My therapist is better than yours

Saying goodbye is hard, whether it’s to a loved one, a dear friend or your therapist. Earlier this week, I said goodbye to my therapist, who has become a dear friend.

There was nothing wrong with our relationship. She is, hands down, the most delightful and helpful therapist I have ever worked with. But, she does not have expertise regarding my specific illness, an illness neither of us knew I had until well into our relationship. Recently, we agreed I should meet with someone (a friend of hers actually) who has such expertise to see if a change would be beneficial to me. I had the meeting and decided a change would be best for my health. I will gain the benefit of a therapist with a tremendous amount of knowledge about my condition, including how to minimize my symptoms and improve my quality of life. But I will lose the benefit of an incredibly empathetic, validating and funny therapist, who has seen me through the hardest emotional period of my life.

I found Dr. Kerry by chance on the internet. I was searching for a psychologist who practiced ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and wasn’t too far from my home or work (since I didn’t have any time to spare). When I discovered Dr. Kerry was an ACT practitioner, with an office six minutes from my house, who specialized in family dynamics and family related issues, I was elated. At the time (early spring 2016), I believed my anxiety and depression symptoms were primarily related to my responsibilities as a mother of three small children, particularly my less-than-one year old twins. I thought that if I could just learn how to feel less anxious, overwhelmed and hopeless about mothering, then everything would be okay. So I called Dr. Kerry.

I probably got out half a sentence about the reason for my call before I started crying. I kept talking though and she kept listening. Once I had gotten most of it out — about the three kids, the law job, the busy husband, the mountain of household responsibilities, the ever present anxiety and depression, the panic attacks and all the different meds that didn’t work — Dr. Kerry (with more empathy in her voice than I had heard in what felt like forever) said, “Oh honey, you must be so tired.” Hearing those words broke my heart wide open. I sobbed and sniffled and sobbed some more, overwhelmed with gratitude for this woman I had never met. Dr. Kerry was maybe the first person in my life to understand how hard I was working just to keep my head above water and how much it was costing me.

I think we spoke on the phone that day for close to an hour. Honestly, I think she was worried about me and wanted to make sure I was in a safe place, mentally and physically. We scheduled an appointment for that week and I have continued to see her weekly, or bi-weekly, ever since (except for my few weeks in outpatient treatment).

Seeing Dr. Kerry was like spending an hour with a fun friend who also happened to have expertise in mental health. She taught me the invaluable lesson that what is real, what feels real to me, is not always true; that I can validate my feelings as my feelings and still reject them as untrue (i.e. I feel that I am an incompetent mother because I become anxious and overwhelmed when alone with my children. In reality, I am a competent mother who experiences feelings of anxiety related to her children, as do many other mothers.).

Dr. Kerry always laughed at my jokes, which is essential to being my close friend. She also defended me against the mean part of my own mind. She encouraged me to nickname it to differentiate it from my actual self. I proposed Bitchy McBitchface but that proved to be too long given how often we talked about her. So, I shortened it to Becky. Man, I hate Becky (almost as much as she hates me). Dr. Kerry gave me homework, and you all know how much I love homework (really, I really do). And she forced me to meditate.

Meditation has never interested me because (1) I hate being still and (2) I hate being in my own head. These seem to be the two major components of meditation. Therefore, I had less than zero interest. But Dr. Kerry insisted that learning to be mindful, including by having a regular mediation practice, would improve my quality of life. It would force me to slow down, to pay attention, to just breath without doing or thinking about doing five other things. I felt my time was better spent doing the five things.

Since I am a lawyer and also a pretty good liar, Dr. Kerry had me download a specific meditation app which would time my daily meditations. I was to start with five minutes each day and she would check my timer each week. Of course, I could have just let the timer run without actually meditating, but I am honor-bound to do homework in the proper way. So I started to mediate, first five minutes a day, then 10, then 15. I found guided mediations most effective, because then I could listen to someone else speak rather than the voices in my head. And Dr. Kerry was right. Meditating did help me to be more present and still. I still don’t have a regular practice (which I should) but it is a skill I use when I need to feel more stable and less like a headless chicken running around my own life.

Dr. Kerry also taught me to pay attention to the way I talk about myself and my life. A single word can reveal a vast underlying dichotomy, such as what tasks or activities are okay/allowed/useful for me to do with my time and which are not. When all the “nots” turn out to be self-care that costs money and benefits no one else in the family but me, this is not a healthy state of mind. It suggests I do not value myself; that Becky is still there with her list of my insufficiencies and failures. It also directly contradicts my strong belief that what I do at home and with our children is just as valuable a contribution to our family’s well-being as my husband’s paycheck. All of this and more became apparent because Dr. Kerry noticed I used the word “allowed” during session. One word, one session, and I learned a valuable lesson that will benefit me for as long as I use it.

Direct identification of problems and proposed solutions were a hallmark of Dr. Kerry’s practice. If I didn’t feel safe, I needed to specifically identify and contact at least three safety people. If my home life was triggering my illness and making my symptoms worse, I needed to identify and implement specific changes that would alleviate my anxiety and depression. Week by week, Dr. Kerry helped me to survive my life. She gave me hope that things could get better. No words can adequately express my gratitude for these gifts, but I could not move forward without some expression of thanks for what I have been given.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the things. I miss you already and wish you the very best of all my wishes.

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