Names have been changed.
My foster care agency first sent me to therapy when I was 11 because I had suicidal thoughts. My grandmother didn’t seem fond of the idea, but she reluctantly took me.
The office was tiny with a desk and a chair for the therapist and two chairs for her patients. Everything was old, the walls were dusty pink, and there were little kids’ drawings posted up on a board. Dirty toys sat on the floor near the corner of her desk. I began to wonder if I was one of her oldest patients: I was 11, and I didn’t draw like that or play with toys.
The therapist was very slim and pale with huge specs over her wide green eyes. She put her hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Ms. Kali. How are you?” She asked me a couple of questions. The big one was, “Why did you say you wanted to kill yourself?”
I told her that I kept getting in trouble. The school often called my grandmother, who I’d started living with that year, and I felt guilty causing her stress. I mentioned my dream of jumping out of a plane, and I drew a picture of me jumping out of a plane with no parachute to save me. I told her that it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around.
The second session I told Kali that my mother had physically and verbally abused me for as long as I could remember. She would hit me with objects and curse at and belittle me. I was transferred to my grandmother’s care after I showed up at school with bruises and marks one too many times.
I was a violent kid: Attacking other kids in school got me suspended three times just in the 2nd grade. And even after I moved in with my grandmother, who didn’t mistreat me, I still had behavioral issues that kept up until the 8th grade. Being violent didn’t make me feel any better; it was the only way I knew how to react to what upset me. I’d learned from my mom that attacking was how you settled things. I didn’t unlearn those things immediately, so the first few years in my grandmother’s house were rough.
I ended up staying with Kali for seven years. She gave me consistent sympathy for my mother’s abuse. For the first few years, Kali made me feel as if she really cared, and I slowly opened up. Her remarks and the pain in her face seemed genuine. I appreciated her saying, “I can’t believe that happened to you. Oh my goodness, you’re so strong!”
My family didn’t believe in depression; they saw my sadness as self-pity. “We’ve all been through it; name a person who hasn’t,” said my uncle. My family thought that since I’d been removed from my mother’s house, everything must be fine now. It was nice that Kali understood that I still had emotional scars.
By age 15, waves of sadness swept over me. I slept for hours, barely had an appetite, and wasn’t interested in anything. I had no energy and felt hopeless and miserable. In school I was just getting by, and I hated being there.
Kali agreed I was depressed, but my family refused to allow her to prescribe me medication because they felt it was unnecessary.
So I couldn’t get medication, and the talking part wasn’t working anymore either. Kali’s responses had started to seem inadequate. For example, I told her, “I hate what I see in the mirror.”
She replied, “Well, I don’t know why. I’m sorry to hear that and I’m sorry you feel that way. I think you’re a beautiful girl inside and out.”
That helped me feel a little better, but anyone I knew would say that to me. I didn’t want her to make me smile; I wanted her to figure out ways to work on my feelings of sadness, ugliness, and inferiority. I wanted to learn how to love who I am and accept my flaws.
But Kali only had vague encouragement or else the same toughness as my family. She’d say, “Well, that’s how life works,” then her usual snort. Or, “It’s like that for everyone!”
Worst of all, I felt I couldn’t trust her to keep my secrets. She told me our sessions were confidential. But when I told her about an ex-boyfriend of mine who’d been obsessive and controlling, Kali replied, “You’d better tell your grandmother if you’re dating him.” When I protested, she said, “If you don’t, I will.” To keep my grandma from finding out anything, I told Kali that what I’d said about the ex was a lie.
After that, whenever I told Kali about a new guy, I lied and hid things, which seems like the opposite of how therapy’s supposed to work.
Finally, I got so frustrated that I told my social worker that I wanted to switch therapists. After some resistance, my agency let me. I first saw Dr. Betsey three months ago.
Allowed to Self-Reflect
Betsey said right away, “You can tell me whatever you want, it’s OK. I’m excited to meet you!” with deep sincerity in her eyes. She seemed intrigued by what I had to say and really connected, like she wasn’t just doing a job. She made me feel comfortable.
She understood my point of view and gave her perspective. We discussed how my childhood made me feel depressed and unlovable.
When I told her, “I hate what I see when I look in the mirror,” Betsey didn’t just tell me I’m pretty. She said, “Tell me what you see. Name it all.”
That made me think. I answered, “I see a girl who tries hard to be pleased with her self-image. She’s tired of feeling this way but it’s all she’s ever felt. When I try to find the beauty, all I see are flaws. I don’t feel special or extraordinary. I feel basic and unimportant.”
