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Stepping Stones in Self-Growth

Since November of last year I have really began to grasp the severity and importance of mental health problems. I slowly became more comfortable discussing the stigmatized subject. With the help of a semi-traumatic event last November (and I’m not certain I’m dramatizing that either), I was pushed into advocating for mental health to be taken seriously. It started out on my college campus where the campus administrators to this day don’t take their students’ mental health seriously. I’m sure it’s not just the students suffering, too. Deficits on campus drag those employed on campus into fearing for their career’s future. I moved on from advocating for my fellow students to advocating for myself. With the gentle push of a professor, I learned how talking about my own mental health and my experiences can not only help myself, but also help others.

It was the biggest, most proudest moment in my life. It helped lead me on a path I’m comfortable with instead of feeling like an impostor in the direction my life was going.

I’ve learned a lot about myself in such a short time.

One of the most important events in the last few years that helped me learn was switching to my current therapist. Growing up, I was under the assumption that seeing a therapist meant you were crazy…something was wrong with you. It was looked down upon. My brother saw one for a short time, and our experiences with his brief period in therapy wasn’t helpful. It only helped prove to us how bad therapy can be. However, it’s thoughts and assumptions like these that cause more harm than good when it keeps people needing therapy from choosing that option. It can lead to unhealthy options, and I know it was deteriorating my mental health by not seeing one.

Discovering my current therapist has been so helpful in learning how therapy is truly supposed to be. I started therapy right after my mother died, which will be seven years ago the day before Thanksgiving. I have always suffered with anxiety and depression, so the grief simply exacerbated my problems. My current mentor, who was my English professor at the time, suggested I seek therapy on campus. Seven years and three therapists later, I found someone I clicked with. I think that’s one of the most important things about therapy…you must click with your therapist. You must feel comfortable opening up about anything, and you must be ok to be vulnerable in front of them. I had bad experiences before getting to my current therapist and after she left campus. I had a therapist who would fall asleep on me each week, and I had a therapist who was an extremely wonderful person, but she inadvertently informed me how to commit suicide. As someone who is prone to suicidal thoughts, it was not good for me to learn that information. Now, I don’t keep Tylenol in the house.

Clicking with your therapist can make amazing things happen. When I was switched over to my current therapist, I was struggling with the memories of a rape I had repressed for almost ten years. When the memories came rushing back, I couldn’t function. I was a mess. If you’ve ever worked trauma work in therapy, you know how difficult it is to share intimate, embarrassing details to someone else. It takes trust to open up to someone like that, and it takes trust to be completely honest.

When you develop a trusting relationship with your therapist, amazing things can happen. I worked through the trauma work. I accepted that something bad happened to me and that wasn’t my fault. Furthermore, we worked through coping skills I use frequently now. I learned that some of the coping skills I brought to the table as a child that stayed with me into adulthood wasn’t all that bad. I opened up about stuff I kept in neat, heavily-locked boxes that I never wanted to share with anyone despite the need to.

It’s a fantastic road to go down. I’m in a completely different place now than I was when I first began seeing her. And she’s never fallen asleep on me!

Before beginning therapy, I just imagined someone sitting in front of me, writing down everything I said. I pictured someone emotionless, quiet, and judging. Starting with my therapist, I quickly learned how wrong I was. I know each therapist is different. However, mine is perfect. She’s empathetic and she’s right on the mark when she sums up what I failed to actually say clearly. I can cry in front of her and she encourages it. Granted, I hold a lot of it in because I’m a blubbering mess when I really let it out. She knows when to press things and when not to. She’s not afraid to say the hard things to me while being absolutely gentle.

I hear how reluctant people are about starting this therapeutic journey, especially on campus. People were always surprised I went to therapy. Even today, my co-workers are sometimes surprised that I see a therapist. Despite the fact you shouldn’t become attached to therapy and your therapist, where I’m at right now in life therapy is detrimental to my well-being. Sure, I can take care of myself. However, it’s detrimental for me to have someone in my life who is non-judgmental, helpful, supportive, and is completely willing to let me say whatever is on my mind. People hold onto the negative assumptions, and I always work to encourage people to give it a try. When one therapist doesn’t work, work with a new one.

