Looking for both success stories and non-success stories from people who have been in therapy.
July 30, 2008 5:54 AM   Subscribe

Looking for both success stories and non-success stories from people who have been in therapy—especially if you were skeptical about therapy beforehand.

I'm kind of a mess. I've always been prone to a certain amount of depression, but three years ago, several things in my life turned south at once. I kind of got knocked down, and I've never really gotten back up. I'm doing a lot better in some areas lately, but in others I still have thriving ecosystems of neuroses.

I saw a therapist a while ago; something about her attitude unnerved me, so I didn't come back for a second session. A few months later, I saw a second therapist. I liked him better, and came back for a second session, but it felt like fluff—an hour a week was barely enough to sketch the broadest outlines of my problems, and it was obvious the guy didn't get where I was coming from on some fundamental levels. So I canceled with him, too.

So there are at least three reasons I'm skeptical of therapy:
  • I've been trying to figure this shit out for years—in some cases, for decades. Now, I'm fully willing to believe I've missed something, but it's hard for me to imagine that someone I've just met is going to be able to comprehend the complexities of my (inner and outer) life, let alone solve them. Hell, my closest friends don't understand this shit.
  • As much confusion and pain as I go through, I often feel like my situation doesn't warrant therapy. I know people who grew up in abusive families; people who have been raped; addicts. Me, on the other hand? I've never had any problems keeping a job or generally leading a functional life. I drink more than I should, perhaps, but I'm not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I almost feel like I'd be wasting a therapist's time. Having typed this out, I see some probable flaws in this thinking, but...well, maybe I need someone else to point them out.
  • My aforementioned (and admittedly limited) experience with therapy. Granted, it was only three sessions, but we didn't cover anything I hadn't figured out years ago. I don't need to pay someone a hundred bucks an hour to point out the obvious.
So please tell me about your own experiences with therapy, positive or negative. I'm hoping it will help me figure out where to go from here.

(I actually typed up an AskMeFi post all about my crazy bits, but it was really long, and there was still so much to say. Like I said, I'm a mess.)

Throwaway email is metaqwerty@hotmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
First, if it has been bothering/affecting you for years/decades then yes, it warrants therapy, if only for your piece of mind.

One thing you HAVE to know is that half the battle is finding a therapist that works for you. I went to therapy for a while in university. My physician thought I was depressed (which I wasn't, I'm just a stress crier and it was my first pap so I was stressed so I cried, LOL) so I was 'prescribed' 4 months of therapy. The therapist agreed with me quickly that I was not depressed but allowed me to keep going the 4 months because, hey, free therapy. LOL Even though there was nothing specific plaguing me I found it useful just to sort of get things off my chest and to talk over some minor things that came up. It definitely had value.

HOWEVER, I went to a different therapist years later and that therapist was insane. She tried to peg me as suicidal about 10 minutes into the meeting when the reason I went was due to academic reasons. She was asking me how I was planning to try to kill myself and stuff, and I was all "Uh, excuse me?". Also, she was completely out of touch with reality and contemporary issues, like technology etc. Needless to say I never went back to her and just decided to deal with the stress of academia on my own. ha ha.

So my advice is to be aware that you may have to try a few different people before you find a therapist that 'fits'. :) Good luck, though. Therapy can be very rewarding. :)
posted by gwenlister at 6:13 AM on July 30, 2008

1. Sounds like you are a great candidate for therapy: you recognize that you have some problems and you want to work on them. Even if other people have worse circumstances, like you mentioned, it doesn't mean that they are better qualified for therapy than you are. Anyone can go who wants to.

There is not a limited amount of therapy to be doled out and it doesn't matter your reasons for going. You could go just to hang out with a therapist and see what kind of sweater he wears if you wanted. You have an inclination to go and you should.

2. Finding the right therapist for you is a process kind of like finding the right apartment. Sometimes you have to see a lot of them to get comfortable. Other times, you'll click with one right away. Don't give up just because you didn't like two. Personally, I've tried four in NY and I found one that was ok but I might try another if and when I go back. It can get annoying rehashing the summary of your woes, but you'll get used to it and it is ultimately worth it.

