I Am Fine, Really: Breaking The Stigma Around Getting Help
I saw my first therapist at age 17 after my parents and I made a deal: They wouldn’t press me to confront my rapist in an open courtroom if I agreed to go talk to a professional about what I had experienced. I wasn’t thrilled, but the alternative felt far more terrifying, so I went. Every week, I would drive the powder blue 87′ Chevy Caviler my grandma passed down to me to downtown Glendora where I would spend approximately 55 minutes talking to a kind, no nonsense, middle aged woman named Grace.
Grace’s office was everything you expect a therapist’s space to look like. Credentials and modest paintings covered the walls and she sat in a large computer chair across from the patterned couch where I planted myself week after week. The coffee table always had a box of tissues within arms reach, and often times she would bring paper and a pen over to illustrate a point or help me visualize a practice.
In a lot of ways, Grace saved my life. She never coddled me, yet I always felt safe, and heard, and validated. Still, I dreaded walking into her office every Tuesday and would frequently try and find a way out of it. As a senior in high school, therapy wasn’t something that any of my peers were doing after school like I was—and if they were, they certainly weren’t talking about it. Admitting that I was the only high schooler I knew who outwardly wasn’t okay, or rather, wasn’t okay enough to actually need therapy, was hard.
Everybody else seemed to be able to handle their shit on their own, so what in the hell was wrong with me? I started to justify it by reminding myself that I “fit the bill” of a therapy patient. After all, I had been raped—a trauma worthy of $125 sessions with a licensed professional, right? But as I continued to see Grace, I noticed that we were talking about far more than my obvious traumatic experience.
Grace helped me open up about my insecurities as a young women. She nudged me to dig deep into my abandonment issues and listened as I worked through the effects my biological father leaving had on me. She counseled me through big life choices like what I should do after graduating, and even opened my eyes to the friendships I had in my life that were good and the ones that were toxic. She helped me uncover my body dysmorphia and gave me tools to combat it. Week after week, session after session, it was Grace—a woman completely on the outside of my life, who I let the deepest and furthest into my world.
Eventually, I graduated from therapy. I felt confident enough to go out into the world on my own again because I now had insight and tools that previously had not been in my possession. My sessions with Grace ended twelve years ago and now, at 31 years of age, I find myself back in a room like hers—walls graced with credentials and modest paintings and a warm brown couch where I plant myself week after week. There is always a box of tissues within arms reach and my therapist, Nan, sits across from me in a chocolate colored barrel chair.
Trauma brought me into her office, just as it did with Grace all those years ago—only, this time, I am not embarrassed or ashamed of my visits. It would be easy to dismiss my case as “extreme”—to consider my circumstances the type that “warrant” therapy—but the truth is that I find myself, once again, talking about so much more than the traumatic life event that led me through the door.
Our society has such strained views on people who seek out therapy. There are underlying themes associated with patients such as “weak”, “crazy”, and “unstable”. We expect others, and especially ourselves, to merely deal with life’s greatest challenges on our own. In fact, we go as far as to praise one another when we do.
“You’re so strong!”
“You’ve got this!”
“You can do hard things!”
“If anyone can handle this, it’s you!”
While well-meaning, this concept that we must be the heroes of our own stories by tackling adversity to the ground has created a society of people afraid to reach for a helping hand. And so, we all just shoulder around in the deep muddy swamp, refusing the long sticks and chains of linked hands willing and waiting to pull us out. We think, “I’ve got this! I’m strong! I can do hard things! If anyone can handle this, it’s me!” as the slimy caked dirt rises to our heads, because we would rather sink with pride than admit our human limitations and need for support.
I’ve been in the swamp. I’ve felt its heavy, dough-like consistency consume my limbs and tighten its grip with each step. I’ve lost shoes and bits of my soul in its thick, slick, unforgiving force. Think of the insanity of it all:
There you are, in this treacherous swamp—elbow deep in a sludge that has every intention of consuming you whole. Off in the distance, you see a group of people gathered together in community. They are close enough to call out for. They could save you, but you feel too embarrassed to holler. Heaven forbid someone see you like this—helpless in the mud. So you continue to sink. By now, the swamp has met your shoulders, when someone spots you.
