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Why Seeking Therapy Was The Best Thing I Did For Myself

'I felt vindicated because I hadn't been imagining my pain all that time; my pain was real, even though it wasn't a physical, tangible pain.'
PHOTO: istockphoto

I didn’t want to admit it to anyone then, but I had a feeling I was depressed.

I had been trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship for three years, during which I could no longer remember what it was like to not be unhappy. When the relationship finally blew up in my face, I was devastated, but on some level, I was also relieved. I no longer had to stare sadness in the face each day.

After the breakup, I did the one thing I had always considered since my relationship troubles started, but never had the courage to do: I decided to see a psychiatrist.

The relationship was over, but the questions continued to swirl in my head: What was wrong with me? Why had I stayed with someone for so long, even when it was clear he didn’t love me in any healthy manner? And more importantly, how could I make sure it never happened to me again?

Of course, I was aware of the stigma that surrounds mental health, that’s why I didn’t see a specialist earlier. When someone says they’re seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist, people automatically assume that they’re “crazy,” “may topak,” and pretty much doomed to a miserable existence—and let’s not even get started on how casually uttered yet grossly misunderstood terms like “depression” and “bipolar” are. I myself used to be guilty of making quick assumptions about people who were seeking mental health treatment, so I was afraid of being on the receiving end of the same judgments.

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But I was tired of being sad. I was tired of feeling like I had been in a bad mood for as long as I could remember. I vaguely recalled being much happier before my relationship problems started, but the longer I went just putting up with my sadness, the more the memories of a happier me faded. I was sick of my sadness, and I was sick of myself.

So I asked a trusted doctor friend for recommendations, scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist, and soon found myself inside the psychiatrist’s clinic for my initial evaluation.

By way of opening, I told my psychiatrist—let’s call her Dr. D.—that I was there because of a relationship concern, and that I was afraid it was too shallow for her. I feared that, if most of her patients had serious mental health issues, she would think my romantic problems were trivial, and that I should just grow up and get over them. Dr. D just laughed and said that all concerns were valid. I began to feel more at ease.

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Dr. D asked me what had brought me to her, and I told her that I had recently gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship and I wanted to know if there was anything wrong with me for putting up with such terrible treatment.

Then Dr. D prompted me to start sharing, so I did.

At first, I was hesitant. This was a complete stranger, and she expected me to just come right out and share things, like I could trust her. But once I got into it, the stories began tumbling out of my mouth so fast, I could barely keep them in a nice, chronological, easy-to-digest order. I told her about my ex-boyfriend’s constant abuse: the lies, the threats, the blaming, the name-calling, the manipulation, the violence. I told her about the toll the relationship had taken on me: the sleeplessness, the weight loss, the endless crying, the lack of energy, the feeling that I was just present in day-to-day life, but not really living. Things had gotten better for me since the relationship ended, but the symptoms of my sorrow were still painfully fresh in my mind.

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After listening to me describe my ordeal, Dr. D told me that it sounded like I had, indeed, been clinically depressed.

Upon hearing that, instead of feeling shameful, I was surprised to feel something else: I felt vindicated.

I felt vindicated because I hadn’t been imagining my pain all that time; my pain was real, even though it wasn’t a physical, tangible pain. I felt vindicated because, now that I knew that this pain was real, I knew I made the right choice to remedy it by seeking professional help.

As our initial evaluation came to a close, Dr. D told me we would be doing psychotherapy—or “talk therapy,” the kind you see in Hollywood movies where the patient sits on a couch while a shrink scribbles down notes—and dig into my life until we could figure out what the root of my relationship problems was. Then she scheduled me for my next appointment. There was no turning back.

When my follow-up appointment came, Dr. D started the session off by saying that we would look into my childhood and my relationship with my parents for insights into the kind of relationships I ended up having. I was a little confused—shouldn’t we be looking at my relationships for insights into the kind of relationships I ended up having? But Dr. D brought up an interesting observation she got from my initial session: I had not cried at all when I talked about my ex, but when I mentioned my parents’ tumultuous marriage, I burst into tears.

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Maybe there was something there. So I began to tell her about my relationship with my parents growing up, struggling to remember details I had forgotten through the years. And boy, did we hit a goldmine.

Over the course of three sessions, Dr. D got me to face truths about my childhood that I had never even admitted to myself, let alone shared with anyone else: that I was starved for my parents’ affection, that I felt unappreciated in my own family, that I didn’t feel loved for the way I was. The lack of love I felt in my home life led me to find love in the context of a relationship, and the relationships I did get into I struggled to sustain even when something was clearly wrong. Dr. D never put these words in my mouth, but she probed and prodded so I could dig deeper into my past and unearth the unconsciously-held reasons for my current romantic failures.

Each session with Dr. D left me a little shell-shocked from everything I learned, but also more determined to change my ways. I saw psychotherapy’s immediate effects in the way I no longer blamed myself for my estranged parents’ lack of affection for me, in the way I began to put my own goals before my family’s or any man’s, in the way I strived to be a person I could be proud of because the only person whose approval mattered was me.

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On my fourth session, Dr. D told me that her work with me was done. She told me I had already answered my own questions; all she did was facilitate in my search for answers. I wasn’t ready to stop seeing her and was afraid of relapsing into old relationship habits, and I told her so. She laughed and said that I could always come back if I felt the need to. But with all the positive changes I had gone through by then, I knew I wouldn’t let myself come back anytime soon.

My time with Dr. D has turned me into a supporter of mental health. Whenever I talk to friends who are troubled, I tell them about how I sought professional help and how I walked away knowing and loving myself better.

When dark times get to be too much, we could all use a Dr. D—someone who will listen without judgment, but will nudge you in the right direction so you’ll be able to solve your issues on your own.

Since my brief psychotherapy ended, I have never felt happier. I’m still single, but now I’m aware of the things that have held me back in my happiness, romantic or otherwise, and I can consciously avoid them from here on out.

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In fact, I’m so happy, I don’t even want to be in a relationship right now. It’s been a hard-won reward, this boundless self-love I’m basking in now, and I think I’ll savor it on my own a little while longer.