3. When you do find a therapist that fits you, you have to give them a shot to hear you out before they start advising you. Two sessions is just the beginning. You're going to have to talk a lot to get through this mess of issues you say you have. Don't expect answers so soon.

4. That said, you don't have to be "in therapy" forever, which is how some people see it. You can go for say, six months, try to resolve some issues, and taper off or quit and come back later if you feel like it. Being in therapy is not a life sentence and I think that mindset puts a lot of people who could benefit from therapy off of it.

5. The therapist won't "solve" your problems, so best to drop that expectation. What you can expect is to talk through your problems and get advice on how to cope or work through them or try to reframe how you look at them. There probably won't be any Eureka! moments that snap you into feeling better, but over time you can expect to look around at your situation and think to yourself "hey, I'm doing ok and my mind isn't racing so much" or something like that. In my experience, it's a gradual but substantive change. But you might not notice it until you have some perspective and distance from where you started.

Summary: go, try out a bunch of people, don't get frustrated, stick with it, (mentally) profit!
posted by rmless at 6:13 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Therapy can be quite useful. But, as you noted, you have to be somewhat selective. You need to be able to trust that person, and trust in their recommendations. Just be careful you don't get involved with a "yes" therapist, some people may need to have every little thing they've done/been through validated, but I can't really see how that's helpful for everyone. IMO a good therapist will have a mixture of understanding with a degree of "ok, now you're just being a whiny asswipe... where's YOUR responsibility in this situation" when necessary. Of course, you have to be careful to not be overly critical of possible therapists, as that could be a defense mechanism against being in a situation where you have to really look at yourself, and confront some of your crap.

Don't feel like your situation doesn't warrant therapy. Everyone has their own emotional bottom. People have killed themselves over getting a 85 on an exam. To most of us, no big deal, but they genuinely felt it was the end of their world. If something is bothering you, renting space in your head, and generally making you irritable and discontent, by all means, talk about it with someone, professional or otherwise.

Now, I'm fully willing to believe I've missed something, but it's hard for me to imagine that someone I've just met is going to be able to comprehend the complexities of my (inner and outer) life, let alone solve them. Hell, my closest friends don't understand this shit.

Regarding the above... believe me... you're not unique. I guarantee you that nearly every situation you are currently having an issue with has been done before, done better (or worse, depending on your POV), and done more often by more people than you think. I'm sure whoever you pick to talk to, they've heard a similar story before. Not trying to minimize your issues; it is human nature to think that "no one can possibly understand what I'm going through," but it's simply a fact.
posted by Debaser626 at 6:20 AM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some things can't be solved - they can only be minimized or managed. Other things just take a long, long time to resolve. And some things can be helped along just by having that impartial sounding board to ask the right questions.

Therapists don't give the answers. The best professionals simply help you come to your own conclusions, offer up some questions that might help you figure things out, and give you some new techniques to deal with things. It's good to view it more as a partnership, I think, and to remember that even when that hour session is over YOU still have to do the actual work.

Therapy isn't just for dire situations. If it's making you uncomfortable - whatever the issue - you deserve to resolve it as best possible. A good therapist will actually tell you if you're "wasting" their time - and your own time and money.

For what it's worth, I've seen therapists at various stages in life and the range of sessions has been from once-a-week for a year to six sessions over the course of three months to two short sessions to "check in" and clear out a few issues.

There are a LOT of different types of therapy out there. For me, CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) has been the best solution to the majority of my problems (depression, anxiety). But I'm reasonably introspective and self-analytical about things, so having someone TELL me my problems isn't necessary. Having a solid plan (and some techniques) to get out of or cope with those problems is a great feeling.
posted by VioletU at 6:22 AM on July 30, 2008

I got sort of talked into a few therapy sessions in college and despised them and disliked the therapist (perhaps unfairly), so I quit going. Your second bullet point sounds very familiar: I didn't think my problems were serious enough to warrant a counselor -- a few bitch sessions with friends, perhaps, but that's about it. Other people have it so much worse than I, so what right do I have to feel bad?

