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Will therapy make me happy? An academic, Dorothy Donald, explores this question before starting treatment. Their answer might surprise you.

Graphic illustration of a person with massive blue hair with thick orange rope restraining their body. They think to themselves:
Credit:

©Mary Long / Adobe Stock

 

Will therapy make me happy: the Kevin Bacon model of depression

Six degrees of separation. This is a very simple game. You start from a thought – any thought that it is possible to have – whether it’s “My bus is late” or “I’ve been invited to a wedding” or “The sun is shining today.” Next, see what the next thought that follows on from that could be. It might be “I will be late for work” or “I will have to go shopping for clothes” or “I will need my sunglasses.” And then the next thought from that. You get the idea.

Now, whatever your starting thought is, see if you can go from that thought to “I might as well kill myself” in fewer than six moves.

I am exceptionally good at this game: six degrees of separation.

I have been playing this game for a long time. I play it a lot. I play it at some of the obvious times you might already have thought of, like when I have a university paper rejected (“I’m useless”), or a disastrous date (“I’m unlovable”), or when pretty much anything happens in the news (“The world is a terrible place”).

But I also play it when I’m walking around the supermarket (“It’s not possible to be an ethical consumer”), or when I’m making my tea (“I have failed to do anything productive today”), or when I’m in the pub with my friends, laughing (“Everyone here is so much more fun and interesting than I am”).

Most of the time, I don’t even have to try – I just accelerate from naught to catastrophe as easily as I breathe. This means that no-one notices, which means there’s no problem. But sometimes one win leads on to another, and another. Before I know it I don’t seem to have the time or the energy for anything else like answering my emails or working on that grant or getting out of bed and having a shower.

My friends start to worry and ask searching questions about how I’m ‘really’ doing. I find reasons not to talk to them. (All of this, of course, constitutes failure, which gives me a head-start for the next round.)

A few months ago, when I went beyond the mere abstract and started getting onto the particulars, I realized I was not well.

After rather a long time, I decided that I could use some help- some therapy. This is when I first asked myself: will therapy make me happy?

After quite a long time after that, I decided that the little voice telling me I didn’t deserve any help could shut up for a while.

After even longer than that, I found a phone number online and stared at it for a while. Then I closed my browser. Then I came back and stared at it again the next day.

Eventually, I made a phone call.

Tomorrow I have my first-ever sit-down with a Cognitive-Behavioural-Therapy (CBT) therapist. I want to learn a new game. I want to know, “Will therapy make me happy?”

Graphic illustration of a person locked in a cage. Their massive, blue wave of hair spills out of the cage.
Caption:

Will therapy make me happy? Will it free me from my cage?

Credit:

©Mary Long / Adobe Stock

 

 

Will therapy make me happy?

I sit down opposite the therapist and make myself not-too-uncomfortable. Basic questions first: Job (academic), relationship status (single), anti-depressant medication (no), living situation (fine).

Then the kicker: What seems to be the trouble?

Answer: I am a self-saboteur of the highest caliber. I stifle myself in everything that I do. I dislike myself intensely. I do not see the point of being alive. I am never happy. There’s a fog in my head, dense and persistent, slowing me down, tiring me out.

You know, the usual stuff.

It strikes me as we talk – and it doesn’t escape his notice – that most of the problems I identify are to do with work. Sure, there are life events, relationships, but these feel secondary. When he asks me to tell him what I hope for from therapy – my ‘dream outcome’ – the first answer that comes to mind surprises me a little.  Even though I wonder will therapy make me happy it isn’t what I am here for?

The answer is not about making me happy: I want to be productive. I want to be a ‘good academic.’ I want to do lots of work and enjoy doing the work and be good at it and for it to come easily. I want to be the academic I think everyone around me is. Because while I’m told again and again that everyone gets imposter syndrome, I know, I know, I know in my bones that I am the true imposter. Not intelligent enough, not disciplined enough, not hungry enough. Not enough. And any improvement to my mental health is a means to an end – not sought because it’s appalling to feel that life isn’t worth living but necessary because I’ve got to get some papers out.

If I didn’t have the head-fog, I could take things in so much faster. If I thought more highly of myself, I could write a more convincing case for support. Never mind what depression is doing to me – look at what it’s doing to my career. That is why I need fixing.

I swallow that answer and rummage for something that feels a bit more appropriate. I don’t come up with much. I tell him I want the fog to lift. I don’t tell him why. I don’t want to sound weird.

He delicately tells me that time is up, that he’ll be happy to work with me, that it’s up to me if and when I want to book in again.

In the meantime, he suggests, maybe I could try being more compassionate towards myself?

I nod.

“Please,” says the voice in my head. “Spare me that trite old stuff about compassion. I don’t need to be compassionate towards myself – I need to be better! The problem isn’t that I’m not happy – it’s that I’m not doing anything worthwhile to be happy about. It’s not that I judge myself too harshly – it’s that I actually am useless. It’s not that I beat myself up – it’s that I’ve got so much to beat myself up about. How is thinking about myself differently going to change any of that? This was a waste of time. Why on earth would I want to be happy as I am?”

Driving home, I hear this a few times. I have time to think about it a bit.

“Fine. Fine.” Says my voice. “I will have the damn therapy. But will therapy make me happy”

Caption:

I am a self-saboteur of the highest calibre. I stifle myself in everything that I do. I dislike myself intensely. I do not see the point of being alive. There’s a fog in my head, dense and persistent, slowing me down, tiring me out.

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