"What I've learnt from a decade in therapy"

She's been seeing mental health professionals for a third of her life. Now, for Mental Health Awareness Week, Kate Leaver shares what she's learnt from talking therapy...

08 May 2017

Therapy is my most important hobby. I turn up to my therapist’s central London office every fortnight to talk through my life, and it gives me an insight I don’t think I could get on my own. It’s like a guided tour of my own mind, and I cherish it. And I’ve been doing it a long time – I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 18 and started seeing a therapist the following year. It wasn’t so much a casual choice back then; it was more a necessity because I needed to pursue every option to keep myself stable.

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I’ve been seeing mental health professionals for nearly a third of my life and frankly, they’ve saved me on multiple occasions. For me, talk therapy has been an important part of my overall treatment plan, but I’d like to think I’d still be in therapy even if it wasn’t for the bipolar thing. It’s the single most sensible thing I do for myself as an adult and I’d recommend it to everyone. After all these years as a patient, here’s what I’ve learned about therapy – and myself.

You are worthy of a therapist’s time

I’m like a broken record with my friends: “You should see a therapist”, “Have you considered seeing a therapist?”, “Maybe you should talk to a therapist”. If someone comes to me with a problem – whether it’s love, work or family – I will always listen and talk it through. Then comes the therapy recommendation. The most common fear is that they are somehow not worthy of a therapist’s time. Either they think their problem isn’t dramatic enough to warrant seeing a professional, or they’re too shy to speak for an hour about it. Please believe me when I say that everybody is worthy of a therapist’s time. Everybody deserves to be heard. It took me some time, maybe years, to truly appreciate that I was worthy of being listened to – don’t waste that time and energy.

It may take time to find the right therapist (but you'll be glad when you do)

Over the years, I’ve opened up to a lot of different therapists. I've seen an art therapist who coaxed me into writing poetry and drawing seahorses with pastel crayons while I talked through my emotions. I’ve seen a terrifying 80-something-year-old woman called Shirley who told me not to watch the news because it was too much for my sensitive soul. I’ve seen a former prison warden who liked to treat her patients a little like they’d committed a crime. I’ve seen an Australian guy who wore two-toned ties and possibly had never spoken to a young person before. None of them were right. Finally, now, I see a glorious woman who truly gets me. She’s smart, funny and kind, and I think we'd be friends if we’d met under different circumstances. You simply may not click with your first therapist, and that’s OK. Don’t write it off, just persist until you find one who works.

It’ll never stop being a little bit weird

When I sink into my therapist’s big red armchair every fortnight, it occurs to me how odd the dynamic is. I'm paying to talk for an hour while a highly qualified psychotherapist listens and interjects with strategic questions to keep me delving into my own psyche. She knows my most intimate thoughts, my family history, what scares me about love and why my parents split up. She could probably reel off my greatest, deepest fears if you asked her. And what do I know about her? I know that she dresses beautifully (half the reason I turn up is to see what outfit she has on), that she has at least one son and two dogs, and that she wore red on International Women’s Day for solidarity. It’s a completely uneven exchange of intimacy and I have to admit, that doesn’t get any less weird as time passes. When talking to loved ones, you take turns confiding. Therapy is not like that, and you might have to push past a niggling feeling of awkwardness sometimes. But trust me, it's worth it.

Knowledge is power

There is nothing more empowering than knowing yourself. To carry around a strong sense of self with you is like covering yourself in invisible armour: you’re protected from the world in this lovely way only you know. Before therapy, I didn't have that armour. But therapy has forced me to get to know myself in a way nothing else in my life has. From countless hours talking to a professional, I now know what frightens me most, what gives me courage, how I react in crises, the pressure I accidentally put on myself, my best coping mechanisms, what matters to me most in life, what I want my future to look like, and how my past has made me who I am. It’s invaluable insight - it helps me get through rough days and celebrate the good ones. I feel like I’m gradually writing an instruction manual to my own existence, and that has completely transformed my life.

If you need to talk to someone, speak to your GP or mental health worker about which type of therapy is right for you. Or visit the y (BACP)'s website to find a therapist near you.

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