I hated counseling. (Or therapy or whatever you want to call it.) Whatever it was, it wasn’t me.
I had gone for the first time at age 16. It was DHS-mandated. And I’m pretty sure forcing a 16-year-old to do something they absolutely do not want to do is about as helpful as giving a map to a blind person. I did not want to go. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was bullshit. I hadn’t said the things that they said I did, so needing counseling was crap. I wasn’t suicidal. I hadn’t said I wanted to die or that I was going to kill myself. I hadn’t.
But they said I did. And when you’re sixteen, there’s no arguing with adults. Especially the ones from DHS. So I was going to counseling.
The DHS place was in Knoxville, not too far from the square. The waiting room was small and dingy. There were only about six chairs, most with stains that made me reluctant to sit in them. The fluorescent lights flickered overhead. On a small table, there were magazines that were older than the ones that sat in my dentist’s office. My mom was reading one anyway. There were tons of pamphlets in a display hanging from the wall. I passed the time by mocking the illustrations and ridiculous names on some of the papers with my sister. She was stuck doing mandated counseling as well. Some of the pamphlets announced help with parenting, being pregnant, most things involving children, sporting misshapen babies in colors that don’t exist in the natural world, some generic AA pamphlets, a couple about drugs. Most of the pamphlets were printed in odd colors, like they got them on discount because nobody else wanted those colors on their pamphlets.
Finally, it was time to go in. I was nervous, to tell the truth. I’d never done anything like this before. I wasn’t really sure how the whole “spilling your guts to a therapist” thing worked. The receptionist opened the locked door next to the bulletproof glass that separated her from the waiting area (seriously, bulletproof glass and a locked metal door, what did they think was gonna go down in there?) and led me back to the office of the doctor I was seeing.
She seemed nice enough at first glance. Short brown hair, cute smile, she introduced herself. I can’t even remember her name now, Julie, Jill, something like that. Her office was small. Her desk was pushed up against one wall, with two chairs and filing cabinets lining the other walls. It was cramped. There were papers tacked to cork boards above her desk and a lone plant squished between the door and the filing cabinet.
She asked me about myself. Did I play sports, was I in any activities at school, my age, grade, whatever. (No, yes, 16, junior, blah.) Then she dug right in.
“How long have you been cutting?”
“I don’t know, since I was, like, 14.” I remembered the exact day I started.
She looked down at her notepad as she quickly jotted this down. I think she knew that I wasn’t telling her the whole story. I didn’t care. I didn’t even know her. Why should she be privy to all my deep dark secrets?
“So you told someone you were thinking about suicide?”
“No.” I don’t remember.
“Well, someone thought you did and they were worried about you.”
I noted the careful avoidance of gendered pronouns. As if I didn’t know who it was. I did. It wasn’t too hard to figure out when I saw the report that it had been said via text message. There was only one person I talked to about cutting over text messages. Then she changed the subject.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, but I have a girlfriend.”
“So you like women?”
No. I just have a girlfriend for the hell of it. I’m actually straight as an arrow.
“Does your family know, or your friends?”
“Yeah. Everyone knows.” It’s kind of hard to keep a secret like that in a town as small as the one I grew up in. I told one person and it was around the entire school in minutes. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but it took less than a week.
“When did you come out?”
“When I was 14.”
“Around the same time you started cutting?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I didn’t like where this was heading.
“Do you think they’re connected?”
She looked unconvinced. She jotted something down on her notepad and looked at me. As if she was waiting for me to change my mind or something. At this point, I decided she wasn’t going to help me. It’s like, if you’re gay and a cutter, they have to be related. Nobody can fathom that I could be comfortable in my gayness and still be a cutter. But I was.
Being gay was never really a big deal to me. It’s just how I was, how I am. For as long as I’ve been aware of the differences between boys and girls, I was always drawn to girls. When I was 11, I was obsessed with Sigourney Weaver. I even went as far as to name my sugar baby (you know, those 5 lb. bags of sugar that you dress up and carry around as if it were a real baby for weeks) Sigourney in 6th grade.
Instead of telling her any of this, I remained silent. She asked me a few more questions and I replied with short, mostly one-word answers. Then our time was up.
The next time I went, two weeks later, she didn’t remember much about me. As the only DHS counselor in the area, Jillian or Julia, whatever her name was, was pretty busy. She asked me some of the same questions and looked through her yellow notepad full of things she wrote down about me during the last session. We never really accomplished much. I was only required to go four times, and as soon as those sessions were done I informed my mom that I didn’t want to go back. She didn’t make me. She believed me when I told her I was fine. Even though I probably wasn’t.
