I’m Jo. I’m 37 years old. I have a great husband and a beautiful daughter who makes me proud every day. I studied and practised law for many years at one of the world’s premier law firms. I have an undeniably privileged and comfortable life and, as a white, privately-schooled, university-educated, heterosexual, cisgender woman in the UK, my experiences, by many objective measures, have been easy.
I say this not to incite envy and give you a reason to stop reading (to be fair, I wouldn’t blame you if you did), but because first and foremost I think it is important that I am upfront about my privilege as it will undoubtedly have had an impact, not on my mental health as such, but certainly on my treatment and the support I have received. Secondly, because to read that last paragraph and to look at my life from the outside, you’d never guess that I struggle every day with my self-esteem, my self-worth and my value, not only as a mother and a friend but as a human being.
I wear the mask of being ‘OK’, most of the time
You wouldn’t know that I regularly drift in and out of periods of mental-ill health that can be both disabling and alarming (for myself and those around me), despite the regularity with which they appear in my life. And, of course, even when the cloak of mental illness descends, I can normally hide it well. Most of the time. I function, most of the time. I wear the mask of being ‘OK’, most of the time.
What does someone with a mental health condition look like anyway? In my experience, it certainly isn’t how ‘mad’ people are stereotypically represented in the movies or on TV. The mentally ill are often portrayed as mumbling, erratic, incompetent, dangerous, chaotic, slovenly and undeserving, which only serves to distance ‘them’ from the rest of ‘us’, perpetuating fear and ignorance.
Despite having mental health conditions from a relatively young age, my mental health knowledge, prejudice and language were severely lacking for an embarrassingly long time. My internal cringe-o-meter shoots off the scale when I think about all the times I stereotypically labelled others and myself. I’d even jokingly describe myself as being ‘a little bit OCD’ long before, in a cruel twist of irony, years later I would in fact be diagnosed with dermatillomania (chronic skin-picking), which, it turns out, is in the OCD family.
For many people with mental health conditions like myself, we often appear ‘normal’, whatever that might be. We are often fully contributing members of society on the surface, but underneath there’s a much darker and more complex story going on. I’ve long used my social media channels to highlight the disparity between what is happening on the surface and what is actually going on beneath, through a campaign called #DepressionWearsLippy.
It gained traction a few years ago and globally thousands of women (and a few men and pets too) have shared their lipstick selfies, and many more have used the hashtag since, showing that mental illness doesn’t have to look a specific way. The idea came about a couple of years ago after an online troll accused me of fabricating my condition, saying that I looked too groomed to suffer anxiety or depression. My response was to show the world that, as often as mental health conditions hide away or look the way we expect, mental health issues are also all around us and look like every one of us. Sometimes they wear lipstick and sometimes they do not.
Mental health issues cross all social constructs, genders and ethnicities; they affect the rich, poor, old and young. Having a mental health condition is not a choice and they don’t discriminate with who they affect, so neither should we in our behaviour towards people who have them.
At the time of writing, I have seen a therapist or been in therapy at various points for roughly half of my life
Therapy has been my lifeline; it has changed my life in a way I could never have anticipated. At the time of writing, I have seen a therapist or been in therapy at various points for roughly half of my life. That’s over 18 years of spilling my innermost thoughts to numerous strangers for bouts of various talking therapies for multiple reasons. If this were a marriage, it’d be our porcelain anniversary – a material known for both its toughness and also its fragility. Which I think is fitting, considering the context.
Without wanting to bore you senseless with a long list of diagnoses, I think it’s important to let you know that at different points in my life my therapy has been for anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, compulsive and intrusive thoughts and behaviours, as well as other things that have fallen short of a clear categorisation, and now it’s more about my mental wellness, self-esteem, self-improvement and self-care.
A quick aside: it’s important to remember that, for some, diagnoses can help validate their suffering and give them a platform from which to speak about distress and access help. However, this isn’t always the case. Some diagnoses can have the opposite effect, feeling stigmatising and leading to negative evaluations by the public, family members and even the person with mental health concerns themselves.
‘I have failed; I should have been able to control my mood myself.’
