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on finding the right therapist: take your time, you'll know when it's right.

sometimes people will ask me how i knew when i found the right therapist or how to go about finding the right therapist. what follows is an attempt to shed some light on this issue:

The first time I ever saw a therapist I was nineteen years old and midway through my first year of college. I remember sitting down in an armchair in what was so obviously meant to be a music practice room.

I was just beginning to deal with food and body issues. Feeling tremendously uncomfortable in my own skin and aware that that feeling was one to be weary of, I sought out free counseling as offered by school.

Sitting down I told the woman, I think maybe I'm fat. Why do you say that? she asked. Well, because every time I look in the mirror I feel like I see something else. I can't get a grasp on the image in front of me. 
Are you fat? she pressed. Ummm...I stuttered, before she continued, Well, I didn't get a good look at you when you walked in, so I can't tell. 

I was clearly not fat. Even sitting down, I was clearly not fat. That much she could tell. And what I described when asked was obviously body dysmorphia. It was not an issue of fat versus not fat.

I don't remember what was said for the rest of the forty-five minutes, but she was not my gal. And if that was therapy, therapy was not my thing.

I can now say, all these many years later because time is a valuable teacher, she was horrendous at her job. (And for what it's worth, she was fired the next year for a particular incident having nothing to do with me in which she handled another delicate issue even more poorly).

When someone asks me how to deal with an eating disorder my first response is always, therapy. But I then say, find the right therapist. And what does that mean, find the right therapist?

Well, I'm not sure. I can only speak to my own experience, but I'll say this.

I saw that horrendous woman my first year. And then I tried two other therapists through school and while both were fine, I never left feeling aided in any way. It should be noted that through all of this no one was able to correctly diagnose my eating disorder as such. They called it anxiety or depression and claimed that if we could deal with those things the eating would right itself. I saw a life coach and two different nutritionists (one who photocopied an article out of Self Magazine for a seven day jump start diet {another person who should not have been practicing}). It was at the start of my fourth year I saw a therapist outside of school who was able to diagnose me and when during our second session she repeated something back to me that I had said, I thought, oh, this woman heard me--she really listened. And for me, feeling like I'd been heard was a really big thing. I saw her for several months, until I met Tom.

I would also like to say that during this time period I went to an eating disorder support group (led by a licensed therapist) where the girls went around and talked about dealing with bulimia and when it was my turn I said, I'm struggling with binge eating, and the therapist looked me up and down and said, but you're not obese. 

For what it's worth, I once went to a general practitioner here in New York (who was at the time  the head of all female physicians). She attempted to undiagnose my eating disorder when I gave her my medical history. And I wasn't even asking for her help in dealing with that particular thing.

This is what I know, there are a shocking number of individuals and trained medical professionals who should be able to help and not only do not, but cannot. There are a shocking number of medical professionals who do not listen well. When it comes to our health, we have to be our own best advocates. Even as everything was falling apart, I knew--in my gut, I knew--what the problem was and so I sought out people to help me deal with that.

It was at the end of my fourth year that I met Tom. My mother, bless her, had done some research and read about him and called up his office and passed his number on to me and so on a day in May I met him for the first time. And he had a long list of questions and when all was said and done I just knew. This was the guy.

And it's worth noting, the guy specializes in eating and weight disorders.

I have never once, in all the time I've spend with Tom wondered if I should look for another therapist. I think finding the right therapist is a bit like landing yourself in a really good relationship. You just know. It can be challenging and hard and still feel absolutely right. He has never passed judgment but constantly calls me on my bullshit.

I once told Tom that I want him to dance at my wedding. I don't imagine he always gets to see people come out the other side of it. And I have. And I owe hime that. And so I'm gonna want him to see where he got me. When I told him this he said, in typical Tom fashion,  that no, i'd have gotten myself there, he was just along for the ride.

How do you know when a therapist is right. You just know. And in my experience, if you're not sure, then keep looking. Don't be afraid to date around, you know? I saw four different therapists, one life coach, one psychiatrist, and two different nutritionists before I met Tom. That's how long it took. For some it won't take so long, for others it might take longer.

I also want to say, on a somewhat similar but still divergent note, it's taken time to know what friends I can talk to about what things. I have one girlfriend who I can discuss my eating history with wholly and completely because I know that she gets it. With others I'll talk a little bit about it and they're wonderful, but when the going gets rough, I know who to call. And then I have two girlfriends with whom I can speak about a particular boy. These two have gone through a similar situation and so they listen with full understanding and no judgment. I can attempt to talk to my other girls about it and they love me and they want the best for me but there is always a gap between that desire to listen and to help and their full understanding. And that' okay. It's okay to have particular people to talk to about particular things. It's possible to have best friends who don't fall into the categories of getting it in the way someone else does. Learn your audience and be choosy about it. That is okay.

When all is said and done it comes down to a gut thing. Listen to it. To that small and sacred part of you that believes in your well being even when every other part of you is thrashing about in the great big blue.


JacPfef said...

I went to my first in high school and had a similar experience. Mine suggested something completely outrageous and I was so affected by it, I refused to see another until just last year - as a last resort, frankly. This time I was so fortunate. Great advice, Meg. So true how a good one just clicks. xo

jackie said...

