Live Through This

A Shrink to Fit

Finding the right therapist for you.

Illustration by Cynthia

My sophomore year of college was one of the most stressful times of my life. I had a nightmare of a breakup and developed severe and chronic respiratory issues; meanwhile I was in school full-time and working two jobs. I felt like I was constantly carrying a bag of bricks on my back. I lost 20 pounds that year, and not intentionally. I didn’t stop going to my classes, but any time I wasn’t studying or at work I was either crying or sleeping. On top of all that I felt horribly guilty for being unhappy, because I had the privilege of living in a safe and beautiful university environment.

At first I tried talking to my friends and family about how I was feeling, but they quickly grew frustrated with my endless distress, and the fact that none of their advice or admonishments seemed to help, so I stopped mentioning my sadness to anyone, and withdrew deeper into the dark hole in my heart.

I tried a bunch of things that people had told me would help: exercise, meditation, prayer, self-help books, herbal supplements, etc. Nothing worked. The only relief I got was sleep, because at least when I was unconscious I didn’t have to feel anything.

When I woke up one winter day to find that I’d slept for 14 hours, through an entire day of classes, I realized things had gotten really bad. Desperate, I talked to my RA about my situation. He recommended I contact the school’s counseling center.

Now, I was raised by a father who believed that therapy was only for people with “serious issues” (e.g., a personality disorder, or getting over major trauma and abuse). He, like many African American men of his generation, stigmatized mental-health care for a variety of reasons (summed up well in this interview on NPR). He grew up in the segregated American South, in a society that saw black people as mentally inferior, so the pressure was high to present himself as competent, strong, and lacking problems. He taught me to be resilient, at all costs, in the face of adversity. Mental illness, to him, was a character flaw—a sign of weakness. When I mentioned my stress and sadness to him, he told me I was “oversensitive” and that my issues were “luxury problems.” He encouraged me to increase my church attendance, count my blessings, and toughen up.

So when my RA suggested I talk to a therapist, I told him that I wasn’t “crazy,” I was just “experiencing a temporary human setback,” and I didn’t appreciate his pathologizing my situation, which was just stress, not “depression.” He quietly wrote the number of the counseling center on a Post-it, stuck it on my desk, and left the room.

I spent the next hour staring at the number, weighing the pros and cons of therapy. Finally, it dawned on me that prayer and “sucking it up” were obviously not working for me, and that this was the only option left. I heard these words in my head: This pain can stop now, just call—and I did.

I started to feel a little better as soon as I’d made the appointment. I had made a decision to do something for myself that went against everything I had ever been taught. It was one of the first “adult” decisions that I’d made on my own terms, and I was proud of myself for making it. This was my first step toward feeling like myself again.

When I arrived at the counseling center, I was super nervous. I glanced around the room, and when I noticed a girl from my French class, I almost ran out. But then my name was called and I was walked to the therapist’s office. The first thing I look at in any room is the bookshelves, and I noticed that hers held books on feminism and on diversity in higher education, which gave me some confidence. Then the therapist just asked, “How are you feeling?” And for the first time I felt like I didn’t have to answer with my usual “Fine, thanks,” but instead could tell someone what was REALLY going on.

The rest of her questions were similarly simple, open-ended, nonjudgmental: “How does that make you feel?” “What makes you feel supported?” “What would feeling better look and feel like for you?” These were things I hadn’t even asked myself, and answering them in that office put me in touch with thoughts and feelings I’d been bottling up for a year. Unlike friends and family tend to do, she didn’t respond with advice or reprimands, but just acknowledged my experiences with compassion. Instead of trying to solve my problems, she listened to me. It was incredibly empowering.

It has been a decade since I met my first therapist at the campus center. I’m sad to say that I don’t even remember her name today. She armed me with the tools I needed to set stronger boundaries in my relationships, develop healthy ways of coping with stress, and shift my negative thought patterns to more positive ones.

I still go to therapy today. Not because it hasn’t “worked”—but because it works so well for me that I just keep gaining more wisdom and strength from it, and I don’t want to give that up. I look forward to my weekly appointment, that one hour when I get to explore my thoughts, feelings, and struggles with someone caring and nonjudgmental and totally separate from the rest of my life, who knows my story and is rooting for my success, happiness, and health.


1 2 3


  • spudzine January 8th, 2013 7:11 PM

    I find this really inspirational, because I know it must take guts to really tell people that you even considered, much less had therepy. I went to my school’d guidance counsler last year, but she honestly couldn’t care less about my feelings-she wanted everyone to be friends with her stuffed parrot. So, I decdied that talking to people who would consider my feelings as a legit thing helps.

