I Belong to a Sisterhood of Traveling Therapy-Goers, and I’ve Never Felt More Mentally Healthy

Photo: Getty Images/Caiaimage Paul Bradbury
On an uncharacteristically sunshine-y Tuesday around 12:30 p.m., I ran into a friend from Brooklyn during my lunch break and gave her the skinny on my week. I can't remember which news bite I delivered with more zeal: how much I loved my new (and first!) therapist, or how much I loved seeing Cher in concert. But, I do remember feeling a distinct sense of community and support upon learning my friend and I go to therapy in the same building.

My very first session happened the day before, probably 2 to...24 years later than ideal (but who's counting?). My mental health reached its low point this past winter, and though I wanted to seek therapy sooner, the idea making that first appointment made me feel overwhelmed, stressed, and very small. Furthermore, being able to foot the bill felt impossible. The one thing I have never felt regarding therapy, though, was shamed—and that’s all thanks to my friends, all of whom offer me mental health support that's proved to be its own therapy of sorts.

From a societal frame, it makes sense. After all, I'm a member of the Therapy Generation (and also Generation Anxiety), and many of my cohorts also gloriously feel little stigma about seeking therapy for mental health support. That mood is different among many of my baby-boomer mom's friends, who regard therapy as a hush-hush, narcissistic means of fixing something broken. And, TBH, that makes sense, too: Even 20 years ago, the dialogue around therapy came with an edge of annoyance, shame, and denial.

Rewatch the Sex and the City scene where Carrie Bradshaw's friends stage an intervention because she needs to go to therapy because they are sick of her talking about Big. Then watch Carrie’s self-absorbed reaction: “I don’t need professional help, I’ve got you guys!” she says. My response to that is, expletive, expletive, expletive, eye roll, sigh.

It's so important to create an honest dialogue about how to seek help, what to expect from therapy, tips to take care of yourself between sessions—all of it. Without the specifics, the quest to get on that couch feels like a lonely, impossible journey with too many barriers in the way.

We've made leaps and bounds in the journey to normalize mental health issues, yet stigma still exists, as does the need to feign perfectionism. Sure, one study 2015 survey by American University students on 890 self-selected student participants showed that more than 70 percent of respondents were comfortable with seeing a counselor...but fewer than half were comfortable with telling other people about the choice.

So in the name of breaking the silence, I appreciated when, at 1:48 p.m., a long-distance friend texted me about how she fainted from a stress-and-sickness combo and proceeded to open up about the rough time she's been having. While there’s only so much I can do as not-a-doctor, I did send her Well+Good's 30-day Mental Wellness challenge (“not a professional intervention, but maybe it’ll help!”), urged her to take off the following day from work, and supported her choice to start seeing a therapist via Skype. She had been resisting therapy for a while but felt ready to prioritize her mental health for the sake of her physical health—but without some friendly encouragement, it would've never happened. We all empathize, we all encourage, and then eventually (eventually), we take the advice we seek. (Update: She felt very rejuvenated following her mental-health day.)

Then at 8:01 p.m., my friend living in Queens asked me about how therapy is going, to which I answered "great but expensive, and navigating the world of Out of Network health insurance costs is going to be a gigantic pain in the ass." She suggested an unfamiliar-to-me concept getting a Health Savings Account (HSA)—available for certain employer-provided health-insurance plans and high-deductible plans—wherein money is deducted pretax from each paycheck and goes into a special account for medical expenses. She said it's been a stress-busting godsend that's afforded her therapy sessions and medications. And since the "how do I afford this" piece of the puzzle has always been my biggest setback for committing to therapy, sharing financial strategies alone is a win for my mental health. Realness and authenticity and acceptance aside, it's a problem that being able to seek mental health in this country remains an unaffordable privilege to many.

The financial aspect of therapy was also a complication for my friend from Portland. We discussed payment—because she doesn't have the savings or insurance plan to even allow her to entertain the Out of Network game—and eventually found the affordable-therapy-access association Open Path Psychotherapy Collective to be a fit. She started therapy the same week as I did, and while she was excited, more than anything, she was nervous about crying during her first session. Because to her, crying felt embarrassing. The things you say in a therapist's office are meant to be explored nonjudgmentally with a professional guide. But while there can be secrecy in the content of the session (if you personally want to keep the discussions a secret), honesty surrounding what to expect from therapy can be a soothing balm for those who are skittish about going.

So at 8:53 p.m., she asked me, "Did you cry?"

"I did not cry during my session," I answered. "I DID cry immediately before, because I accidentally walked into the previous session and was SO mortified." And overwhelmed. And stressed and feeling very small. But never, ever shamed.

The parade of celebrities opening up about their struggles and love for therapy is great and helpful for normalizing discussions about mental health and removing the stigma Carrie Bradshaw and a lot of my mom's friends and so many other people have felt and still feel. These are important, positive, and inspirational stories, but what they often aren't is personal. What is personal? The nitty-gritty: Creating an honest dialogue about how to seek help, what to expect from therapy, tips to take care of yourself between sessions—all of it. Without the specifics, the quest to get on that couch feels like a lonely, impossible journey with too many barriers in the way.

Granted, those journeys are our own, but having a supportive community of friends cheering on you and your mental health can make the quest feel like a group mission everyone's in on together.

If you want to cross off people who can't be your therapist, this checklist is a good place to begin. And here is the one surefire sign that you should start therapy, if you're still uncertain.

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