What brings you here today?
Feeling anxious? Overwhelmed? Unsure what the future holds? Drinking too much coffee? Drinking too much alcohol? Relapsed on cigarettes? Missing your friends? Not sure how to deal with you and your partner working from home?
I asked my cousin, Ashley, the PhD, to sit down and talk with me about all things therapy… I want to get my PhD just so I can include that every time I introduce myself to people. “Hi, I’m Devon Herrera – PhD.” I’m sure I’d make a lot of new friends that way.
In 2018, Ashley made the surprising move from California to Alaska and says she loves it. I didn’t have her hooked up to a lie detector, so I can’t be sure, but we’ll choose to believe her, for now.
After recapping how different our Thanksgivings looked this year, and reminiscing briefly about the holidays during our childhood, we got right down to business.
“Obviously, growing up together (kind of), I know bits about your childhood, but I’d be curious how it looks from your perspective now,” I started, pulling down at the neck of my deep green Packers shirt and presenting my hand to say ‘the floor is yours.’
“Chaotic,” she leaned back in her computer chair and looked up at the ceiling; her gray Texas tee was only a few shades darker than the bedroom walls and the sprinkle of tattoos on her right arm peaked out with hesitation.
“My parents fought all the time,” she stopped to consider how far she would open the box that is her childhood. “My mom battles depression, which is not something I knew growing up… nor did I know she was raised by a mom with schizophrenia.”
My mouth remained open and my eyes widened as she continued.
“And what I really didn’t know were the nitty gritty details like the fact that she was locked out of her house and lived with her neighbor for a year because her mom didn’t like her and told her she wasn’t good enough and would never amount to anything,” she offered solemnly.
Ashley expanded further, saying there’s this book, The Boy Called It, that was eerily similar to her mom’s upbringing.
“It’s horrifying and terrible, if you ever want to read it,” she laughed quietly to extend some levity.
“So, all things considered, I think my mom overcompensated and got too involved in our lives, while my dad was…” she looked up again to find the words, “more hands-off, I guess you could say. And then by the time I was a teenager, things between my mom and dad got very violent.”
We’re opening this box WIDE open, and I’m so grateful Ashley felt this was a safe enough space to share with the collective.
“I don’t know how much you know about my parents’ divorce, but my dad got arrested my senior year and my mom filed a restraining order against him so I didn’t see him until my eighteenth birthday,” she pressed her thumb against her temple, likely to soothe the horrifying memory.
She was angry with her mom and actually stopped speaking to her for a while as she tried to sort out her feelings, which, of course, is not something a teenager is equipped to deal with.
“Do you remember having any career dreams?” I asked after we more deeply discussed the trauma she endured throughout childhood, imagining those promising, hopeful thoughts may be difficult to come by when you’re living in fear with such uncertainty from day to day.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t think I was going to live passed twenty, which I now realize was just depression, so I barely put in the work and still graduated with honors,” she said warily.
“So, you always knew you were smart, then?” I eased her along.
“Yeah, I always knew I was different, but I didn’t realize it was my intelligence until my friend and husband were like, ‘Ashley, not everyone thinks like you… you’re thinking about step twenty while everyone else is on step two’ and that’s when it really clicked,” she answered, rotating her hands to express the inner workings of her brain.
In addition to maintaining relationships with people older than her, at a certain point, Ashley was the only person her younger brother, Danny, would respond to.
“Looking back at it now, I realize that was definitely an early sign that I was meant to go into the world of psychology because I can understand people’s behavior really well.”
“When something would come up, my dad used to be like, ‘are you gonna therapize me now?’” she laughed and shook her head as if to say ‘uhh, no, I’m not getting paid for that.’
“Do you and your dad have a normal relationship now?” I asked carefully, and by carefully, I mean I scrunched my nose after inquiring.
“Well, if my dad ever reads your blog, I’m sure he wouldn’t be too happy, but I’d say, emotionally, I have a much greater connection with my mom’s boyfriend, and that’s the sort of parental support I need at this stage in my life,” she concluded, which was swiftly followed by a hand motion as she shooed her son out of the room telling him to ‘go ask his dad.’
A collective smile. (Parenting is fun)
“How does that make you feel with Azrith, then?” I asked… Azrith is her son. “I assume he doesn’t have a strong relationship with his Grandpa…”
“Well, Azrith’s got a lot going on,” she started, leaning closer towards the camera. “He was diagnosed with autism, which I vehemently disagree with… people would be like, ‘just get him diagnosed by the school’ which is not possible this year seeing as I’m the school’s psychologist.” Our laughs said, ‘of course…’
“But he does have ADHD, severe anxiety, and OCD, or some sort of sensory processing diagnosis,” she deduced (and was confirmed by his therapist).
