Welcome to Megan Barton-Hanson’s VICE UK column, covering all things to do with sex, relationships and self-love during one of the strangest eras of the 21st century. Read the previous column here.
When I was around 16/17, I felt like shit – and I felt guilty about it. I was lonely, isolated, and struggling with comments about my sexuality from people at school. But because nothing massively traumatic had happened to me, I didn’t feel like I deserved help for how down I was. Still, I couldn’t shake the feelings of sadness and numbness. I asked my mum what I should do, and thankfully she was very understanding. We made a doctor's appointment and I got referred for six therapy sessions on the NHS.
Now, therapy is a part of my routine – as it is for many people. Despite that, there’s still a stigma attached to therapy and some people struggle to understand it. One time I went for a medical for a TV show and mentioned my weekly therapy sessions to the doctor, and I was shocked at his reaction. He mostly seemed confused that I wasn’t just on medication! That made me laugh. I think he was just a part of an older generation, and our general understanding of mental health is definitely changing for the better. I started dating again recently, and while I’ve been hesitant about mentioning therapy on the first date, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that two of the guys had therapists too.
I think we’re making progress and it’s becoming the norm, but there’s still some way to go yet. So if you’re thinking about looking into therapy, or wondering where to start with the process, here’s some of what I’ve learned so far.
IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO FIND THE RIGHT THERAPIST FOR YOU
When I was 16 I couldn’t afford the luxury of choosing my own therapist. I was lucky that the NHS waiting list wasn’t as long as it is now, but you kind of get who you’re given. When I was older and started stripping I was able to invest in a good therapist, but even then it took a while to find a good match. Therapy is a relationship at the end of the day, it’s a two way street. If you don’t feel like it’s working out, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It could be that the particular therapist, or kind of therapy, isn’t right for you.
Personally, I don’t find it useful when the therapist just listens. I know what my issues are, for the most part, so I need someone to dig deeper and tell me why I speak to myself so negatively, or what to do when intrusive thoughts cross my mind. After researching different techniques and forms of therapy, I liked the look of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). So I found someone who specialised in that, and I’ve found that to be really helpful for me.
YOU PROBABLY WON’T HAVE THE SAME THERAPIST FOREVER
As you grow your therapist will change, kind of like dating. I recently got a new one and she’s really good for me right now. So don’t feel bad if you outgrow a therapist or their style or just want to take a break – I dip in and out, depending on what’s going on in my life and my mental health.
If you can’t afford therapy and have used your NHS sessions, Headspace is a good mindfulness app with different courses that can be helpful. You can also try downloading self-help audiobooks. Anything that enables you to take a chunk of time for yourself and sit with your feelings.
IT DEFINITELY ISN’T A QUICK FIX
Every therapy session is helpful, even if it’s just nice to vent to someone. But don’t go into a session thinking it’ll be a quick fix. The most valuable thing I take away from therapy is the homework and the exercises that help me retrain my brain. My biggest problem was – and still is to an extent – social anxiety and self-esteem. I'm super confident and can talk to anyone, but I have trouble speaking kindly to myself. So, for me, therapy has been a process of learning to take care of myself like I would a friend or loved one, and dealing with past experiences that I didn’t even realise were traumatic until I spoke about them.
EMBRACE THE PAST
I was against getting into my past, initially – I wanted to focus on how I felt in the moment. But you have to look back at what’s happened in the past to make sense of things in the present. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at why I had such low self-esteem when I was younger, and how a couple of throw away comments to a 12-year-old can really do long-term damage. Therapy has given me a different perspective, and ways to distance myself from that critical voice.
LEARN TO SLOW DOWN
The most practical tricks I’ve learned are about replacing my old coping techniques with useful ones. It’s easy to say “I’m anxious”, but it’s important to understand when you feel anxious and why. For example my anxiety stems from over-analysing what might happen and thinking I’m not good, loud, funny or smart enough. But when those negative thoughts come in, it’s important not to panic or to judge them – just acknowledge that it’s happening. When I notice that happening I try to list all the positive things about me and focus on being myself. That way I don’t care as much about whether people like or dislike me.
IF YOU DON’T THINK THERAPY IS ‘FOR YOU’ – IT IS
When I was younger I felt bad about wanting therapy because nothing particularly traumatic had happened to me. I felt bad for taking up the therapist's time, just because I was shy and insecure. But everyone should have the opportunity to work on themselves. It’s like taking your car for a service.
It’s not weak and you don’t need something devastating to have happened to you to deserve therapy. We’ve all got some kind of trauma, but we often don’t acknowledge it or even realise it. I’d recommend therapy to anybody, even if you don’t think you need it. There’s no shame in it and it shouldn’t be seen as a weakness. Trying to fix yourself rather than masking your pain with other things is the strongest thing you can do.