Self

How The Mental Health Profession Completely Failed Me

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depressed woman

I had a different upbringing than most other people my age. For a while, it felt like a competition with friends to figure out who had it worse.

I remember a conversation with a former friend I had when I was 16 about my tendencies toward self-harm, and while she had never cut herself, she explained to me that she would take coat hangers with clamps and clamp them on her body.

She made that comment in a way not to let me know that she understood my pain but to insinuate that what she went through was far worse. That her body dysmorphia was something I couldn’t understand. That her pain was bigger was mine.

That’s when I started to keep my mental health struggles to myself — because it was easier.

I saw my first therapist when I was 16, against my will. Someone had told a school counselor that they saw the scars up my arms.

I wish had the ability to forget the look on my mother’s face when she knocked on my door, with the phone still in her hand. She told me to roll up my sleeves and I knew if I didn’t do it, she would cut off my sleeves herself if she had to. 

My therapist’s name was Alison. The room was darker than I imagined: no windows and only one lamp, set to dim. Alison's sole purpose was to help me, and as she gave me a smile, I returned it with a tentative one of my own.

With just an exchange of smiles, I began to hope things could get better. That I could get better.

But nothing good came out of that room — except for that first glimmer of hope. Going to therapy was like Pandora’s Box: All the ugly things I felt inside me flew out of me in a whoosh. I poured out my entire soul to Alison.  I told her I had looked up how to kill myself online — more out of morbid curiosity more than a desperate cry for help, but my intentions didn’t matter.

Without trying to slow me down and talk me through the reasoning behind googling suicide tactics, Alison immediately shut down our session and ushered my mother into the room with us from the waiting room. Because I was a minor and told her I wanted to kill myself, she was legally obligated to report it and send me to get evaluated to determine if I was at risk to myself or others.

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I was 16, and two adults who were supposed to help me were arguing about what to do with me like I was a toddler. In the end, my options were to willingly go to the outpatient program or go by force. Not much of a choice, really.

I spent hours in the outpatient room, waiting to be evaluated, surrounded by other kids in the same predicament. Even though I didn’t say a word to any of them, I knew we all had the same look on our faces of despair and desperation. I had to look away first.

After what felt like hours, I was finally led into a room and questioned about whether I had any homicidal or suicidal thoughts or whether I had ever held a weapon, and if I wanted to. It went on and on until was deemed safe enough to go home. It was a Tuesday night and I still had homework to do and school to go to the next day.

And that’s exactly what I did.

High school is high school, and I spent my last year worrying about the future and feeling like I was already running out of time. I definitely needed therapy, but after my experience with Alison, I was turned off by it and stopped going. 

The summer after high school is when I started to feel bad again. I felt like I had nowhere to go, and I had no plans for the future. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I spent the summer working in the warehouse of my mother’s company.

I let all my anger and confusion and anxiety simmer while I mindlessly boxed things and tried not to think about how badly I wanted to die.

I finally gained the strength and was able to approach my mother about my troubles and we quickly sought out a new therapist. I liked my new therapist a lot, and I began to fall into an easy habit during our sessions. With time, I was even given medication to try: an antidepressant called Zoloft.

Unfortunately, this medication made me more exhausted than I already was, and I kept forgetting to get it refilled. I didn't have the time to figure out if it could work for me because my mom plugged the plug on the prescription and on my therapy.

She had decided that medication wasn’t good for me and that I was done with therapy.

According to her, I had gotten all I needed out of it. She didn't trust modern medicine, and despite me being 18 years old and perfectly capable of making my own decisions, I couldn't stop her because I was on her insurance and it was her checks paying for my therapy.  

My own mother failed me when it came to my mental health.

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Things luckily got a little better after that. I started college and found a solid friend group. I started dating, and I even moved away from home or school.

It wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic hit that my mental health started to worsen. My mother and I once again discussed healthcare options for me. My sister was seeing a therapist and was showing significant improvement, so I decided to see the same one. He was also a family friend, so it seemed to be written in the stars.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

There were instances where my new therapist where would say things or respond to problems I would talk about that would increasingly make me uncomfortable.

He would say that "all things happen for a reason" when I would tell I'm about traumatic times in my life. He would give me gift cards to random restaurants that I had never mentioned before, and would always ask me if I had used them, which I hadn't. Then he would get upset when I hadn't used them. It was bizarre.  

I would try to tell him about my troubles with dating, especially in an age where it seems men want something that I didn't want to give so easily, and he would almost shame me for how casual or not I was with the men in my life. Instead of learning how to manage my issues in a healthy way, I mostly spent our time steering the conversation away from uncomfortable topics or laughing when I wanted to cringe.

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I grew accustomed to brushing off what he would say about my dating life or the uncomfortable jokes he would make, again and again, I put his feelings above my own. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother by not seeing him anymore, and I didn’t want to disappoint him because he was the therapist my sister referred me to.

It came time for me to try medication again, and with the help of this new therapist, who I had reservations about, I found a psychiatrist. 

Within ten minutes, she determined I was "mentally ill" and prescribed me Lexapro, an antidepressant. I wasn't sure if I was impressed or dejected that it took her that fast to diagnose me.

By some miracle, Lexapro worked. It wasn’t a happy pill that I could take whenever I was feeling sad, but when I felt sadness and anguish, Lexapro softened those feelings so they weren't as earth-shattering anymore.

Lexapro was the only good thing that came out of my interactions with that therapist and psychiatrist.

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Unfortunately, whenever I ran out of medication, it was an absolute nightmare trying to get refills from this psychiatrist — endless phone calls with secretaries who didn’t know or didn’t care about my situation, along with unanswered emails and games of phone tag I wasn’t willing to play. Whenever I had a meeting with the psychiatrist over the phone or over a Zoom call, it only lasted about 4 minutes. I wasn’t being seen and I definitely wasn’t being heard.

So where am I today?

That strange therapist is someone I’m still seeing but our sessions are going to end soon because my insurance is changing. For the time being, I'm going to try to get as much out of it as I can. Going out into the world for the first time in more than a year without some kind of therapy is scary, but I’d like to think I'm ready.

As for that psychiatrist, after scheduling two different zoom calls, neither of which I was able to attend because I wasn’t sent the code, I was charged for missing appointments. After another perilous affair of trying to get a hold of someone who could help, I paid what I could and left.

Now I use my primary care doctor, someone who I like much better, to get refills of my Lexapro.

Here’s to a new year and hopefully better mental health for myself.

Isabel Steger is a writer focused on family, relationships, and pop culture.

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