What Happened When I 'Came Out' About Being In Therapy

It doesn't mean I am sick. It means I am getting better.

09/06/2016 5:48 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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I see my therapist once a week, and it's the best hour of my whole week.

In recent weeks, I feel like I've been coming out again, a sentiment shared by fellow LGBT writer and activist Greta Christina this week in an article about why our community doesn't get the mental health care it deserves.

It's no secret that there's shame attached to mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, OCD, phobias... they're all common issues that many experience, but few feel it's okay to talk about.

There's also societal stigma about getting help with your mental health. In writing this, I'm reminded of a line from the film 'Side Effects', in which Jude Law's character, a British psychiatrist, is asked why he left his homeland for the U.S.

It's best paraphrased as: "In the U.K, if you're seeing a psychiatrist there's the assumption you're sick. In America, there's the assumption you're getting better."

The Antipodean experience is much like that of the British: If you need help, we think there must be something really wrong with you. This is why I've felt like I was coming out again in the past few weeks, as after years of hiding, I've finally been telling people: "I'm in therapy".

Just uttering the phrase initially made me feel self-indulgent and even somewhat ashamed. "Therapy?" I thought everyone in my life would think, "That's just so... American". But, just like when I came out as LGBT a decade ago, the perceived negative reactions following my admission were all in my head.

After years of thinking my "problems" weren't serious enough to warrant professional help, in January I wrote a column about my experience living with anxiety.

Part of the rationale behind writing it is learning of the sense of freedom that comes with revealing one's battle with mental illness. Another part -- something that's not mentioned in the article -- is that it was a cry for help. I'd recognised what was wrong with me, accepted it, but was stuck feeling like I'd exhausted the treatment options at my disposal.

I hadn't. I'd seen a counsellor twice who didn't think there was anything wrong with me, done one session with a psychiatrist who believed my anxiety was situational, not habitual, and used several Cognitive Behavioural Therapy workbooks which had helped, but only to a point.

The stream of positive e-mails from other anxiety sufferers that came after that column was published convinced me to try again.

Fast forward two months after following up recommendations, and I was sitting across from a therapist who finally understood me. Within 45 minutes of downloading my issues onto her came the biggest source of validation I've received since I came out as a gay man at 20 years old. "All of your anxiety and your fears," she told me, "they're all rooted in reality".

There it was. After years of thinking everything was all in my head, a professional had objectively assessed my situation and confirmed my issues were real.

Now I see my therapist once a week, and it's the best hour of my whole week. It's the only time in my life I'm able to have a completely unfiltered conversation with somebody. I don't have to present the best version of myself. I can be flawed. I don't care what she thinks of me, and I don't need her to like me.

Importantly, there are no ramifications of what I say. When you talk to your spouse, best friend, or parent, no matter how honest you think you're able to be, there are still things you hold back. You omit thoughts to spare their feelings, and you conveniently leave out things -- usually subconsciously -- because you don't think they "need to know".

In therapy, however, there's none of that. You get to say what you want, have it acknowledged, and have psychotherapeutic techniques applied to address the situation. Then, you get to leave. That hour with your therapist stays in that room forever.

It's this realisation -- that this weekly session is actually helping me -- that has led to deciding to tell others I'm in therapy. This is, just like being LGBT, something I'm now proud of. I've recognised I can't manage alone, but I have finally accepted that unless I get help now, my anxiety will harm me, and my relationships, for the rest of my life.

I've had no negative reactions from revealing that I'm in treatment thus far. When I started telling close friends, I almost felt a sense of envy from some of them. "There have been so many times in my life," one told me, "that I could have handled things better if I'd gone and spoken to someone".

Being open about getting help takes away all of that shame, that stigma, that need to present myself as faultless. Being in therapy might be terribly "American", but perhaps it's one of the things Americans do right.

I say this because I honestly don't see myself as being "sick" anymore, and nor does anyone that matters to me. After weeks of coming out about therapy, everybody in my life, including myself, can see that I really am just getting better.

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