All illustrations by Audrey Halim for RICE Media
It’s been months since my last therapy session.
I haven’t been very good at maintaining the habits my therapist encouraged me to develop. I don’t keep a diary, neither do I take walks in the middle of the day when I’m stressed out.
Whenever the day sucks and my thoughts turn grey, I don’t always “search for the evidence”, as she would say—a reminder to wrestle logic out of the falsehoods about myself that would, otherwise, clutter and plague my brain.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m terrible at not taking stock of all the progress I’ve made since seeing her. But I know I’ve done it—I just have the habit of overlooking it. It’s why I don’t see her as often as I used to.
In fact, it’s been months—my last few months of 2023 were spent like everyone else: rushing through work before Christmas.
Now, it’s 2024 and I hope to continue this. I’m learning to cope with the highs and lows of it all.
Therapy: What is it Good For?
Therapy isn’t cheap. Every dollar I’ve spent on it, thankfully, has never gone to waste.
Years ago, back in a world untangling itself from circuit breaker restrictions, it felt wasteful to splurge $150 for therapy. One hour, lots of talking, and… that’s it. Nothing but an agonizing transaction at the end of each visit. That’s what I was anticipating at first, anyway.
COVID and its restrictions messed us up, that’s for sure. For me, I wasn’t bothered by staying indoors—that was great—and, as the disease continued its spread, I could only watch the news. Instead, the return to normalcy was what I feared.
Up until then, I already had a hard time coping with life. I couldn’t imagine a future for myself to stay around for. I doubted my skills, my capabilities, and my self-worth. I lacked focus. These are all universal and relatable feelings. It’s still difficult to live with it all, and all of us are susceptible to reaching our limit. I just reached mine.
That was really what led me to therapy. Once public places were opening up, I thought it was a chance to make sense of what I had been feeling most of my life. One day, a friend tells me she’s seeing a therapist. She gives me the clinic’s contact number. I make an appointment.
The ability to articulate what’s on your mind gives a sensation I can’t begin to explain, funnily enough. When you start attending sessions, clarity may feel hard to grasp—and that’s okay. You may find yourself speaking in circles, struggling to find the right words to answer simple questions.
There’s a lot of icebreaking involved, likely by your therapist. After all, you’re both starting out as strangers. They’ll be asking questions about you, and you’ll face the path that many dread: talking about yourself.
Therapy is a lot of work. I’ve found it depends on what you bring to it: your willingness to work on your problems, the open-mindedness to realise when your therapist is calling you out on your shit, and the patience to acknowledge that the work is continuous. Talking about yourself is all part of that.
All that work requires commitment. If I’m not planning to go anymore, does that make me non-commital?
Therapy: After That, Then What?
These days, my life feels similar to what it was before—not the circumstances, but the rhythms and motions of each day. Some days feel terrible; some days feel fun. It’s life as I know it. It’s not a complete flip of the sad script I once felt tethered to, but it’s a life I can start to live.
One session I had with my therapist—let’s call her Laura—continues to stick with me.
She asked me why I don’t write diary entries about my day like she asked me to. I told her I find it way too painful to do it—with the pain being closer to ‘cringe’ than ‘distressing’. She’s extended to me plenty of sympathy and grace before, but she felt a line had to be drawn here.
“You’re a writer, Daniel. What is the problem?” she asks, gently but emphatically. She got me there.
The other problems I have will take time, she tells me, but this is something I must get over. That cut through the haze. It didn’t magically make me confident in doing it, but it woke me up to the reality that I wasn’t holding my end of the bargain. I started to write every day until the next session.
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a habit I continue to practice now, but it did get me hip to how useful it is. After some practice, I can easily write down why my day was terrible or why I was pissed off on a whim.
Whenever my therapist read these diary entries I wrote, she would ask me: “Where’s the evidence?”. These Arial 12pt ramblings spelt out words about myself I thought were true. Over time, she emphasised how important it is for me to differentiate these thoughts—what sounds real and logical, and what sounds, well, hyperbolic and ridiculous.
Since I was a child, the feeling of being overwhelmed was familiar, painfully so. It’s a state of mental suspension that I can best describe as being clouded by panic, confusion and guilt. At first, it was triggered by hostility—like if I got shouted at or harassed by someone else or if the ensuing hostility became physical. But, over time, smaller and more inconsequential things would start triggering it as well.
