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Speaking About Therapy

“Okay Patch, I’m going to drop you at home and then I’ll take Gleek to her appointment.” Patch nodded. He knew that something was going to be different when Gleek was in the car for the pick up from school. Usually I come alone.
“What does she have an appointment for?” Patch asked.
I hesitated before saying “It’s just an appointment.” Patch accepted that and the conversation moved on.

The appointment was for therapy. During that moment of hesitation I was acutely aware that Gleek was sitting in the back seat. I realized I did not know how she felt about therapy. Did it embarrass her? Did she care if her brother knew about it? Did she even think much about why she is going? It had become just a thing we do, but after that question I began thinking about all the times I said “appointment” instead of clarifying what it was for. In the tiny omission of the word “therapy” I was obscuring it’s existence and I realized this was due, not to consideration for Gleek’s feelings, but because of my own discomfort.

Psychology has come a long way since the days of Freud, and yet many of his basic assumptions still permeate the field. This is the natural result when a theory becomes the foundation of many other theories. Psychological professionals are no longer steeped in Freud, but many popular cultural assumptions come directly from him. For example if a child has emotional troubles, then it is assumed that those troubles are either the result of some sort of trauma or because of poor parenting. I’m seeing a shift lately where articles and movies are beginning to say that mental illness may be genetic or chemical rather than caused, but the other thought is absolutely there. We see an emotionally troubled child and wonder who caused it. Who is at fault.

I live with all those assumptions in my head and they turned on me viciously last spring when Gleek’s bundle of mental and emotional challenges manifested in a way that concerned school personnel. She’d veered out of quirky and landed solidly in the realm of disordered. I knew the right steps. We sought diagnosis and then therapy because the problem was bigger than we could handle alone. It is one thing to seek help and it is something completely different to feel at peace with the results of that decision. I struggled with a lot of self doubt. It took me months to realize that on a deep level I felt that having a kid in therapy represented a massive failure in parenting. Parents make jokes about that, about how their kids will end up in therapy because of this or that thing. Those jokes come from a place in the parental heart that is crying out “please do not let my child ever be in so much emotional pain that she needs therapy.”

We got there. We are there now, not because she is actively in pain, but because we’re hoping to teach her some emotional management skills so that if her internal world spirals out of control, she knows how to get it back. One of the very most critical of those skills is knowing that therapy is available and that going is not a weakness nor something to be ashamed of. If our weekly trips can remove that hurdle for the rest of her life, that is work well done. If she learns enough that she never spirals down again, even better. Yet there I was, subtly undermining one of the primary hopes because I was avoiding the word therapy.

I felt judged by Gleek’s first therapist, a young intern. I don’t think it was her fault, the judgements were echoing inside my head and attaching to things that she said. However it was obvious that the therapist was focused on treating the parent/child system, which did heavily imply I was part of the problem. I would walk out of the appointments feeling like I needed to be better, give more structure, set more limits. Those things did help. Yet the point was to teach Gleek to get to the heart of her emotions, not to teach me how to manage better. Half of the therapist’s suggestions were things that I already did. It didn’t seem like hugging her twenty times per day would make that much difference over the seventeen times I was already doing. I suppose it could have been an affirmation that I was doing okay at this parenting thing, but it added to my concerns. We were doing so many of the good things, yet the therapy appointments were necessary. I spent lots of time wrestling with why, until I realized that in this situation “why” is not really a useful pursuit. I also realized that that particular therapist wasn’t right for us. The second therapist, four months later, was better. Or maybe we were better. By then I’d begun to come to terms with my emotional tangles regarding having a child in therapy.

I asked Gleek if she minded me telling her brother’s she has therapy. She shrugged “I didn’t realize that they don’t know.”

The next week when I picked up Patch from school I said “You’re own with Link for a bit because I’ve got to take Gleek to her therapy appointment.”
“Gleek has therapy?” Patch asked.
“Yes. She just needs to learn some skills to help her figure out and resolve her emotions. That way things don’t get as hard as they were last spring.”
“Things were hard last spring?” Patch said, and I laughed one of those surprised laughs that bursts out like I’ve been punched in the gut. Gleek’s struggles had turned her world and mine upside down. Patch hadn’t noticed.
“You remember when she was having a hard time in school with panic attacks?” I said
“Oh. Yeah. I kind of remember that.” Patch said. We then talked a bit about anxiety and the kinds of things that a therapist can help people to learn. It was a good conversation because Patch gets anxious too and perhaps someday he’ll not be afraid to seek help learning skills in a time of need.

Slowly but surely I’m learning to mention the therapy when it is appropriate, rather than dodging the mention. Helping to normalize therapy is a small gift I can give to every child or parent who may need it someday.

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2 comments to Speaking About Therapy

  • L.T. Elliot

    You’re such an amazing person. And I know you don’t write these things to hear that so I promise I’m not just saying it because I feel compelled. I say that because you are so wise. And accepting. Thank you for sharing and for striving for the things you do.

  • “She just needs to learn some skills to help her figure out and resolve her emotions. That way things don’t get as hard as they were last spring.” I like those statements of yours. When she’s a little older and her friends are a little wiser, I’ve found that getting informal therapy from your peers can be very beneficial. Granted, I’ve never been the one receiving the therapy, I’ve been doing my best to give the therapy, but it always appeared to make a difference, at least for a short period of time. The only time I’ve ever had a panic attack was dwelling on the concept of eternity. I think the simplest therapy for panic attacks, although not necessarily the appropriate therapy, is to teach someone to avoid thinking too much about something that’ll set one off.