6 Bad Reasons We Avoid Going To Therapy
If your urine suddenly started coming out green and fizzy, how long before you'd call a doctor? A couple of weeks? A month?
Yet equally alarming mental health symptoms will go ignored for decades, even though the most common treatments are less invasive than whatever that doctor is going to do to your pee hole. I should know; I had to overcome years of resistance before admitting I needed therapy. I'm sharing my (terrible) reasons for doing so because I'm pretty sure some of you are still in that spot.
"Crazy People Are Outcasts!"
Did your neighborhood used to have the Crazy Guy all the kids made fun of? Where I'm from, it was Old Man Pepsi. He used to wander around the small downtown square aimlessly every day, talking to himself and wearing his tattered old Pepsi delivery truck uniform, like he was a broken veteran of the Cola Wars. "You're gonna wind up like Old Man Pepsi if you don't watch it," we'd say. That's what happens to people with malfunctioning brains, right? They just get ejected from society?
This starts early, long before most kids even know what a mental illness is or looks like. We all had the "special" kids who went to the "special" classes at the far end of the school that none of us "normies" ever bothered with. And why would we? Those people were to be kept away, separated.
Later, if someone tells you, "You need therapy!" it's either an insult or a joke. What they're really saying is "Your words and behaviors are weird, so be careful, because if they get any weirder, they'll need correction from a professional." Seeing a therapist is a bad thing that happens when you're so crazy that you need help thinking.
So when I finally started to realize I needed treatment, I envisioned all kinds of nightmare scenarios, everything from being locked in a padded cell in a straitjacket to having the things I confided to my hypothetical shrink being used by the prosecution in some trial I seemed to think I was headed for. "Mr. Johnson, is it true you saw a therapist from 2001 to 2017? Would you like to tell the court why? Could it be because of the same behavior that put you in this courtroom today?"
You hopefully know that there are in fact very specific rules that govern how and why your private mental health information can be released to anyone other than yourself or your therapist. But that starts to get into whether or not these people can truly be trusted ...
"That's Giving A Stranger Way Too Much Power Over My Brain"
People with anxiety tend to have trust issues, because our anxiety is almost entirely based on our fear of other people. This leads to a ridiculous cycle whereby the more anxious you are, the more afraid you are of confiding to someone for treatment, then the lack of treatment leads to more anxiety. And you can always find someone to confirm your fears.
When I was in high school, someone slipped some LSD into my drink at a party. I had a crazy bad trip that made me question my sanity and the very nature of sanity itself. It caused me problems for months, and I was in desperate need of someone to talk to. I couldn't talk to my parents or teachers (teenagers won't open up even about mundane things, so no, we're not quick to ask mom about our bad acid trip). I didn't have a girlfriend, and my friends all laughed at me like I was some lightweight who couldn't handle his acid. ("Dude freaked out and lost his shit after only a hit and a half of Orange Sunshine! What a fuckin' pussy!")
I finally mustered the courage to speak to a friend who had more experience with mind-altering drugs -- clearly a sound source of advice for an impressionable teen. I mentioned going to a therapist and he told me, "Bad idea, man. It sounds like you already got a couple of people running around upstairs as it is. Why add another? You want to be like those kids that hang around the art department and talk about suicide and Skinny Puppy all the time? They get sent to that alternative school for dropouts and deviants."
Also, my most prominent example of a therapist at the time was, of course, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, perhaps the most well-known psychoanalyst after Freud. Recall the scene in Silence Of The Lambs wherein Jack Crawford warns Clarice Starling, "Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside in your head."
It's not that I thought all therapists were secret sadists and/or cannibals, but I did think they had the power to get "inside my head" in that way. In my mind, they were like sorcerers who could get you to do anything just by speaking a few magic words that would alter some mysterious machinery in the mind. If you're expecting that, you might actually be disappointed when a session consists almost entirely of you talking and the professional listening, occasionally prompting you to talk some more.
Then you'll be tempted to have the opposite bad reaction. "That doesn't sound like it'd accomplish shit!" Or ...
"Therapy Won't Work Because My Problems Are Unique And Special"
We all like to think that we're special and unique, but not so special and unique that we're weird. Human beings have an innate need to be a part of a pack ("We're all in this together!"), yet we also need to feel we are apart from the pack ("Be an individual! Don't let anyone tell you how to live your life!").
For most of my life, I rationalized my aversion to therapy as a mixture of these two conflicting notions. "Therapy won't work on me because I am a unique and special flower that no therapist could possibly understand," and at the same time "Why do I need therapy? I'm no different than anyone else."