    • Jamia January 8th, 2013 8:07 PM

      Spudzine, Thank you! I’m sorry to hear that you had a negative experience–you might want to check in with her and tell her that you want her to refer you to other care providers if you still want support.

  • MissKnowItAll January 8th, 2013 7:13 PM

    I honestly wish I could go to a therapist but I don’t have any money and my parents are dead set against the idea

    • Jamia January 8th, 2013 8:04 PM

      Do you have a school counselor you can talk to about options? Sending you support and well wishes.

      • MissKnowItAll January 8th, 2013 9:23 PM

        I’ve asked her about it, (I’m in high school) and she said I should see a therapist but like I said, I can’t pay for one. Is there a way to get free consultation?

    • Jessica W January 8th, 2013 9:31 PM

      Youth counselors are a lot cheaper (sometimes free) in comparison to therapists, and they can really help. You can find them at local churches.
      Hope you’re okay.

  • Marian January 8th, 2013 7:22 PM

    Thank you so much for this. It’s ridiculous the extent to which Rookie knows exactly what is going on with me right now. This is going to be really helpful.

    • Jamia January 8th, 2013 8:05 PM

      Thank you, wishing you the very best and hope you get the support you need ASAP xx

  • momobaby January 8th, 2013 8:11 PM

    Thank you for this perspective on therapy. I am really glad that you successfully found out, and I hope this helps other Rookie readers if they need it. I’ve thought about becoming a therapist and helping people, and I really appreciate this to think about.

  • sparkleva January 8th, 2013 9:12 PM

    i have never even heard someone talk about what to do if you want therapy and don’t have the money, thank you so much!

  • i-like-autumn January 8th, 2013 9:12 PM

    Oh, Jamia, you are such a blessing.

    I would go to a therapist if my parents believed that I NEED a third party for working through everything. My younger sister has Actual Mental Illnesses On Paper and apparently, in my parent’s eyes, I’m Always On My Period. Plus, I’m supposed to be everyone’s ROCK and not really allowed to feel anything but constantly uplifting and happy… and well, I suppose you can imagine what that produces.

    I’m a cyber student, so there’s nothing for getting into contact with guidance counselors that are FOR getting help with stuff other than college… what do y’all recommend?

  • hufflepuffie January 8th, 2013 9:13 PM

    I think I might just be a bit emotional but this article and Marian’s comment above made me tear up. Rookie has just kept sending me all the right stuff at all the right times.

    I went to two therapists over the course of a year, my freshman year in high school. That year was rough for me and I couldn’t even admit to myself I had a problem but I was going to therapy for my parent’s divorce. The first lady was also seeing my mom and had seen me previously in a group seession so I felt so uncomfortable talking to her about unrelated topics. I switched to a male therapist shortly after that but even about 7 sessions in I was still way too uncomfortable to talk to him about what I was truly there for. Costing my parents about $700 dollars to cry and ask about the stuff in his room with seemingly no purpose to anyone involved.

    Is there any way you can suggest opening up about the things you’ve only shortly admitted to yourself are problems? Also, is there any way to show my parents I’m committed to getting the help I want this time?

    • adelia f January 9th, 2013 2:28 AM

      i went to three therapists in high school before finding one who helped me. sometimes it takes a while to find someone you feel comfortable opening up to. also, i have parents who are therapists (which may or may not have helped) but at the very least i knew from them that it’s totally not uncommon for someone to say, “i don’t think you’re the right person to help me. can you recommend someone else?” this seriously happens A LOT to all therapists. and they will have resources and networks available to help you find someone. also they should be able to recommend free public counseling services if money is a problem.

  • emilia.ct January 8th, 2013 9:32 PM

    Jamia, this is such a wonderful article. Thank you so much for writing it & sharing your experiences — I’m glad that therapy has worked out so well for you!!!

    Luckily, I can say the same for myself. I’ve been going to the same therapist, a lovely Israeli woman, since I was thirteen, and she has been tremendous. Not only did she help me get properly diagnosed with both depression and anxiety disorders (and therefore help me with the sort of medication I need to take), she has also been a great person whom I know I can trust.

    Of course, at the time I was only thirteen, so my mother was really the one who found her. But this is GREAT advice, especially since I know I can’t stay with the same therapist forever (alas!).
    Best of luck to everyone!!! xoxo

  • I.ila January 8th, 2013 9:33 PM

    I sort of teared up reading this. Don’t really know why though.
    How do you explain to parents who maybe don’t know what you’re feeling and going through except your grades are dropping that you need to talk to someone? My mom has always said that she doesn’t like people who cry a lot, not knowing that I cry everywhere almost every day. I’m more than a little scared to ask my parents. Should I ask my school advisor about this? I don’t even know that she knows all of my troubles, because we don’t get much time out of the group. What do rookies think I ought to do?

