In March 2019, I had my most severe panic attack. I curled up in bed feeling like I was swallowed up by a bottomless hole. Out of desperation, I called a crisis helpline. My voice shook as I told the lady who picked up the phone about my situation. She stayed with me throughout the episode. It was helping. After I had calmed down, she told me what I could do next. One of the options was talking therapy.
In 2017, I attended one therapy session out of curiosity but never pursued it since I didn’t think I needed it. In 2018, I tried one online therapy session and had a clash with the therapist so I stopped and put it aside. I had never really taken therapy seriously until 2019 when a breaking point finally hit me — I felt like I didn’t have any other choice.
After a few intense experiences which I didn’t (know how to) process properly, I realised my emotional issues had snowballed to the point where I couldn’t hide from them or superficially band-aid them anymore. So I decided to seek help — professional help, people who were supposed to know what to do with someone like me.
The truth is my decision was driven by fear.
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t see any way out. I was approaching 25 and was falling further and further behind my dream life and it scared me deeply. “This couldn’t be it!”, I thought. Running out of self-help tactics, I was convinced therapy was my only hope. I needed some change, some real intervention, some sort of treatment given to me by someone else whom I could trust instead of myself.
Well, basically, I had no trust in myself, which also meant I had lost me.
How it started
It was at the height of my anxiety in April 2019 when I first contacted the NHS talking therapy service. They asked me to complete a questionnaire over the phone and told me that I’d be put on a waiting list until a suitable therapist became available.
In July, I didn’t hear back from them so I decided to explore other options. I was excited to find out that I could get private therapy through my company insurance. I quickly did some research and came across a credible practice in the city. I called them up — three minutes later, a consultation was booked.
Here’s an extract from the first email I received from the clinic coordinator:
“It was lovely to speak to you on the phone earlier. As mentioned, we would first invite you for an initial assessment with one of our psychologists as a chance to find out more about your current difficulties and work out what sort of therapy you’re likely to be suited to going forward. This session will last 50 minutes and cost £250.
Once you are matched to a psychologist for regular weekly therapy sessions these will cost £150–200 per 50 minute session.”
I wondered how anyone without insurance could afford these sessions, though I figured this price was set up to account for insurance already. Either way, I was happy to get quality therapy and have someone help me out of my misery. Well, I didn’t really know if the therapy was good at this point but, with fancy offices in the heart of London, the practice did promise a high standard.
My first session was done by a female therapist who came across friendly and experienced. I waited no time to tell her about why I came to the practice and the issues I was dealing with. She listened to me attentively and asked thoughtful questions while scribbling on her notepad. I felt comfortable and reassured as I opened myself up to her at our first meeting.
Fifty minutes had never gone by so fast. After I had finished, she masterfully summarised all my issues and what I’d like to get out of therapy — I was impressed. I liked her already. As it turned out, my issues were not too complicated to understand or too difficult to work through. I started to see some light ahead.
I put forward my preference for a female therapist as I was worried about being triggered due to the nature of my issues which is men-related. Unfortunately, none of the female therapists was available so I was matched with a male therapist instead. I felt a bit reluctant at first but, since I didn’t want to wait any longer, I decided to go ahead with it anyway.
It worked out wonderfully — but not how you might think.
The first phase
The beginning of my treatment was, well, weird.
My new therapist’s approach was strangely different from the one I’d met at the consultation. He didn’t ask me any questions. He simply stared at me. Feeling awkward by the silence, I started to speak. I talked about my feelings, my last relationship, random things about myself. He nodded, still not giving me anything. I often left the practice thinking therapy wasn’t as helpful as I had thought and this continued for a good couple of months.
Though, after about ten sessions, something shifted. A relationship was built between me and the therapist. He started to comment on my sharing and gave me useful insights and advice. I felt more anchored. Outside of therapy, my emotional life was still going through ups and downs. I couldn’t really tell if therapy was helping but I kept showing up anyway. I was relieved that I had that space to freely and safely unload my anxious feelings and thoughts.
As my therapist was a man and I was becoming more and more open and vulnerable to him, my fear that he would somehow hurt me increased. I analysed his facial expressions more often — my anxiety rose every time he didn’t show sufficient signs of care and respect. I would go home and send him an email to call him out in a defensive manner. He would reassure me and we continued our sessions.
I was proud that I didn’t just run away. At one point, I noticed my transformation. I realised I was no longer the “vulnerable child” but I was then thinking like the “healthy adult” — both of which were concepts in schema therapy. I burst into tears in front of the therapist as I grieved my old self who I could never get access to ever again.
I remember feeling the resentment towards the people who wounded me so deeply that I had to go on this self-healing journey in the first place. After much hard work, I gradually crossed to the other side and “graduate from a girl to a woman” who could take care of myself. But I wasn’t feeling particularly ready to become an adult woman; I just didn’t have any other choice. There was no turning back anymore.
After about eight months, right before the lockdown in the UK happened, I was getting more and more reactive to my therapist. I had poured my heart out to him, yet I realised I knew nothing about him. The protective part in me wondered if he truly cared about me or he would use my increasing vulnerability to claim power over me and treat me carelessly like some people in my past had done.
A loud thought crossed my mind, “What has he done to earn this privilege?”
At this point, I’d made plenty of positive changes in my life. I was feeling calm and was already in a happy and stable relationship heading in a serious direction. And thanks to the therapy, I’d learned to stand up for myself and put me first. So when he showed signs of boredom and disrespect in our sessions (e.g. yawning, forgetting details I’d told him before, not sending me off properly when a session ended, etc.), I was alarmed. I couldn’t shake it off.
