I grew up in an evangelical Christian household in rural Indiana in the ‘90s. Needless to say, we were not at the forefront of mental health treatment. And most of the messages I received about good mental health had religious sentiment: Bible verses, prayer, turn to god for answers.
At the time, despite attempts to use these methods to help with my depression and anxiety, I didn’t find any permanent solace. Instead, I experienced much guilt wondering what I was doing wrong to not find healing of my depression. Therapy was never brought up as an option. It wasn’t that the evangelical community I belonged to didn’t believe in it, it was more a matter of ignorance.
By the ‘90s I’m sure a quarter of people in New York and Los Angeles were in therapy. But in rural Indiana it was still considered okay to joke about the mental health facility in town. The people that went there were “nuts” and “crazy,” terms that were always said with a sense of derision. There wasn’t any compassion in regards to those who were mentally ill.
I also saw those attitudes played out in our church. Are you depressed? Turn to these Bible verses. Pray about it. If those things didn’t work then obviously you were doing something wrong and not connecting with god. Perhaps you had some issue you should be working on which would connect you more with him? That way you might receive proper guidance on your depression. Besides, weren’t Christian supposed to have great joy for having found the gift of salvation?
These suggestions did nothing but make me feel more like a failure. And when already suffering from low self-esteem, that wasn’t something I needed any more of.
After hitting severe lows with my mental health in my early twenties, I became more receptive to therapy and medications. I also began to see that just as I didn’t need so-called friends or acquaintances whose lack of support brought me down, mentally, I didn’t want to belong to something like evangelical Christianity that wasn’t supportive of my recovery.
It's likely some evangelical churches have come to accept therapy and medication as positives that can supplement one’s faith in handling mental illness. Yet I wouldn’t know. Along with many other reasons (many of which are more important than the church’s take on mental wellness), I left the faith many years ago.
There are still many Christians that push platitudes that are unhelpful toward feeling mentally fit. “Just pray about it.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Turn to god’s word to find answers for your illness.” And it’s unfortunate that is still the case. My struggles have shown me a detrimental side of Christianity.
I have no regrets about leaving my faith. Yet, my hope is that for those who are in the Church and have mental illness they could find themselves not hindered by clichés. Instead I hope they seek out the things they need to feel better.
I’ve been going to therapy for close to twenty years now. Thanks to moving around as well as my own therapists moving away, I’ve had at least eight in that time. If you count the ones I saw once or twice before deciding they weren’t a good fit, the number is more than a dozen. It’s over these years I’ve learned what to look for in a therapist and what helps me click and find support from them. Based on these experiences I’ve written some tips below. Keep in mind that this is about my encounters and what you find important may differ.
1. Find a therapist who focuses on your specific concerns
When I’ve needed a counselor I’ve often gone to the Find a Therapist part of Psychology Today’s website. There I’ve been able to narrow down what I desire in a therapist to meet my concerns. Counselors specialize in all sorts of problems; there’s no reason for me to go to a therapist who focuses on LGBT issues if I’m not any of those things. My particular issues deal with suicidal ideation, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Thus I’m able to check boxes on those individuals whose focus matches that.
2. Learn what style of therapy works for you
There are numerous types of therapy out there: cognitive-behavioral (CBT), Jungian, EMDR, and many more. Do some research and find out which works for you. I learned that CBT is quite helpful for what I need. It taught me coping skills to deal with when I am overwhelmed with the anxieties that life provides. At many websites you can narrow down the type of therapy that you might find useful.
3. Don’t hesitate to stand up to your therapist
Therapists aren’t perfect. They make mistakes and can miscommunicate. I’ve had therapists try and suggest things for me to do that they think might help. I wasn’t always capable of doing so, but on some occasions I’ve had to tell them things such as, “That won’t work because that’s not who I am. I don’t think my social anxiety would go away by joining a sports team. I’m not into sports.” Because a therapist is pushing an idea doesn’t mean they’re always right. If they continue to not get you or push you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, you may need to do the next step.
4. Don’t hesitate to leave your therapist
It can be tough to break-up with your therapist. It’s an intimate relationship in which you’ve shared some of your innermost thoughts. But if you don’t find their style of therapy helpful or if their personality doesn’t click with yours, it’s fine to leave them. When I meet with a therapist I can usually tell within about two or three sessions if they’re a good fit. It’s kind of like dating in that aspect. But any therapist who is good at their job won’t have a problem if you tell them that things aren’t working with them. If a therapist gets upset at you (which I’ve never had happen, but have heard stories) when you tell them this, by all means ditch them.