    • hufflepuffie January 8th, 2013 9:52 PM

      I think you should talk to your guidance counselor because you really don’t have to tell them anything more than your comfortable with but just that you’re looking for some guidance about where to go from that moment. Tell them (or write them an email of the thought of baring your feelings and problems is too much for words) specifically what you want so you can’t leave the office more confused about what to do than before you went in.

    • georgie fruit January 8th, 2013 9:57 PM

      the only way you can even find out if your mom will support you in getting help is to open up to her about your struggles. it is completely understandable that you’re scared. if you feel safe being honest with your parents, then you can try writing them a letter–I always find that to be easier than speaking because it gives me time to plan and organize my thoughts. but, like Jamia said, even if your parents disapprove of therapy or have negative views on mental illness, you should still seek the help YOU feel you need.

      if you don’t feel safe going to your parents, then try talking to your advisor. you don’t have to tell her all the details if you don’t want, but you can ask if your school has a support group or some other similar program. she might also know about local, affordable resources for youth that you can access without having to speak to your parents.

      and there is always the internet! Jamia provided some great links which you should check out! taking control of your mental health is incredibly brave, and my heart goes out to you.

  • katie January 8th, 2013 9:36 PM

    as soon as i saw my therapist’s beard, i knew he and i would be a good match and i’m happy to say i was right

  • Jessica W January 8th, 2013 9:37 PM

    This is a really great article. I think it’s good that Rookie is encouraging young people to not compress their emotions and seek help when they need it.
    The main issue with therapy is not the actual therapists though, but the cost.
    Sitting through therapy with “this is costing my parents/me x hundred dollars” is extremely detrimental to the possible success seeing a therapist could bring.

    The Lovelorn

  • mitch January 8th, 2013 9:40 PM

    thank you for this, I found it so informative and helpful :)

  • no_aloha January 8th, 2013 9:50 PM

    Thank you for this article. Seriously. This is pushing me to finding help with something that I’ve been struggling with for as long as I can remember. I’m 26, and just now am I considering taking action against my anxiety.

    My mom was also pretty anti-mental health therapy. I come from a long line of French women: we tend to prefer bottling things up and pretending they don’t exist. It’s comforting to know that IT’S OKAY to seek real help and not just “suck it up”.

  • puppyblew January 8th, 2013 9:53 PM

    Thanks for always knowing what to say, Rookie. I’m dealing with a lot of family and self-esteem issues, and I know I want to seek out support, but I’m always the rock. I listen to others talk about their problems, and suffer silently-it’s how I’ve always worked. It would take me a lot to truly open up to somebody I know, and I don’t know if I can justify having my family pay so much money to do that. Maybe now I can try to find somebody to talk to…

  • Devan January 8th, 2013 10:16 PM

    I literally just found my right therapist this morning.

  • Katrina W January 8th, 2013 10:51 PM

    I just about broke down reading this. Not because it was bad, quite the opposite, because it was so marvelous. I was literally in the beginnings of a panic attack when I read this and as I read my breathing slowed down to normal again. THANK YOU. Thank you for having the courage to speak about this important issue. I was struggling today with trying to find someone to talk to (Besides my mom, who is amazing with this, but I feel guilty for always talking to her) about how I am feeling. I have a therapist but I only see her once every two months. This eased the pain of feeling like no one could hear me today. So thank you.

  • abby111039 January 8th, 2013 11:41 PM

    I actually teared up a bit reading this. I’ve been debating whether of not to seek therapy for a while now. My parents have offered it to me many times before, but I was always to proud or stubborn or whatever to accept any offers of help. This article really helped steer me in the right direction. Thanks. :)

  • SarahHach January 9th, 2013 12:01 AM

    This article was such a huge help. I’m currently a sophomore in college, like you were when you first started seeing a therapist for the first time, and I’ve been having the most awful year. Friends have come and gone from my life, the few who have stayed are selfish and don’t treat me well, and there are a million other reasons I’m extremely unhappy and stressed out right now. I’m currently on winter break now from school, but thanks to your article, it’s given me the courage to just schedule an appointment with my school’s counseling services and meet with someone as soon as I get back to school. Thank you.

