This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
When I was 17, I started getting severe panic attacks. My hands would go numb or start to tingle, I'd feel like everything around me slowed down and my brain would melt inside my skull, locking me in that state alone, forever.
So my GP recommended seeing a therapist. That was the beginning of a kind of therapy odyssey for me, which is still ongoing today – 10 years later. In those 10 years, I've seen so many different psychologists with so many different approaches, that it's safe to say that going to therapy and discussing my personal history with a relative stranger is probably the one thing I have the most experience with in life. I've had a relational therapist, a Jungian psychologist, cognitive therapy and I've even had a Rorschach test thrown at me, which didn't end well. Eventually, some time ago, I found the right person. I think.
Constantly changing therapists is something many people who are in therapy go through. Even people who haven't been in therapy can imagine that it's not easy to figure out if the person you're entrusting with your mental health – with your darkest, ugliest thoughts – can help you find some level of peace and understanding. First of all because determining whats troubling you psychologically isn't like determining what's troubling you physically – the extent of a childhood trauma doesn't reveal itself in a blood test. But most of all it's difficult because we're generally less aware of what's happening in our body than we are – or think we are – of what's happening in our heads. That awareness makes it difficult to put yourself in the hands of any kind of expert – even the ones perfectly qualified for the task.
How can you tell if the person you confide in about getting beatings as a child, about your recurring dreams of seeing your girlfriend have sex with someone else, is able to help you? Is one approach better than another, or is it just a matter of trust with your therapist? And if there's no trust between you – is that because your therapist is bad at her job or because you can't face the reality of your issues? How do you know if you should change therapists, give up? Obviously there's not one answer to those questions, but in my 10 years of therapy I think I've learned to identify a few basic signs. They're taken from my personal experience – so, just to be clear, if you hadn't been able to tell by now – I'm not an expert.
Of course, I also can't tell you how you figure out if you need therapy or not. I can be of no use there. But when I figured out that I did and visited my first therapist, that was a great step. However, looking back, I can say that something got in the way of me getting better from the start – and that was my ego.
My first psychologist was a fascinating and charismatic guy, who always wore black and made sweeping hand gestures while explaining his theories. He had travelled half the world, was full of anecdotes and had read all the books I wanted to read. When he complimented me, saying I was intelligent or profound, I felt elated and it encouraged me to continue seeing him. During one session he arranged some chairs in the room and asked me to sit in them in turns and impersonate a different member of my family in every chair. When we got to the end – after an impression of my mother, I believe – he clapped, raised his hands to the heavens and, almost astounded, exclaimed: "You've understood everything, Niccolò!" I was ecstatic.
The only problem was that my panic attacks didn't lessen or go away. Nothing changed in my interpersonal relationships or in my perspective on the future. I spent my days terrified, waiting for the next session so I would feel smart and appreciated again. My therapist and I shared a mutual esteem, but I didn't understand where it was leading me. The therapy itself essentially consisted in me interpreting my family dynamics, but the results weren't there.
I wasn't convinced she actually knew what she was talking about.
Still, I spent two years like that. At some point some kind of survival instinct kicked in and I realised I needed to change therapists – I needed to pursue wellbeing rather than approval or validation. You don't go to therapy to feel smart or have the therapist tell you he likes you.
So I changed therapists – and ended up in quite a few therapists' offices throughout Tuscany. My second therapist was a woman who, while seeming rather apathetic herself, encouraged me to adopt behaviours that were meant to actively break the cycle of my problems. Everything I was afraid of, everything that caused me discomfort, I needed to address head-on. My fear of crowded places? She'd tell me to go to a concert and stand right in the middle of the crowd. And I did – I followed her directions with a military-like diligence. After two years of theorising about my family, I could do with something more concrete.
Again, nothing much changed. It was one of the most frustrating and miserable times of my life –I kept doing things I hated, confronted my fears, while she kept telling me it would take time before it would work. But each session was identical to the one before. The truth is that I did what she told me to because I was desperate, but I didn't respect her very much. I wasn't convinced she actually knew what she was talking about. So there's the second thing I learned – while it's true that you shouldn't do therapy just to be validated, it's also true that respecting the authority of your therapist is a basic requirement. It's hard to achieve anything if you don't trust this person.
The third therapist I went to submitted me to a Rorschach test during our first session – which means looking at an inkblot on a paper and telling the therapist what you see. "It looks like a schematic representation of the female reproductive organs? Or maybe it's a pear tree, with fruit?" I tried. I never went to a second session to find out what my answers had meant – sometimes you can just tell immediately whether a certain approach and therapist are right for you or not. If you feel that, there's no point in going back into that office, squinting at a back blob on white paper and trying to guess what this person wants to hear from you.
So I went to a new specialist – a very calm guy who made me feel peaceful and cared for. Listening to him gave me a sense of serenity – he told me I should accept everything, that the only solution to my problems was reaching a Zen awareness of the present moment. Interpersonal conflict, the rage I was carrying with me, the envy, this sense of oppression I had – they were all elements I needed to remove to make peace with my surroundings. Which in plain terms – or at least that's how I interpreted it – meant that I had to ignore the turmoil inside of me. So I kept seeing him, and listened to him telling me that I was victim of a series of events beyond my control, that I was a good person, that I would eventually feel better.
It seemed to work – my panic attacks started to lessen, I felt calmer and I had an actual relationship with a girl I was in love with. It looked like things were going in the right direction. But in the end, it meant that I was retreating into a bubble, indulging myself by ignoring what was wrong with me. There was no outlet, I was pushing things aside that would come back to hit me in the face like stones. Which, I think, is the most important thing I've leaned – therapy is never a passive process. Taking up a foetal position, ignoring what's wrong and focussing on the good is very comfortable and very necessary at times, but nothing is actually solved by it.
That became especially clear when I somehow ended up in the studio of my present therapist. I had just emerged from spending months in complete isolation holed up in my flat, and I didn't think I needed to start a new therapy cycle. But I went anyway, and it was like a punch in the gut. In less than an hour all the cardboard walls I'd put up had fallen over, and I was completely naked, uncomfortable, frightened and full of rage again.
I don't want to go into too much detail about the specific therapy approach I follow right now – mostly because there isn't one special approach that works for everyone and I don't want anyone to read much into mine. But I do think that the initial sense of discomfort and fear, that it's a challenge, is essential in the beginning of a therapy cycle. You go to a therapist because you have a need, and taking the responsibility to address that need – together with the help of the right person – can't be simple and painless.
I've noticed that whatever therapist I was with, I'll always, as an initial response, question this other person's input about my psychological goings-on. But I'm also very aware that I can't understand everything about myself without a therapists input. So I'll have to deal with it – but that doesn't mean that with some people I paid to pick apart my brain, it just didn't work.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.