Therapy is the art of scraping by

Learning a lot about therapy, through therapy

As I sit dead centre on the couch, wedged between multi-coloured cushions, I realise that the woman opposite me is the sixth therapist I have seen in two years. I go through the motions, repeating my now well-rehearsed story of how I came to be the anxious mess of a person I am today. A familiar sense of futility overcomes me but I continue to talk.

The next session she repeats the same things previous psychologists have said to me. “When someone has low self-esteem, they tend to respond to situations with aversive thoughts and behaviours,” she says.

“Particularly given the experiences you’ve been through, it makes sense that you would feel socially anxious.”

That’s why I’m here, I think to myself.

No one ever told me what a frustrating and neverending process treating my social anxiety would be. They never told me how the 50 minutes of in-person sessions would be nothing compared to the 118 waking hours spent with my internal pathological critic. Its voice soothes my fears and anxieties, then turns around and beats me down with the same caresses it just comforted me with.

It is a constant battle between me and my therapists, as they push the boundaries of my self-defence mechanisms while I cry, argue and beg to stay in.

I remember my second therapist warning me that most people tend to get worse in the beginning, but not to worry, because it will get better. No indication of when that would be, but it would eventually. And if I gave up early…?

A study published by US researchers Joshua Swift and Roger Greenberg in 2012 found that one in five clients drop out of therapy. Never mind the bureaucratic complexities that prevent you from seeking help in the first place—therapy itself is an uphill battle.

For me, therapy is a process of trial-and-error, with a lingering fear that maybe there isn’t a solution. It is countless sessions spent on a couch that I will never be comfortable on, paying for someone to talk to me because there is no one else.

It is a roulette of therapists who sometimes slip up and reveal their frustration. It is the number of different cognitive therapies that you try, hoping to God one of them will help you feel sane.

So why do I keep going back?

Therapy is also the success of being able to spend time with strangers, co-workers and classmates without anxiety consuming my entire body.

It is the triumph of the one time I was able to approach an acquaintance, and gain a friendship that I had worked for. It is the one less day I wake up without the foreboding feeling of why?

Asking for help and getting it is not always as straightforward as everyone envisions. The inconsistencies and other inadequacies of the system perpetuate a conversation that prioritises superficial awareness over real action.

Therapy, like everything in life, is flawed. There are over 50 different types of therapies, none of which hold a magical key to unlock the secret of being ‘normal’. It can be a tedious and ongoing process that yields disappointing results, but results nonetheless.

The past two years have made me realise that treatment is not about eradication. Instead, it’s about learning to navigate a complex, imperfect world by celebrating improvements—no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.