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You Should Talk to Somebody About That
By Mary Stathos
A THERAPIST WITH A THERAPIST, like some kind of multi-level marketing scheme. Somewhere, someone is the top therapist. They have friends they can ask for help, they have built a community who can support them and which does not pass them off to another therapist readily awaiting a paying customer who they can help make more palatable and put together for the people who love them.
The issue, of course, is far more complex than this. I am, of course, a therapist myself. This is, of course, my job; a field I love, a field I respect, a field I take pride in. And – a therapy practice I have moved into my own life, which is to replace “but” with “and” – in working hard over the last 10 years to build a life worth living (another therapy term and personal mantra), I wish that I could say that, of course, it feels possible to have a life worth living. I wish that I could say that, of course, there was adequate support for me and the people I encounter to do this, or at the very least that, of course, I feel like things are getting generally better (the Supreme Court isn’t currently on a fascist tirade, the NYT’s article about how to cancel student loan payments isn’t prompting online discourse that its suggesting suicide as a way out of payments, etc).
When I wake up in my bed, I am in an apartment that will never be mine. I go outside with my cats into my neighbor’s yard because my landlord decided to pave ours over years before I ever moved here. The sun is shining and the cats seek solace in the shady grass while I lay on a blanket and drink coffee that I made on a stove that I recently learned was hooked up to the gas lines without any kind of permit (even though the city inspector said they are properly sealed now).
I work the second shift, 1p-11p, Sunday-Wednesday in an office that has no windows, doing mental health evaluations for people in acute psychiatric crises. Most of the money I earn will never be mine. It belongs to my landlord, Eversource, Comcast, student loan companies, and car insurance, with just enough left over to spend on fancy cat food and to shop at the local produce store. I am often thankful to have a job that feels connected to my community but even then I feel trapped in a cycle. Sometimes I do not feel any different from the people who come in.
We are all trapped. None of us are the problem. I cannot help them when they tell me that they are struggling with finances, or bills, stressed about the same recent climate disaster, the same looming need to pay back our student loans, the same critical need for rent control.
Therapy is vital in so many situations, for so many people. EMDR (the one with the light) is one of the best ways to manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The type of therapy I do (both as a therapist and have done also as a client), dialectical behavior therapy, works with suicidal and parasuicidal clients to help them build the skills to manage the distress of their emotions and regulate them over time to build a life worth living.
People with OCD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. can receive fantastic treatment for their symptoms and live normal lives after or alongside that treatment. If you are suffering from any symptoms of mental illness you should always reach out for help. Just because capitalism has turned the therapy industry into something it was not designed to be does not mean that therapists do not care, or that the supports are not designed to help you.
I could not have survived without therapy. Therapy never solved the problem of “why doesn’t my grad school stipend pay a living wage” but it certainly solved the problem of “why do I spend 18 hours a day laying in bed crying and wishing I was dead.” Though I will admit that laying in bed for 18 hours a day did make it a lot easier to live off a grad school stipend, it was quickly moving me into the “not living at all” category.
There were so many days of my life where I would lay in bed and wonder why anyone would ever want to be alive, how anyone would ever want to go through this much work just to suffer, just to have $10 in their bank account at the end of the week. Nobody should be living like this. My mental health was in shambles. I was also suicidal about having to do my laundry, about dishes, about homework, and about being alone with my own thoughts. It was not just about not having enough money, but not having enough money was not helping.
Therapy has its limits. You cannot reframe poverty. There is no cognitive behavior therapy worksheet strong enough to put food on your table, no matter how badly you want it, or that will make you feel good about not having it. You cannot reframe capitalism and how the working class has become trapped in this system. As capitalism becomes a driver for suicide for more and more people, therapy without community becomes effectively worthless for the most vulnerable and marginalized people.
One day, while I was on my way to work while in grad school, my phone charger broke. I think I had less than a dollar to my name for the rest of the week. It was my only charger. It felt world-ending. It felt like something that I was not meant to survive. I was in therapy two days a week at this point, and in grad school to be a therapist. My therapist and I would build skills called “distress tolerance” skills to help me survive crisis situations without feeling like I was going to literally end my life. These skills are a godsend. More people should have these. They should be able to learn how to sit with the worst of what is going on, because you cannot build a life worth living if you are dead.
What is uniquely hard about therapy is being validated about something so clearly unrelatable to your therapist.
That must be so hard you. He can’t imagine. You are so strong for getting through that. We can up your Gabapentin if we need to.
Not their fault though – therapy was never designed to solve these problems. Case management and social workers are stretched thin without the structural resources they need. Social safety nets no longer exist. Police are raiding tent cities, often the only places available for the unhoused as shelters continue to be overfilled, understaffed, or in conditions that feel unsafe to those in need of care. The most marginalized people are unable to access the resources they need and begin to, as one would expect, suffer. Once they are suffering, they will get mental health treatment. While this treatment is so important, what every person deserves is the dignity and respect to be allowed to be alive without suffering and poverty. How much of this suffering could have been solved by safe, stable housing?
