I’m no stranger to therapy.
The first time I went to therapy was when I was 14/15. I had just moved to a new city a few hours away from where I’d lived my entire life, and to make it more difficult than it already would have been on its own, it was just as I started high school. I began going to therapy at the suggestion of my parents in order to deal with my struggles of adjusting (not quickly finding new friends and missing the old ones, feeling resentment toward my parents). During that time, I also began to talk about my recent uncovering of repressed memories of sexual abuse from when I was a child. After a certain amount of time, maybe six months, I stopped going. I don’t remember why exactly, because things didn’t get solved, but I do recall having some kind of watershed moment with my parents (more specifically I told them about the abuse, which had been at the hands of a close friend of theirs, and they believed me and cut that person out of our lives right away; that person is now dead). As for the friends, I gave it time and eventually I found my people, and they remain my people to this day.
The second time I went to therapy was when I was 19/20. During that time, over the span of a year, more than a dozen people I knew (ranging from acquaintances to family members to my first cat) all died, and I fell into a deep depression and thought about death all the time. I stopped going to classes and eventually called my parents, who came the next day to move me out of the dorms and back home. I started going to all kinds of doctors then — I also started going to a therapist, but they were assigned to me by Kaiser, and we didn’t really build up a relationship where I felt like something beyond this person’s job, but I kept going because the other option was to sleep all the time and feel hopeless. I was also on antidepressants and they made me feel numb, but they helped more than the therapy seemed to. This time, the depression had to run its course; I had a support system in place but there wasn’t much that could be done except to wait. And within a year, things began to improve.
The third time I went to therapy was when I was 24. My life was in crisis at the time. Certain family relationships were unbearable, my ex had just left me, and I was absolutely broken. But it didn’t last long because insurance only covered a handful of sessions, and then my employer laid off half of us and I had no more insurance because I couldn’t afford COBRA. Instead I drank and got involved in unhealthy relationships and tried to bury my pain as much as possible, and this was how I continued to cope for the next couple years.
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school and wrote my book (over a period of about nine months in 2010/2011) that I started to heal. That’s also when I began to understand that writing is itself a form of therapy, and I think writing that book is one of the main reasons I stopped being self-destructive. So it wasn’t therapy in the strictest definition of the word, but for me, it was.
Since moving to Germany in 2011, I’ve been in a good mental space. Of course I have good days and bad, but we all do. Yet in spite of not being in crisis mode, living here has been hard (if you live in Germany you likely know what I mean). I’m saying this from a place of privilege because even though I’m a woman and a foreigner, I come from the U.S., I’m white, I have a German husband and child and permanent residency, I am a high earner, and I speak fluent German. So these are all things that set me up to still be doing pretty OK here, and yet, as of a few months ago, I’m not OK.
Unlike in the past, I have no real set of circumstances in my life to point to as the reason for why I am not doing OK. I have a good relationship with my parents, I have the best partner I could ask for, I have a kid I love and adore, I have clients who are amazing in so many ways — in short, I’ve worked hard to craft a life that I absolutely love. And yet.
I am someone who believes mental health is important, and I also am someone who thinks that it’s just as normal and even necessary to see a therapist during the good times as it is when life is falling apart. Yet I never have done so. Even with my intentions to find a therapist “just to have someone to talk to,” I’ve always been too busy, or too stressed, or too whatever, and I just haven’t made it a priority.
Back in October of 2019, I felt things starting to come to a head. I recognized that I had anxiety that left me feeling completely out of control. I was angry often. I was tired. I was burnt out. I had no motivation most days and was easily distracted. I felt myself not feeling much. At the end of the day, all the time invested in my work and my child and helping run our household and managing all my emotions left me completely drained. I had barely anything left for my husband. I had nothing left for myself.
A friend of mine on Instagram had just started something called 75HARD. And I thought “I want that too.” I wanted to have some kind of strict regimen that would help me be disciplined and hold myself accountable, but also something that would maybe help get me out of the rut I felt I was stuck in.
And it did. Every day, for 75 days, I took a selfie, I worked out twice for 45 minutes each, I stuck to a meal plan, I didn’t drink alcohol, I drank a gallon of water, and I read at least 10 pages of non-fiction/self-help. I got so much mental clarity and felt so much more like myself. I even started meditating again. And when it was over I had learned so much.
And then things got worse.
After the holidays, I was struck by an unrelenting sense of panic. I’m someone with a Type A personality, and suddenly I felt I couldn’t control anything, and it terrified me.
It was all made worse by the fact that I had been searching for a therapist for months and was met with rejections everywhere I went, because all the therapists covered by public insurance were full. And I didn’t want to be paying 85-150 euros one or two times a week to see a private therapist. The hardest part was that I had to do the research, write the emails, make the phone calls — again and again and again — when the very reason I was looking for a therapist was to help me with the anxiety that I got from thinking about and doing all of these things.
