Living with mental illness: Meeting a therapist for the first time

Fiona Kennedy gives an insight into life with borderline personality disorder and occasional depression

Meeting a therapist for the first time is quite a unique experience and can feel extremely disconcerting. We know nothing about the person sitting directly across from us other than their name and what we may have gleaned from a quick google search - where they studied perhaps, what their qualifications are, and who their accrediting body* is.

We might be able to intuit signs of a life outside the therapy room – a wedding ring maybe – but other than that? They’re a blank slate.

So we sit there, in a small room, just ourselves and this one other person. Generally, the chairs face each other with nothing between them. (I have yet to encounter a therapist who suggested I lie on a sofa.)

There’ll likely be a discretely placed box of tissues within easy reach, a clock so we can see when the end of the session is approaching, maybe some art on the wall, or some books, but very little else that would give away detail of the therapist’s life outside that room.

It’s an unusual situation to say the least. 

How often do we find ourselves sitting alone in a room with a complete stranger, when that person’s attention is solely on us? Not only are we the absolute focus of their attention, we are expected to tell them our most closely guarded secrets, while they reveal nothing of themselves in return.

Humans are a transactional species. We thrive on feeling a connection with those around us. If we tell a friend that something is bothering is, we fully expect to support them in return when the time comes.

Right from the beginning this relationship with a therapist is different and in order for it to function it has to be one sided, which can prove hard to handle at times.

Image: Annie Spratt

Our cultural fail-safe - small talk - doesn’t really feature as that would defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to achieve, so the usual safety nets that we rely on when meeting someone first the first time are taken away. We’re exposed, vulnerable, asking for help, and seated before someone we know practically nothing about.

Therapy is a huge leap of faith.

Of course, all of this is precisely the point of therapy. The therapist provides a blank canvas on to which we can project whatever it is we need to work through.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to adequately describe the incredible relief of being heard and understood, and the impact that has had on my life. To be able to admit to something we may have held on to for most of our lives, safe in the knowledge that we won’t be judged or dismissed – that’s immense.

I’ve worked with five therapists over the last ten years or so. Finding someone we can work with isn’t as straight forward as it may sound, and it took several years before I met a therapist I really clicked with. However, with the fourth try, I struck gold, and met someone I was to spend the next six years working with.

She supported me through two bouts of postnatal depression, several subsequent episodes of depression, hospitalisation, medication trial and error, self-harm and eventual diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD).

She was kind, empathic, compassionate and practical, and clearly loved her work. I’m not sure what exactly it was that set her apart from the previous three, but something did, and she helped me through some of the most difficult years of my life.

Eventually, however, that relationship had to come to an end as well. Following a suicide attempt last year it became clear that I needed a more structured form of support than she could provide.

Image: Anna Gowthorpe / PA Archive/Press Association Images

Reaching that decision was heart-breaking, and is something I still struggle with, but I’m now working with a psychologist who specialises in personality disorders, and for the first time in a very long time I’m starting to see a future for myself.

I think there may also be a preconception out there that it’s only people who are mentally ill or who have been on the receiving end of trauma that need therapy. This is absolutely not the case. We all have aspects of our lives that cause us difficulty, and there is no shame in seeking the support of a qualified professional in addressing these issues.

If physical distress was causing problems, we wouldn’t think twice about consulting a doctor, so it should be exactly the same when we’re emotionally distressed. Asking for help is not weakness, it’s demonstrating that we recognise there is a problem, and committing to do something to change it. It’s taking charge of our own wellbeing.

I look back on the person I was ten years ago, the one who’d possibly never before contemplated therapy, and I barely recognise her. Yes, I could probably have struggled on without help but I’d be living a very different life by now, if I were even alive at all, and am in no doubt that my marriage would have broken down.

I realise that sounds melodramatic, but it’s a simple statement of fact, and something that I’ve discussed with my husband on countless occasions. The longer my emotional and mental difficulties went unaddressed, the greater the impact they were having on my life, and consequently that of my family.

Attending therapy was (and still is) ultimately for me, but without doubt it has changed the life of my whole family for the better.

*If you are considering seeking psychological support, please ensure that your chosen therapist is recognised by the appropriate accrediting bodies. For more information visit: www.counsellingdirectory.ie

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie