In 2008, I went to therapy. By then, I’d needed it for a long time. I had a terribly difficult, incurable condition — one I’d had for 28 years without treatment.
My condition? Being human.
Like many “normal” people, I felt I didn’t need therapy when I went. But my brother had just died unexpectedly at the age of 23. And on the morning of his funeral, I had a vision of myself in old age: still single, surrounded by cats. The neighbors murmured to one another, “She never got over the death of her brother.”
“All right, I’ll get therapy,” I thought. Just in case.
Nowadays, with mental health in the news — particularly following the horrific killing spree in Isla Vista, Calif., — I see plenty of advice aimed at those with common mental health problems like anxiety.
“There is no shame in getting help,” they say. And of course there isn’t. Getting help is a sign of strength, and as anyone who has gone through therapy will tell you that’s not just a clever saying.
But that meme still implies that the people who should undergo therapy are those with problems. Big problems.
Everyone should get therapy, if they have the means. And if they find a good therapist. Lousy therapists can do more harm than good.
Even with my cat-lady fears, I was still on the fence — until my friend recommended a therapist who specialized in bereavement. Her little brother died when she was about my age. I knew then I needed to meet this woman.
As it turned out, my cat-lady nightmare was unfounded. I dealt with my bereavement just fine.
I do still cry on my brother’s birthday every year. When I see pictures of his friends on Facebook, I feel it’s utterly unfair that he can’t grow up, get married, and have kids of his own. These are all normal feelings, I’ve learned.
But there was plenty I did have to deal with in therapy — stuff I never would have guessed.
It reminds me of the first time I got glasses. I was 18 and failing math. I had a severe headache every day. Then I got glasses. Suddenly, I realized that I had been struggling to view the world with blurry vision for years. In one magic moment, everything became clear. My math grade improved and my headaches did too.
Life seems normal when you’re in pain, until somebody helps you take the pain away. My therapist did that. And I never had a serious psychological condition like schizophrenia or a personality disorder. Not even a relatively common problem like anxiety or depression. No, I just had the normal stresses and pains of being human, like everyone else.
After the first few months in therapy, I felt like I’d been burdened with a huge, heavy backpack my entire life and finally thrown it off. I guess that’s why they call it “baggage.” My soul was lightened and unobstructed for the first time.
Everyone suffers unavoidable pains in their lives — losing loved ones, getting dumped, suffering disappointments — yet we suffer optional pain too. Pain we inflict upon ourselves, like fretting that an acquaintance hates us when she doesn’t, or fearing someone will discover that we’re imperfect and reject us for it.
Getting help isn’t just for people who wash their hands 400 times a day or have 27 cats. We’ve all got baggage because we’re all human. It’s a tragedy that going to therapy carries a stigma in our society, because it prevents many people from seeking the help they need in order to live to the fullest and become their best, happiest selves.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.