Once again, I went home and wrote him an honest email:
“I left today session feeling a bit uneasy. Anyway, I noticed that you often seemed tired at our session and as we discussed before I could take it as a sign of being bored or disinterested. Honestly, I felt rather vulnerable with all the information I had shared recently, especially my questioning about our therapeutic relationship or your role in my healing in general, so those subtle signs that could be (mis)interpreted as disrespect didn’t help.
Obviously it’s a one-sided relationship as only you know about me and I don’t know about you, so it triggers me when I think about the imbalance of power at play and how you could misuse that and I would come to regret sharing about myself, like what happened with my previous situation. I don’t know anything about you (not that I need to) so I realise I have given my trust to you (freely) only on the basis that you are ‘the therapist’ instead of me vetting by myself like I did with my partner or any man after my last toxic situation. I don’t feel safe right now, is the short conclusion.”
He replied to me, explaining matter-of-factly why I felt the way I felt without revealing his personal thoughts. He didn’t acknowledge the fact that I saw signs of boredom and disrespect from him — I wasn’t pleased with his answer. As I was in a mentally good place and it was already the beginning of lockdown, I took an extreme measure and told him I would like to end the therapy. My priority then was to safeguard myself.
He replied saying he understood and advised me to attend the concluding sessions. Still feeling uneasy, I told him I wouldn’t need a conclusion with him if it meant he would continue to leave me guessing what he might be thinking. He insisted that I have it. He also mentioned “transference” — meaning I’d redirected my feelings about my last toxic situation and re-applied it to him. I didn’t disagree.
We went back and forth in a few emails until I contacted the clinic directly asking for a change of therapist. I requested a female therapist instead. It felt like the right thing to do. I was proud of myself that I could make an independent judgment that led to a decision for my own sake — it was definitely an improvement. Also, transference or not, I believed he had been unprofessional and I didn’t want to deal with that.
In the end, I didn’t have concluding sessions with the male therapist. I was assigned to a female therapist who happened to be the very one who had assessed me initially.
The new chapter
As the lockdown rules were implemented, I couldn’t see the new therapist face to face; instead, we had Zoom calls. I was happy to reconnect with her and be talking to a woman. It felt strange as she had seen me at the very beginning of my treatment when I was face-deep in pain and, here I was, almost a brand new person.
During our first few sessions, she asked me many questions including what my expectations of therapy and of her were. I liked her approach — there was a structure and no dead silence. I told her everything about my healing journey and my issues with the male therapist. The conversations with her were much less emotional and more rational compared to my previous ones.
Outside of therapy, the conditions of my life were getting better and better. I rarely experienced anxiety and my past issues became less and less significant. I also thought of therapy less frequently and had more energy to focus on my work and hobbies. My life was great, each day building on the last.
Sometimes I didn’t even know what issue to share with my therapist as I genuinely felt happy and stable. For a few sessions, we switched to talking about my dad and my family relations. She helped me explore my thoughts and reached a conclusion. Soon, we ran out of issues to discuss.
When our sessions were more about me sharing my good news than expressing distress, she brought up the end of therapy. I instinctively pushed back. I thought I could have on-going therapy even when I didn’t have any pressing issues like what they do in the movies — you know, be a happy person to the outside world and save those worries for the therapist.
Though I quickly realised that it wasn’t exactly healthy. I was using therapy as my only source of emotional outlet. I didn’t want to share my worries with the people in my life because I was scared I’d burden them and I didn’t fully trust that they would respond positively to me. But it’s a mindset I needed to change. Because, by only pulling a happy face, I wasn’t showing anyone the real me and I wasn’t getting closer to anyone.
So we decided to change from meeting weekly to meeting monthly to see how I felt. I started to open up more to my partner and close friends about my daily worries. To my pleasant surprise, they were happy to comfort me and it felt good to show my vulnerability to someone who cared for me and loved me. I learned that it was okay to be sad, be emotional, be weak — I wouldn’t scare the right people away and I’d still be loved. I was safe.
July marked my last therapy session. I told my therapist that I was actually glad that I’d had two different therapists with two different approaches as each approach suited the stage I was in. My life before and after therapy was starkly different but the change was so gradual that it was hard to pinpoint a cause. It could be one thing or everything — I guess it doesn’t really matter. The point is I’m healthy and happy now.
Before therapy, I was overwhelmingly anxious and insecure. I kept choosing incompatible people and never had a romantic relationship that wasn’t either dull or anxiety-ridden. I even wrote down a list of my issues to work on and, oh boy, that list was long:
Weak ego, low willpower, love addiction, dopamine dependency, low self-esteem, anxious attachment, relationship anxiety, perfectionism.
After therapy, I’m calm, stable, confident, and happy. I’ve also become securely attached and entered a serious relationship with a wonderful, emotionally healthy partner. My days are fun and fulfilling and exciting. I can’t express enough how fascinated I’m by the whole therapy process and how grateful I’m with the results it has enabled.
The key takeaway
From summer 2019 to 2020, I attended weekly therapy sessions to heal from a number of relationship trauma and resolve emotional issues such as dating anxiety and anxious attachment style.
Some basis stats
The length of therapy: 1 year
The frequency of therapy sessions: Once a week (then once a month towards the end)
The number of therapists: 2 (and a few odd sessions with an NHS therapist)
Some lessons learned
Therapy can work — especially if you’re self-aware and reflective and want to become better.
The act of committing to therapy itself can be healing.
You’re more powerful than you think you are.
It’s important to create good living conditions for yourself (e.g. healthy lifestyle and routines) — It will naturally lead to positive psychological changes.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help — you can be helped and people want to help you.
I’m aware that therapy might not be effective for everyone and not everyone can afford therapy. There might be things that I didn’t do like how others would, or the way I did those things wouldn’t work for anyone else. Anyway, I hope that by sharing openly about my experiences, you can find inspiration and insights that can be applied to your own situation.