I felt dread, heavy in my heart with a deep ache that I had never known.
The questions raced through my mind: Who am I? What am I here to do? Is this it? Is this life? How will I ever feel happy?
I was in my early 20s and struggling with some of the worst depression and anxiety of my life. I had finally finished all of the obligatory schooling that my upbringing and our culture had guided me toward and my expectation was that everything in my life would all be straightforward now. My future, my career, my success and of course, my happiness would all be easy to obtain.
Instead, I found myself feeling an existential emptiness. I was working as a high school English Teacher in New York City, I had the hardest kids, I had three hours of commuting by subway a day, I was living in a fourth floor walk-up, shoebox, studio apartment on the Upper East Side and I was miserable. I literally felt like I couldn’t survive another day of it. I had a breakdown and left my job.
I started going to a psychologist twice a week who charged $150 per session. That was $300 a week and I wasn’t earning a penny. My parents who were deeply concerned about my happiness and my suicidal ideation would pay anything to keep me alive. At one point, I became so upset and guilty about this cost that I said to my dad, “this is crazy, it is so much money.” He asked me “what is the monetary value of your life Allison?” Before I could respond, he said “It is impossible to put a monetary value on your life.”
My father was right. Yet, as a daily part of my current work as a psychotherapist, I encounter this same struggle in my clients. We all seem to operate in survival mode, working hard, paying the bills, taking care of the family and we often refuse to stop and practice appropriate and necessary self-care.
Going to a mental health counselor is one way to practice self-care. Here are just some of the many reasons why we should keep psychotherapy as a priority.
Number One: How we feel emotionally impacts how we show up in all other areas of our lives. If we have a lot of stored up and unprocessed emotions, we can count on them becoming intrusive in our family, with our children, with our partner and in our work life. The money and or time that we are theoretically saving by not going to counseling ends up costing us valuable quality time in our relationships and with our boss or co-workers.
Number Two: Our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being have a profound impact on our physical health. “When you clear your head, good things happen to the rest of you. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine reported that HIV patients who wrote about their worries for 30 minutes a day four days in a row experienced a drop in their viral load and a rise in infection-fighting T cells.” (Are Happy People Healthier? New Reasons to Stay Positive, By Nancy Gottesman). The impact of mental health counseling on physical health can help those who are already struggling with chronic pain or health conditions and also be a preventative step to prevent illness in many cases.
Number Three: Getting clarity about ourselves and our life goals is a precious gift. Talking through obstacles, past traumas, and self-esteem issues actually will allow us to increase our income and the energy available in our lives. Self-critical thoughts can be brought into awareness and corrected, allowing us to thrive in all of the ways which we have always imagined. Spending the money and the time to process it all through with a facilitating, supportive guide can actually increase our earnings, financially and energetically.
Number Four: There are few places left in our lives where we actually get someone’s full attention. In this information age, many of our interactions are online or over text and very few are face to face interactions where we have genuine human, healing contact. One of the simplest ways to feel better in our lives is to have at least one person in our lives who really listens to us and sees us.
Even better for our overall health is to begin to find ways to bring live, face to face, community back into our everyday lives. Isolation breeds dysfunction and addictive patterns and cultivating community brings health and support on multiple levels. Following through with consistent psychotherapy can allow us to see the places that we are isolating and even how old familial patterns are blocking us from more nourishing and healthy relationships.
Number Five: Each of us is our most valuable asset. There is an old Buddhist saying: You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour. This same logic applies to emotional self-care, that is, if we feel that we don’t have time, we need to get the support even more so to help us to set boundaries in our lives and organize in such a way that our needs are cared for along with the rest of the responsibilities in our lives. We can give ourselves, our families, our friends and our co-workers the gift of our complete health and presence by putting our mental, emotional, and spiritual health first on the list.
The truth is that there have been many times over the years that I have been guilty of dropping therapy off the list of priorities, feeling that it was a selfish and an expensive luxury. This is my career for god’s sake and it was still hard to commit to taking care of myself in this way.
I, obviously, believe in the therapeutic benefits of counseling for improving the quality of life and when it came to me, I still dropped the ball. Countless times throughout my years of practice, I have heard clients say this same thing: “I can’t afford therapy right now.” I have always said that I understand, and the reality is that now, after watching the lives of those people who chose to stay the course, I truly believe that we can’t afford not to be engaging in this kind of self-care practice.
So what if you just really can’t pull off the $100 to $150, which is the average cost for a weekly psychotherapy session?
There are other options which can be helpful and supportive that are either free or involve minimal financial investment. Find a lower cost therapy group to join. These groups can be found online at Psychology Today, Good Therapy, Network Therapy and through local community resource guides.
Find a counselor who is willing to see you on an as needed basis as opposed to requiring you to meet weekly. Search for some low cost counseling options in your community. Many universities have free, low-cost, or income based community counseling which is provided by interns in the graduate psychology and other counseling programs. These interns are all mentored and supervised by licensed practitioners.
In addition, churches, temples, and other spiritual facilities have advisors on staff who are happy to provide guidance during difficult periods and many of these institutions also provide regular support groups for free, by donation, or at a very nominal fee for a variety of common struggles.
Another option, which doesn’t offer direct personal contact and yet still offers an opportunity for some good psychoeducation and self-reflection, are the teachings available in books and online. Get to a library and check out some self-help and spiritual guide books.
There are a ton out there and sometimes it is hard to take the time to sift through them. Here are some recommendations:
>>> The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotional Regulation and Distress Tolerance, By Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C. Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley.
>>> Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, By Peter A. Levine
>>> Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, By Mark Epstein.
>>> The Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, By David Schnarch.
>>> Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life, By Marshall B. Rosenberg.
>>> When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chodron.
>>> Any book by Chogyam Trungpa.
And let’s all learn from Amanda Palmer, author of The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. Palmer writes: “Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me. Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.”
Many therapists say that they don’t take sliding scale clients, but when asked and provided with the specific circumstances of your life they will make adjustments to their fees for a select few clients. For the record, Palmer also has been quoted saying: “Thank God my best Friend’s a therapist.”
It is truly luxury for us to live a life that is beyond survival mode; a life of practice, spiritual engagement, meditation, yoga, and all of the many forms of therapy and counseling are a precious gift that we have been granted. Let us utilize these gifts fully so we can offer back our full presence in all facets of our lives.
As our Venerable Chögyam Trungpa has written: “Becoming ‘awake’ involves seeing our confusion more clearly.” (The Myth of Freedom and The Way of Meditation). Psychotherapy and other self-help tools allow us the opportunity to see our confusion more clearly and to be more wakeful.
Author: Allison Weliky
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Katherine Riley/Flickr