I started therapy this autumn. Not for the first time, but for the first time successfully. Previously, I never got further than the first session before I’d had enough. The experience of meeting someone for the first time and then the next second pouring out your deepest, darkest thoughts is completely alien to me.
It happened this time, too. Dave meets me in a bland reception room, leads me through a blander corridor and sits down in the blandest room I’ve ever seen. Black carpet, white walls, higher than it is wide. I can almost feel my soul being sucked out of the window — only, there is no window. Dave settles in an armchair and gestures to a sofa which looks uncomfortably like a casting couch, and as I sit down I’m struck by just how different he looks to the other therapists.
The closest I can come to accurately describing his aesthetic is “football dad.” Simply dressed, casually spoken, gruff and tanned, with an accent which to me signals he comes from a lower tax bracket than my family. And just as I say hello, and I process my surprise that he is not from the posh, tweedy social milieu of most therapists, and I question why I am so surprised about that and what my surprise might say about me, he says,
So tell me why you’re here.
How am I supposed to respond? This person knows less about me than the postman, and yet I’m supposed to dive into anxieties and health concerns instantly. In a room of complete silence, designed to have no other distractions. Ticking clock above my ear. It’s a greatest-hits compilation of barriers to comfortable conversation. How do people do this?
It could help if I had a decent answer for him. I mumble that
a) I’m Ben and I’m 24, because I was 24 all those weeks ago;
b) My life has been basically fine, good family good friends good girlfriends good education good hobbies good society good experiences; until
c) A diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis took a sledgehammer to my life, and more specifically, my joints.
And the question I keep asking myself, as we get chatting about this that and everything, is How Exactly Do I Expect Therapy To Help With That? There is categorically nothing he can do to modify my disease, and therapy is spending quite a lot of time and quite a lot of money telling him what I already know.
In my most cynical mindset I find myself thinking that therapy exists to fill a deficiency in human relations. We are so bad at listening, so catastrophically bad at paying attention to our friends and families without absorbing everything through the lens of ourselves, that we are increasingly turning to Qualified Professional Listeners to listen for us.
I know it’s more complicated than that. There are reasons why talking to a stranger helps. You can’t expect people to share the darkest parts of their psyche with others who love and care for them; a stranger can at least interpret you objectively. But a therapist won’t know if their client is prone to understatement, exaggeration, or downright lies. I am a proficient liar and I’m pretty sure I could convince Dave to believe a mistruth about myself. Maybe during my next appointment I’ll try and convince him that I have a foot fetish or I spend my nights wandering the streets of Slough dressed as Danny Devito. A close friend would dismiss such nonsense in an instant, knowing I’d never go to Slough.
But underneath it all, the reason I hate therapy is because I hate opening up. I’m not really very good at it. That’s one of the reasons I write, because an hour sat with my laptop is so much easier than telling a loved one that I’m not okay. And being not okay is one thing, but admitting it is so much worse.