A Letter From a Therapist: I Struggle Too

By Emily BurchMarch 12, 2020

Statistics say that one in four adults suffers from a mental illness. Depression impacts all of us. It does not discriminate by race, age, gender, or profession. Yet, almost my entire time in graduate school training to be a psychologist, I felt completely alone. I’ve experienced serious depression and anxiety for years. I’m one of the “lucky” high functioning cases, which leads to the catch-22 of being able to conceal the disease well enough to survive school and work, whilst having to deal with an illness that seems and feels invisible.

Graduate school taught me about advocating for others and working towards dismantling the stigma of mental illness. But behind closed doors, there seemed to be an understanding—it was okay for our clients to be depressed. It was not okay for us.

I found out later that several others in my graduate program experienced similar struggles with mental health. In all of our cases, no one reached out or said a word about our noticeable symptoms until it began to affect our work. At that point, results varied—but, dishearteningly, several of us (myself included) were coldly told to “go to therapy and deal with it.” As we cried in our professors’ offices, we were handed a tissue box and expected to continue working without missing a beat. Those of us who didn’t come into the program with a diagnosis often ended up with one by year two or three.

I’ve been to therapy before. I found out recently that a lot of my friends in grad school attended therapy while we were in school as well. In a way, it’s a good thing—you don’t want a therapist who hasn’t been on the other side of the couch themselves. It gives you a level of empathy and understanding you can only get from having a therapeutic experience yourself. On the other hand, it makes you question how much our higher education system is breaking us down before they build us back up. We were degraded. Shamed for asking questions. Scoffed at and expected to know better.

I wish my clients could know how meaningful my work is, and how much I relate to them. I may be in a better place now, but I will never forget what it feels like to be exhausted no matter how much you sleep; to have a panic attack in the middle of the night; to be crushed by the weight of your own and others’ expectations. To, quite bluntly, hate yourself.

I pride myself on doing a damn good job, even on the days when it consumes all the energy that I have. But it’s been a slow process of learning to have confidence in what I do even when my brain screams that I shouldn’t. I fight endlessly to correct misconceptions about mental health; to help dissipate the stifling stigma. I fight the good fight in public, then come home and battle my own internalized shame. I advocate for my clients who can’t do so for themselves because I know what it’s like to be in a severe depression or paralyzed by anxiety. Maybe I fight so hard for every client because this fight is so personal to me. Maybe I still have a little belief that I can change the world. And maybe even if I can’t, I can change the world for just one person.

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Comments (14)

  1. Steven W. Barber

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for your courage you verbalize this. It could very easily called A Letter From A Pastor: I Struggle Too. In the season of life I find myself in, thank you for reminding me that the battles I face with myself and with others has a purpose.

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  2. Maggie

    Thank you so much for this. I’m about to graduate with my bachelor’s in social work and am often plagued by thoughts of “how can you possibly think you’ll be able to help others when you need so much help yourself?”. I’ve also been in therapy for years and am slowly working through the muck.

    This helps. You are kind.

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  3. Terri

    Thank you for sharing this. We are in this together.

    I really need to find a therapist who will not only listen, but discuss how to battle the voices, doubts and find a way to better communicate.

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  4. Laura

    Absolutely love this. It amazes me how hard it can be to open up about your own mental health while working in the mental health field.

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  5. Kate

    I love this. The struggle is real and the judgement doesn’t help. When I was in grad school (for social work), I ended up participating in a partial hospitalization program because things got so bad. However, like you, I am incredibly high functioning– I’ve always had perfect grades and gotten along well with classmates and professors. The people at my internship liked me, most of my work with clients was effective (whatever that means). But, inside, I was dying. I had just enough energy to put on a smile and make it through the day, but as soon as I got home, I just slept–slept and cried. I often woke up hours before my alarm and dry heaved until it was time to go to my internship. I was at a breaking point and I knew I couldn’t move forward like that. So, I got extra help. I told my supervisor that I would need to change my scheduled a bit and she was nothing but supportive. I’ll never forget her response: “I just need you to know that I don’t see you any differently now that you’ve told me that.” Unfortunraely, I also had to tell my professor because of the adjustments I had to make. I’ll also never forger her response, but for an entirely different reason. She looked at me with compassion (for real) in her eyes and asked, “have you thought of alternative careers, you can always flip burgers.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with flipping burgers, but that’s not exactly what you want to hear a month before graduation. I smiled, thanked her, and walked out. I graduated with a 4.0 and have consistently held a job in my field. No one would ever know what its like in my mind, because I’m so “high functioning,” but that comment continues to lurk in the back of my mind when things start to get bad. I am a therapist, and I know my personal experience makes me better at my job, but I definitely still doubt myself. Sometimes, I want to go back to this professor and tell her that I am fine, that I’m successful. The saddest part is, I really think she was trying to be helpful, and that’s a huge issue.

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  6. Neil

    Thanks for sharing. That was actually helpful.

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  7. Ari Shapero

    Emily, this was so beautifully and poignantly written, getting at the heart of an issue that’s near and dear to me too. I produce a show aimed at taking this message to the public. I thought you’d like to know there’s someone out there carving out a space where therapists can tell their stories too in a meaningful way.

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  8. Jess

    I read this and could not stop crying. This is me right now! In grad school for Psych and I have struggled with chronic depression for as long as I can remember. I also suffer from ADHD, social anxiety, PTSD, and SAD. I truly hope my journey will be an asset to my patients. I know I am so passionate about mental health because of my personal years of misery.
    Thank you so much for this!
    It helps to know this career is doable while fighting my own daily demons!!

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  9. Crystal

    I think it is so important for therapists and counselors to be “on the other side of the couch”, as you put it. It should be encouraged, not seen as a personal weakness for therapists to also benefit from therapy. I never understood how we could be expected to have fully dealt with our own issues before we were able to help someone else with theirs. After working in the field for a few years now, I see that despite what we’re told, we aren’t meant to be perfect or have all the answers. Much like our clients, our own experiences take time and work to adjust to.

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  10. Helen

    Thank you for making me not feel so alone and thank you for sharing

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  11. Maria

    Thanks for sharing this, it means a lot to me right now!

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  12. Lisa

    I’m not a therapist but how you described what you feel is a lot of what I go through. No sleep, waking to nightmares, tired all the time. I tried therapy but the lady was not helpful- when I said I had things I felt I needed to deal with, she said she didn’t feel like I did and ask God to help. I quit seeing her. Then a guy can into work that owns a EAP, and I asked him about finding a therapist through them- he said something got that bothered me so I gave that up to. I think I need to try though. I feel like I’m a mess and I feel like garbage a lot.
    Thanks for your article. I’m sorry you have a hard time with yourself.

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    1. TWLOHA

      You absolutely deserve to try again, Lisa. We wish your initial efforts to find help were met with understanding and compassion, just as you deserve. But we hope that you will give it another go. There are incredibly wonderful and empathetic therapists out there who are equipped to support you.

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  13. Brandy Henderson

    Thank you for sharing such a personal experience. I myself am a therapist and am currently struggling with crushing depression. Some days it takes every ounce of energy my body and mind can gather.

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