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Things To Consider When Starting Therapy

OK, so, look: I am not a mental-health professional yet. I am, however, starting my journey toward becoming a therapist next spring and am developing an ultradope mental-health nonprofit to address the unique mental-wellness needs of black folks. I am but a humble, grits-loving chile who loves some therapy, writes about mental health, and loves to teach and talk about feelings and aha moments and dreams and growth. Being open about my struggles and sharing both the ugly and the excellent helps me purge and process my shit.

I understand my limits as a nonprofessional. I took the Mental Health First Aid course in April and am taking the trainer’s course in December so that I can help other people recognize various mental and emotional issues and disorders and can feel comfortable assisting folks in distress or de-escalating a potential crisis. Until I can crank dat licensure, I shall tell anyone who’ll listen how great a tool therapy can be for helping you get your mind right.

When everything first went bad back in the summer of 2014, a hella patient Nice White Lady helped me get up from the mud and get excited about being black and wonderful out here in these streets rather than ending it all with a bedsheet around my neck, as I had once considered down in Panama. It is largely because of those 10 months I spent fidgeting, rambling and weeping on that couch that I am here today to demolish chicken and gummy worms by the pound.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you start your fantastic voyage down the yellow brick road to see the Wiz for a new outlook on life:

Starting therapy or counseling is a big deal.

Celebrate this. Congratulations on taking this step toward getting (or keeping) your mental and emotional wellness on track. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 43 million Americans suffer from some type of diagnosable mental illness, with about 10 million of those facing “serious functional impairment due to a mental illness, such as a psychotic or serious mood or anxiety disorder,” so you are far from alone in this fight.

Whether because of economic barriers, logistical woes, fear, stigmas or willful ignorance, many of us never get the care we need. Peeling off the flesh-toned Band-Aids and letting your skeletons and weak spots hang out can be terrifying. Being honest with yourself in front of someone else can be terrifying. But like booty play, it may be a tad uncomfortable before the ecstasy happens. [Editor’s Note: *dead*] Stick with it. This is major.

Appreciate the journey.

I’m a planner and a professional list-maker. I walked into my first session sweaty-palmed and carrying my journal with carefully curated questions. The last one, underlined and highlighted, was, “Given what you’ve heard today, how many sessions is this going to take?” I wanted a clear action plan, a manual and a target end date.

I quickly learned that there was, sadly, no secret code that my Nice White Lady would perhaps feed me in pieces over the course of X number of sessions that I’d have to decipher, at which point I’d be able to zoom past Olmec’s gates, into the temple, past the dungeon and through the secret room to unlock all the doors hiding the Secret to an Unmessed-Up Life or something, like the happy white kids used to do on Legends of the Hidden Temple. Didn’t work like that.

You don’t know this person.

Do not worry about being judged by your chosen mental-health professional. You probably will not encounter this person in your daily life. Assuming that you’re working with an impartial professional, you will not have to worry about him or her gossiping about you down at the church house or flinging holy water on you as he or she recoils in horror in line at Piggly Wiggly. None of that happens in therapy. This ain’t Sunday dinner with Meemaw and your judgy and newly devout deacon-ass uncle—the reformed serial baby-maker and legendary hometown coochie bandit. Whole different thing.

Your counselor-psychiatrist-psychologist is there to listen, to guide you to important realizations, to help you develop the skills to cope and make it through the day, work through rough patches or everyday drama, and make sense of your life. This person is not employed to preach at you, talk at you or talk down to you. This is a professional, who is supposed to be unbiased, open-minded and easy to talk to. And although this person is there to work through intimate things with you …

Your therapist is not there to be your best friend or tell you everything you want to hear.

Given the intimate nature of the client-therapist relationship and the private things you’ll share with your therapist, bonding and developing a warm rapport are natural. Sure, be friendly, cuss like hell and relate over hot comb horror stories. But avoiding a distracting level of personal involvement will help prevent conflicts and confusion about the nature (and limits) of your relationship. Your therapist is providing a service, not working to be the Pam to your Gina.

Expect some awkwardness in the first session(s).

Essentially, you’re sitting down with a stranger and enlisting him or her to help you sort through the contents of your barrel o’ baggage. Figuring out the client-counselor dynamic and building rapport is a journey in itself. Being nervous is fine. During your first session, your therapist will spend some (or the entire) time getting familiar with your specific situation and needs. It’s a getting-to-know-you session, if you will.

