I wanted to be a therapist when I was 14 years old. I romanticized them as oracles with all the answers, and superheroes immune to vulnerability. I had never been so wrong before, nor have I been since. A year after I discerned my professional goal, Social Anxiety took up residence in my brain. I avoided social settings, believed no one liked me, and eventually skipped Senior picture day and prom. I mistook my anxiety as shyness, but shyness doesn’t employ negative self-talk or assumptions of unworthiness. Because I didn’t understand my disorder, it went untreated.
Later on, I was stricken with obsessive worry and racing thoughts. From the moment my eyes opened each day, I fretted about things over which I had no control. Unstoppable worry dogged me through college, my early experience as a social worker, and in my fatherhood, convincing me my kids would choke on their food, or drown if they swam in the ocean. I missed chunks of their lives protecting myself from worry, but because I believed social workers were immune to mental illness, it remained untreated.
At work, my thoughts told me I was ineffective, and clients didn’t benefit from my help. I couldn’t make phone calls in front of coworkers because I believed I sounded stupid, and I was petrified to speak in team meetings. My Master’s degree in Social Work couldn’t protect me from those thoughts because anxiety disorders don’t respect certain academic achievements or professions. When a daily lump in my throat nauseated me to the extent I couldn’t leave for work, I saw my doctor. She identified the lump as Globus Hystericus, diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and prescribed Xanax. I was disgusted by my frailty, and hated being one of “those people.”
My thoughts were under control, and the lump was gone, but because some anxiety is undeterred by benzos, I had my first panic attack while working as a psychiatric screener. My job was determining if psychiatric patients met criteria for commitment, but panic debilitated me to the extent I believed I should be committed. Worried about what friends and family would think if they knew a mental health professional had multiple mental illnesses, I kept the attacks to myself, and soon suffered fear of subsequent attacks. Because I dealt with my disorders alone, I became depressed, and the imaginary line I believed separated client from clinician blurred.
My disorders often worked in tandem to hinder my personal and professional lives. Panic debilitated me for entire days, and generalized anxiety convinced me the world thought me weak and unworthy of being a mental health professional. Some people still believe clinicians are not human enough to suffer from mental illness and receive treatments for them, but I am a clinician, and I am more human than I sometimes care to be.
When I became a therapist, I reached the top of the mental health mountain, but my mental illness followed me. My doctor had added Zoloft to my regimen, and I entered therapy. Medication kept symptoms at bay while I discovered my disorders stemmed from unattached parenting, childhood chaos, and bad genes. Even as medication controlled my symptoms, some negative thoughts filtered through. I worried about how clients would perceive me if they knew I had mental illness, and I was often stricken with doubts about my ability to do the thing I most wanted to do.
In some people, panic attack mutates into panic disorder, which presents its own set of challenges. On many occasions, I fought my way out of my dark bedroom and worked myself toward functionality and actualization. I have been in remission for three years, but remain vigilant in my fight because Panic Disorder doesn’t care that my clients need me, and it will strike if I neglect treatment and self-care. Part of my self-care is maintaining connection with family and friends who sometimes don’t understand my disorders. I have been told by family members my life is “too good” to have panic disorder, and at least one friend has asked me if I am still “doing the hermit thing” when a panic attack rendered me housebound. Those are not the most pleasant words to hear from a support system, but they have given me the opportunity to educate them, and chip away at the misconception mental illness means crazy or weak. Another byproduct of my experience is increased empathy and understanding for my anxious clients. When it is useful, I share my stories with clients to instill hope when it is absent.
Before I could expect others to drop mental illness stigmas, I had to destigmatize myself. When I started my practice I believed I had to be omnipotent, or I would not be effective. I penalized myself with negative self-talk after subpar sessions and questioned my skill until my supervisor reminded me I am only human. Now I bring my humanness to every session, and sometimes it isn’t pretty. During intakes, anxiety might tell me my new client will never return because I suck, or that my skills are weak even though I have developed a multitude of solid therapeutic bonds.
I hate anxiety and panic, but they do serve a purpose in my life. They charge me with opening the eyes of those who perceive therapists like I did when I was in high school, and they force me to put my own humanity on blast. Humanity is the blessing that helps me form relationships with people, and it affords me the luxury of a full emotional range. I am not a god, nor am I an oracle through whom the gods speak. There are times I don’t have answers for clients, and when that happens, I don’t fabricate, nor do I allow anxiety to convince me I’m stupid for not having one. I need my humanness because it facilitates connection, and a connection is key to coping with mental illness, and to ensuring I’m an effective therapist, and person.
Vincent Fitzgerald is a Psychotherapist and writer from Jersey City, NJ. He is married with two children, and he often blends the crafts of therapy and writing into effective pieces. You can follow him on Twitter @scribetherapist.