Ever since I recovered from pharmaceutical abuse that nearly killed me over a decade ago, I haven’t used mental health services. There were many reasons for this and I can’t say I was always decidedly against them for myself, or entirely convinced I couldn’t be helped by a good therapist. Therapy had benefitted me a lot as a kid, teenager and young adult (not because I had an illness and needed to be fixed, but because I had trauma and needed to be listened to).
There were many obstacles to going to therapy though: lack of therapists I could trust, times of not having health insurance, and times of being so busy that making another appointment sounded more stressful than just taking an extra nap.
There were times I had more social connection and support and therapy seemed superfluous, draining even.
There were times I longed for someone I could talk to in that one sided way, where most of the listening and attention was on me, but I never felt safe with therapists I interviewed who believed in diagnoses or psych drugs, and of course most do.
As for coaches or counselors outside of the mental health system who did not rely on diagnostic criteria for insurance purposes, I often couldn’t afford them, or if I could I was working full time and didn’t have space in my schedule. As an introvert, a few hours alone in my day is essential and I probably wouldn’t be able to give it up and retain my sanity even if I were talking to my favorite person in the world.
So, maybe you’ve figured out the punch line by now. After 10 years of vacillating between not believing in therapy and not having the time or money for it, I found myself in a new town, after dozens of moves, and with almost no social support. I have state health insurance, which covers therapy, and after 10 months of finding only providers who won’t take my insurance or aren’t accepting new clients, I stumbled upon a goldmine.
I’m writing about this publicly not to tout the virtues of the mental health system, which arguably there are few that are often overridden by its shortcomings, but because many psychiatric survivors who don’t have strong social networks or family ties, or money for private services, might be encouraged to keep looking for the needle in the haystack (if they want to).
In my case, I got incredibly lucky. I walked into a clinic in the next town over, where I’d heard the director is relatively anti-psych drugs and for alternative approaches. I filled out the paperwork and the receptionist made me an appointment with “Caren”. I had no choice of providers, though there were interns available if it wasn’t a good fit. She had no information about Caren, who was new to this clinic, except that she was very experienced and “everyone loves her”.
Google had little information about Caren either, so I went in for my first appointment having little idea what to expect, but for some reason the anxiety I’d had in the past about walking into a therapist’s office wasn’t there. After a decade of ambivalence, I was feeling more optimistic (AKA desperate) to see a therapist.
Caren told me she’d need to ask me questions for the insurance paperwork (oh trust me, I knew) to determine my “medical need” and she made quotes with her fingers when she said “medical need”. Phew. I felt at ease right away.
Okay, I felt more than at ease. I felt something like salvation. We quickly established that neither of us believe in diagnoses (she asserted that view first) and after the questions, she let me know she put me down for “adjustment disorder” and explained the things I already knew about how the system requires a diagnosis to pay for therapy.
She also told me she’s anti-drugs, after I mentioned I wasn’t interested in them as part of my answer to one of the insurance questions.
So…once all that was out of the way, she became someone I could talk to each week, someone compassionate and wise, not who would tell me what to do or take any of my agency away, but who would listen and be supportive and occasionally give suggestions, or relate from her own experiences. So far, she has never been intrusive, invasive, assuming or condescending.
I know how rare this is. It took me 10 years to come across such a person, and in this case it was almost sheer luck.
I share this because, yes, we need to fight against the atrocities of the mental health system, and yes we need to be very careful, and yes, many times friends are far more what we want than professionals, AND because there are those of us who, for a time and a reason may need focused support from someone and may not have friends with the time and energy to be that for us consistently.
In theory, I love the idea of the state funding people to provide emotional support, listening, encouragement and kindness. That’s my idea of good therapy. As we say in the psychiatric survivor or “peer” movement, the best way to support someone is often to be authentic and use common sense.
Of course capitalism has its awful flaws and the system has its major problems and I hope someday both will be eradicated in favor of more compassionate and humane systems, but in the meantime, they are basically the systems we have on the material plane.
Having this support has enabled me to feel less completely alone with my problems, which, yes, are socio-political, economic, rooted in systemic oppression and all the rest, but knowing that can only go so far when a person is lacking the social capital, health and material resources to act on that knowledge in ways that result in change.
It’s not an either or. I’m thrilled for those who have the resources to be completely independent from all of the corporate healthcare systems that are damaging many of our lives.
I share my story, though, because finding the right resources within a corrupt system can be harm reduction that can help someone feel less alone and debilitated. That’s what it has done for me, after 10 years of sifting through hay, or turning away from it, sure there was no needle in there.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.