I’m fiddling with the lid of my latte when a therapist asks, “So, Matt, why are you here?”
The "here" in question is a room with white walls and lamps that paint them warm. I’m sitting on a couch next to my coat, across from the aforementioned therapist, her pad and pen at the ready. I can’t look at her steadily yet, so I avert my eyes to the vase of flowers at her desk. I admire how wonderful an arrangement it is, especially as winter creeps in.
“Thank you,” she says. Her voice is calm and even. “It helps to change the water.”
She reminds me of one of my favorite professors from college: patient, kind, someone to whom I divulged plenty as we worked on my future and thesis together. They even share the same bushy hair, a penchant for black turtlenecks, and a name. For now, I’ll call this therapist Janet.
Janet is my therapist, technically, but it’s my first visit. I can’t say “my therapist” yet without being too aware of how new this is, how ~New York~ this is, but she’s asking a fair question. I place my latte on her coffee table, next to a box of tissues. I faintly register why they’re within arm’s reach, but I doubt I’ll actually use them today. If ever. Especially as I’ve managed to go without a therapist for over 20 years now.
I tell Janet, “I’m here for my mental health.” She smiles. I remind myself to breathe.
It’s a canned response, true, but it’s because I don’t know how to be in therapy yet. I have a reason to seek help for my mental well-being, but I haven’t figured out how it works. Here in this white room, I can’t shake the expectation Janet will simply dole out epiphanic advice and I’ll be on my merry way. But it’s talk therapy. And so I talk, which I love to do, even as I rasp with a sore throat.
I’ve been nursing it since last week. When I saw my doctor, he said it was a viral infection. Nothing I can do except get some rest, work from home, and nuke myself with Advil. “I’ve seen men three times your size cry with things like these,” my doctor said. “You’re doing great. It’ll pass.”
He’s a wonderful doctor. I never hesitate to call him, even at the slightest headache. This past summer, however, my symptoms were different: anxiety in the mornings, jealousy in the evenings, and a chronic loneliness that came and went as it pleased. I told myself to not worry about these persistent knots in my chest. Barring a stroke or a heart attack, I didn’t plan on asking for help from my doctor. Or from anyone.
I self-diagnosed this as “just stress.” After all, work was hectic, my friendships were wavering, and my mother and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer — all within the span of two months. This all presented me with the very real possibility of a life alone, a life full of loss. This is my greatest fear, to live and die alone. But is that not something everyone’s afraid of? Anyone who’s 23 and unsure of their life gets through it. Besides, I was able to get out of bed and head into the office, go to the gym and laugh at my own jokes.
You’re just stressed, I told myself. Suck it up. It’ll pass.
And it did. Only because I did something about it. I spent my 24th birthday on my own and it was wonderful. I shopped. I ate alone. I prayed. That was the reboot I needed, to have a day to myself. As the summer ended, I found myself willingly alone more often. I learned that aloneness was different from loneliness, that I could equate it with being able to put myself first.
Spending time alone eases my anxieties and jealousies. While they are no longer tsunamis, still they are tides. My mental uneasiness rises and falls with the phases of the moon, yet they don’t quite drown my mind the way they used to. I want to keep this up. So I’ve resolved to take better care of myself.
I found a dentist, who said I had a “slight bout of gingivitis.” I went to an optometrist, who said I have dry eyes. And I saw my doctor to get a prescription for Truvada. It’s a little blue pill you can take every day to reduce the incidence of HIV infection. He recommended it because I’m a gay man in New York. I said yes because I’m a gay man in New York who is habitually reckless with his body and his heart.
I’m lucky to have professionals who help me take care of myself. Gingivitis isn’t something you get and think, Hmm, it’ll pass. Thanks to my dentist, I now floss regularly. My optometrist gave me eye drops and they’re working. And, as my doctor said while he wrote my prescription, anything I can do to prevent the worst case scenario is something worth doing. And he’s right. That’s why I’m here in therapy.
Because while those knots in my heart are now rare, my mental distress might rise up again and break its banks. My friends, family, and career are always subject to dizzying change, so I need to find ways to reinforce my peace of mind. Whether alone or lonely, I should be able to count on my health.
As I tell Janet all this, she nods, smiles more. She flips to a fresh page on her pad. It’s her fourth. I take my coffee, but I probably don’t need the caffeine. I drink anyway.
Janet asks, “Have you been to therapy before?”
My first answer’s no. Then again, I say to Janet, there was that one time when I was 5 years old. I was sent to an analyst, I think, in the face of my mother’s crumbling marriage to my father. I don’t have a clear memory of this, only stories I’ve been told. But apparently, when I was asked about my parents, I said, “Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other, and that’s fine.”