“Do you know if autism is hereditary?” I pondered aloud, wondering when season 4 of Atypical would come out because that’s the cutest show ever.
“Yeah, most things can be linked to genetics, but there are so many different studies that explain how much genetics is linked to certain diagnoses. For instance, I was reading a study the other day saying autism can be between 15% – 80% hereditary, which is obviously a huge range, but it’s so unknown. They are seeing huge links between these mental disorders and physical disorders, though, and there’s a theory floating around that autism is linked to the gut, which is so interesting,” she offered.
Unhelpful commentary… the body is just insane…
“Can you talk to me a little bit about OCD?” I backtracked slightly, “because I hear people be like ‘oh my OCD is flaring up’ or ‘I’m just OCD like that’ almost wielding this obsessive compulsive flag like a badge of honor, which I’ve gotta be honest, I’ve sort of done when my boyfriend tells me to relax and I’m like ‘nope, I can’t relax until the house is clean.’”
“Hah, yeah, my colleagues and I commiserate about this all the time. OCD impairs your functioning, meaning you obsess over something and are compelled to do it, and you can’t do anything else until that thing is done, whether that’s cleaning the house or opening the door four times, organizing something in a very specific way, or whatever it may be… it has to impair your functioning for it to be diagnosed as OCD.”
She went on to say she’s diagnosed more people with OCD over the last six months than she has in her four years of practice, which aligns with recent studies done, showing the massive spike in those suffering from obsessive compulsive thoughts.
We’ll see what kind of diagnosis my new therapist throws at me. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seat, anxious to find out.
Speaking of anxiety, I asked Ashley what we can attribute this seemingly new-found diagnosis to, whether that’s an actual medical diagnosis or self-diagnosis, which we all LOVE to do.
“If we polled 100 people, I bet 90 percent of them would say they’re dealing with some sort of anxiety right now,” I started, “which certainly wouldn’t have been the case 10 years ago,” I stated confidently.
“It probably wasn’t even the case a year ago,” she responded, and I quickly interjected.
“I’m specifically talking about before COVID – as a collective, I feel like everyone I know suffers from a form of anxiety in one way or another… what is that about?” I pressed, throwing my hands up to really accentuate the concern.
“Well, it’s actually closer to 40% of the population, which is still a lot,” she answered, sitting up a bit straighter, “because you have to remember, when something becomes so mainstream that most people have it, it’s no longer considered a disorder.”
Something in the tone of her voice soothed me and I could see how she made a great psychologist.
“Remember, if you have anxiety, but you can manage it without it impairing you, it’s not a disorder,” she reiterated.
Tell that to my armpits when they’re sweaty and it feels like bees are swarming my stomach, often for no reason.
“I think a lot of what we’re seeing in the last year is an increase in people being able to use their coping skills because we’ve all experienced this massive shift in our lives,” she rainbowed her hands over her head, “so it probably does feel like 90% of us have some sort of disorder.”
We don’t know what the actual figures are (I checked on a number of reputable sites) but I’m sure the CDC will be releasing that data early next year. Undoubtedly, it’ll be a big YIKES.
I rambled on (per usual – this is why I’m not doing a podcast, yet) and asked when her first therapy visit was.
“I was sixteen and the dude was very Freudian; he actually said I would make a good psychologist one day because I went in and talked the whole time and quickly solved my own problems,” she laughed and then got up to grab something on the brown bookshelf behind her.
“My mom actually called him after I graduated and gave me this little guy,” she held up a miniature Sigmund Freud figurine.
Okay, that’s so cute.
She went on to say her and her husband saw a marriage therapist two years in, and Ashley continued to see her privately for about six months so she could focus on her own anxiety and OCD, shortly after, she went to school to get her Bachelor’s Degree, followed by grad school, where she got her PhD.
“I didn’t go to therapy again until about two years ago, which was shortly after moving to Alaska,” she started rubbing her left shoulder and looking down. “I had a very bad experience with my internship where the Clinical Director didn’t like me…” she shook her head.
We discussed the logistics of that relationship and the learned ability NOT to internalize another person’s ill will or poor behavior because really, who likes conflict?
Actually, many people probably like conflict, or disagreeing with others for the sake of it. I just took the Big 5 Personality Test (Google it) and it was very telling. And by telling, I mean it confirmed everything I already know about myself. #EXTROVERT
Side note from the interviewee and PhD (yes, I like throwing it around – it feels nice), this is a VERY accurate test and has a lot of validity and reliability.