  • GaLing January 9th, 2013 12:10 AM

    Thank you for this, Jamia.
    I’m going to see my psychiatrist with my mother tomorrow, and while it’s bound to bring up things I’ve bottled up, I’m more confident that it can only lead towards something positive now.
    Just have to trust that looking at my issues is better than pretending they don’t exist.

  • junipero96 January 9th, 2013 12:21 AM

    thank you for somehow knowing exactly what i needed to hear right now, at this very moment. i’ve been putting off taking the first step into therapy for a while now, but i feel emboldened to move forward with trying to understand how make myself feel whole again.

  • fatale January 9th, 2013 12:42 AM

    jamia, this was a truly wonderful article. therapy has been a huge part of my life since i was 13 (i’m 20 now) and an amazing therapist definitely made my teen years (and my depression&anxiety) bearable. i just spoke to my psychiatrist today about looking for a new therapist in my city and i’m very hopeful/excited – reading this only reinforced my enthusiasm! thank you. <3

  • Shaniece_LostGirl January 9th, 2013 12:48 AM

    I’m in my 1st year of university. I’m not really used to going to people for anything, but I’ve decided that working things out on my own just isn’t working anymore. I’m a psychology student which made the decision to see a counsellor even harder, seeing the stigma that surrounds it first hand, but this made me realize that I should be proud of myself for making that phone call. So thank you for this, someone actually gets it.

  • justsomeone January 9th, 2013 1:52 AM

    What would I do without you, Rookie? Thankyou so much for this article.

  • Blythe January 9th, 2013 2:52 AM

    I found someone who seems like a perfect therapist the first time I (well my parents) tried. But hey, guess what! My health insurance doesn’t cover her! So now I’m stuck with a useless old lady. Like, she’s nice and all, and she also has some health problems similar to mine so she gets that, but we don’t click. However, I should be seeing my school counselor soon so maybe she can recommend some therapists we haven’t found yet.

  • dragonfly January 9th, 2013 7:26 AM

    Great article!! :) I guess I’m someone who definitely had thoughts of whether my problems were “bad enough.” I find it so hard to speak and tell people about things. Anyway so glad I went to see my school counsellor.

  • allydoubleyou January 9th, 2013 8:51 AM

    Hey, Rookie, could we get some more drawings with people of color? Especially when people of color write the articles…looks a little weird to match it up with a picture of a white person…just saying.

    This article was great!

  • littleredradio January 9th, 2013 9:11 AM

    great article, i hope it helps many readers to find their good therapy match!

    I found mine through my insurance and it’s been pretty good. I have learned a lot about me, I am still trying figure out many other things, working on some issues i have. It’s a true learning experience, imo.

  • erica84 January 9th, 2013 2:37 PM

    i’m pretty sure that my problem aren’t big enough for a therapist. and my parents probably think i’m making it all up. this was a beautiful article, but it’s a shame that i can’t use it.

    • Penny Dreadful January 12th, 2013 8:24 PM

      No problem is too small. If something is bothering you and having a significant effect on your health (mental, physical, etc.), you have every right to ask for help. I always thought the same way, but after talking with some friends about what I was feeling they encouraged me to seek therapy/counseling. It was such a good decision. Regarding your parents, you should talk to them. Explain the situation. Honesty is the best solution when it comes to parents. This is how you feel, and you need to make them understand that.

      I sincerely hope everything is ok. Be brave and be strong.

  • Alienor January 9th, 2013 3:13 PM

    It took my one year to get the courage to go see my school’s psychologist.
    thank you for this article :)

  • clairee January 9th, 2013 3:46 PM

    I realized from this article that I have often found that writing serves as a kind of therapy for myself, where I turn myself into a therapist using the paper. I agree that therapy should not have this kind of stigma, however. Great article.

    More thoughts on writing as my personal therapy here for anyone interested:

  • gracewoelegance January 9th, 2013 4:36 PM

    Oh this is so so important, well done for writing this!

  • eneslimon January 9th, 2013 5:58 PM

    Definitely a great article!! As someone who’s personally struggled with finding a perfect match with a therapist, I’ve realized to never settle for a mediocre therapy session that leaves me feeling worse than when I went it and instead to focus on finding someone who accurately fits what I need.

  • jmulder355 January 9th, 2013 8:59 PM

    Thanks for this article! It’s sort of perfect right now. I have been to three therapists in the last two years. None of them lasted more than a few months. I always feel like they are judging me when I speak or that they don’t like me very much. This makes it hard to express myself effectively to them. I guess I will look for a new one with these tips in mind and maybe that will help. :)

  • thesexyzebra January 9th, 2013 9:19 PM

    This is super important. I once had a therapist tell me I probably just hadn’t “found the right penis yet.” Some day, hopefully mental health professionals will be more consistently respectful and less ignorant. Until then, this is a great guide for finding the good ones.

