Sticky Like The Syrup Bottle — Therapy, Healing, and finding Empathy

I have no recollection of what I thought therapy was, I just knew why I was there. I was anxious and depressed. To this day I don’t have an official diagnosis, actually, a lot of people don’t. And you don’t need one to get into therapy. I know now that people go to therapy for a wide variety of reasons including, but not limited to: mental health, relationship, communication, conflict resolution, workplace strain/stress, trauma resolution, behavior management, to understand themselves and their family’s choices and so much more.

I went to therapy because I had hit a depressive episode so dark and angry I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had ended an emotionally manipulative friendship, had no idea what was wrong with me — and my mom was scared. She asked me if I wanted to talk to someone, and feeling very unsure, I went back to her and said that might be a good idea. I’ve been in therapy since my sophomore year of high school — when I was 16. Which is actually, a long time? I’m currently 22 and still seeing a therapist monthly. When you do the math — I’ve been in therapy for 32% of my life, or 219 hours since I first sat down with my therapist; scared, unsure, and feeling very alone.

Melissa* was a good first therapist. She carved a hole in my life that gave me a place to share unformed opinions, ideas, thoughts. She helped me feel less lonely and like I could take control of my life. I lived at home with 5 other people, went to high school, did band, curling, danced once a night and I felt the most adrift I can remember since a mental collapse at 5 years old. In hindsight, I was just beginning to unfurl what would be one of the hardest narratives I had internalized. Therapy was like someone extending a hand after I’d dug myself into a hole and had no way of getting out on my own, it still feels like that sometimes.

Melissa and I would talk about things that made me upset, stressed, worried, and about what was running around in my head at the time. I’ve learned so much vocabulary since sitting in that beige office, and if I hadn’t started there, I maybe never would have. I was the only person I knew between the adults, kids, and peers in my life that were seeing a therapist. I was open about it with my mom but didn’t share much with other people since I had no idea what that looked like. One of my biggest revelations to date happened on that tan sofa, when my mom revealed, (she attended one session with me at the request of my therapist, with my consent), that mental illness ran in our family, specifically some of my immediate family members who were also dealing with depression and anxiety. That one moment rocked my world. I was furious and horrified that I was just finding this out at 16.

I think in my mind I dreamed of therapy turning me into this brand new version of myself. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes my parents did, I would become completely different from my family and would be better at everything, communicating, relationships, etc. I had the best intentions but what I didn’t know is that therapy is so much more than just buffing out our faults until we sparkle.

What I’ve learned since then can best be summed up like this: Growing up, my mom ran an in-home, private daycare. We would often make breakfast for ourselves and all the kids, and we would pass around the syrup bottle for everyone at the table. I remember being constantly frustrated at how sticky the bottle would get, all down the side it would grip our hands like a sucker on an octopus. The lid never closed and if it did it would open slowly like a clam being shucked for the last time. I remember thinking to myself, “When I have my own fridge, my syrup bottle will never be sticky”. That resentment is profound to look back on, and when I open my own syrup bottle, which is just as sticky, I remember thinking I was going to be better than this.

But what does syrup have to do with therapy? Nothing. And everything. Syrup, in my case, is like what’s passed onto me by my family. All these things like my depression, my trauma, anger, religion, communication, and relationship attachment styles. And I thought, by going to therapy, I’d be able to exchange all of those in for a new syrup bottle. Something clean, wouldn’t cling to me or make a mess. But what therapy did was show me how to manage that mess rather than avoid it, ignore it, or throw the whole thing away when it got too frustrating. I learned how to be okay with what I was dealt, and to have compassion and empathy for myself. I learned that I don’t have to have an answer or reason for everything, that I was overjustifying my reactions instead of just allowing myself to feel. I was narrating my own life instead of experiencing it. I thought I understood empathy because I could tune in to other people’s feelings, but I actually had no idea how to listen to myself. Easier said than done.

Therapy doesn’t always hit the mark — some of us don’t enjoy talk therapy or prefer more hands-on methods like EMDR or cognitive behavioral therapy. I think therapy is often sold as a one-size-fits-all meal, instead of the buffet or a la carte dinner it really is. For years I didn’t understand I could ask my therapist for what I needed, and that I needed to spend time in my thoughts, thinking about what was important to me to cover ( following the analogy: if you’re going to eat enough to grab two plates, you want to make sure you grab that before you start dishing. And if you want a side of soup, you’ll need to remember to grab a bowl ahead of time — still with me?).

In the end, therapy was where I first came out as bisexual, to myself and my therapist. Later on, I began to explore my gender within the safety of those four walls. Never underestimate the power of having a safe adult willing to listen and act as a sounding board when the thoughts in your head feel as deep as an ocean and twice as thick. Therapy saves my life every day because it taught me how to be, not just how to survive. The compassion that I feel, learning how to be gentle with myself, it isn’t easy, heck, most of the time it doesn’t even come naturally, but it keeps me afloat.

This piece has a playlist to be enjoyed after reading: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cq7BznAi4vbOCRVtXk6O0?si=ozVKiR5nSFCoeTax-jB-GQ

*name edited for privacy

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