The writer Elizabeth Gilbert once said “Nobody ever does real transformation for fun”. I think she’s right.
In the same way, nobody signs up for therapy because they think it might be fun.
Sometimes people do sign up for dreamwork coaching for this reason, and they end up having a lot of fun. They also usually end up quite surprised at what they discover about themselves.
Signing up for therapy can be hard, and it’s often the end of a journey as well as the beginning of one.
That first journey is often a frightening fall into the depths of life, and of yourself. It ends when you finally say ‘enough is enough’, and reach out a hand for help. Then the new journey, a journey of healing, can begin.
Finding the right therapist
It can be a scary thing to say out loud ‘I need help’.
And it can be very intimidating to call a stranger, at your most vulnerable, and to start a conversation about that vulnerability and the reasons for it.
Fortunately, most therapists are warm, welcoming people who will do their best to put you at ease (if they don’t, they may not be the right therapist for you).
So, you phone, and you have a short chat, and you determine whether this therapist you have contacted can help you.
Don’t worry if the first therapist you contact isn’t right for you. Some therapists specialise in certain areas, or avoid certain areas.
For example, I don’t work with children, or with clients who have addiction issues. This is simply because I haven’t done enough specialised training in these areas to be able to offer the best help possible.
It’s a good idea to write down a few questions to ask when you make that initial call.
Sometimes these may have been answered on the therapist’s website, such as ‘where are you based?’ or ‘how much do you charge?’ or ‘what kind of a qualification do you have?’.
Others are more personal to you, and some questions you’ll answer for yourself in the course of an initial call: ‘does this person listen to me?’ or ‘do I feel comfortable with her?’
When you arrive
When you arrive for your first session, try to be on time.
Don’t show up half an hour early, because your therapist probably has a previous client and may not be able to open the door to you.
That’s not a personal rejection. It’s just because most therapists, unless they work in a large group practice, don’t have a receptionist and won’t interrupt an ongoing session for the doorbell.
If you’re coming to meet me, you’ll walk up the big granite steps to the old painted door, ring the third bell and wait for me to lead you through the bright hallway to my cosy little therapy room.
There will be an armchair for you, a glass of water, a box of tissues which you may or may not need. A quiet, calm, welcoming space where we will together begin to navigate your inner journey.
What does a first session look like? Well, it can go several ways, and that very much depends on you, the client.
At some point in a first session, we’ll discuss issues like confidentiality and cancellation policies.
I will ask you to fill out with me a detailed intake form with information such as name, address, next of kin, significant relationships, job or employment status, medications, previous experience of therapy and so forth.
Why do I need all this information? It helps me to get to know you, and to mentally form a framework of what your life is like, the context within which your experiences happen.
There are also practical reasons – for example, if a client is suddenly taken ill during a session (and yes, this has happened), it’s very useful to have the phone number of a next of kin to call.
Where to start?
Many clients like to get the intake form out of the way, because it’s easier to answer questions like ‘where do you live?’ than to dive into the sometimes murky water of ‘what brings you here today?’
Others, however, have been holding their pain for a long time, and by the time they arrive in the therapy room, they can’t wait one more second and they need to talk about it NOW.
That’s fine too, it’s your session and you’re in charge. The intake form can wait for the next day.
Examine your expectations
Another possibility for a first session is to examine your expectations for psychotherapy.
What kind of change would you like to bring into your life? What’s holding you back? How do you imagine your life will be afterwards? What are your hopes and dreams for yourself and your life?
A first session is a way in, it’s just a first step. It’s up to you to decide whether the pace of therapy will be fast or slow, depending on what you feel comfortable with.
Whichever way the session goes, it’s important to remember that it’s just the beginning of a process that will most likely take a while.
You may feel relieved afterwards, or exhausted, or drained.
If you’ve talked about things you’ve never told anyone before, you may feel exposed or vulnerable.
Perhaps your sleep will be disturbed, or that you have strange dreams (if you do, you can always write them down and bring them to session).
You may feel emotional, or short-tempered with those around you. You may even feel that you’re getting worse, not better.
Or you may feel a lot better – it’s different for everyone.
Take care of yourself
If you’re not rushing back to the office or to a child, try to take a little while after a therapy session to go for a walk or drink a quiet tea. Write down any thoughts that occur to you.
It’s important to give yourself as much space as possible and just be gentle on yourself.
You may be shaking the foundations of your whole inner world – you can’t expect not to notice the reverberations.
I can’t promise you that you’ll feel better after one session.
But I can promise that if you keep showing up, brave and vulnerable, change will slowly come.
And I’ll be right there with you, keeping you company on that inner journey while it does.
Here’s a poem I wrote some years ago, when I was particularly struck by one client’s courage in showing up for a process that was very scary and difficult for her, and the sense of hope and possibility that emerged.
It’s time to explore,
Pushing aside the cobwebs
At the gate of half-abandoned pain.
Time to let the light in,
Unearthing the fear you buried
As deep as you could in a shallow grave.
Each ragged breath a triumph,
Wrestled from shame
To the whispered benediction of your tears.
You brave the dragons,
Descend the depths,
And on the other side…?
© Margaret Brady 2017
If you’re considering starting therapy, please feel free to contact me by phone or email to set up an appointment or ask a question.
Check out my FAQ page, and if there’s a question you’d like to see answered there, let me know. I look forward to hearing from you!