The next time I went to counseling was around a year later. I was a few months shy of 18 and ready to head off college. My sister had been seeing a psychiatrist for a couple months; after being diagnosed with mild ADD and put on medicine, she was doing much better. Her success prompted my mom to suggest that I give the place a chance. I didn’t really want to, but I knew that she’d force me if she had to. I agreed. I didn’t want to see my sister’s doctor though; I wasn’t really that comfortable talking to guys, let alone spilling my most private thoughts and secrets to one.
A week later I was in the office of a middle-aged blonde woman. The office was filled with Barbies, a dollhouse, and bright pictures. I was horrified. It was a counseling center for kids, aka anyone under 18, which technically I was, though not for much longer. I figured they had someone for teenagers, not a multipurpose doctor with an office so full of crayons and toys and rainbows my head wanted to explode. But the guy my sister was seeing had done wonders for her, so I was willing to try. Or at least willing to go. I didn’t know if I would bother trying yet. I didn’t know this lady; she didn’t know me. I might hate her, she might annoy me, she might not care about me, she might not remember anything about me. So for now I’d go.
During the first session my mom came in with me and told the doctor about my cutting. From then on, that was the focus of our sessions. I wanted to talk about my girlfriend and the fights I was having with my sister and the rest of my family. She wanted to talk about cutting.
I’m a cutter. I get it. Even if I stop for a long time, it’s still a part of who I am, and it’s always going to be. But it isn’t the most important thing in my life. Not now, not ever. It was and is an important issue that I have to deal with, but it’s not the only thing that defines me, nor is it the only problem I had. But that’s not how it seems to everyone else. They want to talk about it always and analyze everything about it to death instead of letting me talk about other things that might be bothering me. I am a cutter. But I’m not just a cutter. Then, I was also a gay, teenage, high school senior who was confused and worried about the future. There were more pressing matters in my life than a few cuts on my arm. There were other things I wanted to talk about. I only went to counseling a couple times before I decided that this lady wasn’t going to give me the help I needed. Not only that, I was going to be too old soon, and really, probably already was, to go to a children’s counseling center. My mom bought it.
The next time I considered counseling was my sophomore year of college. Like many people, I had been struggling. I was learning that I wasn’t really prepared for much of what my professors expected me to do. I hadn’t made many friends, so a professor or two suggested that I go to counseling again. When I started cutting again, counseling was very strongly recommended, but I didn’t want to go.
I could handle it on my own. I knew how to deal. I didn’t need some person who didn’t understand me analyzing the hell out of everything I was trying to deal with. I was fine on my own. I was coping just fine.
Halfway through my junior year the shit really hit the fan. I was depressed and cutting again. I had just been dumped by my girlfriend of six months, the woman I thought I was the love of my life, the woman I had been living with, working with, spending most of my time with. My best friend was in Germany for the semester, so any contact we had was sporadic. I didn’t know what to do.
When one of my professors assigned me a story about Eating Disorder Awareness Week that required me to talk to the head of counseling services, it was like the answer I was looking for. I met with Dr. Ellie Olson. She was nice. She answered all my questions about the events planned for ED Awareness Week and gave me a paper that listed all the events as well. After about ten minutes I left her office with all the information I needed. As I was leaving she said I could email her if I needed anything else.
The next day I emailed Ellie about making a counseling appointment. She was glad that I emailed her and gave me a rundown of her available times in the next week. I scheduled an appointment for the next Thursday at 3.
I came in fifteen minutes early to fill out paperwork before my session. I was nervous, just like the first time I had gone to counseling. The waiting room was totally different, as it was the main area of the Student Development office. There were computers, tables and people. It had the same fluorescent lighting, but not in the same depressing way as the DHS office had been. Ellie led me back to her office a few minutes later. It was small, but not cramped. There were no Barbies or dollhouses, just a small couch with a chair opposite it. She had the paperwork that I had filled out. It told her that I was cutter. It told her that I was gay. She asked me about my job.
When we finally did talk about the cutting, she said something that no one had ever said to me. She told me that cutting was my way of coping. It was coping. It did help me deal. She didn’t try to tell me that it wasn’t helping or that I was just ignoring my problems. She acknowledged that it was something that was helping me.
For the first time in my life, I don’t want to stop going to counseling. I know that I’ll be graduating and moving on to new parts of my life and I won’t be able to sit in Ellie’s office once a week and talk about whatever I want to. And it scares the hell out of me. But Ellie thinks I’ll be okay and that makes me feel a little more confident. It makes me believe that I can do things I didn’t think I could before. Like quitting smoking.
It hasn’t been that long and I want a cigarette. But I don’t need one. I don’t need this craving to mask another. I have a support system. I have friends who will be there for me. I have a counselor who has helped me figure out new coping skills that actually work for me. I don’t need to pretend to be alright because I’m actually getting there. I still smoke and I still cut sometimes.