In the throes of my depression, anxiety, and loneliness, I felt immovable. I couldn’t get out of bed due to my depression. My anxiety made me fearful of being around people for reasons I didn’t understand. For that matter, my loneliness often made it difficult for me to even find anyone with whom I may connect.
So, why are you stuck? What is it in your life that is keeping you from getting out of the rut in which you find yourself? These are deep, serious questions. We’re all struggling with some emotional issue in our lives. How can we find happiness and a solution to our concerns?
I have people come to me on a semi-regular basis, asking these questions in one form or another. How do I get unstuck? How do I get out of this depression or loneliness or anxiety?
I listen to make sure I understand what they’re saying and to empathize. I then let them know that my experiences are all I can base my suggestions on. Their situation is unique. But generally, the solution for getting unstuck is straightforward. Therapy and medication as well as self-help books and skills are what have worked for me.
For some people, their ability to get unstuck may resolve itself by talking with a trained outsider, i.e. a therapist. That may take a few sessions or it may be months. But having someone with training to listen with care and give their opinion on a matter can be what it takes to jolt us out of our mired state.
For others, they can get this freedom from their stuck position by reading a helpful self-help text. I’ve read books on cognitive behavioral therapy that showed me how my thoughts can affect my actions. These books sometimes included activities I could undertake to train my brain to think different.
There is also a need for some individuals to take medication to help with getting unstuck. For me that was the case. My depression and anxiety were so chronic that my brain needed a boost. I was far removed from normal functioning. I began a search with my psychiatrist to find something that might get me up to a level where therapy and self-help books could be more effective.
Taking that first step is what is important, though. And it’s not easy to ask for help and reach out. It’s tough. And it can be one of the most difficult things we may ever do.
But the alternative is being unhappy. And no matter how much we may have convinced ourselves otherwise, we do deserve to be happy. And we all want to be happy.
There are people who exist to help us in our journeys, even when it may not feel like it. But finding a method (therapy, self-help, and/or medications) of help is the best way for us to get unstuck. So what are you dealing with? And what can you do today to work toward no longer feeling stuck?
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In the beginning of 2011 I was in a rough place. My psychiatrist and I agreed to change up my medication and it wasn’t going so well. The depression in my life left me so low I had to enter a psychiatric hospital. It was a surreal and unsettling experience. Eventually I went back to the medications I had been on and my emotions leveled off.
Four months later I once again found myself in the hospital following an attempt to end my life. This experience in the hospital was better and more helpful, but still unsettling. (I’ve written about these particular experiences here and here if you want to read more about them.)
During these experiences I had the same therapist, Val. I began seeing her two years prior, in 2009, when I was in grad school. She was working on a PhD in psychology at the same school and was one of the student therapists in training. After she graduated in 2010 she did some training (or licensing hours—I wasn't sure) at a hospital near my apartment, so I continued to see her.
Val always kept her cards close to her chest. I didn’t know much about her. There weren’t any photos or artwork in her office. There were some flowers and a laptop but no decorations that might give me insight into her mind and personality. She told me she liked the singer Gillian Welch. She had a sweater vest I thought was cute.
Some therapists share bits about their lives—they’ll mention a spouse or kids. They’ll tell me where they grew up or if they’re familiar with a concept, place, or individual I’m talking about. I never got anything from Val. She was an enigma.
But Val felt very deeply. From the looks on her face and the questions she asked I could tell she cared. Her actions showed that, too. Both times I was in the hospital Val kept in touch with me on the phone. While she didn’t come visit me (which was fine) she checked in to see how I was doing. That meant a lot at a time I didn’t feel as though I had many lifelines.
After the first time I got out of the hospital I still wasn’t feeling 100%. In fact, I felt pretty horrible.
The Friday morning before I headed back to work after getting out of the hospital, I went to see Val. My desire to kill myself was still intact. In Val’s bare bones office located in a decrepit brick building next to a decrepit hospital I lost whatever I had left. I hadn’t cried in the hospital but at that moment I let out everything that had been building over the past week (if not longer).
I had seen therapists for close to a decade at that point and had never needed a Kleenex to mop up tears, until then. Therapy had always been so casual and detached for me. But at that moment I broke. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Val sat there calmly, but with empathy lined on her face. “It hurts me to see you in so much pain, Kurt,” she said. She did her best to re-assure me and let me know she was there for me. I blew my nose and kept crying.
Things got better for me thanks to Val's willingness to listen and provide advice, some of it almost benign, but still helpful. She once told me before I went into the hospital the first time to smile, whether I wanted to or not. She said studies had shown it could help improve one's mood. It was one of those “fake it ‘til you make it” things that I hated. I came to find out Val was right, though. It was some off-the-cuff piece of advice that I have no doubt she forgot soon after she gave it. But sometimes when I find myself down, I’ll force a smile, think about good things, and it helps turn around my mood.
Unfortunately, after the second time I was in the hospital in 2011 Val and I parted ways. Her internship at the hospital near my apartment finished and she had to go do hours at a hospital where she wouldn’t be able to see me. My next therapist was horrible and I dropped her within months. I’m not going to say Val was the best therapist I ever had—I don’t believe in ranking them. But she was there for me and was empathetic at a time I needed it most. It was certainly one of the lowest points in my life. I’m sure I was a source of worry for Val during that time. Yet I so appreciate her sticking by me and doing the things she needed to so that my mind could be at ease and comforted.
Recently I thought of Val. I wondered if she was still practicing in the area. I knew she had a partner but still didn’t know if she was living around Boston. I thought it might be nice to drop a line and ask if she remembered me and to let her know I was doing so much better than I was back when we had therapy.
I did a Google search for her name and while I pulled up some info about her practice, the top results were obituaries for her. I said, “Oh no!” out loud to my empty apartment and my heart dropped. Val had cancer that took her life in May 2019. She had a spouse and kids and a dog. She was only 43.
I learned more about Val through her obituary than I did from talking with her. It sounded as though she had a wonderful life and it makes me sad because she was such a good therapist: kind and caring. After almost two decades of therapists, I've learned that’s not always easy to come by.
It’s been a few days since I learned about her passing and I’m still sad about it. I hadn’t seen her in years but she held a special place in my heart because she saw me through a dark time and did so with love and gentle humanity. And I’ll be forever thankful for that. The world is a less bright place without someone like Val helping others.
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.
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.