In Roz Weston’s raw and intimate memoir, A Little Bit Broken, he writes about his first experience with therapy. (I don’t know whether he had more experiences. I’m still reading the book.) Tiny spoiler alert: Roz clearly needed therapy but didn’t return after one session. I get it. I didn’t go back after my first session either. My mom wouldn’t let me.
Therapy is difficult when it’s done right. It reveals tools and resilience you didn’t know you had. Power. But the real, deep work isn’t fun. You probably should want to run away. But growth only comes from doing the hard stuff. It’s like choosing to eat a salad over a piece of decadent cheesecake. Of course I WANT the cheesecake! But the salad will get me where I want to go.
My first therapy appointment occurred when I was fourteen. I’d been depressed, sullen, sleeping too much and wanting to do too little. And there were bouts of anxiety (we didn’t call it that then) that overwhelmed me. So, after seeing our family physician, off I went for therapy.
My Mom’s biggest worry was that I would talk about her or our family. And I did. A lot. I was 14. Other than school and a few social activities, family was all I had. Afterwards, the therapist suggested I distance myself from my Mom if I could because her issues were becoming my issues. Outrageous anxiety, smoking, too much caffeine. I loved my Mom but she was a lot. After I told Mom what the doctor said, she forbade me from going back to him.
Eventually I did create a distance between us. Until Mom became sick, I limited my time with her in frequency and duration. We spent holidays and special occasions together and visited often. But I had to protect myself from her influence, her flashes of anger, and her lack of boundaries. And when you’re the only one who starts dissecting the family dynamic and altering your role in it, it’s nearly impossible to be around it again. Everyone wants you to stay in your old behavior, but you know better now. It’s upsetting and confusing to everyone. As if a goalie suddenly started playing defense. No, dammit, get back in goal!
I vividly remember one therapy session in Wingham. I’d been living away from home for a few years. We’d been talking about my Mom and how invasive and inappropriate her questioning could be.
Therapist: How often do you talk to her? Me: I have to call her every day!
Therapist: Why do you “have” to call her every day? Me: Because she wants me to! (Slight pause.) Ooooooooooh.
On the one hand I complained about her treating me like a child. On the other, I did everything she told me to, like a child. Lightbulb moment. There have been many illuminating flashes since then and I hope there are more to come.
I’m by no means fixed. No one can be. Life is a journey that brings with it challenges and dilemmas, all the way through. In fact, I read an excellent book written by a therapist titled Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. In it, Lori Gottlieb discusses her patients (protecting their identities) and her therapy sessions as a patient. Why not? A massage therapist gets massages. A dentist goes to a dentist. It makes sense.
I would go to therapy when I felt I needed it, sometimes for a few years at a time. And then take a break, also for a few years. It helped to share my challenges with someone who had no personal stake in the outcomes. Counsellor, psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist – they can all conduct therapy and each has specialties and privileges, such as writing prescriptions. Many workplaces cover therapy under an EAP. Now, sessions are sometimes done over Zoom.
Mom always thought therapy was for other people. I believed that if a person could afford it and make the time, it was like getting a nice shampoo and rinse for the psyche. Talking about problems – or what you think are problems – to someone who is trained in human behavior, with an outsider’s point of view, brings exquisite clarity to the situation. And you’re not always the hero of your own story. Sometimes you’re being a little shit and you don’t even know it until it’s properly explained.
Therapy isn’t the only route to self improvement, of course. There’s no judgment here. But I truly felt that my Mom would have benefited from it. However, that wasn’t my decision to make.
When Mom entered a hospice with just a couple of weeks to live, two years ago last month, the in-house therapist came in to introduce himself. I stayed quiet, fascinated by how this might go and not wanting to interfere in the outcome. The therapist explained that he was available if there was anything she’d like to discuss. In fact, he could come by that afternoon. Imagine my surprise when Mom said she’d love that.
The therapist visited every day, when no one else was around, and helped my Mom a great deal. She shared her regrets and worries. There were private things she needed to get off her chest. She confided in me that she wished he would come twice a day. She loved talking to him and telling him her stories, good and bad. It felt wonderful, cathartic, she said. She felt valued and listened to, that her life was meaningful. How bizarre to have my own words spoken back to me as if they were new.
When the rest of the world fell away and there was nothing left of her life but a few days, Mom finally decided she was worth it. She was positively effusive about the therapist and their discussions. The day before she died, he was preparing to decorate her room in an Italian theme. Mom traveled to many countries, but hadn’t made it to Italy. It was a regret she’d never expressed to us in the depth she was feeling it. In the sanctity of therapy, she revealed it.
I could say that I wished she’d discovered therapy long ago, but I’d decided decades earlier that she’d get there if she decided to. It was her choice, her journey to take or refuse. I’m so glad she chose to push past her biases and fears and experience some relief. Even if it was almost too late.