Healing Hurts: Why Mental Health Treatment Might Not Feel Good (at first)
My wife recently twisted her knee while cleaning and organizing. Thankfully, the injury isn't too serious, and she's already well on her way to a full recovery, with the help of an excellent physiotherapist in our area.
Recently, my wife noticed that her knee was sore after some of her physiotherapy sessions, and after performing some of the home exercises she was prescribed. She brought this observation to her physiotherapist, and she received an answer that I think is worth repeating in any mental health circle:
It sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? How can something meant to heal cause pain? Yet, when you think about it, we accept pain as part of the healing process in many areas of our health. We understand that surgeries mean incisions that will take a while to heal, we know that the relief of an anaesthetic requires the pinch of a needle, and we know that the short-term pain of having a body part examined often leads to long-term health. In many areas of our lives, pain is a necessary stepping stone to health, so why should this not be the case with mental health? More importantly, what does the pain of healing feel like in mental health treatment? As always, I can only speak for myself, but here are my top three observations:
If I'm Not Me, Then Who Am I?
Therapy changes your perspective on what you think, and how you think. With that change comes a sudden shift in identity, and not always a pleasant one. After all, if you're not beholden to certain thought patterns for the rest of your life, then maybe you're not the person you thought you were, and if you're not that person, then who are you?
The Challenges of Honest Self-Reflection
Mental health treatment requires you to be honest and thorough about some difficult, disagreeable truths. It might mean admitting that you've been suffering, or that you haven't been coping well with a particular stressor. In some cases, that may even involve admitting a perceived failure. That's not easy, plain and simple.
Change is HARD
Mental health treatment often leads to change, and let's be honest, not everyone likes change. This can be a particularly challenging process for people with OCD because we thrive on predictability and feelings of safety. Often, the simple act of confronting a firmly-held belief feels 'not right' enough to dissuade people from engaging in treatment. As the saying goes, better to side with the devil you know. Still, there are strategies out there for making treatment gradual and accessible, and that's where some crucial advice comes in.
So What Do I Do, Then?
The observation that healing hurts is valid and understandable. Still, it's my contention that we must proceed forward and engage with treatment, for ourselves and for those we care about. I'm not preaching any particular pathway or timeline, but here are three pieces of advice I've always found helpful:
Remember the concept of prescribed dosage. Every medication has a prescribed amount that strikes a balance between helpful and harmful. Therapy is no different. If twice per week with a therapist is too much for you, then start with a guidebook. Start with a friendly conversation. Maybe a YouTube video. Maybe a journal entry. Anything that starts you on the process, and that gives you just enough stress to know that you're changing, is enough.
Trust in your ability to adapt. We're often able to see the thoughts and compulsions we are performing, but OCD often makes us forget about the negative things that we could be doing, but aren't. Further to that point, we can all look back and find a skill or mindset that used to feel foreign, but that now feels second nature. Think intentionally about those gains, and know that they can apply to your OCD, perhaps with a bit of assistance.
Connect with someone who's on (or been through) the journey. We humans need role models and concrete examples of what we're striving for. It's just the way we're built. The good news is that there are lots of people out there who successfully manage OCD. You can seek them out through therapy groups, advocacy organizations, charities, hospitals and online communities. Find them. Connect with them. It's worth it.
So, to conclude, let's reiterate some basic truths: Healing hurts. There's no way around it. BUT (and this is the key), the pain is not a reason to stop. If nothing else, you might consider asking yourself which is better - the pain of change, or the pain of being stuck?