The first entire week of January was terrifying for me. I had multiple days where I couldn’t even work because I was so paralyzed by indecision and fear. It sounds ridiculous to some, but that week I took four phone calls in one day from unknown numbers and made a few outgoing calls to doctors, and although every conversation went fine, the act of taking and making those calls entirely in German left me completely wiped out for days after.
Finally, one therapist contacted me and said she didn’t have room to take on any new patients, but she did have room to meet with me and fill out a PTV 11 form, which is basically a piece of paper with a diagnosis and recommended treatment plan. So I went, and at the end of that hour, I had a diagnosis: Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Mild Depressive Episodes.
With the official diagnosis, I was able to call the KV and give them a code that specified what I had and what treatment I need and they had to search and find a therapist covered by insurance who can take on new patients. Because of the aforementioned high demand, the closest person available is 11 kilometers away, which is a 50-minute commute one way. But I took the appointment because other options (further away) don’t sound much better. They also couldn’t tell me if the therapist speaks English or not, and while therapy in German would be fine, I feel like I would get much more out of it if it were in English. So, we’ll see. The good news is that she does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is what I wanted.
It’s only been two-and-a-half weeks since that diagnosis, but already I feel the tide turning. It feels good, partially because for so long, for months, I was doing all the right things and they got me nowhere but worse off. And now it feels like things are finally getting better.
The meditation has definitely helped. I’ve been doing it every day — sometimes multiple times a day — for nearly four months, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. The benefits are subtle but transforming, and while I still have bad days and I still have panic-y moments, it has been invaluable, both as something I can turn to in the moment and practice, and as something that has equipped me with tools to handle difficult situations or emotions.
I also started a daily gratitude practice.
I’m still drinking lots of water and trying to move my body as much as possible.
I have two separate planners now: one for work stuff and one for life stuff. My calendar in the cloud has all the important events for both, but the overall separation of these two things has helped cut down on this feeling of there always being something urgent I need to tend to — be it something personal while I’m working, or something related to work when I’m off the clock. And now I set smaller goals for myself, because doing so means I’m much more likely to achieve them, and crossing things off my list means I get overwhelmed less often.
Beyond the work/life balance, I’ve started setting boundaries in relationships and upholding them. I am realistic with what I can handle emotionally and more guarded with the free time I have and intentional about who I give it to.
Additionally, three weeks ago I started taking CBD oil. About a week into it, suddenly it felt like things were not so difficult. I talked to a few people before trying it, and they all said how much it has helped them with things like regulating their emotions and sleeping. I was skeptical (especially considering the cost), but I have noticed that my baseline of anxious and panic-y moments has dropped down considerably. I don’t want to return to medication to deal with this (I know it works for some people, but it’s not for me), but I also wanted something that I could try before therapy starts, and CBD oil has turned out to be a remarkable thing for me, and with no side effects.
And finally, I’ve all but stopped drinking. I’ve had a few drinks this year, and I’ve been incredibly mindful of when I drink and why I drink. Even more important to me is the times I want to drink but decide not to, because I can weigh the positives and negatives of what that would mean for me. Namely I sleep better and I feel less anxious when I don’t drink. But sometimes there are days when drinking is a choice I want to make, and as long as I’m going into it knowing why I want to and what the effects will be, and as long as those things are OK for me, then I will do it. But right now it feels good to not want to all the time. I’m slowly learning how to experience certain things sober and to be OK with the potential awkwardness of it.
Moving forward, I plan on going to therapy (my first appointment is next week), and if it’s a good fit, I’d like to continue, even after things have calmed down a bit. Part of me feels like I would be taking up valuable therapy space, but I also think that just because I don’t have a “crisis” doesn’t mean I can’t go to therapy or won’t benefit from it.
Also, another Instagram friend recommended mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is definitely in line with stuff I’m already doing, so I’m going to look more into that. And I want to continue learning how to prioritize myself.
So, that’s where I’m at today. My current struggles are nowhere near as “bad” as they were at other points in my life. I have a lot to be grateful for. But… they’re still challenging, and I feel very lucky to have been in a place where I was able to recognize that things were spiraling before they got too bad.
It reminds me a lot of this quote of sorts I’ve seen multiple times, about how we should be kind to everyone we encounter, because we never know what they’re going through. I know this to be true in my own life, because I’ve always been good at keeping up appearances and filtering out the tough stuff so that people don’t know I’m struggling or suffering.
But this time around, I don’t want to do that. Partially because I want to be honest and transparent, but also because I think mental health is something that’s important to talk about. It affects all of us, and it’s never something you’re ever “done” with.