Life in Both Chairs
I’ve been listening to this podcast for about a month now, and I’ve been so happy that one of my clients introduced it to me. It’s completely different to hear these incredible stories of pain, loss, and healing outside of my office and to engage with them as a survivor of mental illness, rather than a therapist. I don’t tell my clients about my personal experiences with mental illness (hence the anonymity), even though there are times when I really, really want to. Currently I’m a graduate student in a counseling psychology program, but five years ago I was depressed, suicidal, and hopeless. This is a (very) abridged account of how I went from client to counselor.
It’s actually a little surprising that it took me so long to seek therapy. I made it through two years of physical abuse (between the ages of 5 and 7, when my aunt looked after me) and several panic attacks throughout childhood and adolescence, but eventually it was depression that made me look for outside help. The symptoms of depression started in my last year of high school, and came to a head the summer before my first year of university. I spent the summer away from home, living with a friend in a different city while washing dishes in a restaurant downtown. I started drinking more, and it became a problem almost immediately. I was no stranger to alcohol at this point; I’d experimented with booze and drugs in high school but this was different. I’d never used them to purposefully numb myself before. It turned out that not feeling anything felt pretty good. When I was drunk I didn’t need to feel like a freak for my panic attacks, I didn’t need to worry about university, and I didn’t need to think about my abuse or why my parents didn’t do anything when they found out about it. All of the things I’d been carrying in my head up to that point were just too much. I felt small and alone, I didn’t really know how to trust people, and I was tired of pretending to like the person I’d become. Stopping by the liquor store every day on the way home from work became a habit. I was underage, but I managed to find ways around that. I’d drink with my buddies on their nights off, but if they weren’t free I’d just drink alone. I spent almost every night in a stupor and usually passed out instead of going to bed.
At work I started to fantasize about hurting myself. I worked in the dish pit and occasionally moonlighted in kitchen prep, so there were plenty of opportunities. I remember this machine we used to turn huge slabs of beef into sandwich meat had a massive spinning blade, and how easy it would have been to lose a finger in it, or even a hand if something really went wrong. I reasoned that I’d either go to the hospital, go on workman’s compensation, and not have to work for whiskey money, or I’d die from blood loss. I was sick enough at the time that either seemed like a win for me. Before I could put this plan into action, some friends confronted me about my alcohol use, and I agreed to move back in with my parents to sort things out.
My family still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. My parents are very supportive people, but my relationship with them was strained at that time. I was 6 when I told my parents my aunt had been beating me, but they didn’t believe me until I was 7 and she’d started leaving marks that were harder to explain away. For many years after that I had a hard time trusting them and kept my problems to myself. This time wasn’t much different. I moved back in with my parents for a short while, but I was still drinking (somewhat sneakily), I barely ate, and I spoke very little. I ended up drying out by living with my Mennonite relatives for the rest of the summer, earning money working on the farm.
I went further downhill when I went to university. I moved in with a girl who suffered from an eating disorder, and we turned into just about the worst match you could get. We’d been dating since high school, and we lived in this little studio apartment together. Maybe it could’ve worked if either of us had been healthy, but we were both too sick to love ourselves, let alone someone else. We blamed each other for our problems and just sat around hating one another in 300 square feet with bad lighting. When we broke up I moved into a small university dorm and hit rock bottom. I went to class in my pajamas or dirty clothes, then I’d go right back to my room to bed. While I’d gotten my drinking under control over the summer, I was still very much depressed. By then my thoughts of self-mutilation had turned to persistent thoughts of suicide. Every subway train or tall campus building was an opportunity. During Christmas break that year I walked into my parents’ garage with car keys and a drainpipe extension late at night. I can’t remember if there was anything that had happened that day that pushed me; I think I was probably just tired of fighting. I had lost almost a quarter of my bodyweight, I looked emaciated, and I was shaving my head to hide the fact that I rarely bathed. I was pretty disgusted with what I was becoming, but I didn’t have the energy to be anything else. I connected the extension to the car exhaust, but I didn’t start the car. I just sat there with my hands on the keys for an hour so, then put the extension away and went to bed.
Shortly afterward, I decided to do what friends and family had been pleading with me to do: go on medication. I’d refused up to that point, because I thought going on meds was admitting defeat. To go on meds was to say that the world was too much for me; that I was weak. Sitting in that car with a drainpipe extension cinched up in the power windows made me change my mind about what defeat really meant. It still scares the shit out of me how it would have been all too easy to turn the keys, sit back, and wait to go to sleep. A week later, I started on citalopram.
Coming back from that point wasn’t easy, but I was very lucky. Medication works for some people, and doesn’t for others. I’m lucky it worked as well as it did for me. I’m lucky I had access to the medical resources I did. I’m lucky I had a family that was willing to support me even though I made it far from easy for them. I’m lucky I’m still here and training for a job where I’ll get to help people through times like I had and worse. I’m really, really fucking lucky I didn’t turn the keys.
The last thing I want is for someone to read this and decide that therapy might not help them, or that it’s a waste of time. I may have needed meds to get my head back on straight, but once that happened therapy was what helped me turn my life around. After almost a year of barely speaking to anyone and only leaving my room for meals and class, therapy provided me with a place to re-learn how interact with the world and the people in my life. It worked incredibly well, especially considering I hadn’t been all that well adjusted to begin with. I made friends with people who were also healing from their own battles, and we helped each other through the hard times that inevitably come with becoming a new person.
I’m a far cry from that garage now. I’m halfway through my graduate program, and this week I’ll clock my 50th clinical hour. I still take my meds, and I still kind of get side effects. I still have good days and bad days. Healing takes time, no matter your diagnosis. I see five to six clients a week now, and I think each of them is so brave for fighting the fight they wake up to every day. I secretly admire them all. I often want to tell them my story, especially during difficult sessions. I don’t want their sympathy or even to enhance my credibility; I just want them to know that mental illness can happen to anyone and that it doesn’t have to define who you become. If you’ve come to this site because of your personal experience with the subject matter then please, please, please don’t give up on yourself. Talk to your medical professional. Tell people you trust that you need help. Find a therapist. Life can absolutely get better, and at the very least it’s worth a try.