In the small midwestern town where I live, seeking mental health care is still considered taboo. And in movies and on TV, only the "messed up" characters go to therapy. Most people don't openly talk about going to therapy or marriage counseling, either, and while most parents are quick to talk about anything they rarely, if ever, admit that their child sees a therapist.
But mine does.
I refuse to allow the stigma of having mental health issues make me feel bad about a decision that I now know is best for my child. I don't believe sending my child to therapy is a sign of weakness. I definitely do not think it somehow means I have failed as a mom. I absolutely do not think it's something to be ashamed of.
But I didn't always feel that way, and it's taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel comfortable telling people that my daughter sees a therapist.
I remember, very clearly, the first time I took my daughter to therapy. She had been having a rough time coping with my divorce from her father. The resulting emotional outbursts and violent tantrums had reached a point where I had no clue what to do, or how to help her, so I knew that I needed to reach out to a professional who could talk to and help my daughter in ways I simply couldn't.
So I guess, to be honest, we both needed help. She needed the words to identify how she was feeling now that her parents were no longer together, and she needed to learn how to cope with those big emotions and challenging transitions. And I needed help understanding where my daughter was coming from, and how I could connect with her as she struggled with this new normal.
I remember wondering if it was worth the huge co-pay, because my daughter was essentially playing in a therapist's office for an hour.
Because while I love my child more than anything, at this moment in our lives she was scaring me. I was afraid that I had screwed her up for the rest of her life, and I feared that she would hate me forever for the decisions I had made not only for me, but for her and our family and our future. But at the tender age of 6, the reasons behind those hard decisions aren't understandable. And I couldn't have possibly expected her to understand.
Still, it was hard to ask for help. I was embarrassed, and felt like eliciting the help of a professional was a sign of my failure as a parent. And it was humiliating to admit, out loud and to someone I didn't know, that my daughter wasn't perfect, either. As parents we can't help but see the absolute best in our children, but more often than not it's our willingness to admit that they are flawed human beings that will ultimately help them become the well-rounded, capable adults we're trying to mold them into.
I, myself, almost never talked about going to therapy, for fear that people would judge me or see me differently. At the same time, though, therapy has helped me so much in my adult life. I knew how beneficial therapy could be. After all, I have lived it. Still, that stigma was strong, and made me scared for how my daughter, and my parenting, would be perceived.
Still, my need to help my daughter in any way I could superseded my fears, and I decided to give therapy a try. I thought at minimum it couldn’t hurt to give her another outlet for her emotions and to give me an objective, outside view of what was going on in her head. I was overwhelmed, sad, embarrassed, and ashamed at the thought of having to take her to a therapist, but I was completely lost and needed answers.
Each session helps her grow and develop in ways I probably couldn’t have addressed on my own, and we've come to see therapy for what it truly is: help.
I wasn't a believer right away. The first few sessions were nothing like seeing a therapist as an adult — they involved way more silliness and playing games than talking. I remember wondering if it was worth the huge co-pay, because my daughter was essentially playing in a therapist's office for an hour.
We stuck with it, though, and slowly but surely I noticed my daughter's ability to communicate with me improve, as did her ability to cope with her big emotions about my divorce and decision to leave her dad. Surprisingly, I also became better able to express myself, like her therapy had taught us both a new language we could use with each other.
Our relationship was changing.
The car rides to and from her appointments became cherished time together, where we explored what happened the previous week, what she wanted to work on in therapy, and any homework assignments we had to look forward to in the week to come. So it wasn't just the therapy sessions that were helpful, but the moments before and after; moments when it was just the two of us, focused on one another; moments that allowed me to connect with my daughter again.
When my daughter "graduated" from therapy I found myself missing it, and so did she. And we ended up going back to therapy when she needed help managing her anxiety and coping with a different set of life changes. Each session helps her grow and develop in ways I probably couldn’t have addressed on my own, and we've come to see therapy for what it truly is: help. And every mom needs help.
If you ask my daughter about therapy, she'll tell you it's no big deal. She just needs help managing her anger and learning coping skills for when life gets hard. She's 10, and already more accepting of mental health care than most adults I know. And that makes me more proud than I could possibly articulate.
So, no, I am not embarrassed that I made the decision to put my child in therapy. That choice has been transformative, for my daughter and for myself. If we are truly going to encourage moms to ask for help, then we need to be supportive when they do. And I did. I asked for help, and it has made all the difference.