Content Warning: This article contains content regarding anxiety, eating disorders, depression and alcoholism.
The second installment of my four-part series, “Well-Being Wednesday,” will delve into the intricacies of therapy and its effects. This column aims to highlight my personal experiences with mental health alongside the words of professionals across Albion College.
For years, therapy has been a point of stigma in the mental health realm. Therapy is often seen as an essential component of treatment only for individuals with mental illnesses, leading people to deny the legitimacy of therapy as a medical practice outside of this context.
Even when I started going to therapy during my first year of college for seasonal depression, I didn’t think it would help me; I thought I was the only one capable of regulating how I felt. The only reason I went to therapy was because I overused my usual coping strategies of food comfort and denial and realized – I just felt worse.
I knew I needed to do something different, so I took the steps needed to find a therapist through Albion College’s counseling services. My first therapist was a graduate student working on her master’s in counseling services. Our first session was in Feb. 2021, during which we discussed my therapeutic goals and basic information about myself so that she could get a grasp of what I needed help with. Within 45 minutes, I discussed my fear of not having a decided major, my failing relationship and my abandonment issues.
I also told her how the only other experience I had with therapy was when my parents first got their first divorce when I was three. My mom chose to take us to family therapy in an attempt to repair my parents’ broken marriage and to help my brother and I through the process.
Immediately after my first session as a first-year, my therapist recommended meeting weekly in the hope of working through my undiagnosed anxiety and various other struggles.
This experience opened me up to a whole new world with my anxiety. During a session with my therapist – two weeks after my hospital release – I experienced my first real panic attack, and she helped me through it. She introduced me to an exercise known as the “5-4-3-2-1 Technique” to cope with feeling overwhelmed, severe anxiety or a panic attack. This technique helps ground you when you feel scattered, panicked or lost. You start by looking around your environment and noticing five things that you see. Then you acknowledge four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and finally one thing you can taste.
Coming down from my first panic attack was such an exhausting feeling. It felt like I was being waterboarded for secrets that I didn’t have and just couldn’t catch my breath. I felt drained, scared and honestly, I had no idea what to do next.
My therapist assured me that I was okay and she would sit with me as long as I needed. Our one-hour session slowly morphed into a two and half hour session. Without that technique, my panic attack would have lasted longer and left me even more helpless.
After that experience, my therapist said that, paired with the general anxiety I dealt with daily, the anxiety medication Buspirone would help me manage my anxiety.
Right before my sophomore year, my therapist finished her master’s degree and told me she was moving to another state, disqualifying her as my therapist. Even though I understood, I was terrified to start with someone new after eight months of work with her.
Fresh out of a toxic relationship and feeling good about my Busprione-controlled anxiety, I went all of sophomore year without getting a new therapist.
This was the first of many mistakes I made that year.
My sophomore year was the most difficult year of my life. I needed help beyond what anyone knew and yet I continued to think I was okay. I lost so many supposed friends. I failed or withdrew from multiple classes. I lost myself to depression.
I used food, alcohol and sex to cope with an invisible pain that seemingly no one could save me from.
What I needed was to be back in therapy. I needed someone outside of my circle to help me talk out how I was feeling, what I was doing to cope and how to be a healthy individual with mental health issues.
The summer before my junior year, I was diagnosed with depression, which added Lexapro to my daily routine. After moving back in on-campus, I went to counseling services and decided to start therapy again, in hopes of getting myself on track. I spent the year going back and forth between being consistent and inconsistent with sessions, taking my medications properly and surrounding myself with good people.
I took one more break with therapy this past summer because I thought I was in a good enough spot to regulate my emotions, something that Director for Mental Health/Counseling Michelle Croce said is “a normal pattern with therapy-goers.”
Croce said she first started her career working with a sexual assault advocacy group in California where she would answer calls, meet with survivors and help implement recourses for survivors and allies.
Croce said she continued her career in psychotherapy because she “realized how much I didn’t know.”
Croce started working as a counselor for Albion College in 2014, but has seen an influx in student patients since 2020.
“Since COVID-19, we have seen an increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses resulting either from COVID itself but also past trauma, grief and familial issues,” Croce said.
Croce also said that when students come to visit her and other counselors, they come for one issue or concern and eventually discover “hidden problems” that otherwise wouldn’t be known.
I can attest to this. When I started in therapy three years ago, I had a single feeling: Worry and I didn’t know what to do about it. My first few months in therapy helped me uncover so many things I was burying below the surface; although that can be scary, realizing this helped me develop healthy coping skills that I still use to this day.
“Mindfulness-based stress-reduction reduces experience with chronic pain and can be extended to psychological pain,” Croce said. “Although it’s not a solution, it can ease the experience.”
I’m not writing this to push therapy onto readers; I understand that there is a stigma surrounding it that will still hinder people from going. I just want you to know that even for me, my therapy journey hasn’t been linear and yours most likely won’t be either.
And that’s okay. Therapy is not a one-time fix to magically make everything okay.
However, as a student, you can walk into counseling services, fill out the intake form and work on a treatment plan that is manageable for you.
I promise: Therapy is worth it.
“All it takes is for students to walk in and healing can begin,” Croce said.