“Go in pieces,” my therapist ends our session with a chuckle. It’s the way he ends every session, and even though I know it’s coming, we still have a good laugh. Because how I “go” is anything but in pieces. With a reprieve from my yoke I go: my manufactured drama doused with perspective, and the more tragic burdens of life eased with tangible psychological tools. When we meet there is humor, introspection and a soothing corrective guidance that turns my catastrophizing impulses to reality like the flipping of an overturned beetle. It’s a safe space to be strange. And be holy. To be mentally ill (though he never lets me use that term). He’s the therapist I’ve always needed.
Through the coaxing of family, I started going to therapy ten years ago to address mental illness and trauma, and in that span I have seen twelve different therapists.
There was the well-meaning Catholic therapist who came recommended by my pastor. I explained why I was there and was quickly cut off with an, “I totally know how you feel,” while she proceeded to “relate,” sharing her experience about the time her study abroad trip was cancelled in college. I listened compassionately for 45 minutes, and received my $200 bill in the mail the following month.
So I decided to forget the Catholic therapist and go with the highly recommended expert. A shrewd psychiatrist with a demeanor as cold as the temperature of his office. We would sit at his desk for fifteen-minute appointments that echoed every physiatric trope from the scribbling on a pad of paper to the nods and “mmhhhmms.” After our first appointment he got right to the point, “I’m going to write you a prescription for Wellbutrin.” The following session he wrote me a prescription for Trazodone to combat the insomnia caused by Wellbutrin. The next session he prescribed me a pill that would help me wake up in the mornings to combat the dizzying effects of Trazadone. The next appointment I called in sick. My memory couldn’t handle another pill.
Back to a Catholic therapist I went, this time one who was giddy about a new neurological technique in which I needn’t be emotionally present at all. She merely needed to communicate with my body by pressing points on my arms. My skepticism was met with my even greater desperation so I went along with it. While she pricked and prodded she released “troves” of unspoken emotions held within my nervous system I never knew I had. I was captivated. We “discovered” that I had been harboring mistrust of authority because of my somewhat unstable second-grade teacher. “Isn’t that remarkable?” I debriefed with my boyfriend, “What was her name?” he asked. I couldn’t remember.
Next, an incredibly brilliant and experienced therapist, offered viable coping mechanisms and practical tools to combat anxiety that helped me immensely, but she also wanted to tell me all the various ways I could masturbate, despite my informing her I did not think that would be a healthy step. Then there was the therapist who told me I shouldn’t date Catholics. The nurse who told me he didn’t believe anxiety was a clinical illness, and that I was clearly “not praying enough.” The counselor who suggested the answer to my depression was entering a convent. I was told to drink more water, buy more soap, wear more lipstick. The solutions varied from the pedantic and bizarre to the outright damaging. There were therapists I sought to undo the previous therapists’ misguiding mechanisms.
I loathed those trickling plug-in waterfalls in waiting rooms. And the “soothing” Enya-esque music. The droll consolatory posters that told me to “stay positive” made me want to do anything but. And if one more therapist was going to teach me how to breathe I was going to show them what mentally ill really looked like.
Therapy no longer holds the same stigma of the past. Gone are the days of stilted tear-swallowing and Jameson-as-healer. And yet there still seems to be a need for the melding of astute therapists and spiritual directors. I had a deeply psycho-spiritual affliction, and I needed a spiritual therapist who wouldn’t over-spiritualize trauma, who could give me concrete tools to combat anxiety, who wouldn’t shy away from medication or exercise if it could be helpful. I couldn’t have one more person respond to my chemical imbalance with, “if you just prayed more,” or who merely related my trauma to biblical circumstances. There is a place for that. But there is also a place for real clinical savvy. I similarly couldn’t go to a therapist skilled in neuroscience and post-traumatic stress who failed to respect my religious beliefs, or failed to understand how those can be intertwined with mental illness. Sometimes there were spiritual answers for mental wounds and sometimes clinical answers, and I needed someone who could do both.
When God freed the Israelites in ancient Egypt he wasn’t merely safeguarding them from physical slavery. His purpose was loftier, “he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear.” The slavery of mental illness is one that corrupts holy truths, disorients calm, it makes “worship” and relationship with God an endless battle. We therefore should consider freedom from these bonds of utmost importance, and make finding men and women capable of such work easier. For those who wait for healing, it cannot come soon enough. They wait on the same hope the Jewish people lived for:
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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