I don't have much to about this post except that I love it. I'm glad you finally found someone who listens and yes yes yes to having certain friends to call on for certain things. it's taken me a while to learn that, but that's okay.

Emma said...

I've seen my fair share of horrible therapists (think one who gave me a tip on purging "if that's what i was going to do" and another who had me compare my body to hers because if I was fat, than she "must be obese") Now that I'm on the other side and a therapist myself your advice in this post is very sound. It takes time to find someone you connect with, but when you do it feels very freeing.

Anonymous said...

about 6 months ago i started looking for a therapist. that process alone was exhausting. reached out to a woman. our schedules didn't match up and she never called back.

resuming my search now. a couple of ideas where to begin, but still, exhausting process.

thank you for posting this article. especially amongst african americans (like me :-}), mental health issues? not so talked about. comforting to know that for someone else, 'the search' has also been challenging. i may call a few today, or perhaps the therapy fairy will drop a "Tom" in my lap. either way, wonderful read. glad you found the perfect person. thanks again.

(new subscriber by the way. love what you've done with the place!)

Ariel said...

I just moved to NY from Utah and though I am so excited about this move I am dearly missing my job at the Center For Change (an Eating Disorder treatment center). Have you heard of it? Working alongside women in the recovery journey was such a blessing to me and taught me so many life lessons. I couldn't believe the kind of insensitivity many of them encountered from others, who probably didn't know anything about eating disorders, but still should have known better. It sounds like you have gotten more than your fair share of those experiences. You are an amazing woman and I am in awe at how far it seems you have come. I dearly loved all those I worked with and pray so often that they come out the other side. So glad you have found that for yourself. We all fight hard battles in all their varieties and to see anyone make headway on their own is cause for rejoicing. For sure.
If you ever need another friend in the city...I always do! This is all such a new experience. :)

katilda said...

"Learn your audience and be choosy about it. That is okay." THIS. this is so true. i only feel safe talking about certain topics with certain people. others just don't seem to get it, do they?

Betsey said...

Meg - I loved this post! I am currently pursuing my Master's in counseling and really appreciate your perspective and experiences with different therapists - I'm glad you found someone you felt comfortable with and who was able to give you wise and helpful guidance!

Rachael said...

It's really funny you posted this today as I'm seeing someone new for the first time today (my old one was through the school and she can't be anyone's regular).

And I went and saw Jenni Schaefer speak last night and she talked about this too.

Thank you. You've given me so much hope.

hannah debbie said...

I've known for a while that I never found the right therapist, and I guess reading this just reinforced it for me.

thank you for posting this. I suppose I shall keep looking.

Diana said...

Thank you so much for this. I've been leaving my sessions feeling like I haven't been aided, but always feel like it'd be wrong to switch counselors. Truthfully, mine is a very nice person (which helps to put me on the guilt trip I feel when I think about finding a new one), but a horrible counselor. But you are completely right, we are our own best advocates and I have to find myself worthwhile enough to do what is right for me.

I also have to say that the part you added in there about friendships was perfect for me right now. Finding the right friends and sharing the right information is something I have always struggled with. Either I'd open up too much and feel betrayed later on, or I'd go to the opposite extreme and let them do all the talking and feel used. What you said about audience is so true and so necessary.

Thank you again for sharing your experiences! We many not be the same, but it does truly help to read about things like this from someone who has been there. Your blog is definitely a blessing!

Shawnee said...

love this post! excellent. i found my therapist and by luck, it was my first. the part about 'particular people' ... so true! some people just do not get this.. thus the reason i do not have a 'best friend'
i have different friends for different reasons. x

Master P said...

Can I give an AMEN?? I've got some doozies of therapist stories. The best one I ever found was when I was suffering post partum depression in Brasil and a friend dragged me to see her therapist who spoke a little English (I didn't speak Portuguese, my friend didn't speak English - we communicated by smiles). Funny how you don't need a lot of words to get to the heart of a problem, just a heart.

But I had to share my worst story because I knew you'd get it - when I was in grad school and falling apart by the end, I knew I had to see SOMEone. Because of my ED and tendonitis in my arms (violin major, ugh), I was physically barely functioning. I went into the student services center and got someone to see me. He was okay, but he listened and that was enough. At least for that day. We made an appointment for the next week, and I lived that whole horrible week with the one bright hope at the end of another 30 minute help session to get me by. When I came in, he told me that since I'd be graduating in a few weeks I wouldn't be eligible for student services then, and I should just go ahead find someone else to see. And then, even though I was moving out of state in a month, he gave me a list of local therapists and a phone and made me call every single one RIGHT THERE and ask if THEY would see me on short notice only for a month. Of course every single one said no, and he sent me on my way. Yes, my "saving" therapy session I had been counting on was actually just me being forced to be rejected over and over and over, and no help whatsoever. I left so shaken up I could hardly walk. I went home and sobbed for days. A few months later I ended up on the other side of the country and met my future husband. After dating a few weeks, he found me wonderful therapist for my ED AND attended with me as support. Heck yes I married that man!

Anywho, keep being my favorite blogger!