“My God! Do you need help? Let me help you! Everyone, come help!”
But you are strong. You’ve got this. You can do hard things. If anyone can handle this, it’s you.
And so you reply, “I’m fine, really!”
This person is no fool. They see you sinking, the mud now rising to your chin. But you reassure them, repeating your words until they have no choice it seems, but to believe you.
“Please, let me help. I’m right over there if you change your mind!” they say, as they continue on at your request.
And so, you sink. Deep into the core of the swamp. But at least you drowned with your pride, right?
Why do we live this way? Sinking. Drowning in our own pride. Afraid to be human. What do we gain when we refuse to lean on our resources? Who are we serving when we lie to ourselves?
We enlist bakers for our celebration cakes, plumbers for our water leaks, contractors for our buildings, and doctors for our medical concerns. We hire tutors for our children’s math homework, accountants for our taxes, authors for the best self-help tips to improve our lives, and personal trainers for our fitness goals. So why is procuring a therapist to help us work through life’s traumas, stresses, annoyances, and so forth such a big freaking deal? Why is that where we choose to draw the line?
Our brain is the central hub of our entire body. It’s the big chief bossing around our organs, our blood, our nerves, our limbs. It sends signals and blocks signals and chooses between the red blouse or the pink polka-dotted one. It warns the rest of our body when danger is near, makes our heart beat faster when we are excited, and calls in the night crew when it’s time to shut our eyes (It tells those bad boys to close, too). Looking at it like that, doesn’t it seem absolutely vital to spend ample time making sure our brains are always feeling their best?
I firmly believe that therapy and mental wellness checkups should be as normal and accessible as a visit to your local doctor. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We live in a world where therapy is a luxury. So many do not have access to affordable care or care at all for that matter. According to Mental Health America, over 44 million American adults have a mental health condition, and yet, over 56% do not receive treatment.
This is startling and also, another reason why we must break the stigma around mental health treatments. Many see the phrase “mental health conditions” and immediately think of things like bipolar disorder, PSTD, clinical depression, and so forth. However, many of the “I’m fine, really” folks find themselves silently struggling with more talked about but less dealt with conditions such as chronic stress, social anxiety, postpartum depression/anixety, ocd, etc.
Our society praises the overworked, overwhelmed, overcommitted person. I would go as far as to say that “busy” and “stressed” are worn like a badge of honor these days. And so, we sink. We drown in our pride. Afraid to take off those badges and be human. Afraid to admit that sometimes it all gets a little too much and maybe it’s always been a little too much.
Afraid to seek help. To grab for the stick, or the hand, or the link of arms ready and willing to pull us from the thick, unmerciful swamp.
If you’re in the mud, I want to encourage you to reach. You can descend in the sludge slowly, but eventually, it will consume you. It will snuff out your light, your air, and your joy. Or, you can reach. You can call out and say, “No! I am not fine, really. I need help. Please help.” You can grip the stick, the hand, the arms and heave with all your might.
And when you’re out—there will be a warm bath, clean clothes, a soft blanket, and one hell of a story to tell. Your story. The story of you, and the mud, and the strength you showed when you asked for help and received help and fought your way out.
**Here is a great resource from NBC with options for how to access treatment if you cannot afford it.
And here is a list of companies whose missions are to provide affordable therapy treatment for everyone.
Throughout the Country:
Open Path – Open Path offers in-office visits with their therapists for $30-$50 a session (or between $30-$80 for couple and/or family sessions)
Good Therapy – Good Therapy offers a large database for therapists, providing their rates along with a bio of the therapist.
For SoCal residents: Here are a list of resources on affordable care options
WILA – Their fees operate on a sliding scale in order to provide low-cost care for diverse communities of Los Angeles.
Southern California Counseling Center – SCCC believes that everyone should have access to care and charges based on your ability to pay.