A therapist’s chair was something I never thought I’d be sitting in. For a long time, I had a great life full of adventure, happiness and supportive friends and family. That didn’t sound like someone who would ever need therapy. Around the time that I engaged with the idea, I was experiencing a lot of trauma, so the details of how it came about still feel soft around the edges of my memory.
I was never against therapy, but the stereotypes of seeing a ‘shrink’ were firmly in my mind, having been placed there by the films I’d seen. I imagined a plush chaise longue and a table adorned with a box of Kleenex. Some abstract artwork framed on light coloured walls. Perhaps a plant or two and a view of the road out of an old Victorian window. My imagined therapist was somebody uptight and middle-aged, coaxing buried truths out of me through a strained smile. So sure, I wasn’t against it, but I was skeptical.
I had my first therapy session about a week after experiencing my first loss. I was thirteen and had no idea how it would go. She was an art therapist. I’ve always been fond of drawing, painting, colouring and collaging. It harked back to my expressive childhood, where I’d create stories everyday, taking myself on a new quest to places more exciting than the suburbs of west London.
“She left awfully long pauses after I spoke, as if my heart would suddenly burst open and my deepest, darkest insecurities would seep out if she gave it enough time.”
She was a nice woman whose name I can’t remember. It must have gotten swept away with the other blurry memories that made up my teen years. She asked about my grief in ways which felt too intimate. I’d try and avoid her questions. She hadn’t earned the right to know about me and my situation – I didn’t even know myself anymore. I was too fragile and it was too soon to talk. I ended our sessions soon after, which I’m sure came as no surprise.
A few months after my first experience, I started feeling overwhelmed again. The issues that were brewing under the surface the first time were never properly dealt with. I dreaded meeting another therapist that was just like my last, but I knew that I needed to speak to someone. It was always my choice to see a counsellor, and my parents were always there for me without fail. They contacted my school and a couple of weeks later I was sitting in what felt like a broom cupboard tucked between the science labs on the first floor.
Once again, she was a perfectly nice lady, with a soft Australian accent and blonde ringlet curls. She left awfully long pauses after I spoke, as if my heart would suddenly burst open and my deepest, darkest insecurities would seep out if she gave it enough time. They never did. Soon her intense staring and plastic cards labelled with various feelings became infantile. And although she helped me, I knew I didn’t need or want to see her anymore, and my Monday afternoons went back to Year 8 religious studies like it said in my planner.
“When my mum would come back to get me, the lull of a creamy frappuccino called my name. It was never a bribe, more of a well done, I’m proud of you.”
The time between seeing my second and third therapists is something I can’t quantify. I think there was about a year and a half between them, where I must have gotten on with life and caught up on whatever drama was permeating the corridors of the school. A year and a half where I must have felt less anxious and perhaps even felt like the part of me I lost was slowly finding its way back.
I’ve now learned that grief is not a linear process. And although in this time I took many steps forward, it is no surprise that there were a few wobbles too. So once again, aged 15, I found myself opposite another overly-smiley white woman who apparently had the influence to help keep my qualms at bay. I went begrudgingly, my mum pleading with me to give her a chance. I suppose I wanted to dislike her and not have a reason to go. She was warm and kind and had an authenticity about her which I’d never felt before. My voice was the one in the limelight, the one driving the narrative. It was a bittersweet sensation. It felt nice not to be overlooked, and at the same time akin to being placed under a microscope.
At first, my mum would wait for me on the blue linen sofas outside the counselling rooms. Once I was comfortable, she would leave me there and do the food shopping on the high street. When she’d come back to get me, the lull of a creamy frappuccino called my name, and we’d soon be absorbing the sights, smells and sounds whilst standing in the coffee shop queue. It was never a bribe, more of a well done, I’m proud of you.
“For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had autonomy over my life. I had real choices and learned that life wasn’t something that just happened to me, rather something I could control.”
