safe being in my own home, an environment that is my own. 

But what I do miss from in-person sessions is the human interaction that Zoom therapy can never give me. It may be as small as my therapist leaning forward to hand me tissues, or the wave she does when I stand up to leave. Although I know I am talking to a living, breathing person across the screen, it sometimes feels as if an avatar has taken over my therapist. I guess it's something that the pandemic really has taken away from all of us: the human connection.

What I've learned from my therapy sessions

So far, I've gone to four to five sessions because my therapist and I decided to have our appointments every other week. Since I've already gone through therapy several times in my life, she has faith that I am equipped with the "tools" to take care of my mental health especially when I experience an anxiety attack.

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Just for context, my anxiety feels like a dark cloud overhead that gradually descends on my mind. And before I know, it’s consumed me. My heart races, my pace quickens, I shake, I cry. Negative thoughts play over and over and over my mind. But through the years of dealing with this and having learned some coping mechanisms, I treat anxiety like an old friend I've known since I was a child, and even named it "The Fog." The Fog has been with me throughout my life—on my dreaded first days of school, going to parties of people I didn't know, opening nights of my school plays, and now, every Sunday night before I start a new work week.

Since my mental health is not at its best right now (tbh, I just went through several attacks this week), the first lesson my therapist taught me was the "grounding technique." So when I am going through an anxiety attack, I have to focus on my senses—What do I see right now? What do I hear? What do I smell, feel, taste, and touch?—just to ground me in reality. Another thing I've been working on are affirmations. As someone whose love language is through words and who works with words, being an editor and all, it’s ironic that I have long struggled with telling myself words of kindness and love. One of my earliest assignments in therapy was to write a love letter to my eight-year-old self, and I must say, it cost me many sleepless nights and a few tears just to tell myself that I do love myself.

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brb taking a break: therapy, self-love letter
COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ

Another assignment was to make art again. When I was a kid, I lived and breathed for the arts and crafts, but I lost the love for it as I grew older. Since I need to work on being more playful and less rigid (aka having to control every aspect of my life), I let my mind flow by painting whatever comes to mind. I was so anxious to start this homework because I haven't held a brush in probably a decade. But it was so freeing to do so and it's become one of my favorite hobbies now.

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brb taking a break: therapy, painting
COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ

My job in digital publishing is fast-paced and incredibly stressful, and finding a balance with ~analog~ activities is what's suggested for me to do on my downtime. I've taken it upon myself to exercise every morning before work (if not, I get brain fog which messes up with how I work the rest of the day), and read an actual book (that's not on my phone or laptop). I even started cleaning on weekends (if you know me, this is something I used to never do myself, haha).

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brb taking a break: therapy, workout
COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ

But what I really learned the most from going back to therapy in 2021 was that I am surrounded by people in my life who love and support me. Apart from my mom, the friends I turned to when I was at my low points really stuck by me and I was surprised that they treated me the same way. I really feared that once I opened up about my mental health issues, they would think differently of me. But it only reassured me that the people who I have in my life—few but essential—are the ones who only want the best for me.

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I am surrounded by people in my life who love and support me.

One really touching moment was when Retty, my work bestie, took me out for lunch and coffee after my one-week mental health leave from work. We barely talked about my anxiety that afternoon, but I appreciated the fact that she approached me like she normally would—with humor and sass.

brb taking a break: therapy, work besties cindy and retty hanging out
COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ
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How much I've spent on therapy

My initial consultation fee cost me P2,800. I had to fill out several forms prior to my first sessions for them to assess me. Each succeeding one-hour session cost me P2,300. So far, I have spent P12,000 on my therapy.

On getting mental health treatment

I know therapy is not cheap by any means but if you have the resources to do so, there really is nothing for you to lose. Mental health treatment should be normalized like any physical ailment. My mom always tells me this when I feel insecure about having a therapist ('cause I still do have my low points): "When you have a heart problem, you go to a cardiologist. When you have a lung problem, you go to a pulmonologist. What makes it any different for you to seek a mental health professional when you need help with that?"

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brb taking a break: therapy, mother and daughter (joyce and cindy)
COURTESY OF CINDY LOPEZ

Also, know that progress is not linear. You may seem like you’re doing well for a few weeks then suddenly, you hit a bump in the road. That's okay 'cause life is full of highs and lows. Your therapist doesn't seem like the best fit for you? It's okay to look for a new one. It doesn't make you a failure. Mental health treatment is not a one-size-fits-all thing and differs from person to person. Your journey is uniquely yours.

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