It’s impossible to cover every woe in one sitting. You might sit down on the couch and cry for an hour. Or you may take the scenic route to vulnerability and spend a few sessions in silence. You might uncork and ramble for the entire session (I did). Open-mindedness helps. No two experiences will be the same.

It’s OK to want a therapist who shares your race, gender, religious situation or sexual orientation.

When starting this journey, we all want someone who is professionally and culturally competent who can speak to us and our particular issues with ease. Given the infinite number of intersectional identities and experiences that lead folks to a therapist, it is not uncommon to have a muy eager, well-trained therapist who can’t properly engage with your cultural background, gender identity, socioeconomic level, etc. Or a competent counselor who has some stigmas of his or her own to work through and who may unknowingly pathologize you or discount or misread your struggles because he or she is not sensitive to how racism affects your blackety-black ass.

A therapist who shares your racial or cultural background may easily relate to, for example, mental-health issues related to race, systemic issues, discrimination and so forth. Pero remember: A shared identity does not guarantee competency.

Therapists and counselors are not infallible.

Therapists are just like the rest of us: They may have their own unconscious biases, anxieties, privileges and cultural baggage to work through. They may seem like superheroes, but they are human. Double-booking, anyone?

Selecting a therapist and building a relationship with one is a bit like dating.

Except the therapist lets you do all the talking, on purpose. And you pay every time. It could take five minutes or a few sessions for you to know whether this person is a match for you and where you are in life right now. Patience, grasshopper. There is much to consider.

The therapist’s style, personality, theories, level of training, experience, etc., must mesh with your personality, needs and expectations (if you have any). Over time, as you feel more comfortable, you dive deeper into that barrel o’ baggage together and attempt to clean that bitch out. Or at least bring some order to the clutter within. It’s a process. It’s a situationship. It’s complicated.

It’s OK to ditch your therapist.

It’s nothing personal. Don’t feel bad if, after a few sessions (or one), you realize that this relationship is not a match or doesn’t quiiiite feel right, even if you can’t quite explain it. I waited a little too long with a Latina counselor because I appreciated that she cursed like I did, and I liked the casual vibe. But I ultimately felt as if I were talking to a homegirl in her office on her lunch break, not that I was making progress with my barrel o’ baggage. I knew two sessions in that it wasn’t a match, but I waited six sessions to bow out because I hoped that we would find our groove and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or be rude. Never again. #IceCold.

Alex Hardy

Alexander Hardy is the dance captain for Saint Damita Jo Jackson's Royal Army. He is a writer who escaped Hampton, Virginia and is now based in Panama City, Panama. There, he runs The Colored Boy, and consumes copious amounts of chicken. He has written for EBONY.com, CNN, Gawker, and Huffington Post among other outlets. Alexander can likely be found daydreaming about his next meal or Blacking It Up on someone's dance floor. He also doesn't believe in snow or Delaware. Read more from Alex at www.thecoloredboy.com

  • Brown Rose

    This is a good list, especially the last one. If its not working and they are not into you, its ok to find a better therapist that will help you. Also, its very easy to get dependent on one if the therapist does not have clear boundaries and also that they have a plan on completing therapy in the beginning of treatment.

  • miss t-lee

    This is all good advice.

  • The timeliness of it all… I’m just re-starting therapy after staying away for a couple years because my past experiences with it have been ultimately frustrating and disappointing. But the last few months have been so stressful I knew I couldn’t do it alone anymore. At intake, I specifically requested a therapist of color, but that was not an option at my provider, though they did at least agree that needed to be addressed and soon. But as of now, I still feel hopeful.

    I’m admittedly more intrigued by Alex’s line on bewtee play lol. I’m requesting he or someone write an explanatory follow up piece on that. For… science?

    • Asiyah

      Be patient, Sawyer, and don’t be afraid to shop around. I hope this time around the therapy is helpful :)

    • miss t-lee

      It took me 5 years between trying the first person and the second person.
      I’m really glad I tried again because the second person was absolutely a gem.
      Best of luck.

      • Thanks, Miss :)

        • miss t-lee

          Of course.

    • Maestro G

      Hooray science!

  • These were all really great points, especially about how it’s a big deal to start seeking therapy, and how it can be awkward at first.

  • Asiyah

    I’m so happy for you, Alex! This is great news.

