By Crystal Lindell, Columnist
The weirdest part about getting psychiatric help is that people notice it.
They notice it in the same way they notice when you lose weight, or dye your hair blue. Like the IT guy at work, who says you just seem more confident lately. Or the friend’s husband who says you seem happier these days. Or the old Tinder guy who finds you on Facebook to comment that you seem so different, so much happier — and even your eyes seem brighter somehow.
I didn’t expect that. When I was in the thick of it, in the blackest night, I didn’t think anyone really noticed how bad it was. I don’t think I even noticed how bad it was. But if they’re noticing that things are better, then it’s probably safe to assume that they noticed how bad it was.
The fact is, getting psychiatric help in this country is depressingly difficult. The first time I sought help three years ago, I had just gotten sick and the pain was so horrific that I had been planning on slitting my wrists in the bathtub.
I finally worked up the courage to tell my primary care doctor that I was suicidal. He referred me to a psychologist who he said worked with people in pain.
But the psychologist refused to see me because she only worked with cancer patients in pain. I apparently wasn’t sick enough for her. So she referred me to someone else, and then weeks later I finally got in for an appointment.
To recap: I literally had a plan to kill myself, and it took weeks for me to find any help.
I’m a well-educated white woman with health insurance. If it’s this hard for me, what are other people going through?
Luckily, the doctor I got paired up with was great and helpful and sometimes a little mean, but always very good at helping me figure out how to deal with all the pain I was suddenly enduring.
The sessions weren’t so much about her telling me what to do, but how to do it. For example, we both agreed that I couldn’t work when the pain was 10/10, but instead of letting it get that bad and then ending up hysterically crying in my boss’ office begging to leave, we came up with a different plan. At the beginning of the week, talk to my boss and agree on days I could work from home. This way there was a plan everyone could feel secure with, and my pain wouldn’t reach 10/10 in the first place.
It seems like little things, but when you find yourself sick, it’s like you’re in a new country and having any sort of map can be extremely helpful.
Even if someone can get an appointment with a psychologist though, AND their insurance will cover it, there’s still another hurdle. A lot of psychologists suck. Just like a lot of doctors suck. And a lot of mechanics suck. And a lot of restaurants suck.
I hear all the time from people who say things like, “I don’t even bother seeing a psychologist, because they aren’t any good anyway. They don’t get me. They don’t help. They just want to get me in and out.”
But people don’t just stop going to restaurants because the Mexican place in town gave them food poisoning. And they shouldn’t just give up on therapy because they had some bad experiences.
Of course, even if you get past all that, there’s still the stigma. There is this idea that if you’re getting mental health help that you’re somehow weak. But getting your brain healthy doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong. Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but getting a neutral opinion from an outside party is almost as good.
These days I see a team, a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The psychiatrist works with me on medical options, while the psychologist offers cognitive therapy to help me navigate my life.
And, honestly, my biggest regret is that I didn’t get help for my anxiety sooner. After going through opioid withdrawal over the last year, I’ve realized that I had been struggling with anxiety since at least my teen years.
It was as if all the pain meds I was on masked it just long enough to show me that there was, in fact, a better way to live. That there existed a possibility for a life that didn’t include waking up literally everyday feeling sick to my stomach, with anxiety attacks on the bathroom floor at work, and obsessing over every little thing.
I confess I was extremely resistant to the idea of going on a long-term anxiety medication, but I’m so glad that I worked with my doctor to find one that works on my brain. And aside from easily bruising, the side effects have been very minimal.
People don’t talk enough about the mind-body connection, but it’s there. And when you’re in pain or dealing with something like opioid withdrawal, getting mental health care may not be the first thing people seek. But it turns out, getting your brain healthy is just as important as getting your body healthy.
In the end, the question that psychology asks is simple: Can people actually change? I have to believe the answer is just as simple: Yes.
And if people can change, maybe the world can too.
Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.
Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.