The thing is, suffering is suffering. I don't believe there's some scale that indicates how much pain is REAL pain. My depression came back over a few years, and this spring, it was enough to get me to realize that I need to reach out for help. I kept thinking, "How am I ever going to make it through this thing? There's nothing I can do." Then I realized that it's ok if I don't know what to do because a counselor is trained to help people get through these things.

I have also come to see that I am nowhere as self-aware as I thought. I get so caught up in my way of thinking that I am unable to step back and assess things fairly, or to think of things in new ways. My therapist has been really good at asking questions that are thought-provoking and challenging.

While I absolutely think it's important to find a therapist who is a good fit for you, I also think it's important to not let you talk yourself out of doing something that you know is a good thing. It takes time to be ready for therapy, but it sounds as if you might be getting there. Understand that the first session is supposed to "sketch the broadest outlines" of issues -- it's a sort of getting-to-know-you thing. In later sessions you'll be able to go into more detail, though I am rather surprised at how quickly an hour goes by!

As others here will suggest, Feeling Good can be quite helpful. I would not suggest reading the book as a substitution for therapy, but together the two can be a powerful combination.

On preview: pretty much what everyone else said.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:26 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ok, I've been through 3 therapy programs scattered about a 4 year period with 3 different psychiatrists. I've been diagnosed as schizotypal and dysthemic and I've learned 4 things about therapy:

1) Stay away from PadCroakers at all costs! You'll know this type of guy by the way he asks really general questions, doesn't take many notes, and obviously doesn't spend much time in his office. He'll meet you for 15-20 minutes every 4-6 weeks, and all he'll do is write prescriptions. These men are dangerous and they make a lot of money doing it. They'll get you hooked on SSRI's, MAOI's, and all sorts of bad stuff and they'll know you'll come back. Another way to know that your doctor is one of these types: There's 4+ patients waiting to see him and at least 1 pharmaceutical salesman.

2) If your doctor harps CBT and wants you to do exercises, do them. I only have a BS in psychology, but one thing I did learn is that the most effective treatments always include CBT or some sort of lifestyle changes. They aren't guaranteed to work, but I guarantee they won't work if you don't do them and do them as consistently as your doctor asks you.

3) Shop around for a psychiatrist like you would a house These people are fiddling with the second most important part of your body (the heart being the first). Make sure you're with someone you feel comfortable with. You'll usually know within the first 5-10 minutes if you like them. Also, I'd recommend seeing someone who is of the same sex. A lot of people say this doesn't matter, but in my opinion, it is a big deal.

4) You'd be surprised how many psychiatric problems can be fixed with a steady diet, regular exercise, and healthy interaction with many family and friends. Sometimes the symptoms of your behavior are the cause. You'll note that many people with a large support group of family and friends don't usually go batshit. Try to get the most important parts of your life in order and then decide if you still need that extra push. Get things in order at your job, clean the apartment, talk to more people you're close to, and try to spend a good deal of time with those that make you feel better with yourself. Often, that's all you needed in the first place.

Therapy helped me in some ways and in others it didn't. What I soon found I needed was just some sort of stability in my life. In fact, the one psychiatrist that helped me the most is the one I stopped seeing. He had told me that my problem was simply balancing my life's inherent order and chaos, rather than trying to eliminate the chaos. He called it "freedom through order". By creating a daily routine (a morning jog, regular and scheduled meals and snacks, a clean an orderly apartment, regular family time, regular "me" time, and having a strict outline in my finances) I felt more free with the rest of my life. For example: I know I have another hour and a half to do whatever I want on the internet and enjoy my coffee before I go to work. Before, I always had this subtle, yet overwhelming, feeling of "I'm not spending my time wisely, I should be doing something else... but what?"

