Published on July 25th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks
It’s Not Me, It’s You: Find a Therapist Who Fits
In the darker corners of my depression, having to look for Counselor Number Three gave me additional evidence that I was a failure.
From my current perspective, stronger and more healthy, I can look back and understand I met two more people, professionals, but limited as all humans are, who were not the best match for my personality and needs.
In the summer of 2010, our house had been on the market for two months with a realtor who disrespected me, but we were in a six-month contract and that was that. Because of newly diagnosed allergies, my children and I were restricted in our choice of foods, and I had to learn how to feed us all while they were a constant dripping-tap of complaining at the change.
There was more to the overwhelm I felt than those details, but those were the challenges I could see.
A friend frequently had an interesting tidbit or observation she’d gleaned from her time with her counselor, and many times she urged me to find a professional listener of my own. She felt I should nail down what was troubling me, because really, existentially, it couldn’t be a self-centered realtor, whiny kids, and giving up my favorite foods.
Apparently I wasn’t shallow enough for that.
Find A Therapist: Attempt One
At the end of summer I just picked a licensed Christian counselor and made an appointment.
Our time together was intriguing, especially at first.
It was fabulous talking as if all this intangible, esoteric stuff (feelings, memory, personality, instincts) was real. I’m not sure how much vocabulary she gave me, but I know she legitimized a great deal that I was unsure of, and that was a valuable service.
She suggested “dysthymia” as a diagnosis when I rejected “clinical depression,” and that was my introduction to the word. It was years before I understood how limiting the Google-able definitions of depression are.
Dysthymia is defined by length. Basically if you’ve been low-level miserable for two-plus years, you’ve got a label.
I was repulsed. I was not miserable. Just…off. And had been for nothing like two years.
Clinical depression didn’t really describe me either. That is, I read the row of symptoms, but it didn’t click for me. It was a disappointingly hazy, unempirical list that just seemed to describe the lame part of the human condition.
But the talk-part of counseling was fascinating. I loved conversing with a highly specialized individual. I also felt each time I left as though I had seen something new in myself. A knot I hadn’t understood before was picked a little looser, giving me a chance, a hope, that I could untie it.
I eventually quit visiting Counselor One because I did not feel safe with her.
I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I could not relax as I went into her office. I felt always on high-alert, like I had to be ready to defend or justify myself. That made it feel the same as anywhere else I went. And it seemed to me that here, of all places, I should be free of that feeling.
The most obvious example was when I noticed my version of stories and events was constantly questioned. This in itself, while inexplicably wearying, didn’t come across at first to me as wrong.
I understand one purpose of a counselor may be to challenge one’s view of reality (because our reactions will only be as effective as our perception), but in my increasingly fragile state, I needed my grasp on reality affirmed, not undermined.
There was a point I realized that her questions were the same ones I’d already pushed at myself and just as fiercely (in my diminishing moments of strength) pushed away as emotional undermining.
“You tell me you’ve just had a wonderful collection of women enter your world in the last year,” she reiterated in one session. “Women you can relate to and be real with, you feel understood by your peers for the first time in your life.”
“Yes!” I agreed, astonished gratitude rushing over me with the memories.
“Is it possible you’ve matured in the last year? What if you were the problem? After all, you were the constant in all those relationships.”
My recently hatched self-loathing reached for this tidbit but was quickly stomped by righteous indignation.
“You don’t know these women,” I said. “They really are gracious enough to take me the way I am when no one else would.”
At this moment I was already unable to defend myself—it’s something I felt I wasn’t allowed do (as a Good-Christian-Girl), so I made sure we weren’t arguing about me.
After three or four sessions, I stopped going. I felt guilty, but relieved, too. It felt a bit like being a grown-up: I got to choose who I spent time with.
But I didn’t get better.
Find A Therapist: Attempt Two
Two months later I was worse. Now I matched eight-out-of-ten on the Mayo Clinic’s Signs of Depression, and those descriptions felt like tenacious, vein-draining leeches instead of just “the lame part of the human condition.”
My husband was going away for a month for work, which meant my live-in listener was disappearing for a time. I sensed a fight for my self was coming on, and not knowing what else to look or ask for, I made an appointment with Counselor Two.
A man this time, and the change was a relief. His approach was very different than that of Counselor One.
Counselor Two introduced me to a number of concepts and vocabulary. For example, it was from him I first heard the idea that depression can be the body’s way of protecting itself from further depletion.
More ideas about self-care filtered through. Things like recognizing how young I was when a faulty idea took root and treating myself and my attachment to that faulty idea as I might a child of the same age.
Basic, intentional gentleness.
In the end, Counselor Two didn’t exactly do anything wrong, but he was a poor match in personality and methodology. He was content to sit and wait and let the process happen. That worked for me as a re-introduction to counseling and building a place of safety, but by the time my husband returned, I was impatient with the slowness. Now that I had a safe place, a foundation, I wanted to do the real stuff. Or at least try. I wanted to do.
In this sense, the natural intensity of my personality was not honored—by me or him. He said how important it is to rest and wait, and I believe that; but I also believe we were created to work, and even a toddler is encouraged to pick up her blocks.
At both times of ending a counseling relationship, it was something in me refusing to bow.
No. If I’m going to pay you, I expect you to trust my story. I know Story when I know nothing else.
No, I can’t just sit and wait. I may not be able to do everything, but don’t tell me there’s *nothing.*
I was better for a time after my husband returned home from his trip. I read voraciously, clarifying my story and applying what I learned, but in the Autumn, as Seasonal Affective Disorder climbed into the pack with my “basic” depression, I felt I needed something more or I’d drown.
Find A Therapist: Attempt Three
This would be my third counselor in 18 months, and there was no way my damaged mind wouldn’t interpret that as a personal defect.
But I tried again, and I am so thankful this one was a fit.
She thinks I’m smart, respects my opinion, and actually used something I said with another client and told me later about its success. She encouraged my efforts as I initiated them and made gentle suggestions about when to pull back.
Mostly she made a safe space and let me lead. Let it be about me, which, honestly, is my top reason for hiring a counselor.
Friendships are full of adaptation, give and take. I have good friends who give me good advice. The benefit of turning to a professional is that the polite reciprocity of friendship is taken out of the equation.
When I was at my lowest, I was least likely to ask my friends for help, because I had nothing to give, and I didn’t know when I would be able to give again. A counselor was the chance to focus unapologetically on myself and my issues in order to resolve them without having to take care of other people before I was strong enough.
You can find a therapist or counselor too
If you haven’t found the right counselor yet, I’ll urge you not to give up. There are real and useful reasons to see a professional counselor, even intermittently, and if you need to try two or three times (or more) before you find the fit you’re looking for, give yourself permission. We all meet individual variation, and if we’re not allowed that, we aren’t being allowed to be human.
To discuss this article or read some further thoughts, see Amy’s related blog post, Recommend A Counselor.