My Kids Forced Me To Embrace Therapy
For a long time I thought my low-level mental unwellness might just be an acceptable element of my personality.
In young adulthood, among my friends there existed a simple, even gestural vocabulary for discussing mental health. “Are you in the basement?” one might ask. Or to say how you were feeling, you could raise your shoulders up by your ears and put your hands up with the fingers forming claws, like a raccoon caught in a beam of light on the way to the garbage cans. “I’m like this…” you could say, doing the motion, and it meant you were not very good.
One of these friends and I spent a lot of very young adulthood getting high and marathoning DVDs of Sex and the City, “watching sodes.” Sodes is both a specific noun, referring to episodes, and an abstract one about a state of mind, while also somehow simultaneously acting as a verb. Now, age 38, I still need my sodes, although mostly now I watch them in motion: folding laundry, putting the toys in the bin, the sodes murmuring companionably in the background.
Like many people, I spent years rejecting the concept of therapy even as evidence mounted that I needed it. When my second child was born, I remember getting as far as primly telling first a friend, and then my primary care practitioner, that I “might be experiencing some depression and anxiety.” Many afternoons I would lie on the bed in the spiritual basement with my sodes (The Office) on the laptop next to me, waiting with dread for the alarm that would tell me I had to pick up my older child from preschool and wondering how I was going to find the motivation to get my body up and out the door.
When my PCP told me that I would need to call the 800 number of my famously overburdened HMO, I spent two minutes on hold before deciding I could heal myself via an exercise class we couldn’t afford. This helped a little bit, mostly in the way of confirming something I already knew, which is that if I can muster the effort to put on the clothes and go to the place and do the hard thing, I will feel good, until the point I no longer can muster that effort, when I will again feel bad. Perhaps the more important relief provided by the class came when the instructor, a stunningly beautiful woman with three children, made a joke in the locker room about driving her car into a wall when her kids were fighting in the backseat. “I would just have to turn the wheel,” she said in a sing-song voice, inducting me into the macabre humor of mothers who are going through it. I laughed longer than was appropriate, surprised to learn that a woman who could do exercises so well might have problems in life.
I thought it was reasonable for low-level mental unwellness to be an element of my personality until my kids became old enough to assert themselves as small people, and I understood what a deeply unsuitable way of existing that was, not just for them but for me. When the pandemic got into full swing, I saw my older child struggling with isolation and boredom in ways that looked eerily familiar to some of my own. Unlike me, she didn’t have that easy shorthand, those already insufficient gestures of basements and raccoons. Even if she did, how could I accept that my strategy of white-knuckling through spells of poor mental health would be something I just handed to my children without examination? How could I deny that living like that would invariably affect how I parented, and then, how they would live?
This time, we lived in a different state, where the same HMO was still overburdened but the population was smaller and my ability to sustain long hold times and waiting periods stronger, the need more urgent. A year into the pandemic, I logged on and made the request for two separate referrals, one for my child and one for myself. I can no longer totally inhabit the mindset that I was in, but I can access it via the messaging app of the HMO, a cheery message, all things considered:
“Even though I know (or think I know) what’s causing the big feelings I worry that I am not fully equipped to help her through them. (I am also scheduling an assessment for myself so I can make an appointment for adult counseling, because I think I will be a better parent if I can talk to someone too!)”
The exclamation point is the tell that I was like this, hand-claws up by my furry little shoulders.
Why have I consistently worried more about fixing my perceived problems with my body than thinking about how to treat my mind?
When, a few weeks later, I had a referral conversation with pediatrics, the mental health professional on the phone told me that kids at this particular age didn’t necessarily get much out of talk therapy, but that their parents really did. She also told me that they had group classes for parents, and that it would be a few months because the pandemic demand was enormous, but that eventually we could join one. I had a separate phone call with the adult intake person, who was so kind and validating in that 45-minute conversation that I think about her once a week. She told me that it sounded like I had anxiety and that she was referring me to a therapy practice, and she said that I should call right away, not to wait, but to call the number and do the thing, just do it, and that it might take a few weeks, but that it would eventually happen.
I can see on my calendar that I started the Zoom appointments in July, and then a few months later we started our first parenting class, which was really group therapy, eight sessions built on a curriculum called “Collaborative Problem Solving,” which was developed by Dr. Ross Greene (it now has to be called something else due to confusing intellectual property issues at Mass General hospital). The next one, which we just finished, was another eight sessions called “Parenting Developing Minds,” and was built on a framework laid out in the book The Whole-Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Each class involved check-ins from all the caregivers participating, and then some tips from the wonderful facilitating therapist about how to be there for our kids.