I’ve also had to leave therapists because they didn’t have their shit together. They were late to sessions, didn’t do their billing correctly, or weren’t paying attention to what I was saying. Therapy is about you and not anyone else. It’s about you getting better. If anyone stands in the way of that, you don’t want them as part of your journey to wellness. Don’t hesitate to ditch them so that you can come to a place of good mental health.
I recently had a student approach me after speaking to a mental health group on his college campus. He was a friendly, thoughtful guy who wanted to know how I dealt with my anxiety. I had a few thoughts to share with him—methods that worked for me. He was seeing a therapist and working on cognitive behavioral therapy. It was good to hear that—he wanted to put his mental health first, which is important if one wishes to improve it.
Our conversation reminded me that I haven’t written much about my anxiety, which is ironic since it’s the first mental health issue I dealt with. Going back to my time as a small child, I often got nervous or worried in new situations. I didn’t like being away from my mom or my house. Being in new places on my own scared me.
Over the years, my anxiety morphed as I became nervous about getting good grades and finding friends. Some of the old fears still remained but I began to have a hard time being in social situations. I would often shut people out instead of joining in their gatherings or activities. It wasn’t easy for me to tell others that while I liked them, I worried about finding acceptance in their social setting.
Looking back, I've come up with four things I wish I knew about anxiety. It's possible if someone told these things to me it would have given me a leg up on tackling my fears.
1. You might need meds
This is the biggest one. Without anti-anxiety medication, it was impossible for me to calm down to the point where my mind could address ideas in a rational manner. I knew that certain processes might work to handle anxiety. Yet my mind was racing all the time in those anxiety provoking situations. It did so such that I never got the opportunity to use those methods that might have helped with tackling my anxiety. Once my mind drew back to a more calm level thanks to the meds, I found it was easier to focus on the lessons I was learning in therapy and self-help workbooks.
I know medications aren’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine functioning without one.
2. Panic attacks are ok
I’ve had a few panic attacks in my life. They’re not fun. And they’re always the result of fears running full-steam out of control. In the past I used to think panic attacks were the end of the world and meant there was something damaged in me—maybe even beyond repair. After I had the first one, I felt like a horrible person. But that’s far from the case. They're a part of having anxiety but they don't make me worthless. As we say in the mental health field: it’s okay to not be okay.
3. There are ways to control it
I found cognitive behavioral therapy to do wonders for putting my thoughts in context and understand why I thought what I did. The workbook Mind Over Mood was especially helpful.
4. Everything will be okay – look at past experiences
If nothing else, remind yourself of this simple idea: you’ve had periods when you felt anxious and as though you might not make it through that experience. But you survived. And you can continue to remind yourself of your strength any time you have anxiety.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II when I was 21 years old. I went through a rough patch in college and once I got my diagnosis my life made more sense. However, there are some things I wish I had been told which no one ever shared with me at that time. So here they are.
1. Those manic times when you think you’re productive aren’t always as good as you think
There was a time in my early twenties when my manic phases were in full effect. At first it was scary because I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night and felt fine. I wondered when my brain was going to stop functioning due to lack of sleep. But it never happened. So I then realized I could be quite productive. And I enjoyed that. But as comedian Chris Gethard told me (and I agree): “With the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, ‘Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!’ And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.” And he’s right. It’s not worth it. While I could do a great deal of things, my creative work wasn't of good quality. Other work I would do, such as chores on a list, I find I can still do and don't need the other side effects that come with the manic phases.
2. You will get irritable
My stereotypical view of bipolar before I had it was that you are a sex-crazed, drug-addicted party animal for a while and then a crying mess that can’t get out of bed for the other part of your life. First, I didn’t know there was bipolar II, thus, a different spectrum of experiences that were also identified as bipolar. Second, I didn’t realize the amount of irritability that went into my manic phases. And it’s often about things that are small and unimportant. Let's say I’m running a few minutes late—what does that matter in the big scheme of things? But if I’m not paying attention to it I allow it to ruin my day by making me cranky toward everyone around me. Often times I have pre-arranged notions of how I want things to be and if that doesn’t happen I can be a jerk. I’ve gotten better at becoming aware of it but it’s still not always in check.
3. There are medications out there that can help (but it may take a while to find the right mix)
I received my diagnosis when I was 21. It took what seemed like decades to find drugs that worked for me. In reality it was less than a decade. But during that time I was on more medications than I can remember. I felt as though the moment might never come where I could experience some stability. But through experience and trial and error it worked. When I first started down that road I was so impatient. I know medications don’t always work for everyone but when you have diagnosed bipolar disorder they’re often pretty key to getting well. I’m glad I stuck through the process.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.