“Good, I want to hear every single detail of how you feel and how long you’ve been feeling like this.”
“Well, it started in 8th grade and became worse my sophomore year in high school. In middle school I was tormented. I absolutely hate how I look.”
Betsey asked, “Have you ever heard ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?’ What you might not find appealing in yourself, someone else could. Look at yourself now that you feel better. Why? You found a way to express yourself and be the best you could be. Some way, somehow you accepted yourself and that let you see something in you that you didn’t before.”
She was right. Comments like these made me feel that she was able to get me in touch with my true self and put everything I ever told her more vividly. She allowed me to self-reflect and self-evaluate. There wasn’t a magic potion to change what I didn’t like. There was only me and my thoughts and improving them.
Inquiry, Not Scolding
I wanted more than an hour a week with Betsey. So we set up two appointments, something I’ve never done before—or wanted to. In those two hours, I talked about my relationships with my family, close friends, and even boys. I’m not ashamed of what she might say or think. I have no worries about it.
Betsey made remarks about boys that showed me she gets it: “He thought he was slick but he’s just an asshole who’s been caught.” I felt safe being myself without being ridiculed for it or bullied to tell my grandmother anything. Betsey told me she’d have to report it if I told her I was being abused, but that everything else was confidential. I felt like I could tell Betsey anything.
When I’d told Kali, a few months earlier, about the boyfriend I’d lost my virginity to, she asked frantically, “You didn’t have sex, did you?” I figured out the right answer was “No,” and Kali basically said, “Thank God!”
When I told Betsey the same story, she asked casually, “So were you guys intimate?” I told her the truth.
The freedom to tell Betsey what was going on with boys helped me understand that part of my life better. I told her about the verbally abusive boyfriends I’d had, and she pointed out that that’s what I was used to from my mom. My mom abused me, and men abused her. Betsey helped me realize that I had accepted bad behavior because I thought it was normal, no big deal, if a guy was mean and controlling. Her perspective helped me know myself and hold out for more respectful guys.
When I told Kali I had been drinking, she told me to stop and that it’s illegal. Betsey asked me why I drink and what I get out of it. Betsey’s approach opened my eyes to my reasons. Together we determined that my drinking triggers were pressure to get good grades and to be the granddaughter my grandma wanted, along with relationships with boys and my insecurities.
Realizing what made me drink helped me see that I can’t escape my problems that way—those triggers are still there making me uneasy when I sober up. I didn’t completely stop drinking because of this knowledge, but I drink less often, and not to escape.
Betsey doesn’t tell me what to do. She helps me see what I want to work on and different ways for improving. We explore why this thing keeps happening, how we fix it, where to begin. Do we start with plan A, or does plan B sound better? This gives me confidence in my ability to build the life I want.
She is cool and laid back. After asking me questions, she doesn’t just stare at me and nod. She gets my jokes; we found a shared humor unconsciously. She recommended meditation after a couple of weeks of our sessions and that has also helped me to be in touch with myself.
She’s Not Like a Parent
Early on, Betsey told me that she didn’t think I was depressed. “You have a good head on your shoulders, you’re strong and I don’t think you’re broken, just wounded. I see the way you talk to me, and how inquisitive you are. I’m not worried about you.” She smiled.
She was right. I wasn’t depressed anymore.
“What made you grow out of your depression?” she asked.
“I found where my happiness usually came from. My younger siblings and my little cousins gave me motivation to never give up. I couldn’t kill or harm myself because of them.”
“I like how you came out of this horrible state you were in and had the bravery to find hope and build yourself from there,” she said.
Being able to tell first Kali, and now Betsey, everything I’ve been through has allowed me to count on adult figures outside my family. Because we’re not related, I can express my feelings and tell my story without the fear of being judged or disappointing someone. It also helps that Betsey and I are new to each other and that she doesn’t act like a parent. I’d grown afraid of letting Kali down and bearing her judgment of me because I’d known her since I was 11.
Betsey hears my story, and she helps me tell it. She has seen my progress from the earlier depression I told her about to the girl I’ve grown to be. She reflects it back to me, which makes me feel proud of myself. She tells me that I’m responsible, intelligent, and sure of who I am, and I believe her. I leave our sessions with new ideas of how to handle my problems and feeling more and more confident.
When I was younger, Kali’s sympathy comforted me and helped me understand that it would take a while to recover from my mom’s abuse. As I got older, I needed someone who could relate more to teenage life and who would push me to analyze my own actions more. Therapy helped me grow a lot. I’m grateful that as I outgrew one therapist, I was able to find one better suited to a young woman on her way to college.