    On that note, I’ll add on to your list. I’ve been in therapy on and off since 2005, more on since 2010. Like Alex said, it really IS a lot like dating. His comment about therapists not judging you? Well, he also added that a therapy isn’t infallible. I’ve had a few very judgmental, borderline @sshole therapists. Both were patronizing and condescending, with one making me cry on our one and only session not because I emoted or opened up, but because she proceeded to lecture me about how I was oppressing myself by becoming religious. I would agree with her if, you know, I was extremely religious, but I wasn’t. The minute this liberal woman whose religion I won’t mention found out I was Muslim, forget it. The entire session became about that.

    The other patronizing and condescending one misdiagnosed me but never told me what she put on my file. I had to find out from the therapist I saw after her who got a hold of my file. I saw her for a year and a half and she never once told me she diagnosed me as having Borderline Personality Disorder because…well…unlike her who just decided one day to become a therapist after majoring in Creative Writing…I actually majored in the subject, studied it extensively, and would have pointed out that I didn’t have the core symptoms of BPD, and any ones I did/do have is because, *GASP* lots of mood and personality disorders have symptoms that overlap. She kept seeing me for a while, never telling me anything but writing extensively on my chart, and then got a little upset because, after charging me for sessions she wasn’t supposed to even though I gave her a month’s notice that I couldn’t see her, I decided not to see her anymore (hello broke). Oh and there was the whole forgetting that I’m of a different culture from her and having a “one size fits all” approach to therapy. When I called her out on this, she labeled me difficult on my chart (but duh, didn’t tell me directly). I realized she never truly cared about my well-being. But hey, because of her, I can always plead insanity as a legal defense.

    It took me five years but I finally found a great therapist in 2010. I love him so much. He’s amazing! He diagnosed me and actually told me what he believes I have. He’s never let that bias or affect our conversations. I had to stop seeing him for some time and then went right back as soon as I could afford it. He has so much patience with me. I would’ve choked me a long time ago (haha!). Having a great therapist is such a blessing. I thank God every day for this doctor. My life isn’t great but he’s helped a lot.

    • Scorpiogoddess??

      Patients don’t have access to their charts?

      • Asiyah

        They’re supposed to. In her defense, I was a young college student who didn’t ask to see it, but in my defense, the therapist I had before her was much more transparent, so I didn’t feel a need to ask. They’re not supposed to stigmatize you based on diagnosis but they are supposed to tell you if they’ve diagnosed you with something. Now I’m a lot more hip to the game.

    • Val

      Glad you stuck with it and found the right therapist, Asiyah. :-)

      • Asiyah

        Thank you thank you :)

    • miss t-lee

      “The other patronizing and condescending one”

      First one I tried to see was like this. I left and never returned.

      • Asiyah

        I don’t have patience for people who think that the letters that come before and/or after their names give them leeway to be jerks. No way. Keep it moving.

        • miss t-lee

          Amen.

    • Can you cuss out your therapist? She sounds like she needed it.

      • Asiyah

        The best revenge is not giving her my money. GRRRRR. :)

  • Val

    Great post, Alex. I am so happy that you are becoming a mental health professional. You’re going to help a lot of people!

    You covered everything. I’ll just add to what you said about firing your therapist. People should know that it can take multiple tries before finding the right therapist for you. And that if you do fire your therapist it doesn’t mean that you have some sort of extra problems. Many, many people have several therapists before finding the right one. So, hang in there, it’s worth the trouble.

    And finally, thanks for writing about mental health. As you alluded to, Black folks and other POC need to be more comfortable with the idea of therapy and discussing it and mental health in general.

    • Thanks Val! That is the scary part – the idea of starting over after you’re getting in deep with someone who’s not working out. I got lucky, but a good friend who initially gave me the pre-therapy pep talk said it took him SIX therapists over 9 months to find the right one. Whew.

