From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

Grateful for the Experience of Mental Illness?

The process of recovering from mental illness will render us stronger.

Yesterday in my therapy session I was having a panic attack over whether or not to go into work today (Saturday). I am incredibly busy and I have fallen behind in my administrative work so I assumed I would feel better if I went into the office to start to catch up.

But I also felt resentful and angry at the possibility of going in. Working as hard as I do during the regular week, I need both days of my weekend to rest, rewind and regenerate. I also have another job on the weekends which I take seriously and needs all the time I can devote to it — my writing. I am two-thirds through the way of a book I am working on and in my “spare time” I write and submit essays to various literary journals and magazines.

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Why a panic attack? Because I hear my father’s voice from when I first started working right after college You stay until your work is done. Thirty years after that proclamation, now that I am behind in my work, his voice is getting louder, not softer.

I sat in my psychiatrist’s office fighting a battle and compared the struggle to being torn when I was in the middle of my war with anorexia. Eat, don’t eat. Go into work, don’t go. Both related to my internal drive for perfectionism. Compelled by my father.

“Don’t forget that your father’s single-minded thrust towards perfectionism destroyed him,” Dr. Adena* reminded me. She is right. He is nothing but a shell of a man, lying in bed each day all day, waiting to die.

“This is your next great battle,” she said to me as I sat in her office. My muscles tensed and my back ached.

“To ease up on myself without making myself physically ill. Without my back going out, without migraines so I can’t go into work. It needs to be my choice.”

And then it was time to leave. This morning at 8:30 AM, I am still debating whether or not to go into the office. I can make it by10 I keep saying to myself.

Why am I telling you this? Because after all I’ve been through, I consider myself fortunate to be healthy enough to be struggling with this particular issue. Although its origins are deep rooted and to be able to resolve my drive for perfectionism — both with the anorexia and my work ethic will take time and hard work in therapy — I’ve had to make some progress to get here.

There was a time I thought I’d never work again. After numerous rounds of ECT I was convinced that the treatments had destroyed the part of my brain I needed to work again as a social worker, although Dr. Adena told me that was medically impossible. I could not remember how to do a multi-axial assessment or what the term tangential meant.

This is the other side of (psychotic) depression, borderline personality disorder, possibly anorexia — I am hoping starving is behind me, but I’m withholding permanent judgment due to the recent nature of my relapse last summer. But still, it’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I have a fervent desire to disclose to my patients when they are depressed, feel hopeless, when it’s apparent that they are suffering and struggling with severe symptoms.

When they say to me You have no idea, I wish I could say to them Yes I do, and proceed to relate to them that I am a survivor and that together — they and I — can make it through what seems impossible now. I want to be a role model, an inspiration. I long to impart hope and optimism through my experience.

Perhaps one day I will be able to steer my sessions in that direction, but for now what I can do is empathize and try to provide hope. I encourage my patients to explore the origins of their unhealthy patterns of behavior and help them to identify alternative options that are more productive.

I commend them when they make progress and help them examine what occurred if and when they take a step back. Having goals for the future is essential even while working on the present and the past.

I’ve made significant progress from when I first entered therapy (I’m not ready to say recovered) and I’m more resilient and I’m emotionally stronger. I didn’t have a quality of life back then; now I do. I have an innate sense of self from this experience that people who haven’t endured this lack.

I'v acquired exceptional knowledge about myself and a unique perspective about the way the world works. I am indebted.

 *Names have been changed

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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