I laugh at this, despite my sore throat. But it’s a surprise when my breath hitches and my chest tightens. I reach for my latte, stop, and look at Janet. She nods and I exhale.
We begin to talk about my work. It’s been crazy at the office lately and I’ve had to fight back tears at my desk now and then. My job description has come to revolve around change and, historically, change that is out of my control scares me. Changes at work, at home, in my dating life, it all means losing everything I’ve worked so hard for, forcing me to start over again. Change makes me anxious and frustrated and, I don’t know, angry.
Janet tilts her head, says, “You don’t seem like an angry person to me.” I hold my breath, sigh, and admit she’s right. I’ve never described myself as angry before. Scared is more like it, I tell her. There’s a silence between us as I acknowledge my fears, as I check the water levels in my mental banks. I nod and she smiles.
Our conversation turns to my love life. I tell her about my anxiety with waiting for boys to text back. Janet asks about my last serious relationship. I talk about my ex, how I wanted to forge ahead with our relationship, but I perpetually had to wait for him to catch up. A few grand times he waited for me, on me, held me like we were running out of time. Then, it seemed, we had too much time. He said he wasn’t ready. Janet asks me if I loved him. I say yes, embarrassed. Have I considered, she asks again, that though he wasn’t ready, it was possible he loved me too.
Instead of my coffee, I take a tissue from the box. My eyes stay dry, though the softness in my hand is reassuring. As are the brief silences between me and Janet. She nods for me, with me, and the things I talk about — loss and/of love, fear and/of change, being ready for them all — in some small way, become things I can breathe in and breathe out.
I never sought therapy, prior to today, because I didn’t think it was an option. I’m from a medical family, so I’ve always been more comfortable with pills and hospitals than warm quiet rooms. Money was also a convenient excuse. But when I learned therapy was accessible among my friend group of broke-ish twentysomethings, I cast myself as the martyr.
Other people need the in-network appointment slots more than you, I told myself. Other people have it worse than you. Suck it up. It’ll pass.
And it does pass. But no matter how long the lulls, I stand at the shores of my mind and fear the storms on the horizon, as the dreadful tides that come in and out threaten to take me under. I need someone to keep an eye on me, to call me out on my bullshit, on the excuses I give myself and the ones I give others. It’s a task I’ve always reserved for myself, but already I juggle multiple jobs at work, let alone in my personal life.
My friends were once my lifeboat, but it was this pressure and strain on the people I love that tested our friendships. After all, they have their own lives and their own therapists to see. I’d see them after their own therapy sessions, huge epiphanies in their wake, and demand of myself the same thing: to achieve clarity, to earn peace of mind, to loosen the knots in my heart on my own. Then I asked for help. And here I am, in therapy, wondering when and how enlightenment will come.
Janet says gently, “We’re out of time.”
We schedule a session for next week. And with my insurance, I’m financially comfortable (and terribly grateful) making it a weekly engagement, a luxury I won’t let myself forget. As I put on my coat, Janet and I make small talk — though I doubt any talk in this room will be too small.
“You’re very honest,” says Janet. I pause, my arm half in a sleeve. “It sounds like communication is something you deeply value.”
I nod, she nods, we smile. This, I expect, will become routine, par for the course, something I will come to count on. This first therapy session was like a first date, except my date genuinely does want to know me better. My openness, we agree, will come in handy as we sail on my lifeboat together.
Janet reminds me that, here in this warm room, I call the shots. This time is mine, she says, my therapy. My therapy, I repeat, playing with the words in my mouth. They don’t come with an epiphany, nirvana, or everlasting peace of mind. It may come in a year or 15, be it with Janet or other therapists, but I at last see that mental health will always be a constant work-in-progress.
Because now, for me, therapy is not about “getting better,” but rather tackling what I experience every day. What’s more, through therapy, things I can handle just adequately on my own, I can handle better with help. It’s a recalibration of my mind, self-maintenance of my heart. It’s changing the water in a vase of flowers, nipping the buds that refuse to bloom, trimming what’s gone to wilt, even as winter creeps in. And it’s just nice — justly nice and nicely just — to feel like self-care is a healthy indulgence.
“Thank you,” I say, and Janet, my therapist, responds, “Be well.” I leave with a lighter heart.
The next day, I feel my throat getting better. I can talk and not hurt. I check in with my doctor over the phone and we’re both glad I’m on the upswing.
“Keep it up,” he says. “Healing takes time.”