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One of my goals with this blog is to normalize talking about therapy. I feel like there's a shame or a stigma attached to this word or idea of "therapy" and I want to make it something we can discuss openly about.
My journey into this world started in 2014 - I just had a really bad breakup and I needed to talk about it. There was so much going on with that breakup that my brain couldn't process it - I couldn't understand what happened. I remember having a few short phone introduction calls with some therapists: one just gave me a wrong vibe, one placed her personal opinion on me in the first two minutes and one made me so comfortable and not judged that I decided to go and see her. She was such a tiny lady and so soft spoken, she reminded me of a teacher I admired in high school. She explained to me her process, just a sit down and chat kind of therapy, very typical. I didn't lay on a couch, I sat in a chair but it was pretty much an hour of me talking. As the sessions continued more items were "unpacked from the suitcase" and I started to panic and have anxiety. I didn't have a way to organize this information in my brain and it become too much. I discovered a lot of things that I had suppressed and just wasn't ready to deal with. I thanked her for her time and ended that relationship. I needed to sit with it.
A few years later I decided to tackle one of the issues and went to someone who specialized in that area. I came prepared this time! I learned from my first try at therapy that I needed to be more organized and diligent - I took a note book. I wrote down things that I wanted to remember or epiphanies that I had. I did a little homework to make sure I understood the purpose of the exercises she was getting me to do and I tried to "stay ahead" of the brain overload. I didn't want to feel overwhelmed again and not have any way to cope with it. I only lasted a few sessions this time - I felt like she was trying to push me to a resolution I didn't want to do.
I knew something was off about these sessions. I discovered I'm not really a sit down and just chat about things kind of person when it comes to therapy. I don't do well with the fluff, I don't do well with talking in circles and I don't do well with someone starting at me waiting to get the answer I'm looking for just by saying things out loud. I needed a team approach. When I can't wrap my mind around something or I feel stuck, I need someone to problem solve with me to get me to the point I need to be at. I knew that I was approaching this like I do work, there are items I needed to check off and action to come to a solution. This is what my brain needed to do - it's just who I am.
When everything kind of erupted at the end of 2020, my friend recommended I check out the Mental Health Copilots website for help. They are a free service (to Albertans) to help them navigate the rocky seas of all the different kind of therapists. It can be super overwhelming trying to find someone who does what you need and by now I knew the type of therapist I needed. When I had my consultation with one of their volunteers I gave them an overall theme of my issues I wanted to discuss and a little about my previous history with a therapist and why I felt like it didn't work. But, most importantly I gave them a list of the qualities I knew I needed to succeed: someone who is tough, someone who is action orientated, someone with experience in my theme and someone who doesn't just do the sit and talk therapy. The volunteer took my information and gave me a list of five people that potentially fit my list. They walked me through why they chose each one and why they thought they might be a good fit. They even did a follow up call with me a few weeks later to see if I actioned anything. I emailed the first person on the list and I was done! I feel like I am forever indebted to these folks - I don't think I ever would have found this therapist without them. It's a great service, check out there website if you feel like you just don't know where to start.
In my initial consultation with this new therapist we discovered that I was sitting at a 44 on a questionnaire that measures PTSD (they let me know that a score over 33 indicates the patient may benefit from a PTSD treatment) and was ranking at moderately severe for the depression severity questionnaire. I want to be open with this process because if you're anything like me measurables and milestones are important to see progress and for me to accept what other people aka the therapist are seeing. This is the first time I had ever taken those questionnaires, where it wasn't just a piece of paper on a clipboard to rank how I'm feeling. No knock on those sheets but these questionnaires were tangible, measurable outcomes I could understand and look up to see how they were created, when they were created, the purpose behind them, etc (which I did). My therapist then gave me three options to choose from:
Prolonged exposure: re-experiencing traumatic event through intrusive and upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and strong emotional and physiological reactions triggered by reminders of the trauma. This is done by gradually facing the trauma related memories by talking. Ummm, fuck no! One - I tried the talking thing and it didn't work for me, less talk more action. And two....why on earth would I want to repeatedly talk about it when my brain doesn't even want to remember it!? Not shooting this down, but it wasn't for me.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): helps to process and make sense of your trauma. It involves calling the trauma to mind while paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound (like a finger waving side to side, a light, or a tone). I've had some friends try this and it seems to be a "popular" one so it was in the back of my mind as an option but...
