not tooling around: a “Never a Plain” guide for finding a therapist

You guys, your response to my post last Friday has been so overwhelming, so heartwarming it left me a bit breathless. I wish I could say something better than “thanks.” Since words of gratitude have escaped me I want to offer you something else in return.

via Colorbok. Click on image for details.

Actually, it doesn’t come in a pretty box trimmed with ribbon, but it does come from a great deal of experience.

Janice’s tips for finding your therapist

A lot of people forget that therapy is part of the service industry. Yes, therapists want you to feel better, but they are also selling a product: their time and expertise. Just like a pair of jeans, some doctors won’t fit you. Some will cost too much or will use methods you don’t care for. And, like that perfect pair of jeans, you may have to try out more than one.

The first psychologist of my adult life was a referral from my Ob/Gyn. That might seem strange, but obstetricians are often trained to look for signs of post-partum depression. I displayed many of the same symptoms, so my doctor spoke up.

Eventually, that therapist retired and my health insurance sent me to a new Ob/Gyn. Therefore, I had to find a new psychologist all on my own.  I picked a woman with great references and I saw her exactly three of the ten approved visits. I hated going to see her. At first I didn’t know what to do so my husband pointed out that “seeing your doctor should not add to your anxiety, so maybe you shouldn’t see her anymore.” That’s an option? Yes, that is an option.

For the next two years or so I got antidepressants from my family doctor. I simply mentioned my anxiety and, boom, I had a prescription. No therapist required. The arrangement made me a little uncomfortable.

Last year I got a referral to a psychologist I love. She worked with my family doctor to find the right talk/prescription combo for me.  When my family doctor left his practice, my therapist had me see a psychiatrist for input on my medicines. As I mentioned before, the three of us make a good team.

So here I am, hoping I can be of some help to you.

1. Cast your net.
Some people are miffed that I found therapist number one through my gynecologist.  Still, a starting point is a starting point.  If you are comfortable with friends or family knowing about your search, enlist their help. Call the Psychology department at a nearby university and see who they recommend. Ask at your place of worship. Drop in on an AA meeting and inquire about their connections to counselors. Open the phone book.

2. Do some research.
Once you have a name, scope out your prospects. Search for news stories and awards on the internet. Check the webpage of her practice or clinic and read her bio. See if any honors were awarded him by his university. Do you like what you’ve read about her so far? If not, check out the next name on your list. If so, pick up the phone.

3. Pick up the phone.
First, you want to get a feel for this therapist’s workplace. If you are in any way put off by the way the phone is answered, hang up. This part of your therapy shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable.

If, however, things sound good, start asking questions. What are the office hours? Does the counselor employ a certain method or mixture of methods? How long has she worked at this location? Does he eat meat? You can ask anything you want, really, but that last question might be a bit much. The idea is to find out if this doctor and his staff are appealing to you. Again, if something feels wrong about the answers to your questions, thank the person on the line and hang up. But if all seems hunky dory, make an appointment.

4. Attend your appointment.
Some counselors may want to schedule a consultation before your therapy sessions begin.  If this isn’t offered but you’d prefer the consult, ask for one. Whether it is an actual session or an initial meeting, be prepared to give at least a brief background. Medical history, family medical history, and a bio are all pretty standard. The therapist isn’t judging you based on any of your answers. She’s more likely forming an idea about what you need from her.

5. Attend another appointment.
Let’s say your consultation left you with a bad taste. That’s okay. If you didn’t make a follow up appointment during your visit, you are done with that therapist. If you made an appointment, please cancel it. That’s just good manners. Now repeat steps one through four with someone different.

Let’s say you enjoyed talking with the counselor you saw. Great! Go see him again!

6. Be up front about your needs, but don’t diagnose yourself.

Therapy Cards by Leigh. Click on the image for details.

When I began therapy I was adamant about not wanting to take drugs, and my doctor respected that. She recommended medication but agreed to work with me on other methods of coping. Six months later I agreed that medicine might make a good addition to my talk therapy. The point here is that my doctor only gave me therapy to which I was receptive. When I was ready to make a change and the change was necessary, my doctor adjusted. That’s both good medical practice and that good service I mentioned above.

Something I don’t do is tell my therapist what is wrong with me. I tell him or her how I feel and how I have been feeling. I’ll mention that other people don’t seem to be affected by things the same way I am. I might ask for tools to help me cope with an upcoming stressful situation. Several years ago, when I used cutting and throwing up as my coping mechanisms, I told my doctor about those things. Then, I let her tell me what my feelings and actions said to her. In other words, I stayed open to whatever diagnoses were suggested.

7. Therapy can be uncomfortable, but not that uncomfortable.
I have a dear friend – we’ll call her Lynn – who goes to a psychologist every week and sits in silence for an hour. She’s knows something is wrong, but she has no idea what to say to her doctor. Her doctor, in turn, claims she can’t help Lynn until she tells the doctor what she wants help with. Remember that doctor I stopped seeing? She wanted me to take a multiple choice test every visit and then use that to diagnose me. These methods, while viable, just weren’t a good fit for Lynn or for me.

Therapy is supposed to help you heal and healing can hurt.

Scabs itch, burns blister, muscles are sore. But there is a point when hurting is no longer part of the process, when it only adds to the problem. Therapist, doctor, psychologist, and psychiatrist – those are all job descriptions. Not a single one says the bearer knows everything. Therapists use methods that work for them and that they like. If that same method does not work for you it does not mean you are wrong. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. It might be time for a change either in technique or in practitioner. It is absolutely okay.

8. Consistency and change both have their place.
I see my doctor every week. For now. Maybe I’ll change to bimonthly visits. Some patients seek counseling every day, while others check in every few months. For therapy to work you need to engage in it consistently for a while, but as you heal you can start to add slack to the schedule. Remember, therapy is a tool for you to use when and how you need it.

Similarly, change is good. You probably shouldn’t change your treatment every few weeks, but if you’ve given something a chance and it isn’t working, make an adjustment. Also, changes in your body chemistry may prompt a change in your treatment. Life itself often presents reasons to change. Just look at that amazing Gwyn Michael. New research and new medicines present opportunities for change.

What is important is that your chosen therapist has helped you make changes for the better.

Inspiration poster by Stephanie and Vicki Wrobel. Click image for details.

And on that note, I’ll wish you a very good day.

5 thoughts on “not tooling around: a “Never a Plain” guide for finding a therapist

  1. Very good post, janice!

    I’m a psychologist who have theraphy sessions once a month with what I call my “therapeutic soul mate”.
    You made good points here and in the end it’s a lot about intuition and that sence of “it feels right”. But, as you say we cannot forget that theraphy is uncomfortable so we really need to be aware of the nature of the feelings that the therapist induce on us.
    And don’t stay just because you think you should. A therapist is also a person and we cannot like eveyone in the world.

  2. Wonderful advice- thank you for sharing! I wish I’d had something like this a long time ago when I needed it. I agree it’s so tough to find the right fit, but you have to keep trying, ask around, don’t be afraid to try out different therapists. That’s why I’m loving the trend of online coaches & counselors- you get to know them, their personality, their philosophy before committing to them.

  3. Wonderful post–you hit all the relevant points. The client must feel a level of trust and comfort with the therapist and the therapist must have the same for the client. I wish more people dealing with therapists would understand that they have some choice in the matter, but also a strong responsibility to work with, and not against, the therapist. Thank you also for bringing up the subject of nutrition. It plays a significant role in mood, stability, emotions, and overall health for everyone.

    Keep putting the word out on this subject in whatever manner you can.
    Thanks for your insight and bravery in sharing.

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