As this problem continues and as branding and capitalist propaganda continue to feed us shirts that say things like “Hot Girls Take Lexapro,” this pattern also starts to seep outside of the structural systems that uphold poverty and into our regular lives. People who cannot afford their rent or their groceries one week tell their friends that they are “so stressed lately.”
“Do you have a therapist?”
Therapy is a capitalist solution to a society that is suffering because of capitalism. By creating a world that has “destigmatized” mental illness, we have actually managed to destigmatize therapy and colloquialize therapy speak and stigmatize “people in need of help and support.” People are uncomfortable hearing about and caring for members of their community and instead, the solution is:
“You should talk to somebody about that.”
You should talk to somebody about that – as if the person I am standing in front of right now, talking to about this, a member of my community, a trusted person in my life, is not good enough to share this with. As if I am not talking to somebody about that. Everybody does and should have a right to express their boundaries, and we need to understand that many people have, in trying to understand mental health, actually closed themselves off from helping others by adopting the “everyone needs to be in therapy” mindset.
I have (and imagine others have also) been in spaces with people where we have been celebrating something and they say:
“I can’t wait to tell my therapist about this.”
We have capitalized on community care. We have forgotten what it is like to care for one another, to be there for each other. To share good news, or a little update. People who check in too much are “needy,” people who don’t check in enough are “avoidant.” I see tweets on my timeline giving instructions on how to have conversations without “being a narcissist” that tell people not to ever share personal experiences to relate to others. Capitalist values are becoming so normalized and engrained in us that we are stumbling through our social relationships with these big clumsy words between all of us, keeping us apart, keeping us from caring about each other.
If we never come together to have these conversations as a group we will never deconstruct these systems. Your friend who forgot to tell you something last week might totally be gaslighting you, and they might have genuinely just forgotten. The person you went out with last week and talked about your mental health history with isn’t someone you trauma bonded with (that is a specific term for a relationship between an abuser and victim, like people suffering from the completely not clinical and made-up term “Stockholm syndrome”) and so maybe you don’t need to be as weary of that relationship going forward and you can be excited to know that you actually have some things in common in your past, which is a really good foundation for a friendship.
Sometimes, people really do need to talk to someone. I really needed to talk to someone. There is a dialectic here, two things can be true at once – someone can need therapy and community.
Therapy, as most of us in the United States are aware, is unbelievably expensive if not entirely inaccessible for most people. Community clinics often have long waitlists and finding a private practice therapist that takes your insurance feels like hitting the lottery. Having to call around to different offices asking if they are taking new clients, explaining what is going on, and hoping that they are nice to me (when really, I did not have it in me to even go to the grocery store), can feel so dehumanizing.
Before we banish someone off to a six-month waitlist who may truly be struggling, who may truly be alone, we need to confront the level of comfort we feel we are entitled to. In grad school to be a therapist, a phrase I heard over and over was “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” and this is perhaps the bigger stigma. It is not the word mental illness, it is the personal discomfort of the observer once you act mentally ill around them. The death of Jordan Neely after being fatally choked to death on the subway after asking for food and water is a glaring example of this.
Therapy under capitalism highlights how alone we are. It highlights how we can do things alone, and reframes this to a positive. Therapy does not have to exist in a vacuum. We do not have to wait for better safety nets, for reforms. Community exists now, all around us. You should not have to reconcile with your mental health or the failures of capitalism alone, you deserve the help of professionals and the help of your community.
I passed my state licensure exam in April. It was my second time taking it. Everybody says the first time didn’t count because the fire alarm went off in the middle of it. When I got out of the exam this spring, I spent almost an hour in the car calling everyone I knew to celebrate, and later went out for a beer with a friend. The piece of paper with my photo and size 9pt font that reads PASS is still on my fridge.
Even though my apartment will never be mine, it is for right now. The yard is not mine, it is my neighbor’s. We know everyone in all of the yards around us. A community. They’ve helped me start a garden in the little bit of yard I have that isn’t paved over. It doesn’t solve everything. It actually doesn’t solve most things, and it doesn’t have to. There will be lots of times and lots of things that just do not have an easy solution.
It feels good to be surrounded by people you love, to have a community you can talk to and who can accept you for who you are. We can and should do more to check in on those in our lives who need that care, and you should go talk to somebody about that.
Finding a community, especially since the pandemic, is hard. Being alone and isolated is one of the number one drivers for suicide. If you are feeling alone, always reach out for help.
988 – Suicide Hotline
866-488-7386 – Trevor Project, 24/7 Helpline for LGBTQ young people