Contrary to popular belief, everybody could use a little therapy. Even after a decade of watching Don of All Dons Tony Soprano put in his weekly couch time, we downplay the importance of mental health and regard talking about your feelings as a sign of weakness. (It's not.) That said, therapy shouldn't be treated like a cure for a problem that stops when the problem is solved. Think of it as regular maintenance for your emotional sanity. Seeing a therapist doesn't mean you are sad or weak any more than getting an oil change means something is wrong with your car.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about trying to find a therapist are the disclaimers that pop up when you try to do some research on your own; the articles that strongly suggest that you may need to seek medical help, plus the intense lists of suicide-prevention-hotline numbers, links to drug-addiction counseling, or information on psychological disorders or mental disease. This firewall serves to (rightly) redirect those with more acute problems, but it also has the unintended effect of trivializing everything else. It potentially makes anyone doing a half-assed internet search about therapy feel like an asshole for even thinking they need help.
But you are not an asshole! You are a normal person. And you still could use some therapy.
Why You Need Therapy: You are a member of a society, and that means you have to deal with other people. Other people—even the ones you like—can be pretty stupid and annoying. Your interactions with them are complicated and nuanced struggles for things that every basic human deals with: power, love, attention, nurturing, care. While these subtle battles are so common that we can deal with them intuitively, there are some that wear you down mentally. You can blow off steam by complaining to your friends or family, sure, but even then, there are times that you wonder how much they want to hear your shit and how much you want to tell them. Or if "they really even care at all." For their part, your friends don't always know what to say, and when they do, they don't always want to tell you things that would be tough for you to hear.
Your therapist, however, is outside your personal radius. He or she doesn't know your friends, your family, your co-workers or anybody else in your little universe. (Note: This is why your therapist should never be a friend or family member.) These people aren't personally or emotionally vested in the relationships you discuss, and aren't physically present players in the world you need help emotionally navigating. You can tell them anything about anyone without worrying about who will find out what you really think. By law, nothing you tell your therapist leaves that office. You don't have to worry about talking too much about yourself, because that is literally the only reason you are there. Your therapist has no horse in the race except your mental health, and they're professionally trained to help you make sense of what's going on in your brain.
What is Therapy, Exactly? This is a totally fair question, as therapy itself is devoid of any obvious magic. Generally a single session lasts 45 minutes to an hour, scheduled once a week, and takes place in a room in a private office suite. You sit or lay on a couch and talk to the therapist, who will sit on a chair. Inevitably, you will make a comment about how cliché the arrangement is. Your therapist may or may not takes notes on a notepad; if they don't, you shouldn't interpret that as a lack of interest.
A session is a conversation about you, your life, or whatever is on your mind. You might talk about your job, your friends, your family, current events, or pop culture. The more you talk, the better; a good therapist will let you talk and lead you to conclusions on your own rather than tell you what they think outright. Free of the burden of other people's feelings and opinions, therapy is a chance to pick apart the relationships and interactions in your life like an owl pellet in a fifth-grade science class. It teaches you to understand why you treat people the way you do and vice versa. You learn to recognize unhealthy patterns of behavior, allowing you to minimize them in your own actions and avoid them in interactions with others.
Your therapist can also be a judgement-free sounding board for stuff you might not want to put on your inner circle. Catch yourself having a disturbingly racist reaction to something? Your therapist will unflinchingly walk you through all your deep-seeded prejudices. Cheat on your significant other? Your shrink will help you unpack why you did and how you can avoid temptation in the future. (That assumes you care; at the very least, your therapist is guaranteed to not snitch!)
Finding a Good Therapist: This might take some work. Ask your doctor, ask your friends, ask your insurance company, ask the internet. Don't stress the difference between the various approaches or schools of thought. Getting yourself on the couch is a huge step in and of itself, independent of your therapist's input.
Far and away, the most important factor to consider is your comfort level. You will get the most out of seeing somebody you can open up to. That could mean finding someone who is the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you, or it could have no effect on your decision at all. (And if you realize that you honestly don't feel comfortable talking to, say, a male therapist, that is something you can definitely bring up in your sessions!)
You also want to find someone that respects you, your lifestyle, and your opinions. If you are a happy stripper or a content drug dealer, there is no reason to tolerate a therapist who harps on you because of their own personal feelings on any given topic. If your faith is important to you, a good therapist will be able to diplomatically factor that into your conversations.
Sticking With It: That said, there is a difference between a therapist who disapproves of your whole steez and one who tells you things (or asks you questions) you don't want to hear. They may be the only person in your life willing and able to non-judgmentally ask you, say, what you plan on doing when you stop selling weed, or if you are willing to put your relationship with God ahead of your relationship with real people. Don't blame the messenger!
Therapy can be unpleasant, and the sessions can go places you don't really want to go. It's important to keep an open mind and be honest with yourself if your therapist pisses you off: Are you mad at them, or are you being defensive? If you hit it off with a therapist and establish a good rapport, consider staying the course through the rough patch. (It's probably easier than starting fresh with someone else.)
Paying For Therapy: The unfortunate truth is that therapy is expensive: We're talking upwards of $150 a session. We live in a society where mental-health treatment is seen as a luxury: It's the first thing jettisoned when trying to bring down the prices of insurance plans, and as a result, it's hard to find coverage for therapy. As a result, the clientele tend to be wealthy folks who can afford to pay out of pocket. Lots of—if not the majority of—therapists don't really fuck with insurance because the paperwork and wait for reimbursement are not worth their effort: They're getting cash up front.
Your insurance still may cover therapy. It may involve paying for it and getting reimbursed for it later, but that's better than having having to come out of pocket entirely. Give them a call (or shoot them an e-mail if your company is hip like that) and ask. It's what you're paying them for!
But if insurance isn't helping or isn't an option, here are some workarounds to consider:
- Be in college. Pretty much every school has mental-health services available for its students, including therapists (or counselors). You can talk to them for free.
- Be near a college. You know how you can get your teeth cleaned for cheap if you're willing to be practice for dental students? The same offer applies for mental-health practitioners. Medical schools or teaching hospitals are good places to start.
- Test the market. Most therapists have sliding scales for their fees; they aren't going to charge your broke ass the same thing they charge the child of a captain of industry. If you make a sincere inquiry about treatment and are honest about what you can afford, you can get a good deal.
- Get the first hit free. Ask about an initial assessment. Most therapists will do a short session for free (or cheap) so you can get acquainted and decide if they are the person for you.
- Network. If a therapist can't give you the price you need, ask them for recommendations for cheaper alternatives in your area. (Mental Health America also has some potential leads for affordable therapy.)
Remember to Take It Easy: It's important to remember that the endgame is more self-reflection and introspection. While the best case scenario is a weekly opportunity to talk to someone you trust deeply about what's bouncing around in your head, there's tremendous value in just seeking treatment.
Andrew Friedman is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter at @skinny412.
Art by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.