There’s the therapist office where I finally left after waiting two hours. Two hours after a two-month wait for an appointment. All after admitting I needed help, wrangling a babysitter, and gearing myself to unload piles and piles of barely concealed pain.
That was a great experience.
For fifteen years my neurologists prescribed me antidepressants. Technically I knew I probably could use some talk therapy too, but I had good support systems in place so the need wasn’t dire. I took a casual approach to looking for a counselor. Living in a small town meant that there weren’t a lot of options anyway.
The first time I met with a therapist, I thought I was the problem. I’d expected too much, from an office with room to walk in to some kind of interpersonal communication skills. If there is a pamphlet called “What Your First Visit to a Shrink Will Entail,” my copy got lost in the mail. I’m still waiting.
Instead there was a very uncomfortable square chair really close to The Guy’s desk. I sat in it, said a few things. Then listened. For 40 minutes. The Guy discussed his marital problems. The details have thankfully faded, but the gist is clear: His wife does not love him. He wonders what will happen when their oldest son leaves for college. She’s keeping up a charade for the kid. The therapist feels angry when he sees happy couples. It isn’t fair.
I do not know this man or his wife, but I very much know who she is and there are people we have in common. In fact, that's why I chose this therapist. He is tangentially part of my life and has been recommended. I am horrified for this woman. Does she know that her husband talks about her? There is no way that this is the first or only time.
The troubles in my marriage and life are not fixed by this encounter. I’ve wasted not just an hour of my life, I’ve wasted my hope at getting help and a pile of goodwill and faith in the mental health professional community.
Next is the grandmotherly woman who is bland but not offensive. Our first visit is fine, I remind myself that relationships take time to build. I make another appointment. It isn’t for the next week, she has no openings. I’m not thrilled as I’m trying to make some life progress here and can tell I’m slipping into a depression, but I take the first available slot.
Two weeks later I arrive ready for some progress. We’re past the get-to-know-you part, I’m hoping Captain Counselor has a plan for our day.
Her plan is a packet of poorly photocopied documents out of a book from the 1980s. Copies of copies of copies, that sort of thing. We read through them together, word by word, page by page.
There’s no way to say this without sounding snobbish so I’ll just say it: I’m a good reader. In fact, up until recently, I was an English professor. If you want me to do some reading, that’s fine. Give me homework. Whatever this activity is, it's not therapeutic. It's not giving me anything. It's not talking to me, questioning me, pushing me. It's nothing.
Instead of getting angry, after about fifteen minutes I have a flash of peace. This isn’t my problem. Unlike the Bad Marriage therapist, I’m able to see that Captain Counselor isn’t a reflection on me. This doesn’t fix my psychological needs but it does help me avoid a cycle of blame.
When I walk out without making an appointment, the receptionist calls after me. She calls me at home, then Captain Counselor calls the next day. Am I sure I don’t want to make another appointment? I’m sure, thanks.
For women of color, research shows it's even harder to find a therapist who can relate to the particular stresses that can come with living in our society. Living outside urban areas limits supply and the ongoing healthcare debates highlight how fragile any benefits are, even if you have insurance. Mental health coverage pre-Obamacare was less available and more expensive.
Finally, I try a video conference therapy session to counteract living in a rural small town. I’ve never internet dated so I’m a little unsure how it will go, but I’m super depressed at this moment in my life and not leaving the house seems amazing. I decide not to pretend – I don’t put on makeup or aim for good lighting. My hair…it’s realistic.
I close the door to my office to make sure the dog doesn’t get involved in the session. I’ve answered a hundred-question assessment previously, one of the better ones in my experience. We connect using a secure service rather than Skype, though at this point I don’t really care who knows how I feel. Steal my secrets, NSA, knock yourself out.
After getting over the feeling that I’m being interviewed for a job, the session goes well. Her nods and follow-up questions aren’t over the top or invasive, rather like an on-the-ball friend. She pushes a little. I have to think. I cry. It doesn’t derail things and she doesn't make the pity face.
We plan to do it again. We’re similar in age and there’s a back and forth that feels like it might work. Virtual Counselor might be The Thing.
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