Finding and Trusting the Right Therapist

It can be a frustrating process: Here’s why it is so important to persevere

by E.O.

iStock, Francescoch

Names have been changed.

My father sexually abused me as a child and, a few days shy of my 13th birthday, I entered foster care. When detectives were first assigned to my case, I had to explain the what, when, where, who, and how of the assaults over and over. I felt like I was constantly being reminded of what had happened to me. 

Then, when I had to testify in court, I was reminded all over again. For a long time, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be left to deal with the aftermath alone. After all, I had experienced the sexual abuse alone. 

“Having to speak about my trauma in such a happy room felt wrong.”

It was especially unfair that I had to continue reliving the assault when my father never had to stand up in court to detail what he had done to me. All he had to do was enter his guilty plea, and then a lawyer fought his battles for him. 

My father was not ordered by the court to attend weekly therapy sessions; only I was. There, I was again expected to explain the what, when, where, who, and how of the assaults. So from the beginning, even though a psychiatrist had diagnosed me with depression, I thought of going to therapy as a form of punishment. 

Reliving Trauma Feels Like Punishment

During my commute to my first therapy session, my palms were sweaty and my only thought was that I was crazy. I had gotten this idea from my mother. She’d say things like, “All therapists do is take your money,” “You can’t fix a problem by talking,” and “Therapists don’t want to help you, they want to judge you.” 

When we got to the office, my foster mom, who I call Grandma, signed me in and soon I was called in by an older Black lady named Ms. Greene. She was thin, and tall, with gray Afro-textured hair, and wore a few necklaces and bracelets. She spoke softly, clearly, and with concern. She was welcoming. I followed her into a room. 

The air around me felt still. All I wanted to do was disappear. The vivid yellow paint on the agency walls, the kids’ drawings hung on pegboards, and the stack of board games—all the brightness seemed to be making a mockery of me. Having to speak about my trauma in such a happy room felt wrong. 

The rest of the session was a blur. I didn’t speak a word. But she talked. A lot. She covered topics such as trauma, coping skills, shame and blame, PTSD, depression, and occasionally my parents. I muffled everything until she said the magic words, “We are done, I will see you next week.” 

I met with Ms. Greene weekly for the next two years. Although I attended the sessions, I didn’t think I needed to be there and so I didn’t participate. From time to time, I said the words “no,” “yes,” or “I don’t know,” if she asked a question. 

Still, there were moments that I’m grateful for now. I used to have intense nightmares, panic attacks, and heightened reactions to certain smells, which are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I never told her about these things but through Ms. Greene’s clear, in-depth talks about the effects trauma had on the victim, indirectly she helped me understand and put a name to what I was experiencing. 

Ready to Start My Healing Journey 

Then gradually, despite hating almost every session, something clicked in me. When I was 15, I had a son, so it may have been the fear of being a bad mother that pushed me to take therapy seriously, or the overwhelming feeling that everyone kept moving on with their lives except me. Still afraid of my feelings, I didn’t know where to begin my healing journey. 

I asked, “How can I stop feeling stuck in my feelings, mind, and body?” 

“We can start by talking about basic information about yourself,” she said. “This is a safe space; all conversations are welcome.” I began by talking about my favorite color, book, and foods. I also shared my dislike of socializing and reptiles. 

After a couple of months of this small talk, I chose to acknowledge to Ms. Greene what was happening: I was beginning to isolate myself more and more from my friends, foster family, and my son. I took care of his basic needs but I had no longing to be with him. I was starting to lose interest in a lot of my hobbies, such as reading. I also lost interest in school. I attribute my willingness to feel my pain in a more profound way to the raging hormones of postpartum. 

I felt so lost. A lot of the time I felt like I was just floating around with no direction. I never wanted to feel like that again.

Being open about these feelings with Ms. Greene felt like a big step. But soon after, she went into private practice. This felt like a punch in my stomach. It was the first time I was grieving someone who was alive. It was an odd feeling that I did not understand. Now, I think it was less the actual person and more a combination of the loss of consistency and familiarity and the extreme frustration of finally being ready to dig deep, and then as soon as I did she left.

At the same time, Grandma and I felt this was an opportunity to work with someone else who had a specific background in treating people who had experienced childhood trauma. Ms. Greene was informed about trauma’s effects but did not practice trauma-based therapy. 

