I sit down opposite the therapist and make myself not-too-uncomfortable. Basic questions first: Job (academic), relationship status (single), anti-depressant medication (no), living situation (fine).
Then the kicker: What seems to be the trouble? Answer: I am a self-saboteur of the highest calibre. I stifle myself in everything that I do. I dislike myself intensely. I do not see the point of being alive. There’s a fog in my head, dense and persistent, slowing me down, tiring me out.
You know, the usual stuff.
It strikes me as we talk – and it doesn’t escape his notice – that most of the problems I identify are to do with work. Sure, there are life events, relationships, but these feel secondary. When he asks me to tell him what I hope for from therapy – my ‘dream outcome’ – the first answer that comes to mind actually surprises me a little.
The answer is: I want to be productive. I want to be a ‘good academic’. I want to do lots of work and enjoy doing the work and be good at it and for it to come easily. I want to be the academic I think everyone around me is. Because while I’m told again and again that everyone gets imposter syndrome I know, I know, I know in my bones, that I am the true imposter. Not intelligent enough, not disciplined enough, not hungry enough. Not enough. And any improvement to my mental health is a means to an end – not sought because it’s appalling to feel that life isn’t worth living but necessary because I’ve got to get some papers out. If I didn’t have the head-fog I could take things in so much faster. If I thought more highly of myself I could write a more convincing case for support. Never mind what depression is doing to me – look at what it’s doing to my career. That is why I need fixing.
I swallow that answer and rummage for something that feels a bit more appropriate. I don’t come up with much. I tell him I want the fog to lift. I don’t tell him why. I don’t want to sound weird.
He delicately tells me that time is up, that he’ll be happy to work with me, that it’s up to me if and when I want to book in again.
In the meantime, he suggests, maybe I could try being more compassionate towards myself?
“Please,” says the voice in my head. “Spare me that trite old stuff about compassion. I don’t need to be compassionate towards myself – I need to be better! The problem isn’t that I’m not happy – it’s that I’m not doing anything worthwhile to be happy about. It’s not that I judge myself too harshly – it’s that I actually am useless. It’s not that I beat myself up – it’s that I’ve got so much to beat myself up about. How is thinking about myself differently going to change any of that? This was a waste of time. Why on earth would I want to be happy as I am?”
Driving home, I hear this a few times. I have time to think about it a bit.
“Fine. Fine.” Says my voice. “I will have the damn therapy.”