Ditching the Stigma
By Hope-Elizabeth Darris
Hope-Elizabeth is a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College. She is intending to major in Sociology and Anthropology. In her free time she loves to dance, read, act, and continuously rewatch The Office.
My first experience with therapy wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t the best.
I had no idea what to expect going in. I had never really thought about therapy before college. It wasn't something that was being discussed in my home or at school. I never even had a conversation about therapy until one of my last days of high school, when one of my friends brought up how she can’t wait until college when she can finally get a therapist. My other friend readily agreed. I thought that the concept of therapy was interesting, but at the time I had no interest in participating myself.
That reluctance changed when I started my first year of college. Towards the second month I started to feel isolated; I was angry, sad, lonely, and had no one to talk to. I had a roommate who didn’t want to interact with me, and friends I didn’t click with. Going to bed in an empty, dark room, with just my thoughts to keep me the company was maddening.
I casually brought up how I was feeling to my RA, and she said that going to the counseling services on campus might be helpful. I was upset with how my college experience was going so I thought it couldn’t hurt. I emailed the counseling service right away, wanting to meet with someone that very week. It ended up being a two week process, and when I finally scheduled a time and person to meet with I was excited. I had no idea what to expect, so I went into my first meeting with no expectations.
I couldn’t tell by the name, but upon entering the room, I learned I was assigned to a white man. I was hesitant. I’m a black gay woman and had no idea how I was going to be able to be vulnerable to a man who seemed so different than me. However, I did not let these differences deter me from trying to make the most of the experience. I began by opening up about my home life and school experience, and our sessions would happen every two weeks.
I remember the first few months I was unsatisfied because I was discussing very real, but very superficial problems that were going on in my life. If I said I was unmotivated, I wouldn’t go into detail about how I sometimes felt so emotionally drained that I could not physically get up.
My therapist at the time never really got to learn everything that was going on. Only meeting every two weeks didn’t help either. Something important would happen and I’d write it down, but then something else worth talking about would come up and by the time the meeting would happen, I would never get to address everything I wanted to.
When my first year of college was coming to an end my therapist told me he wouldn’t be coming back next year. I was sad, but people come and go so I tried not to let it affect me. My experience with therapy last year did not deter me from trying again this year. I sent out emails right before school started in hopes that I could meet with a therapist as soon as I got to campus. When I returned I was elated when I found out my therapist was a woman of color. I felt a comfort that I hadn’t felt with my first therapist, even though it wasn’t his fault. I was relieved that I was assigned with someone who I would feel more comfortable being vulnerable with.
The first time I met with my new therapist, I felt an immediate difference. When I brought up feelings, she would ask questions trying to get to the why of my problems. She would make me vocalize what I felt, and every time she saw me have a different emotion (through facial queues or body language), she would make me describe what that shift was.
Being open was and still is scary. It was different having to put words to what I was feeling, I felt like I couldn’t hide, I had no choice but to be vulnerable. I felt like I was being challenged, I was made to explain what I said, and I had to try to figure out the root of my problem. That first day I opened up about things I’d never told anyone else, things that I’d been afraid to say out loud (and still am). Just having the space to say these things made me feel lighter. Additionally, when I would talk about tough situations I’m in, she helped me come up with a game plan about how to solve the problem.
Therapy helped me for the first time in my life to advocate for myself and explicitly tell someone how they had hurt me. While it took months to get to that point, slowly and surely, I got there. My therapist continues to help me learn how to get out of my own head and not be so hard on myself.
My experiences with both of my therapists were positive, but my current therapist feels permanent. I feel as though even after the school year ends, I’ll be able to take away some of the tips she has taught me.
I feel fortunate to have never had a stigma towards therapy. I never thought it was a weird thing to do. While I do feel strange talking about therapy with my parents, I’m not ashamed that it’s something I do. Once I learned that therapy can be beneficial for everyone, I took the leap and joined. It serves as a form of relief. A place where I can air out grievances and be vulnerable without the fear of being judged. It’s a place where I’m challenged to consider why I both think and act the way I do.
I enjoy going to therapy. Even when I know I’m going to leave a session sobbing and hurting, I know a small part of myself is proud that I was able to be vulnerable. Sometimes growing is difficult, and it takes time to feel proud of that growth.