However, I know a major drawback these days to seeking therapy is not only the stigma associated with mental health, but the financial costs that go along with it. Had I not been able to meet with my current therapist, I would be paying a co-payment of $35 per therapy session with another therapist. That doesn’t include what I have to pay to reach my deductible. I would easily be paying over $100 for for sessions per month with health insurance! I know several people who want to utilize therapy, but they’re not covered with an insurance company. And when some are, their coverage doesn’t include mental health. And people wonder why mental health is such a problem! It’s expensive to seek help, and that’s just to talk to someone! Include the price of medications, if you need it, and seeing a psychiatrist to prescribe them…it’s nearly impossible for low-income people and/or those not covered properly.

I got lucky when I attended a college who offered free mental health services to their students. By utilizing those services, it was the first major step to personal growth.

It’s important to learn about yourself and be critically aware. I had to learn what coping skills worked best for me. Deep breathing is great, but sometimes it simply draws out the crying when I’m trying not to cry. Mindfulness is another great coping skill I learned through my therapist. It takes practice, but it helps put yourself in the moment when you need to. Getting lost in your thoughts are ok, but it doesn’t do you well to literally lose yourself in them. I learned how valuable writing is for me. I learned writing helps get everything off of my chest. I started using it as a coping skill during our trauma work, and I continue to use it every day. Hey, I’m using it now! I’ve found blogging is very, very helpful.

Even art has found an important role in my life. I compare it to writing. If something or someone is on my mind, I draw it out. Whatever it is, I draw it out. For me, putting it down on paper in any way gets it out of my head. It’s great on several levels…it’s therapeutic and I’m practicing my art.

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I’m amazed with myself with how I’ve grown in the last seven years. I’ve become a completely different person. I’m becoming more confident with myself. I’m learning where I truly want to go in life. I’ve learned how much I rely on my support group to get me through the tough times.

If you’ve read my last blog, you know I just finished reading Brené Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It’s Not). My therapist recommended her work to me months ago, and her work has truly changed my life. Her book The Gifts of Imperfection taught me it’s ok to feel vulnerable. The book I just finished taught me more about shame than I thought possible. It opened the floodgates on several things I never expected. I never expected to find so many shame triggers in my life. Now that I’m aware of them, I can work on them.

One thing that I took out of this book is how important it is to find someone who share your beliefs. Whether it’s your therapist, doctor, or friend, finding someone who shares your beliefs are incredibly important. It can be something as simple as having someone who is a part of the same community as you, such as another member of the LGBTQ community. Something like sexuality opens up a door for both of you. You can discuss with them things that they would easily understand because they’ve had similar experiences. I have a close friend I discuss mental health issues with because she gets it. I know I can bring anything to her and she wouldn’t judge me; she will empathize with me, and offer whatever I need in return. And it goes both ways…we share with each other.

I also caught onto why I prefer certain people over others for certain things. I like my therapist so much because she doesn’t act like a robot…she’s a human being. You always see therapists being uptight, judgmental, and quiet when you see them on television. My therapist reacts to what I say, and she’s not afraid to share her own experiences to help empathize with what I’m going through. I find I am more willing to go to certain professors with certain issues because they understand usually because of personal experience.

I think it’s extremely important to find people that you connect to like this. I went nearly my entire life up to recent years without this. Growing up, my two best friends couldn’t understand what was going on. They wouldn’t have understood why my parents fought, why I behaved certain ways, or how much being low-income affected me. Now that we’re adults, my best friend and I can open up more about things like that. At one time, I opened up to him about something I’ve only shared with my therapist. As an adult, I feel like I was deprived of meaningful relationships growing up. I’m beginning to realize how strained my relationship with my mother was.

The deprivation I feel is why I rely so much on my support network now. I’ve surrounded myself with people I trust. I can rely weekly on my therapist. I can rely on two of my friends, one more than the other. After writing out what Brené Brown called my shame web, I learned I had someone in both my shame web and my support network. I really, really recommend her books. They can shine lights on parts of yourself you didn’t know existed!

Learning more about yourself doesn’t take away all of your problems. I still suffer from severe depression and anxiety. There are days where I can progress five steps forward, and I’m so proud of those moments. Then, there are days where I am forced to go back three steps. It’s incredibly frustrating, but I’m learning to be patient with myself. Just knowing I have these kind of good and bad days help me become more aware of myself. I still need therapy to help me work some of the tough stuff out. I still need my support group to help pick me up during the week. I still rely on my coping skills to help when it’s just me. Being critically aware just allows me to know where I need to improve, when I need to be patient and use self-care, and when I can safely put things aside to focus on more important things.

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