It would persist in erratic and prolonged bursts as I got older, even if I wasn’t in any stressful situation. My mood would fall right in line, and I’d find myself unable to do anything for the day. Sometimes, it could last an entire week.
During my sessions, I would learn some mental exercises from her. I think I’m getting better at them. I’ll try to distil them for you in two ways, which I usually apply in succession. Registration and interrogation. Both have helped me work through my long-standing mental afflictions.
The former is where I register my emotions as best I can. The latter is to question them. It’s one way to combat, or at least unravel, my brain whenever it goes into an anxiety overdrive. Importantly, it forces me to sit with the discomfort instead of stewing within it.
Registration and interrogation have given me a chance to exert some control over my mind. Beyond advice and a space for me to speak freely, therapy has given me invaluable tools I can use on my own. That, and more.
Therapy: Is It Not All That?
As affirmed by Laura, therapy can’t fix everything. I still talk about my problems with friends.
What self-help YouTube creators or TikTok influencers tell you are somewhat right: trauma dumping can be a bad habit. When we want to vent, our mind shifts gears to unload our problems. It’s an unsophisticated process, simple but also dangerous—it shuts off our instincts that would otherwise ask if it’s even a good idea.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have real talk with friends. If anything, I’ve found it more important after therapy. Hanging out with friends and having conversations with them are some of the best things you can do in life—especially when you have friends smarter than you (like I do).
Instead, through therapy, I’ve been taught to rethink my relationship with it: to avoid being overreliant on it and to be intentional when I talk about my problems. Figure out what I want to say instead of verbalising every stray thought. That’s just terrible one-man improv, and your lone audience member is strapped to a chair.
Much like how therapy requires you to articulate your issues so your therapist can understand and work with them, I’ve found a social support system is best effective when it keeps both the interests of yourself and your friends’ in mind. Here are some rubrics that help guide me:
1. Find those who you can count on to be an emergency contact when times are dire.
2. Let them know when you do, and affirm that you’ll be there for them all the same.
3. Be prepared to listen as much as you talk.
4. Send the good stuff to each other—memes, songs, articles, a GoodLobang alert, whatever you think fits.
5. Check up on each other.
6. If they are also going through therapy, tell them you’re down to talk about it—if they want to.
7. When you need to plug out for a while, let them know.
That last bit is important. There are days I can’t reply to all the messages on WhatsApp and Telegram. My friends are understanding whenever it takes me a long time to get back to them. I remind myself never to take that courtesy for granted. If they get mad that I’ve been gone, it probably means they care. Depending on the level of your self-esteem, that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Nevertheless, swallow you must. My therapist assured me so.
Life is Work, and Much More
In my last therapy session, I told Laura about the problems I’ve been facing while finding a new home for me and my roommates. My landlord’s kicking us out—barely a year into our two-year lease—because he intends to sell the place. Unless you’ve been renting out of a rock lately, prices are steep and units fly fast. It’s been stressing me out to infinity.
If we just had the chance to ride out our lease, I complain to her, we would have a better chance in 2024. I just want to marinate in my rage. She can’t tell me anything that would make me feel better. She does, however, remind me I was already able to work through some truly awful problems I’ve had over the years.
All my life, I’ve internalized behaviours and notions about myself I thought were totally unalterable. They’re a natural dysfunction of myself because I lack the necessary traits—self-discipline, intelligence, assertion, and self-control—that everyone else seems to possess. My first step to opt for therapy, really, was deciding I wanted out of this self-hating cycle.
I can attest that therapy works wonders. It’s also not a one-size-fits-all solution—therapists are people, too, and sometimes you just aren’t compatible with each other.
Even if you find one who truly gets you, your progress hinges on what you bring to them. When you leave their office, what you take away with you makes that progress palpable and real once you try applying it on regular days.
I’ve never really ‘left’ therapy, so to speak. I still have Laura’s number. I can text her anytime for another session. Help shouldn’t ever be beyond anyone’s reach. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.
In our last chat, she asked when would be the next time I see her. I told her I’d let her know when I would need to. In previous sessions, she would recommend we speak more—she felt our work wasn’t quite finished.
Even now, I don’t think the work is finished. This time, however, she believes I can handle things on my own. I suppose a guiding hand will know when to let go. The only thing I can do is to take her vote of confidence and run with it. I’ve never been more willing to keep up the work.