Hope this helps.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:34 AM on July 30, 2008 [11 favorites]

I've seen my share over time, and it's pretty hard to find a good one. Briefly, about the best and the worst:

I'd have to say the best therapist I saw was an intern when I was going to college. Close enough to my age to develop a good rapport, didn't judge, focused on a goal of getting me to understand *why* I was behaving the way I did, and *what* I wanted to change. She got me out of crisis mode (I had been through a pretty disturbing robbery) and functioning in something like 6 weeks. Then, sadly, the semester ended and she moved on.

The worst? The opposite end of the spectrum, a very high-priced, high profile type, who had the nerve to label my lack of interest in marriage and babies as "sociopathic." Because she had that all-important "doctor" label, I believed her, at least long enough to seek a second opinion. I'm still not interested in marriage and babies, but 10 years have gone by and I haven't done anything sociopathic yet :)

So there you go - my .002 is that you'll see several before you find the one that works for you. And good ones, as well as bad ones, can be found in the least likely places.

Good luck to you - I'm in the process of trying to find someone good for CBT right now, and it's a lot of trial and error. And I still haven't found "the one."
posted by chez shoes at 6:37 AM on July 30, 2008

N-thing the "shop around" sentiment here. I've seen different therapists at different times in my life and for different reasons, and it seems to me that the most important factors to success are 1) the patient's willingness to be open to change and working to improve whatever's not working in their life, 2) the therapist's competence and interest in helping guide the patient (not just medicate, fill forms, move on to the next billable hour, etc.), and 3) the chemistry between patient and therapist. You're the best judge of whether the first applies, and it's easy enough to find the second with a little looking around, so the third is really the critical element.

For what it's worth, my previous therapy experiences made me put off going back to therapy for longer than I should have this time, but I'm happy with my therapist and really glad I'm doing this for myself.
posted by notashroom at 7:08 AM on July 30, 2008

Yep, shop around. Finding the right fit can speed things up, too, because you feel comfortable even TALKING about this stuff. And two sessions isn't really enough time.

But the right fit makes all the difference -- I'd actually tried seeing a couple therapists years ago that didn't really work out, but I kept finding myself pouring out my troubles to a woman who owned a gift shop in my neighborhood. And then when she finally revealed that "you know, I also am a therapist," it clicked that she's who I should be using, and I started sessions with her and it was like night and day. Finding someone with whom you have a rapport makes all the difference in the world.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 AM on July 30, 2008


OK, first off, stop calling yourself a mess. Pull your self together - I agree with Bathtub that things like regular exercise, seeing friends and family are best.

Secondly, I think it's true you have to shop around for a good therapist, and ultimately, the issues are yours to sort out. Some people (I'm not implying you) I know have done stuff like seeking marriage counselling because they think the therapist will talk some sense ionto their philandering spouse, for example. This is not what therapists do, though sometimes I think it would be more worthy (talking sense into people, rather than going all Freudian and weirdo). In this respect I would not recommend a Freudian psychiatrist. Also, don't worry about your problems being "too small". If there is something you have to face, there is something you have to face, and perhaps a therapist could help you.

Thirdly, sometimes you don't HAVE to figure every little thing out. Sometimes you can just let things go. Make your current life a fulfilling, meaningful one and the older stuff won't be so important. Yes, I am speaking from experience, I know when I am well dumb stuff from the past doesn't bother me, but when I am down, they do. So the Zen is that if your present moment is fine, other stuff doesn't matter.

All the best.
posted by Penelope at 7:19 AM on July 30, 2008

Therapy can be useful, but there are manymanymany kinds of therapy and one type may work for you. If you go see a therapist and you don't like him or her, go find another one. Often your medical doctor can be a big help when you're shopping around -- he or she may not only know who, but also may be able to get you in to see, the person who is 'best' in town for your personality.
posted by SpecialK at 7:27 AM on July 30, 2008

A couple of takes on therapy. "I drink more than I should, perhaps". I was in your situation and a therapist was able to see my alcoholic behaviors in ways I never could myself. This made a major impact on my life.