My mum sensed how isolating navigating grief as a teenager was for me, and the drinks signified a small token of her recognition. We’d walk to the shop and I would tell her about my day, about the session, about how I was feeling. In the car, the conversation would continue between sips. We’d continue until she pulled onto the driveway of our home, and I would wrap up my story and ask what was for dinner.
The sessions with this therapist only lasted around 8 to 10 weeks, as that was the most they could offer me at the time. It went by so quickly yet I was able to learn so much about myself and my friendships that I walked away from it feeling unstoppable. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had autonomy over my life. I had real choices and learned that life wasn’t something that just happened to me, rather something I could control and make work for me.
For the next four years I cruised through life. Of course, there were immense highs and treacherous lows, but I dealt with everything that came my way with an ease that I didn’t have in my early teens. I never reached a place where I felt anxiety at full force, rather blips that I would snap out of relatively quickly. I soon learned that the isolation I was experiencing from being in the house, having no real routine and living in the limbo between an abrupt end of college and an uncertain start of university was leading me to look for an escape.
“It was nice to see curls and coils which resembled mine, and rich brown skin which mirrored my hue. I felt connected immediately”
That’s where my most recent – and personal favourite – therapist came along. It was nice to see curls and coils which resembled mine, and rich brown skin which mirrored my hue. I felt connected immediately and eager to let her into my world, to fix the parts of myself I didn’t like.
I don’t remember the first session with her, and I have no idea what or who we talked about. But I recall how I felt afterwards. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my fatigued shoulders that were on the verge of snapping.
I loved therapy with her. And I continue to love the healing that it gave me. When I first tentatively began my journey, I couldn’t have fathomed the world that I exist in now; full of romance, joy, new adventures and opportunity. I moved from the leafy outskirts into the bustling city, I made incredible friends and discovered how much confidence, love and security I had in my identity.
“A door of independence was beckoning me through – I wanted to see how I’d fare in the big bad world alone.”
It was at that point I knew that the journey with my therapist needed to end. There was a time where I couldn’t have imagined living without her or dissecting every segment of my life, except one day that simply seemed to change. I thought back to my life last summer; I felt trapped in the world around me, with nowhere to go and no one to see, so I fell into the habit of living life from my bed, consuming the world through a rectangular portal. My room was my safe haven to the point where other parts of my own home felt foreign. The thought of sitting in the living room felt so exposing it just became the room I’d walk through on my expeditions to the kitchen.
So much had changed from then to when I sat down at my desk and opened Zoom, watching the soft grey circle chase itself for minutes, and realised that I knew what to do. I knew that writing things down makes it easier for me to manage tasks or difficult situations; I knew how to calm myself down if I was getting easily overwhelmed. A door of independence was beckoning me through – I wanted to see how I’d fare in the big bad world alone.
“I learned the fundamentals of who I am in therapy. I would have never been able to do that alone. And that’s totally fine! It’s okay to admit that I needed guidance.”
Therapy for me was like gasping for air after being underwater for too long. I was swimming through life in slow-motion. Suddenly, I started thinking, feeling, reacting and reflecting in real time. I could say the things I wanted to say in the moment, not hours later after ruminating on it. That had never happened before.
I learned the fundamentals of who I am in therapy. I would have never been able to do that alone. And that’s totally fine! It’s okay to admit that I needed guidance. As someone who doesn’t like to struggle or ask for help, therapy allowed me to be vulnerable without embarrassment. There is no shame in figuring things out with a professional. We do it all of the time when we’re in education or seeking medical help, so why would it be different in the case of having therapy?
I found peace and my true self with the help of a very friendly face in between even friendlier ears which would always listen intently and made me feel more heard than anyone else ever had.
There is a huge assumption that only broken people seek support, but having a positive experience of therapy taught me that I was never damaged goods or overly-sensitive. I don’t think anyone is. I’m so glad I kept trying – I wanted to change my narrative, so I did. It was the best decision I ever made.
Kira Mae Richards is a 19-year-old student journalist from London. She specialises in personal essays, opinion pieces, and arts and culture writing. @kiramaerichards
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