Privacy is central to group therapy, as it is to parenthood and personhood, so there’s not a lot I can share about our parenting class except that they were both a pain to commit to — even on Zoom — on a weeknight for 1.5 hours during prime dinner-bedtime, and deeply rewarding. They offered scripts and simple techniques for parenting, but they also reminded me that you have no idea what the f*ck people are going through — all people, all the time, all around you — and how meaningful a little listening and goodwill can be, both for kids and adults. During one of these sessions, I realized one of my kids was rifling around with Legos outside the door while we were Zooming, and later I asked if she had overheard me telling a story about her, because I assumed she had and wanted to give her a chance to talk about it. She hadn’t, and she was indignant: “You talked about me?” I explained I had told a story about something that was not unusual in the life of any parent or child — a little meltdown. I told her that sometimes the way we get through things is to talk about them.
Like many people, I spent years rejecting the concept of therapy even as evidence mounted that I needed it.
Which is why, during the course of this parenting class journey, I also had 16 individual sessions with my adult therapist on Zoom. We discontinued them this spring; things in my life and frame of mind felt genuinely better, but I cannot discount another contributing factor: the fact that we switched insurance plans and I had to start paying full price for the sessions via an HSA. The therapist I spoke with tells me that I can come back if I need to, and thus every week or so I try to ask myself, “Am I in the basement? Am I like this?” and I weigh the answer against the cost per session.
Mostly I have been well above basement level, but like the U.S. government’s approach to Covid, I was perhaps prematurely ready to declare victory over my household’s dramas. Like a pandemic, mental health is not a journey that just satisfactorily concludes one day. In mid-April it snowed, a freakish weather anomaly not seen in a million years or something, and school was closed. After a cumulative 12 months of kids stuck at home, one day is a nonissue. But then my kids got tired of playing outside and were back in the house by 8 a.m., watching The Baby-Sitters Club while I attempted to talk through the episodes with my older daughter. I decided to lean into TV day, a day of indulgence, a day of sodes. I made popcorn for us and at 4:30 I had a glass of wine, feeling both bleary and cooped-up from sitting all day, yet also somewhat jubilant that we had done sodes, but in a sort of interactive and bonding way. Then I saw that even the kids were bored of watching, the snow had melted and the rain had stopped and the sun was out for the last glorious gasp of daylight, so I said, “OK, time to play, time to go outside,” and my older kid completely melted down.
I’m not trying to say “All you need is love.” More like “All you need is love, and some additional coping mechanisms rooted in love, and universal health care with mental health and dental benefits included.”
Even if my kid’s privacy were a nonissue, I can’t describe this kind of meltdown well, but if you have or were a kid with big feelings you know that someone can get stuck in a loop you feel like you can’t get them out of, in a way that seems disconnected from what is actually happening. For me, the first thing that came to mind was, I thought we were doing better.
And then I thought, Oh. Watching TV for hours is what she used to do when there was no preschool and no school and no friends and her parents were working and the museums and fun stuff and playground were off-limits. To her, sodes are pandemic. We feel trapped when we do sodes for too long. We are in the basement when we do sodes for too long. I had managed to put myself in the basement, too, longing for the day to end.
In the moment, I rooted around for whatever coping mechanism I could find. The most available responses are the ignoble ones, old wiring I’m now trying to tear out or redirect, wiring that causes you to say things like, “Pull it together” or “You can’t act like this.” But then I reached for what I could remember from parenting class. One of the things is “Kids do well if they can.” Nobody wants to be having a meltdown. I remembered the idea of “connect and redirect.” (Basically, empathize and then find something else to focus on.) I vacillated between my selfish frustration and this parenting class training and got us into an uneasy hour-long pendulum of fine-to-not-fine, until eventually we just lay on the bed and cuddled, and eventually we were both OK. I’m not trying to say “All you need is love.” More like “All you need is love, and some additional coping mechanisms rooted in love, and universal health care with mental health and dental benefits included.”
I refuse to express gratitude to a health insurer in a rapacious profit-driven health care system, and yet the parenting groups and the individual therapy — the individual practitioners — have made an outsized difference in how I parent and cope, interventions small in the scheme of things yet so meaningful that it makes me feel both empathy and exasperation for a past self who spurned them. Why have I consistently worried more about fixing my perceived problems with my body than thinking about how to treat my mind? (“Women will literally put a $200 spin class package on a credit card instead of go to therapy,” the meme might read.) There’s no point reimagining the past, although it is past time to reimagine the U.S. health care system. So let me instead be grateful to my kids, who in simply being themselves, showed me that they deserved better than what I was giving them, and that I deserved better, too. We all do.