“Is there anything specific you do to take care of yourself, outside of therapy? Because people often say those that work in the mental health field are the most fucked up out of anyone,” I half-joked, “but really, it makes sense… therapists are constantly taking in everyone’s problems and if they don’t work to shed that heaviness, I’m sure it can start to mess with you,” I surmised.
“I do a meditation exercise for myself between a lot of sessions, so I can emotionally distance myself from them,” she paused to contemplate her next words, “that’s not to say I’m emotionally distant, that’s to say I can’t carry the weight of their emotions, for both our sake,” she advised. “And then when I’m done, I do this emotional dumping sort of exercise,” she turned her hands over as if she were dropping a stack of books on the floor.
Lastly (but probably not… she probably does a lot more to maintain her sanity), she changes her clothes before she goes home because she wants to ensure she doesn’t bring her work home with her.
Sure, that might be annoying when it comes to laundry day, but I’d say it’s worth it, to avoid lashing out on your family because Johnny screamed in your face for an hour.
“Everyone has their own way to shed the stress of the day, and that one, for me, is very important,” Ashley noted, “but I will say, adopting a ritual is so significant so for anyone, whether they’re struggling with their mental health or not.”
I know I said lastly, but that wasn’t the truth… now it is… or, it might be.
Ashley also listens to her music at an “obscenely high volume” on her way into work, singing and dancing, and then on the way out, she’ll let her brain wander and reset so she can be a mom and wife when she gets home.
“Yeah, and as nice as it is working from home – not spending as much on clothes, or not spending as much time getting ready, or not sitting in disgusting traffic, that buffer period is gone, so it makes it harder to separate zones, especially when you work in a smaller house and can’t dedicate one room as your office,” I suddenly felt myself yearning for a drive session while blasting Vitamin C’s ‘Smile.’
In fact – PAUSE – I’m putting it on now.
Okay, I’m back and I feel rejuvenated.
“Oh yeah, when we went into quarantine, the first two months were miserable,” she shared, “because I had to use my bedroom due to confidentiality, so it was rough, but now, I have a separate office space, which I realize not everyone can have,” she nodded, recognizing the privilege. “But I would still recommend creating a distinct space for work and going through whatever ritual you have, whether that’s changing clothes, or dancing, or meditating… whatever it is – do not let that slip.”
Also, if you can, go outside, you must – get that vitamin D, baby.
“So, I think we can all, for the most part, recognize the benefits of talk therapy, but what about the other modalities? What if people don’t want to talk or don’t know how to get their emotions out verbally?” I asked, recalling when my sister was very young and wouldn’t talk to a therapist.
“Play therapy is great for that,” she responded assertively, “and that’s not just for kids – that’s for anyone. There’s also EMDR, experiential therapy, art therapy, music therapy… professionals refer out all the time, which is great, because not everyone latches on to traditional talk therapy the same way,” she advised.
We went into the benefits of play therapy and how different professionals can specialize in multiple treatment modalities. Also, I looked up all the different therapies… it’s like, infinite, guys.
“Alright, well I know we need to wrap this up, but are there any final thoughts you want to close with?” I asked before telling her we needed to take a picture so I could send it to my dad; he’d be so happy to know we’re staying connected.
“Do you know what angle you’re going to choose for this week?” she questioned, listing out all the potential topics we could select from this conversation.
“Well I’d really like to make ‘therapy’ the focus because I think most of us could use some sort of therapy right now, and I really think the idea of therapy has been destigmatized in our society, so people, hopefully, can be more open to seeking help if they need it,” I suggested.
She smiled graciously before warning about areas of the country or different communities where therapy is still looked down upon, as her husband, who was in the military, still has friends that don’t look for help, some of which have taken their own life.
Update – I polled the IG audience… 93% of people still think there’s a stigma surrounding seeking therapy for mental health.
I was wrong…
So, if you’re still reading, I urge you to share this, not to force people to consume our conversation, but to continue destigmatizing asking for help. We’re all human – we’ve all got emotions, and if your school was anything like mine, we were certainly not given the toolbox needed to give an oil change to our brains.
And for those that feel stuck, or even somewhat comfortable in the misery, there are proven routes we can take to break a cycle, because I know for me when I feel down, my brain does this super cool thing where it tries to convince me I’m going to be like that forever, and that is NOT a place I want to live.
Give me the full spectrum of life – the blissful days bouncing on cloud nine (why isn’t it cloud ten?), and the heart-wrenching moments I can get out of, with the help from my fully-functioning toolbox.