It's a pointless, self-destructive, nonsense argument. "If my problems are routine, wouldn't this be like calling a handyman to come change a light bulb? Competent people are able to handle the routine shit themselves, right? And if my problems are a uniquely tangled quagmire, what possible good can it do just talking about them for an hour?"
You might be wondering why I couldn't just admit that maybe there were problems that would be routine for a professional but not for a regular untrained person, but that just brings us to ...
"I Can Fix Myself!"
I mean, how hard can it be to right the rudder of your own brain? No one knows the intricacies of your own thoughts better than you do, right? Who better to untie all those mental knots that are clogging up your head like that pile of cords behind the console table?
So, um ... how's that going? For me, it went the same way as cleaning the gutters or fixing that crappy gate in the backyard that won't stay shut and keeps letting the dogs out and then they go straight for the neighbor's trash and spread it all over the neighborhood so I have to clean it up at 4 in the morning. Aside from the fact that you can learn a lot by going through your neighbor's garbage ("A lot of baby clothes in here ... but they don't have a baby?"), it just goes to show how even a seemingly routine problem can spiral out of control if left alone.
There's also the fact that taking time out for treatment feels like neglect, as if our brain is a Waffle House that loses money if it closes for the weekend for remodeling. At any given moment, our brains are processing a million things at once, and all too often the task of maintaining our mental health gets left by the wayside in favor of whatever's in front of us. I mean, it's not like an untreated mental illness could ever interfere with my productivity, right?
"Therapy Is For Weak, Sad Neurotic Types"
Movies and television didn't help with this one. I remember images of a troubled, sniveling Woody Allen whining to his analyst about his love life. His current status as an alleged sex criminal notwithstanding, the persona Allen crafted for himself in his films throughout the '70s, '80s, and beyond was never a flattering one. We may at times wish we had these characters' shared gift for witty rejoinders and dating women way out of their league, but they were not the kind of people you wanted to model your life after. Fielding Mellish is no Han Solo.
Why would I want to do what that character does? He's a comical mess. He needs therapy to even make sense of his own existence, or his neuroses would have him jumping off a roof.
It's not like Allen was the only one. Comedians would constantly talk about therapy and how much their lives are a disaster. From their point of view, maybe they think they're destigmatizing it. "See? I can make fun of my anxiety, so you shouldn't be ashamed of yours." But at the same time, they weren't portraying it as admirable or heroic. It's not like finding out Han Solo suffers from anxiety. (Note: He kind of does.)
"The Therapist Will Think I'm A Whiny Asshole!"
I've heard it said on numerous occasions that if one were to take a shit and not turn around and look at their turds before flushing, this is a clear indication that person is a psychopath. I'm not sure which giant of the psychological community first posited this flawless mental health diagnostic tool (Carl Jung perhaps? A random kid in my gym class?), but I'm pretty sure you won't find it in the DSM.
Still, it's hard to escape the idea that there are simple markers that would tell an expert I'm worthless. I imagined my hypothetical therapist recoiling in horror at every single thing I said. "Wow, that dude is way fucked up. What an asshole." Obviously it's a very bad therapist who would do that, but more importantly, it wouldn't matter if they did.
Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote in his famously misinterpreted play No Exit that "Hell is other people." The idea is that our perception of ourselves comes from how we think other people must see us. Think of it this way: If you were all alone in the Universe and had no image or concept of how you appeared or were regarded, would you still excuse yourself after you farted? Would you still wear a T-shirt in the swimming pool? Or wear a shirt at all? Would you eat with utensils? Would you comb your hair?
No. Everything we do, we do because we are capable of imagining ourselves through the eyes of other people. The problem is that our worst internal thoughts don't get exposed to others, so there's never that feedback system to give us a clear picture of what's going on. This is why people can follow the exact same cycle of anxiety-driven behaviors for years without recognizing it's even a pattern.
So a therapist winds up being like the mirror in your bathroom, only instead of seeing the barbecue sauce stain on your chin, it's all of the invisible sauce stains the mirror can't see. Everyone knows they need this on some level. It's why people on airplanes or at bus stops tell the stranger sitting next to them all the reasons their marriage is crumbling, and why so many crimes get solved because the killer spills his guts to a stranger in a bar. It's why we pour our hearts out in anonymous blog posts we're desperate for someone to see ... just not our friends.
You just can't have those same conversations with a friend or partner. Your self-image is solidified in their minds, and you don't want to mess with it. Plus, they're not professionals. They may get defensive ("It sounds like you're saying I'm part of the problem!"), or may not resist the temptation to use it against you later. A professional isn't going to do that.
I know mental health treatment isn't perfect. I know some people have solid reasons for avoiding it (including just not being able to afford it). But for people like me who dragged their feet for years, I think the most common reaction afterward is "Why in the hell did I wait so long?"
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