Therapists Can Be Depressed Too
I talk about depression all day. I read about it. I listen to podcasts about it. I work with folks struggling with it. Being familiar with depression is an integral part of being a therapist – feeling well equipped to work through depression, its roots, its ebbs and flows, its chronicity for some. In fact, as an intern and a recent graduate, it was one of those words that didn’t generate an overwhelming feeling of imposter syndrome. Depression, I thought, was something that I had a grip on working with.
And then it hit me.
I knew I was going through a difficult time. My Gramps passed away in January and it seemed to all spiral from there. There were a handful of personal happenings in my life - a chronic injury that required surgery, a curiosity in shifting away from drinking alcohol, and overall burnout from interning in community mental health while in the midst of my last year of graduate school.
But, these were minute details of my minute life, all so extraneous and so privileged in the milieu of such a bleeding world. I was a speck of dust drifting through a ruthless global pandemic. It was (and still very much is) a time situated in a society so polarized that pro-lifers argued for bodily autonomy when it came to vaccinations but not over uteruses, where guns were more accessible than vaping devices, mass shootings were commonplace, and human lives were diminished and brutalized on the basis of being anything but a white, cisgender male. It all felt so piercing.
So, naturally, I took to productivity to gift myself with a sense of control. I did all of the things that capitalism convinces us are “good” to do – I woke up at ungodly hours, chugged coffee(s), moved my body, and then of course, began working. And I did not stop working until I went to bed. I was so busy that last semester of school that I did not allow myself the time or space to grieve the fact that I was deeply depressed.
I consistently put things into perspective of my graduation date. I have always been one of those type-A planners that contextualizes challenges through a timeline. Once I graduated from graduate school, I was convinced that I would be “happy.” I would feel relieved. I would feel accomplished. I would feel lighter. Graduation came. I did, in fact, walk across the stage embracing an ephemeral impression of pride and ecstasy. But silly old me forgot that happiness is just as fleeting as any other emotional experience. The happiness vanished; the emptiness spoke loudly.
I no longer had to talk about depression all day, read about it, listen to podcasts about it, nor work with folks struggling with it. I was depressed. There was a profound sense of sadness that drooped over and within me. I was now able to sharply acknowledge this as I had more time and space post-graduation. I inhaled this sense of sadness throughout the days. It carried me through until the nights when I could unconsciously dream of something other than sadness. I recall speaking to myself in DSM terminology – “you feel down more days than not, you lost a marked pleasure in things that were once pleasurable, and you are fatigued…” I was so fatigued.
I knew I was sad. I did not want to be depressed. That clinical diagnosis scared me. I stigmatized myself from myself. I alienated myself from my own self.
I reverberated what I would convey to my clients in this situation, speaking to them with utter non-judgement, empathy, and positive regard. I was unable to reciprocate any form of compassion to myself. I forced myself out of bed in the mornings, knowing that if I stayed in bed, depression would breed depression. I did the things I needed to do – like work – and then went to bed as soon as I could. That feeling of laying in my bed was the ultimate comfort, knowing I could just be done for the day.
I was an intensive outpatient therapist at the time for tweens who had mostly stepped down from hospitalization. Being an IOP therapist while internally suffering so deeply with my own emotional experiences felt like trying to carry wet cement. It was heavy. Really heavy.
I understood the importance of being myself with my clients, rather than trying to depict a blank slate or inhuman sense of balance. I tried reminding myself that it’s okay to be vulnerable with my clients – it lessens the power dynamic and reminds all of us that this is a human experience that all parties are engaging in and experiencing in a unique fashion.
Therapy is such a two-way process. I feel like clients might not know how much they impact their therapists, too. Therapists learn from their clients, just like clients learn from their therapist.
Being a therapist during this time was healing for me. I recognized that I needed to take what I would say to my clients for myself. I ran into an old supervisor that I highly regarded, and she alluded to anti-depressants really working. That was yet another push for me – I deserved help, just like I believe that all my clients, family, friends, peers, and strangers deserve help. I found a psychiatric nurse practitioner and began taking medication alongside weekly therapy. I was scared and resistant and had so many overwhelming thoughts going on in my head about medication. That Zoloft has been monumental in self-restoration. Medication is, of course, entirely personal, and different for each human body. The combination of medication and personal therapy has been invaluable for my journey.
I feel okay now. I feel energized. I feel excited. I feel a sense of balance and homeostasis that I haven’t felt, really ever before.
Healing is NOT linear. There are still hard days. There are still things that I want to work through. And there are things that I can’t anticipate that I will need to work through in the future. But today, I feel grateful for my therapist, for my medication, for my clients, for my profession, and for my continued growth.
For folks that see a therapist – thank you. Thank you for creating the space in your life to initiate healing, even when it feels intense. Thank you for attempting to expand yourself in ways that allow you to better show up for this world we are all existing in. Thank you for creating space for your therapist to grow just by the essence of being you.
For folks who are in a helping profession – it’s okay to hurt and to heal in all the ways that you would tell your clients that it is okay to hurt and heal. It’s not only okay, but it’s necessary, essential, and fundamental to seek support that is aligned with your values as a helper. Your clients deserve help, you deserve help, I deserve help.
Written by Emily Powell, M.S.Ed, M.Phil.Ed