So you made your first therapy appointment. Maybe you struggled for months to get it (like me) or maybe you got in with the first person you called (lucky duck), but either way you’ve made that harrowing and important step on the recovery journey.
Congrats, fellow recovery warrior.
Here’s the bad news: First sessions suck. Big Time. It’s a nearly universal complaint, and one that’s back up by own three first sessions with a new treatment provider. It’s the same whether it’s a therapist or psychiatrist. That first session is necessary and oh-so-worth it bump in the road — and yes, it does get so much better with time — but there are a few things you should know to make it easier.
1. Come prepared.
This is about more than making sure you have the rights forms or ID for insurance purposes. You will need to tell this person your life story, or at least the portion of it that pertains to your mental health struggles. For some of you, like me, there will be a lot to tell. And even if your struggles are relatively new or not connected to a complicated history, you will still need to give as clear and complete a picture of your symptoms as you can. It may seem like that would be a no brainer — after all, you’re suffering from these things enough that you sought out treatment, they’re obviously on your mind. But it can be surprisingly difficult to remember all the important details when you’re sitting in front of this stranger who wants to know about your darkest moments.
So take some time before your session to organize your thoughts and think of everything you want to say. Include the symptoms that are bothering you, as well as what you’re feeling, your thoughts on therapy and any worries you have. Write it down if that will help. Seriously, I brought a notecard to my first session with bullet points about my childhood trauma, my screwed up sleep cycle and my inability to cry. Don’t worry if it seems like there’s not enough. Don’t worry if it seems like there’s too much. Just make sure you give the person helping you the best baseline you can, so they can create a treatment plan for you. You want them to know where to go after this first meeting.
2. Accept the awkward.
The first session is almost guaranteed to be a little awkward. Even the most welcoming, relaxed therapist or psychiatrist is still asking you deeply personal questions when they’ve only known you for a few minutes. When you’re having small talk, you’ll feel weird that you’re not talking about the reasons you sought them out. When you’re talking about your mental health struggles, you’ll feel weird that you’re talking about this stuff to this polite stranger. And, if you don’t have a lot of experience talking about your mental health, it will be awkward and difficult to talk about it at all.
Even after two years and a practically infinite number of discussions with my recovery buddy, I can still have problems putting my feelings or my suffering or my fears into words. It can be difficult to get started, scary to make it real by voicing it and strange to recognize the illogical in what you’re feeling. You will feel “crazy” sometimes. It’s okay. Just accept that it will feel strange and be difficult, know that it will get easier the more you do it, and don’t fear the awkward.
3. Remember: This is your choice.
You made the choice to seek treatment. You have the choice to continue or not, to stay with this provider or to find someone else. Don’t let yourself feel trapped or out of control. Don’t accept a treatment plan that makes you uncomfortable just because your therapist suggests it. Don’t continue going to the first person you see if you don’t think they’ll work for you. And if you really don’t think this kind of treatment, or any treatment, is what you need, then it’s your choice whether or not to continue.
However, and this is a big however, don’t judge therapy or your therapist on the first session. You won’t be able to really tell anything this soon. You might be able to tell if you just can’t stand a particular provider, but most of the time you need to give it a little time before you can tell how you’ll mesh. And you certainly can’t tell if therapy is going to be worth it for you based on the first session. Remember: First session suck. Second sessions, not as much. So just like you shouldn’t make the choice to give up on treatment based only on how you feel in a dark moment, don’t give up on a particular form of treatment because you have a bad first session and don’t want to go back. Which brings us to:
4. Prepare for the aftershock.
You may have a super awkward first session that feels pointless and excruciating. You may have a difficult first session that leaves you crying or anxious or generally feeling the weight of your mental illness. Or you may be one of the lucky ones who has an easy session or at least leaves feeling productive and proud that they made the choice to get help (this does happen). But no matter what happens or how you feel when you leave, you need to be ready for the aftershock.
It’s different for everyone, but the aftershock is what we call the rush of emotions that hits you anywhere from the second you step out of your treatment providers office to an hour or two later. You may suddenly feel incredibly sad, or frustrated with your condition, or angry with your therapist (and God), or just generally defeated. You will likely feel exhausted. And whatever the combination of emotions and fatigue you feel, you will be absolutely convinced for least a few minutes that you are NEVER DOING THAT AGAIN. It will pass, and you’ll likely have your self convinced to go again by the time your next appointment roles around. But it’s important to be ready and have a plan for self-care during this time. Invite a friend over after your appointment or plan to go home and do something comforting. Note that this is practically guaranteed with the first few appointments, but can flare up again at any time during treatment, so don’t be worried or discouraged if it happens after your 67th session.
5. Know what you want — and ask for it.
Like with any treatment, physical or otherwise, it takes two to tango. You need to take an active role in every aspect of your recovery, and this includes treatment like therapy or psychiatry. This can mean doing in depth research on your symptoms, likely diagnoses, possible kinds of treatment, etc. It’s okay to go into a session with an idea of what you might have and what treatment you think would be helpful, as long as you listen to the professionals when they have different ideas. (Though if someone tells you something that doesn’t sit right, you’re more than justified in seeking a second opinion.)
But it doesn’t have to be so in-depth. If you don’t know much about psychology and aren’t a big research nerd like I am, you still need to be sure you know what you’re seeking from therapy. Which symptoms do you want to treat? Which are the most important or first priority? What do you want to feel like/your life to be like after treatment? What do you want to talk about first? How might you envision your sessions unfolding? It’s okay not to know the answers to all these questions, as your treatment provider can help you figure them out in the first few sessions, but doing some thinking before you go helps you maintain an autonomous presence in a process that can easily start to feel out of your control.
So, no, a first session is not likely to be easy. But go anyway. And keep going. Because you have already done the hard part by making the choice to change your situation. It won’t get better immediately, and it won’t happen in a nice steady curve, but the only way it will get better is if you do something. So take that first step.
Caveat: Yesterday, I had a first session with my new psychiatrist, and it was lovely. We clicked immediately, I knew exactly what I wanted help with, and I didn’t have to tell my entire life story for the forth time. I did still have a bit of an aftershock, but it was a nice reminder that sometimes things can go right from the beginning.