Cognitive Processing Therapy: teaches to reframe negative thoughts about the trauma. It involves talking about the negative thoughts and doing short writing assignments. SOLD! I remember when my therapist mentioned this as an option I looked to my left where there was this piece of art I made a few years ago sitting on my floor, it reads "write your own story". I feel like I knew this was the option for me before I even researched it.
Never the less, I dug deep into research about this option. It was exactly like what I had been looking for, a mix of team work and homework. A way to look at what happened, put pen to paper, dissect, reframe and most importantly, move on!
The total time commitment for this type of program is a weekly meeting for 12 weeks and daily homework assignments. It's intense....and expensive. At $200 a session I invested a total of $3,050, that included an assessment consultation, the planning session and an extra therapy session to cope with a curve ball that appeared during this process. There are two things I'd like to stress about my choice to include the cost:
The word choice of invested. I chose to invest in myself so that I could learn coping skills that will work for any issue that comes my way in the future. I learned some valuable tools during those 12 weeks.
How the cost of this valuable resource can be a such barrier to people healing. Just think if this was subsidized or had resources to help people pay for it what it could do for the world. I think about how my reactions or emotions or my being was affected by these traumas I started to really work through. I just remember being 3/4 done the program and driving a friend to go skating and she said she's noticed such a big change in me. That moment right there made that investment worth it.
The other thing that I am so very, very grateful for was that I was able to do during this program was take time off of work. For the first 7 weeks of this program I was able to focus on working through my shit and not worry about anything else - another privilege I am grateful to have. I don't think I could have done it if I had to stress about work - I applaud and admire the people who do this work and have so many other things going on. The reason behind why I took 7 weeks off was through a discussion with my therapist, they said the first 7 weeks were the hardest and there is usually a turning point around that time where people feel better. I feel like she prepared me but I still feel like she undersold how hard it would be. I know I'm not currently able to express what happened during those weeks - but just picture a shell of a human walking around an apartment.
The first few weeks you're asked to write out the event and read it everyday and then rewrite it greater detail and read it everyday and then write it again with what was going through your mind and read it everyday. You then work with they therapist to decipher "stuck points" - these negative thoughts that you told yourself about the event. You know the things that you replay in your mind, your should have-could have-would haves, the things that stop you from sleeping or wake you up or give you nightmares. Mine mostly centered around blaming myself. You spend a bunch of time re-framing these stuck points until you give it a different meaning with new insight that your therapists helps you discover (while still reading the event everyday). And finally you do more in-depth work around the emotional attachments you created around these stuck points. During all of this having a team member, aka therapist, push you, dig you out of holes and cheer you on. They let me cry when I needed to and made me laugh when I threw my phone across the room. They were a "tough cookie" but man...I do appreciate them. Eventually rational thought takes over and you have something tangible to look back on.
For me, it's a crisp, white, one and a half inch binder that is filled with scribbled pages that are warped from tears. The writing goes from messy and frantic looking to clean and legible words. The use of black pen to colour coded - to me that shows my mind finally being able to process because I could now organize the information. As I sit back and think about the beginning of this process for me and how life was spent on a couch re-watching Schitt's Creek or either crying so hard I'd get a two day migraine to the end of the process where my last session I rated a 2 on the PTSD and a 0 on the depression severity questionnaires made it all worth it. I think I'll be talking about this experience for awhile because of how much it put me on a different path in life.
I know that therapy isn't for everyone. I know that some people still scoff at the idea of it and other's just aren't there yet - ready to face their should have-could have-would haves (no matter how big or small they may seem). I just don't think it should be written off, it took me three tries before I was ready to face issues and three times before I found the person who could help me. And, if you can't afford a therapist or aren't there yet - find someone you trust to talk to. Because, even baby steps are still steps forward.
If you're interested in the website my therapist sent me to to learn more about the three types of treatment listed above, go visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They have some great resources and videos explain everything so well: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/tx_basics.asp