That being said, the main value of a therapist for me is to have a safe place to "just talk" to a good listener and for someone to call me on my talk if my talk is non-sensical, irrational etc. No one in my circle of relationships wants to hear about my abusive childhood, my fear of social rejection and the like, but this stuff is real for me and a therapist is a great place to dump. My sense is most people don't have mental health problems they have life problems and the two are two different things and require different strategies.

If you already have a compassionate, active listener in your life that's great, otherwise try finding one under psychotherapist. PS avoid anyone with P.Hd or M.D. after their name.
posted by Xurando at 7:39 AM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'll second all of the above. Find someone you have a rapport with. Don't trivialize your issues and try not to feel that having an anxiety disorder (or whatever) makes you a failure as a human being. I found that while therapy couldn't make my anxiety vanish, we searched for and refined coping strategies that were tailored to the specific pressures I felt I was under. I couldn't have coped without it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:22 AM on July 30, 2008

Through most of college, I was planning to pursue formal education in psychology and become a therapist. One day I was out at a bar with a buddy of mine and we started talking about our future plans, and I mentioned what I wanted to do. The bartender then interjected with a comment that psychologists are only there to take your money -- they create a need in the society which wasn't there before and then cater to that need. Maybe she was bitter about a personal experience, maybe not. Turns out, this comment ended up changing my life a lot more than anything my actual psychotherapist ever said.

True insight can come from anyone, anywhere. Just be ready for it.
posted by Laugh_track at 8:55 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

it's hard for me to imagine that someone I've just met is going to be able to comprehend the complexities of my (inner and outer) life, let alone solve them.

That's not her job. Her job is to help you:

-Get out of bed, eat food, don't harm yourself
-Keep up with your hygiene, brush your teeth, wash yourself, have clean clothes
-Have relationships with others that are positive and ongoing
-Enjoy life sometimes.

She can do that without comprehending the complexities of your (inner and outer) life. Besides, if comprehending your complexities were all it took to help you, you'd be able to help yourself. But you can't. So let go of the idea that she needs to comprehend you to help you. She doesn't. However, you may be surprised at how insightful she is after many years of study and experience.

posted by sondrialiac at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2008

As much confusion and pain as I go through, I often feel like my situation doesn't warrant therapy. I almost feel like I'd be wasting a therapist's time.

If you have bipolar II, you have a brain injury. It's not some sort of dumb high school angst. It's a brain injury. You need to treat it. It's going to get worse.

From my research into bipolar (I'm type I) and according to your own experience, it gets worse with time. The highs get less high and more miserable. The lows get lower.

So what are you waiting for?

You could wait until you get fired. You could wait until you have a nasty drinking problem. You could wait until you're completely socially isolated. Why? You won't be able to afford therapy then, anyhow.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:15 AM on July 30, 2008

My aforementioned (and admittedly limited) experience with therapy. Granted, it was only three sessions, but we didn't cover anything I hadn't figured out years ago. I don't need to pay someone a hundred bucks an hour to point out the obvious.

Um, he's not a psychic. He will have to go over things you already know. He needs to know your history. He needs to get to know you and see how you react, how verbal you are, how able you are to articulate your feelings, etc.

That said, if you hate him, find another one. He has to be a good match for your personality and someone you wouldn't mind spending an hour a week with.

I like mine, despite his Freudian background and his tendency to talk about food a lot. He's helped so much in the last two months it's unbelievable.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:25 AM on July 30, 2008

And finally, here's a post I wrote about internet mental health resources.

I apologize for saying you were Bipolar II. For some reason I thought that was the case. Perhaps it's because bipolar people tend to resist treatment very strongly? Either way, sorry.

However, the things I wrote hold true.

Depression is a brain injury. It will get worse. Please, please get help.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:29 AM on July 30, 2008

About a year before I aged out of my parents' health insurance, I had a really bad.... crash, as I tend to call it. My teachers and counselors had long been telling my parents that I needed some sort of therapy; unfortunately my mother has (and still IS) been that sort of drama queen that thinks therapy is bad and OMG YOU SHOULDN'T TALK ABOUT YOUR PROBLEMS TO STRAAAAANGERS even though it's quite obvious that the reason she hates psychology is that she knows she's the source of many of mine (and my siblings') issues. To this day, she still believes my grade drops during middle and high school had nothing to do with my suffering depressive crashes and insists that they were the result of pure laziness, even after that one incident in which I had a panic attack in honors English over an autobiographical essay.