‘I am weak. I have brought this upon myself.’
‘This means I am crazy.’
‘This means I am a fundamentally flawed human.’
‘My life is over.’
‘I will never amount to anything.’
‘I will never have friends.’
‘I may as well give up.’
I do not claim to understand how the magic of therapy works; all I know is that something incredible happens when you find another human you can open up to and they are trained to listen and support you in response. I think it’s probably quite important I say at the outset that, as far as I am aware, NO ACTUAL MAGIC is involved in therapy, despite at times me being utterly convinced that some kind of sorcery is at play in my therapist’s office. But what is unquestionably true for me is that it has felt as though something magical happens in therapy and this book seeks to lift the veil on a secretive and sadly still stigmatised world.
I also feel compelled to let you know that there is no magic pill, no quick fix, no incantation or spell to cast. Therapy is hard. It’s hard to get the courage to go to therapy; it’s hard to find the right person who makes you feel safe, held and comfortable; it’s hard to trust the process when progress is slow; it’s hard when you doubt yourself; it’s hard when you come away feeling worse than when you went in. Even when it’s great, you have a therapist you connect with and you’re making good progress, it’s still bloody hard work. Worth it, every second, but hard.
To continue in arse-covering mode, I want to warn you that this book touches on many triggering subjects, including self-harm and suicide. If this means it’s not for you, I’m sad to see you go, but I quite understand. I also want you to know that I’m speaking from my personal experiences with therapy and mental illness. If you or someone you know may be living with mental illness or mental health issues, please talk to a qualified medical professional or encourage them to, because I am not a doctor, nor am I qualified as a therapist.
There is so much that is kept hidden when it comes to mental health, so much that happens behind closed doors, so much that we keep locked away from the world and often even from ourselves. In this book, I throw those doors wide open and tackle myths about therapy.
Myth: ‘I don’t need a therapist. I’m smart enough to solve my own problems.’
Truth: We all have our blind spots. Intelligence has nothing to do with whether or not we’d benefit from therapy. A good therapist doesn’t tell you what to do or how to live your life. They will give you an experienced outside perspective and help you gain insight into yourself so you can make better choices.
Myth: ‘Therapy is for crazy people.’
Truth: Therapy is for people who have enough self-awareness to realise they need a helping hand, whether that is to help them cope with a mental illness or issue, or simply because they wish to learn tools and techniques to help their lives, for example, to become more self-confident or emotionally balanced.
Myth: ‘All therapists want to talk about is my parents and childhood.’
Truth: While exploring family relationships can sometimes clarify our thoughts and behaviours later in life, that is not the sole focus of therapy and, depending on the type of therapy you have, might feature very seldomly, if at all. The primary focus of pretty much all therapy is on what you need to change – unhealthy patterns and symptoms in your life. Therapy really is not about blaming your parents or dwelling for too long on the past. many of the less spoken about aspects of mental health and how to access support.
So, despite my dad telling me to never talk publicly about money, politics or religion, I think this book would be doing a disservice to you the reader but also to myself if it didn’t address at least the first two of these to some degree. I really don’t think we can, nor should we try to, separate mental health support in any of its forms from less palatable topics such as politics, finance, social issues and race because, to me, they are inextricably intertwined. Our lives don’t operate in a vacuum and neither does our mental health and by extension therapy. Not to mention that much emotional distress is often caused by many of these exact issues. I’ve realised a lot of things through trial and error that I wish someone had told me before I ventured into the secretive and often entirely misunderstood world of therapy.
I’ve also come to a place in my life where I strongly feel if we are open and honest with our truths and share our vulnerabilities, not only can we help others, but also real change will happen. These pages contain the very comfort and reassurance I have craved over the years in therapy from the perspective of someone actually doing the work, learning the lessons and making the mistakes. This book doesn’t just lift the lid on the incredible, unique conversation and relationship that happens between the therapist and the client, it throws that box wide open to give you a real flavour of what therapy feels like from the rarely heard client perspective. We shall begin with what I wish I had known before this all began…
Therapy is Magic, by Jo Love, published by Yellow Kite, is out now
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