Published on July 5th, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks

Why I Need Therapy: What Mental Health Help Is For

I used to do a lot of canning; mostly meat, beans, soups, and stews. With all my food sensitivities, there was no longer anything like fast food in my life, and this was my attempt to build a buffer.

Invariably I would start a project bigger than I could complete in one day, shuffle the crowded fridge to keep things food-safe overnight, and finish canning the next day.

Unfortunately, about a third of the jars would crack during the canning process. When I pulled them out of the hot water, the glass bottoms would fall away with all my hard work and all my patience.

I called the local canning guru, changed my technique according to what she suggested, and tried “one last time.”

As I removed the heavy lid of the pressure canner from the second batch, my middle daughter bounced through the kitchen and asked if any broke this time. I told her I’d learned what made them break and now could carefully avoid it.

“What made them break?” she asked.

“Temperature stress,” I began, and then translated it down to six-year-old level. “When the inside temperature is too different from the outside, the weaker glass isn’t strong enough to handle the difference; it breaks.”

And I froze.


That was a good explanation for my some of my depression.

My inside was nothing like my environment, and I had cracked.

It was a complex depression, mixed up with exhaustion and grief along with the sense of being out of place in my own world. One big need I had was for a translator. This is one of the roles I saw my counselor fill. I needed an objective person, outside of my immediate world, who could look at me and tell me I was a coherent whole.

I did not hear that anywhere else in my world.

My environment—a home with three children, a church with a strong family focus—required certain things, among them organization, efficiency, and attention to detail. Since I lacked all of these, I had to work much harder to meet common goals, and I had less of a buffer to allow activities that could recharge me to continue meeting these goals.

The contradictions between my internal and external worlds highlighted the weakness of the glass jar that is me.

One of the unspoken fears of many depressed people is the question of whether we’re going crazy. Crazy can be defined in a lot of ways, but basically we’re afraid that everything we know isn’t true. That what we know isn’t real. In my case, I heard (even saw) how “perfect” my life was. And here I mean perfect in the nothing-to-complain-about sense. Everything that made my life hard was just normal human stuff: babies who don’t sleep at your convenience, a husband who doesn’t get along with the dog, a house that won’t stay clean.

Normal stuff anyone might have to deal with, so clearly it didn’t count as significant.

The fact that I wasn’t content or at peace (especially as a Christian—because discontent or unease is supposedly a sign you’re not right with God) meant there had to be something wrong with me.

What I learned instead is that there is something different in me.

And since I know that different is often interpreted as wrong, the disconnect began to make sense.

Internally, I was driven, goal-oriented.

Externally, the only goals I had access to, or general approval of, were goals that were either soft (imprecise and unfinishable) or years removed with no hard stops or definable things for me to do to ensure success.

Potty-training and teaching-to-read are huge and important things, but they hinge on the cooperation of another person, and to be the best teacher, I can’t let my peace and sense of accomplishment hang on that little person’s level of proficiency.

Internally, I desired to connect in meaningful ways with other people, preferably over significant ideas.

Externally, I found that the other people willing to connect over significant ideas had very different ideas than me, which made mine, of course, wrong. Or they might suddenly notice that I’m female, and they’re male, and that even if I’m worth their time, I’m embarrassing.

These types of contradictions created the hot water in which I cracked.

The capacity to break, in itself, is not the problem. We are what we are. What we have left is how best to live with these limitations.

Why we need mental health help

Counseling has been a matter of strengthening the jar, yes, so the contrast is less damaging, but it has also been an affirming and translation of what is inside, so that I might consciously do what I can in the world around me in order to make the contrast less painful.

I think one of the difficulties people run into when trying to encourage their depressed friend or family, is that they (the non-depressed) still clearly see everything that is wrong with the depressed person. Things that may have nothing to do with the depression.

Someone’s sloppy. They don’t think things through, or they’re self-centered, or they don’t keep their promises.

These flaws are so blatant and frustrating to the outside observer that the idea of affirming an individual can seem like fake praise.

Yet the individual needs the affirmation, and so the observers need to try harder to give it.

We cannot expect a depressed (read: depleted, exhausted, drained) person to just hook into the flow of the world around her. That world may not fit her, or even if it does, she may need to find strengths within her that keep her going.

A counselor or therapist, or at least a good listener, is usually necessary to help that individual find the shape of her jar and look at what’s in it.

We can’t always change the environment enough to fit someone else, and focusing solely on one person is not an effective long-term strategy. But giving that internal person a translator is essential. We must give them language and a space to recover at their own pace, without a soul-withering shame at their inability to fix themselves on our timetable.

Healing is more accessible when the inner life is given legitimacy.

One of my six-year-old’s favorite stories is called There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. In it, the title dragon grows larger and larger until someone finally says, “There is too such a thing as a dragon!” {I mean, LOOK at him! He’s wearing the house like a snail wears a shell.}

Even when the non-depressed sees things in the depressed they wish would change, it is better to name and accept the person as she is, first.

You can’t train your dragon while you pretend it doesn’t exist.

You can’t stop your jars from breaking if you’re not willing to change what you’ve always done in canning them.

Emotional and mental health help isn’t designed to make the non-depressed observer’s life easier. It’s designed to support the hurting person back into a place of life and hope.

Image by Nils Thingvall via Stock.Xchng.

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