  • pepilepeu January 11th, 2013 2:16 AM

    For people who live in a major US city, there is an online site which features video interviews with therapists as well as ways to narrow your search by geography, insurance accepted, training, cost, specialty, etc. Very helpful. I found my therapist there, very happy with her.

  • avonnlea January 11th, 2013 11:37 PM

    Ugh it’s so scary admitting you need help. Last year my depression/anxiety got so bad that i stopped going to school and stopped talking to my friends, it was horrible. I refused to go to therapy because I felt like it was my responsibility to fix myself. Finally my parents literally dragged me to a therapist and it’s helped so much! It’s scary at first but it really helped me and it’s so nice to have someone to talk to who doesn’t judge you :)

  • negativecreep January 12th, 2013 6:30 AM

    I have severe anger issues that stemmed from my father dying when I was 3, my family working all the time, and trust issues. My grandmother is a nurse and she STILL thought therapy was for crazy people. After talking to my counselor, she came to the conclusion that I need an actual therapist. I receive free treatment from the county and it really helped.
    Don’t be afraid to say you want therapy. I suggest talking to a counselor first in school and they can help you decide if counseling is enough or if you should get therapy. Unfortunately, you cannot receive treatment secretly and DO need parental consent if you are a minor. It is beneficial.

  • Anon January 12th, 2013 4:09 PM

    Reading articles like this seems so weird, because I was assigned a therapist. I was referred to a centre by my GP, and I had an initial consultation with someone who just got my history and what I was there to talk about, and then their team discussed who I was most suitable to see. They seemed to have got it bang on, I completely trust my therapist and she’s a very likable person, with a flexible attitude towards different types of therapy. Reading articles like this reminds me that not everyone gets the right person first time, and it makes me feel very, very lucky.

  • whycaninot January 16th, 2013 10:27 PM

    I totally agree with your statement about making first phone call and feeling better.

    Before I started seeing a psychologist, I’d been feeling really bad for quite a while, but kept telling myself I had nothing to worry about (which didn’t make sense, because if I felt that bad without any clear external reasons there was clearly an issue!). Then I realised that if my sister or one of my friends was going through the same thing, I’d be really worried for them, so I decided to start caring about myself as much as I did for other people.

    I’ve now done a couple of stints over the last three years when I’ve needed to. I’m so glad I did.

  • Hana January 17th, 2013 10:12 PM

    Thank you Jamia for the very relatable article.

    In my 2nd year of University I was immensely depressed and had panic attacks everyday. I’d actually start crying on the bus to and from school. And whenever I didn’t know the answer to something, I felt short of breath and my chest was on fire.

    Anyways, I seeked for help and the school counsellors/therapists were immensely helpful.
    The unbiased opinions and not “respond[ing] with advice or reprimands, but just acknowledged my experiences with compassion.”, having a stranger listen was so helpful.

    Moving forward… I dropped out of Psych and am now in a Culinary program that I love.

    …..although, not knowing what I want/should do in the future is frightening.
    My parents are wonderful, but the expectations from them are crippling at times. By the way, they didn’t know I was going to a therapist and still don’t know…. Similar views like your Pop. heh

    I don’t know what to do now, and I am not exactly asking you for advice or help…. just venting. I miss that with a “shrink”.

    Awh man, I need to relax and be more confident.

    …whateves, Thank you for the good-feelings article. Keep up the awesome work.


  • beckytamara February 7th, 2013 6:51 PM

    Excellently written. This is really helpful, thank you!

  • mysticriver87 February 12th, 2013 7:44 PM

    This made me tear up a little. It’s difficult being in a place where you think no one understands you, and the shock when you realise that you’re not the only one going through something.

    I saw my first counsellor at university in my second year. Now, my family doctor referred me to a clinical psychologist who is always willing to be flexible due to my schedule.

    Thank you for sharing :)

  • Freefall April 22nd, 2013 3:44 PM

    I am so happy that there is someone talking about the benefits of therapy and parents who don’t understand your need for it. I have been seeing a professional therapist on and off but after a recent trauma I have been having regular sessions.

    It was the last thing I wanted but when trying to talk to a very close friend about what happened, and she kept getting up to check her phone while I was talking to her, that did the trick.
    The worse part is because it happened in my family I don’t feel like I can talk to my parents.

    Thank you for sharing your story and tips with us.