How to Get Back into Therapy when Previous Therapy Experiences Sucked

When I was 13, child protective services got involved with my family, following my accusations of child abuse and my first suicide attempt. I was hospitalized for several weeks, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and told that I need to be seeing a therapist, weekly, once I was discharged. Child protective services would be keeping an eye on the family, and reluctantly, my mother brought me to weekly therapy appointments.

My first therapist (let’s call her Jillian) was an angel. She encouraged me to keep writing, keep singing, keep drawing, and, at the risk of sounding cliche, she encouraged me to keep living. Her smile was contagious. Entering her office felt like I was able to breathe, if only for the hour that my insurance was paying her.

Unfortunately, Jillian was only in my life for six months. A budget cut meant that all of the newer therapists were being let go from that clinic, and I wasn’t sure where she went, after that. Still, I needed therapy, and the clinic referred me from one therapist to another. One by one, each therapist would let me know that they didn’t think they could help me, until there were no more therapists in that clinic to go to.

I saw my school counselor, a psychiatrist, and bounced from therapist to therapist.

And if I can be super real for a minute, being a teenager and hot potato’d from therapist to therapist? It kind of makes you feel like something is seriously wrong with you. The feelings of rejection, abandonment, and otherness, can wear you down.

It was suggested a few times that I was deliberately being difficult because it was my way of seeking attention. That maybe I didn’t really want to be helped.

I quit consistent therapy when I turned 17, left home, and never looked back. There was a few times I attempted to reach out for professional help, but the memories of being rejected and unwanted had permanently left a place in my mind. It feels easier to just brood and have my meltdowns, than be accused of faking or attention seeking.

Instead of therapy, I self-medicated with cutting, alcohol, boys, girls, video games, food, starvation — whatever would have me. In the moment, these options seemed easier.

When I did try to get healthy again, relapse would always be around the corner. My friends stopped finding my habits adorable or hilarious, and they started to whisper. The whispering evolved into unanswered texts or being ghosted. Eventually, I was no longer invited to events and no one wanted to be around me.

I could look at this as, “Screw you guys… you’ve left me just like everyone else,”and you bet, I did think this, for a long time. I was dragging my friends down and making situations uncomfortable with my lashing out and my public meltdowns. The cutting, drinking, and promiscuity, magnified my issues and slowly, chipped away at who they thought I was.

“May… you really need to get some help,” one of my friends said, before he, too, walked out of my unhealthy life. “I will always care about you, but you need professional help.”

Several years later, I decided to give it another try… because otherwise, I’m going to end up killing myself whether through another full on attempt or by withering away from my addictions. It wasn’t easy. The road to recovery is painful and lonely. I’m still on that road… but the first step was to get that “professional help” that I’ve been pushed towards.

If you’re on that journey, too, and you’re hesitant to get therapy or professional help, here are some tips on making it a little more bearable —

*NOTE: Everything in this post is purely anecdotal. I am not a licensed professional and this is purely from my own independent experiences.*

1. Go to your doctor. Ask for a referral to get a psychological evaluation.

You might think that you have bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, whathaveyou… but it’s difficult to know for sure unless you get a professional evaluation from a psychologist. There’s a lot of online research and quizzes that you can do on your own time, but none of them would be as unbiased or thorough as having a psychologist do it for you.

Sure, I can see that there are some issues with this — getting a diagnosis feels like you’re putting a label on yourself or creates a permanence on “what’s wrong with you.” In truth, getting an evaluation and diagnosis creates a base layer for you to work with. It provides context to your story.

For example, “feeling depressed” doesn’t tell your therapist much. Differentiating between a mood disorder that lasts several months versus a mood disorder where you feel intensely upset for several hours, can help your therapist (and psychiatrist) get an idea of how to treat you.

You wouldn’t treat a fever caused by a cold and a fever caused by meningitis the same way — just as you wouldn’t treat depression or bipolar the same way. It’s helpful to get diagnosed first and can speed up the process of recovery.

