In a previous post, I mentioned that I’ve struggled off and on with eating and body image issues, and that therapy was a huge part of my healing. I honestly didn’t think much of it, until I read the following comment:
“Your willingness to share your therapy ventures with readers is touching and empowering. I am SO ashamed to admit that I'm in therapy, and suddenly here is this gorgeous, fashionable, happy young woman announcing to everyone that she has struggled and been through therapy, and it's OK!! THANK YOU!!!!!!”
Sometimes I forget about the cultural stigma that still surrounds admitting one’s need for psychological/emotional help and assume that everyone has the attitude that I have (for which I have my wonderful mother to thank): (good) therapy is awesome. So, I figured it might be helpful to write a series of posts on that very topic. I'm so incredibly thankful for therapy, and whether or not they know it, all of my friends, family members, colleagues, students, future husband and children are/will be thankful I've gone to therapy. :)
Before I elaborate on the awesomeness of therapy, I should tell you that my rule of thumb in terms of revealing anything personal on this blog is as follows: I don’t share anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a stranger seated next to me on an airplane. The internet is a public space, so I think this is a fairly reasonable standard. I know that some bloggers are okay with revealing more and some with even less than that, but this is the via media which I’ve adopted.
That being said, I have no problem sharing with you that I’ve gone to therapy off and on for a good portion of my young life. I would happily share this with just about anyone, including a room full of teenagers (i.e. my students), a potential date, or yes, even a random stranger on an airplane. Why? Because I firmly believe that going to therapy is nothing to be ashamed of, and what’s more, that it has been an essential vehicle of God's healing grace in my life and I want everyone who needs it to experience this same gift!
Here’s a quick rundown of my own struggles: I’ve dealt with moderate to severe anxiety since I was a child, have experienced two distinct periods of “situational depression” (i.e. not clinical) in my adult life, and suffered from an eating disorder/body image issues for most of high school and college. I went to therapy as a little girl (which wasn’t incredibly helpful because my therapists weren’t the best), a bit as a teenager (also not helpful), in college (meh), and finally found the best therapist ever in grad school (if you live in Austin or the surrounding area and are looking for a therapist, email me and I’ll give you her name!). In a future post, I'll explain what made Dr. T and my therapy with her so much better than previous stints.
That was then, this is now: thanks to Dr. T’s help and God’s grace, I haven’t gone to regular therapy for about three years now, which is a testament in and of itself to the healing I’ve experienced. My years in therapy have brought me to a place where I can discern reality from my (sometimes skewed) perception, have the tools with which to manage my anxiety, and can look at my life in all of its messyness and say: it is very good. That's what I call "money well spent".
You might be thinking, “Wow, Christina…this is all super-personal. How could you possibly feel comfortable sharing this with someone on a plane??” Simple. It’s because I know that I am not an anomaly; SO MANY PEOPLE struggle with these things. Also, I didn’t bring all of this suffering on myself--it is WAY more difficultto share the suffering that I’ve brought upon myself due to sin. Ultimately, the reasons why I went to therapy were the result of many factors that were (and are) beyond my control, including genetics and generational sin, so why should I be ashamed? If anything, I’m eager to share my struggles with others so that no one thinks that she (or he) is alone AND to give hope to those who may be tempted to despair. God can truly work miracles in our hearts and minds if only we are open to all of the avenues through which He can heal.
Here’s the thing: we’re all broken, flawed, wounded people, born into a world marked by sin and affected by that sin even before birth. The theological term for this reality is “Original Sin,” and as GK Chesterton once quipped, it is the easiest of all Christian doctrines to prove. Each of us enters the world through the union of a man and a woman, who have been shaped and affected by their own families—some more intact and functional than others—as well as their own personal sins (not to mention institutional sin, structural sin, generational sin, etc). Regardless of how relatively happy your childhood was, only the most stalwart of Pollyannas can make it to adulthood without enduring some kind of pain, suffering, anxiety, or general screwedupness, usually as a result of the sins and brokenness of one’s own parents whose lives were affected by the sins of their parent (and on and on all the way back to our first human parents). Whew. That was a long sentence.
I’m aware that I need to exercise caution when couching all of this in terms of Original Sin, and do not want to give the impression that I think all psychological maladies are caused by personal sin/spiritual struggles. That is a dangerous way to think, and it can lead someone who is in desperate need for psychotherapy to think that prayer, spiritual direction, and/or the Sacraments are enough to cure them. There is a mysterious interchange between our own free will and neurosis, and it often takes the help of professionals (therapists and spiritual directors) to discern sin from pathology. I used to spiritualize all of my anxieties, bouts with depression, and even my eating disorder by saying things like the following to myself (and/or my therapist/confessor):
“I’m only anxious all the time because I don’t trust in God enough. I just need to pray to trust in him more and I’ll be fine.”
“I’m only depressed because I haven’t been praying enough. If I pray more, I’m sure this will go away.”
“I’m only eating compulsively because I’m gluttonous. I just need to stop committing the sin of gluttony and I’ll be fine.”
With self-talk like that, you can imagine what kind of psycho-spiritual turmoil I was in for most of my teenage years and into my early twenties. Satan is a crafty one, and he knows how to hit us where we're weakest. I desired so much to please God, and spiritualizing all of my psychological problems made it virtually impossible for me to see how God could love me at all, which of course sent me further into psychological and emotional distress. It was, to put it mildly, the worst. But Satan didn't have the last word, nor did my neuroses. Jesus always has the last word, and in my case it was spoken through the work I did in therapy, in prayer, and in living my daily life under the banner of His love.
Note: I am NOT saying that there was zero connection between some of my anxieties, bouts of depression, etc. and the state of my spiritual life. It seems fairly obvious to me that our bodies, souls, and minds are intricately connected and cannot ever truly be divorced from one another (except by death). Yes, some of my struggles with anxiety and depression and eating were exacerbated by my human weakness and sinfulness, but that does not mean that I was causing 100% of my neuroses or that prayer and the Sacraments operated as magical cures for these problems. I certainly don’t think I would have experienced healing to the depths that I have without God’s grace, but I also know that his grace was given to me through therapy as well as through more conventional spiritual means.
This post is already too long, so I’ll close here, with three gentle reminders:
1. You are not alone.
2. There is hope.
3. You are loved.
Next week, I’ll follow up with Thankful for Therapy, Part 2: How do you know when/if you need therapy?
In the meantime, please feel free to leave questions in the comments or to email me if you would like more details or have a question you don’t feel comfortable asking publicly. I will do my best to answer in a timely fashion!