“You Are Not Broken Beyond Repair”

I started by making calls to Ms. Greene’s referrals. I had committed to getting better for my son’s sake but it was frustrating. While some centers did return my calls, some did not respond at all, and some were just not taking new patients. I was clinically depressed but did not accept my diagnosis. A few weeks passed, and I was finally able to get into the Center for Psychological Services, at St. John’s University, which focused on general trauma. 

I was paired with an intern for about six months, and then another intern for about a year. The latter’s approach was to use narrative therapy, which aims to create some distance between the individual and their problems. I had to write down my painful memories, then read them out loud. That was something I was not ready to process, and the inexperienced intern did not seem to notice that. It felt re-traumatizing and reminded me of the adults that questioned me over and over when I first went into care. It was emotionally debilitating.

I felt my depression and PTSD symptoms increase. I experienced more restless sleep, mood swings, trust issues, guilt, and anxiety than normal. The clumsy way this intern used narrative therapy did me more harm than good. 

I was shutting down and doubts about therapy were forming. I’d complain to Grandma about how pointless therapy was since I thought that I was broken beyond repair. I kept going through therapists, so in my mind, I must have been the problem. It was the only logical explanation. But she encouraged me to keep trying. She would say things like, “You’re not going to get better overnight, healing takes time,” “You’re not broken beyond repair, you just need a little more help,” and her famous line, “I’m always here for you.”

My Mind as a Messy Suitcase

Then came Julie. Unlike the previous interns, she didn’t sound like a textbook. I had an instant connection with her. Her approach was refreshing. Julie integrated my likes and dislikes into our sessions. One notable technique that helped me open up was her use of literature, because I love to read. 

At the start of my session, Julie presented three poems that related to life. “Explaining My Depression to My Mother,” by Sabrina Benaim was one that helped me put words to what I was going through emotionally: “I can’t, anxiety holds me a hostage inside of my house, inside of my head.” My earlier trauma was not the center of attention, my current life was. Julie said to think of my mind as a messy suitcase, so we needed to work on cleaning that suitcase one paper at a time. 

Once again I was at a loss when Julie’s internship ended. I had been with her for more than a year and I was attached to her. She tried everything to keep me but I was only given two extra months with her. 

I felt so discouraged. I did not have the mental stamina to go through the whole process of finding another person again. Fortunately, Grandma continued to support me and advocate for mental health services. It took four more therapists for me to finally find Ms. Johnson.  

Now, My Healing Journey Is Possible

When I met Ms. Johnson via Zoom late last year, I noticed her voice first. She was both soft-spoken and authoritative. She didn’t sound forced, but instead authentic and genuine. Her demeanor was, and continues to be, inviting. Even through a computer screen, I felt a certain amount of safety. 

Over the course of my therapy sessions, Ms. Johnson has used cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy that focuses on how thoughts shape emotions and actions) and dialectical behavior therapy (designed for those who experience emotions deeply). Both CBT and DBT are types of therapies in which I have previously thrived. 

One aspect of my therapy journey was, and still is, reframing the way I see the world. CBT has allowed me to learn how to modify my pessimistic thoughts and redirect my actions and behaviors in a positive light. It has also helped me understand that everything is not always black and white. By adding DBT into the mix I’m able to learn how to regulate the emotions attached to my PTSD symptoms. Ms. Johnson is essentially my emotional tour guide. 

Attending therapy feels like it is my choice now, and as a result, I am more receptive to my treatment. There’s an underlying determination to heal my past wounds for my well-being. This is different than my foster care agency determining for me that I needed therapy. 

Even though I have found someone who I know is the right fit, my hands still sweat and my thoughts race during every session. And I’m not an open book about everything. I’m taking my time to share and be honest with Ms. Johnson session by session. 

All to say, although it took an exceptionally long time to find the right therapist for me, it was worth it. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Although E.O. was grateful for being placed in therapy, how was the process of finding the right therapist harmful for E.O.?
  2. After E.O. finds her first therapist, she is forced multiple times to a different therapist. How did retelling her experiences to a new therapist impact her?
  3. What changes for E.O. when therapy became a voluntary instead of mandated? Why was that choice important for her healing?
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