Bonus points: you can also find local support groups or online support systems for your specific diagnosis. Check Meetup, ask your therapist, Reddit, or House of Misfits self-help chatroom.

2. Find a therapist that specializes in your area of need.

Therapists are not all the same, thankfully.

Once you have your diagnosis, find a therapist that specializes in that specific needs. You can head over to Google and type in your zip code and what you’re looking for.

For example: 55028 Therapist Bipolar Disorder

You can also use PsychologyToday to conduct a search.

A lot of the therapists I’ve worked with did not have experience with borderlines, which made it difficult for them to treat me. One of my previous therapists actually tried certain techniques that seemed to make things worse, before letting me know that she felt this relationship wasn’t going to work since she has never had a borderline patient before. I didn’t start seeing results until I met my current therapist, who is the local expert on personality disorder. All of the other therapists refer their more difficult personality disorder cases to my therapist.

*Note: It’s possible that the experts or highly demanded therapists are harder to get an appointment for. If that’s the case, ask them for a referral. Also, it’s rarely love at first sight. You may go through several, even dozens, of therapists, before finding one that meshes well with your needs. Keep at it.*

3. Before meeting with a therapist, figure out what you want out of therapy.

Therapy isn’t a quick fix, magic pill that makes everything all better. You may have felt that therapy “didn’t work” in the past, or have heard horror stories of crappy therapists. That’s all valid — but to minimize potential issues, you should head to your intake appointment with a firm idea of what you’re looking for.

Define your expectations of your therapist. Get specific.

Some suggestions are:

  • I want to stop having panic attacks.

  • I want to better manage my anxiety.

  • I want to be able to live a life without being haunted by past abuse.

  • I want to build better relationships without my mood disorder getting in the way.

  • I want to feel less confused about navigating my life and to have someone help me understand the events that occur.

Be up front with your new therapist about what you are expecting from the therapy sessions. Ask the therapist whether they feel that this is within the realm of their expertise and if this is something they are interested in doing. They may decline, and if they do, ask them if they have a referral. That’s how I ended up meeting my current therapist.

Try not to stress too hard about being declined as a patient. It’s better to be declined right away than to be a few sessions deep, emotionally invested, and then told that your expectations are not reasonable.

4. Before each session, write down a list of talking points.

Shit happens, sometimes. You might have a crappy morning, right before your therapy session, so when you get to therapy, you’re a crying, blubbering mess. Your brain is too frazzled to think of anything and all you can do is say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Everything sucks.”

Alternatively, you might have everything in order, but blank out, once you hit your therapist’s couch.

Having a list of talking points in mind can maximize your therapy sessions because you don’t have to wait for your therapist to fish topics out of you or waste time with small talk, before getting to the point.

Some tips on creating your list:

  • Create your list throughout the week. Did something annoy you or push you over the edge at some point during the week? Write it down on your list, no matter how small it is.

  • Write down specific questions that you have for your therapist.

  • If there are major events, life changes, positive or negative, write them down.

Your list should be something that you create throughout the week so you lessen the burden of coming up with the list right before your session. It will save you a lot of mental energy.

5. Keep going, no matter what.

You might have a crap day or a week that keeps beating down on you. Maybe it’s hard to get out of bed. You haven’t done anything but lay around. Go to therapy anyway, or ask if the session could be done over Skype/phone.It’s easy to skip one session and then fall into a habit of skipping another, and another, and another, until you fall out of going to therapy.

Get a friend or family member to you to your therapy sessions (pay them with dinner or cookies!) Head over to our Discord and get an accountability partner who checks in with you. Reward yourself after each therapy session (maybe get a smoothie or tea).

The first few sessions, weeks, maybe even months, will be difficult. Old wounds will be reopened and traumas that have been long buried will come back. You’ll wonder if this therapist will be just like the others, but keep going.

“Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.” 
― C. JoyBell C.