      • Emmie

        One thing I’d add about finding the right therapist is that clients should consider talking to therapists openly about therapy when it’s not working. There are definitely (unfortunately) a lot of bad therapist out there, but MH professionals are human too. The usual suspects in human interaction creep into the therapy relationship. I try to start out with each new client by telling them that they can talk to me about things that aren’t working between us. I also make a point to call attention to it when I’m sensing it in session so they can feel comfortable pointing it out too. I ask clients about what they did and didn’t like about past therapy experiences. But if your therapist doesn’t ask, I’d say tell they them so they can know…saves you time in the process with your new therapist. Opening up the lines of communication is something I’ve become really passionate about while I’ve been training. Clients look at me like I have two heads when I ask them “did you get to talk to your therapists about it?”….it’s a part of the process that people don’t know they can engage in (and not all therapists communicate that). So I encourage talking to your therapist when therapy ain’t going right….doesn’t mean you have to stay with them but it’s possible that it can be repaired (and that can be therapeutic). But if you choose to ghost on your therapist, we’re used to that too lol.

    • Kae

      The process of finding a therapist, for me, was very productive in and of itself.

      I get inarticulate when I have to verbally talk about an emotionally heavy issue or conflict, so I had to learn how to expose myself to my issues first in a way, so that when I saw the therapist I could actually have a constructive conversation.

      I never did find the right therapist for me, but the work I did to find a match helped me learn how to talk to myself. That of course changed how I engaged with others.

      I think with the wrong therapist things can be made worse, but overall I’ll never regret trying to find help. The process did a lot for me.

      • Val

        Glad you grew in the process but don’t give up on finding a therapist.

  • Junegirl627

    congratulations on this new journey. It seems like this is a time for new beginnings. As a member of the broken but on the mend, i’m glad to know that the mental health profession has another smart and compassionate brotha to count amongst their numbers.

  • King Beauregard

    All good points! A couple more thoughts:

    1) The reason to see a therapist is the same reason you see a barber: not because you can’t be trusted with scissors, but because you can’t see yourself from the most useful perspective for all purposes.

    2) Queen King Beauregard didn’t like her counselor much at first; he came across as contrarian more than helpful. But QKB warmed to him, and also maybe he got to know her well enough that he stopped challenging her on “maybe you’re looking at everything backwards!” So, not that there are any guarantees, but sometimes you have to get past that initial phase.

    3) Queen King Beauregard is big on attending Recovery International meetings, they’re all over the place and they’re free. (recoveryinternational dot org) More or less it operates on the teachings of one Dr. Abraham Low, a Polish-Jewish psychologist who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

  • charisma_supreme

    “Your therapist is not there to be your best friend or tell you everything you want to hear.”

    Where do i send my offering? Because I place this, in some form, right on my consent form. You get lies on these streets for free… lies and soothing words that keep u stuck in your same patterns of thought and behavior. Those liars mean well, though… they aren’t tryna risk offending you and losing a valuable relationship. But u dont pay me to lie to you. You pay me to challenge you with an alternate view. You pay me for truth.

    Regarding the therapist “fit”, empirically, its a thing, and more important than skills in some regards. During pre-session consultation (usually free, if the therapist offers this), ask abt their “style” and orientation. This might save folks a lot of therapy “first dates” and wasted time. Maybe even ask abt it at the end of intake/session 1. i just go ahead and put my therapeutic style on the table on day 1, so if a client is looking for a different style, we can think abt a good referral.

    In sum, i appreciate this article. Thanks to Alex for writing it and VBS for posting it.

    • miss t-lee

      “Regarding the therapist “fit”, empirically, its a thing, and more important than skills in some regards.”

      Indeed.

    • L8Comer

      “You get lies on these streets for free… lies and soothing words that keep u stuck in your same patterns of thought and behavior.”

      Following up on that, am I the only one who thinks if you don’t kinda hate your therapist, then he or she is not working? Growth is painful right? Who likes people who are constantly trying to disrupt long held beliefs and internal systems? Maybe it’s just me.

      • miss t-lee

        If you’re not be challenged, you’re wasting your time.

      • Kylroy

        Agreed, but emphasis on *kinda* hate. There’s gotta be some grudging respect there too.

        • charisma_supreme

          ^u got the keys, the keys, the keys.

        • L8Comer

          Right. It’s hard to get help from someone you hate. Hopefully you become the type of person that really appreciates and likes having their long held belief systems dismantled

    • “You get lies on these streets for free… lies and soothing words that keep u stuck in your same patterns of thought and behavior.”

      THIS. RIGHT. HERE. That’s the one downside of using friends as therapists. That relationship and the attached feelings makes those brutal, necessary truths hard to come by.

  • Livewyre718

    I’m really feeling this post. I’m in the process of looking to start therapy now and every little bit of encouragement to begin that journey is helpful.

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