Therapy Changed My Life—And I Almost Didn’t Do It
About two years ago, my life started falling apart at an alarming clip. I was married—spoiler alert: was—and had two young children. We all lived in a too-small apartment, and I was at a point in my career as a writer where things, I thought, should be getting easier, but they weren’t. Everyone else had a house and a Subaru. What was I doing wrong?
I had always had a lot of turmoil with my personal relationships, but as my cohort aged and had kids of their own, I found I had fewer and fewer close friends on whom I could rely. My marriage was similarly reliably tempestuous, but recently it was tempest all day. My emotions, meanwhile, were going haywire. I struggled with intense, body-clenching rage and existential squid-ink darkness.
I had lived with myself my entire life. No matter how miserable I was, that misery was me, if that makes sense. And so I didn’t seek professional help. Who would I be, I worried, if this clenched mass of mess that was me was dissolved? I was scared—scared of what therapy might reveal, scared to let go of the shore and drift into deep water, scared to have to put into words what I felt.
If I hadn’t had kids, I’m reasonably certain I never would have gone to therapy at all. But in the midst of what I guess was a mental breakdown—later I learned to call it an episode of emotional dysregulation—I tried to commit suicide. It was pretty rough. My wife had our five-year-old son, Achilles, talk to me through our bedroom door. He didn’t know what was up, just that something was wrong. And because trying to explain to a five-year-old you love that what you’re doing in the bedroom is dangling from the closet rod with a leather belt around your neck is too sad (and also hard to explain with said belt around your neck), eventually I emerged and lived. At that point, seeking help was a matter of life and death for me.
Even then I dithered out of fear. But what scared me more than going to therapy was what not going would mean. The evidence that I was struggling with mental illness was incontrovertible; that it was affecting the people I love was equally uncontestable. Because I have children and love my children, I knew I needed to get help, not for me so much as for them. I’m already too messed up to be happy. But my kids deserve happiness and a father who can love and be loved freely. In my bones, the thought that I’d pass on to them my unresolved issues—or, rather, the contortions that grew like calluses around those issues—was repugnant.
So I ended up in therapy, talking to a nice lady named Julia. Around me, in that office suite and in adjoining buildings, there were people just like me talking to people just like her. How cliché, I thought, looking at her ready-to-pluck tissues and well-hugged crushed-velvet pillow. But week by week, it felt really good to be able to talk to someone who wasn’t furious at me for a decade of craziness, who could see me with compassion and professional compunction.
After a bit, Julia suggested I might have something called borderline personality disorder, a constellation of symptoms that include suicidal ideations and attempts, uncontrollable rage, impulsive behaviour, black-and-white thinking—all traits I had tagged as mine in the coat check of ego. That character I carried and that I called “me”; that guy who punched walls and flew into rages; that guy who tumble-dried in the cycles of shape: that guy? Not me. Not really. I found I could let that image of who I was go. The more I understood about BPD, the more I understood what triggered what and why. I’m not saying that I’m not responsible for the suffering to others I caused. I am. But I didn’t have to beat myself up as much as I had.
Unfortunately, there’s no medical remedy for BPD, no “stop being a crazy dick” pill. Since much of the disorder is biochemical—basically, my mind is hard- wired to think those I love the most are constantly attacking me—BPD will be my constant companion. Because it’s largely genetic, it also might be my bequeathment to my sons, too.
Therapy wasn’t enough to save my marriage. Therapy can’t make me travel back in time to save my kids their fear or forward to salve their suffering. But what it did, and the reason I am still grateful for the past three years of my life, is that it allowed me to fully know myself. It’s like I hadn’t fully put my weight on this earth. I was holding part of myself apart, suspended, like a terrified marionette. Now I’m here. I’m happy in a way I couldn’t be before and sad in a way I couldn’t be before. I’m tender where I was hard, looser where I was tight. And you know what? I’m more comfortable admitting, “I’m scared,” and still going to sit on a couch to get to know myself a little better.