The first time I sat in a therapist’s office I was 15. I can’t remember if I requested to be there, but I do remember being excited for the appointment. I knew enough to know that I loved talking about myself (what 15-year-old doesn’t?!) and if I got to talk about myself for an hour while some old guy asked me questions then I was all in. But I also needed help, advice. More than anything I needed hope.
At 15 I was a tall, lanky, late bloomer, with a perpetual naïveté and a desperate desire to be popular. Above all else I had horrific acne. It covered my face and arms and back. While the physical wounds were bad enough, the emotional ones were just beginning.
This resume does not bode well for a sophomore in high school. I was playing defense before I even knew the game started.
My parents had done what they could- we visited no less than 5 dermatologists across the state, went to Girls Inc. events to promote self-esteem and I was even an active member of my Church’s youth group, but despite the attempts to “fix the problem” I was miserable.
18 months into high school and outside help was needed. So off to therapy we went.
I remember few details about that appointment, but a few stand out a quarter of a century later. I can’t remember the therapists name, but I could tell you where his early 90’s office was located in my hometown. I don’t know his face, but I remember we sat at a table and there was a red chair that I really wanted to sit in.
At the oversized conference table, I explained my adolescent woes of feeling like an outcast, not fitting in and the struggle with my skin. I poured my heart out to a total and complete stranger because for some reason I trusted that he would, he could, help me.
But what I remember most is the lack thereof.
Instead of offering sympathy, support and validation, instead of containing my emotions with great preservation as an archeologist would gather details to make up the bigger picture, this therapist gave me a quick and shame inducing fix.
He told me to wear more makeup.
Despite my blurry memories of the office décor and his face, you know what I remember so clearly from that day? The moment that in deep shame and anger and embarrassment I expressed my disgust with myself and the only words of advice that were given to me was when the therapist told me to cover up the very thing I hated about myself.
Cover it up more.
I walked away from that appointment internalizing one message. I am ugly. I can’t be looked at. I must be really bad I thought to myself, I have to hide it from even this man who is supposed to help me. Despite feeling shame and embarrassment, I suppose I only had one choice, and that was to follow him.
Ok, Got it. Hide, cover up and don’t let anyone see your weakness.
Message received loud and clear.
I didn’t go back to therapy for almost a decade after that horrible appointment. What I heard was that acne would go away, high school sucked, and life would get better. All well intentioned platitudes from well-meaning adults, but incredibly unhelpful to a wounded 15-year-old. The next few years were filled with a deep search for significance and a longing to be seen.
Almost 10 years later when I set foot into a new therapist’s office, the acne scars were fading but the emotional ones were gaping wide. Wound care is hard work, and this was just the beginning, I would trust and try again.