My father had previously gone along with her on the basis of not causing drama until that big crash, and agreed to provide transportation and the co-pay money, but in order to keep my mother from finding out we kinda had to do all this under the table-- I had to go steal my Kaiser membership card out of my mother's wallet, set the appointment notices to redirect to my father's house instead, and father had to disguise my therapy sessions as him coming to pick me up to fix his computer, etc.

I don't know if Kaiser has changed since I've been there, but it's not very efficient when it comes to booking appointments. To a point, I could understand some of the logic about having to manually book each appointment as opposed to other providers who automate that but charge a hefty cancellation fee... but this manual booking was quite bothersome for me and my appointments were always nearly a month apart. Some time after my first session I had my physical and was put on Prozac in addition to my normal synthroid; sadly, Prozac seemed to do, well, nothing at all aside from speed up the frequency of my monthly cycles. My doctor instructed me to continue my therapy sessions, which I did until about a couple months before I aged out of Kaiser (by turning 22).

The more I went, there was more and more pressure to bring in my mother, which I knew wouldn't work and would cause a HUGE fight that would leave me much worse off than if she never knew I was getting help. I could also tell that my father really didn't like having to lie... I guess I decided it just wasn't worth all of this sneaking around and such, so I had to bow out and just suck it up and deal with it. Also because of this experience, I now have a notation on my record saying I've been in therapy, and as a result many health insurance providers have rejected me. (Well, I imagine my synthroid prescription also factors in, but combine those two...)

My father passed away earlier this year, and all of these ugly issues have resurfaced tenfold. My brother and I could both use counseling (maybe my brother slightly more, seeing as he personally witnessed our father's death by brain aneurysm) yet both of us aged out of Kaiser and haven't been able to get on any sort of insurance since. We both wish there was a way that we could compel our mother's supervisor at the post office to order her into some sort of counseling, since circumstances dictate that even if the rest of us were to get treated, our mother's poisonous influence would wash all of that progress away in an instance. At least I have a cat to keep me from totally going off the deep end, my brother just buries his head in WoW to keep his own demons from overrunning him. Well, better than turning to booze or drugs, I suppose.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have seen three therapists in my life.

The first, I saw as an adolescent, just once or twice, with my family. I had no respect for her. She did not help. Whose fault that was, I don't know.

The second, I saw for a couple of years in my early 20s. She helped someone, serving mostly as a sympathetic ear and as an "adult" who accepted me for who I am and offered a different perspective on things. This was great for what it was, and I found it helpful, but I'm sure glad I ended up moving on to someone else.

The third, I have seen for the last year and a half or so. He is in a different class than the others. I think he's a therapeutic genius. I'll come in with some sort of half-described problem or whatever, and he somehow comes up with exactly what it is that's bothering me, and what I can do about it. Sometimes, he'll start doing one of those cliched things like asking about my mom or my childhood, but for the first time in my life, it doesn't sound like so much bullshit. And if it does sound like bullshit, I can call him on that, and he can explain where he's coming from. And usually, I end up agreeing with him. I've noticed profound shifts in the way I see myself and the world, and consequently how I feel about myself and the world, in the time I've been seeing him.

So therapy can work, but it depends on the therapist. Studies have shown that the quality of the therapist is far more important for treatment success than the modality he/she uses (CBT, etc.) The way I found my current one is that I looked at every therapist in the area that had a website and that my insurance covered. I picked the one who looked the best and I called him and he said he was booked, but he could recommend a great therapist. He was right.

Email's in my profile if anyone has questions or wants his name. (He's in Arlington, VA.)
posted by callmejay at 12:40 PM on July 30, 2008

"She helped someone" should read "she helped somewhat."
posted by callmejay at 12:40 PM on July 30, 2008

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