HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Shopping for therapy


Therapy is hard work, it’s hard, life-changing work. And the ways in which your life can change vary. If you find the right therapist, after a few sessions you walk in feeling safe and you leave feeling a little bit more in control of your life and your emotions. If you’re stuck in the room with the wrong one, your life changes with a firm prayer: I will never go to therapy again – and then, everything stays the same. You shout in a pillow, suffer in silence, think you’re going to die every time you have a panic attack because you haven’t learned to control them or deal with them yet and then, once said panic attack is over, you convince yourself it will never happen again, but it does, and it takes you by surprise because you haven’t learnt to recognise your triggers.

Finding the wrong therapist happens more often than finding the right one. Shopping for therapy is a trial-and-error exercise. Sometimes you walk in and walk out immediately because you know the relationship just won’t work. Most times, you walk in several times, week after week, because you have to give this person a chance to get to know you, you have to go through the fine details of your entire life before they can actually help in a fully informed and constructive way. And then, months, years down the line even, you’ve wasted a lot of time and a lot of money because it turns out they weren’t the one after all. This has happened to me more times than I can count.

But four years ago, I found the right one. She had an old antique therapist's chair in her back room where she practiced. It was ominous and intriguing at the same time and really appealed to my Hitchcockian sensibilities. I never sat on it though. She had old superhero figurines scattered here and there, the symbolic soil of mutant powers and heroic strength. “We shall overcome,” they often mouthed to me. And in the centre coffee table, she had a bowl of jelly beans. It was also on this centre table that she often placed a delicate cup of tea in front of me with a shortbread biscuit.

She is honest, funny, intelligent and called me on all my bullshit, including my body language. She was extremely conversational and mostly stayed away from the “hmmms” and clinical nods and she never ever asked the dreaded question: “But how does that make you feel?”. Instead, she explained things I didn’t understand about myself, sometimes with the use of diagrams, she also used diagrams to illustrate several coping mechanisms and to draw out the intricacies and inner workings of my mind so as to show me how to better navigate my emotions and make me more resilient.

I am happy to say, that after 10 or more years of searching for the “one”, I found her, and like I mentioned before, my life changed. For the better. I still remember the things she said to me, I still practice all the methods I learned in that room while Superman peered into my eyes from his faded gaze, and I still hear her calling me on my bullshit every so often. It works. I work. She has worked on me.

But then, I moved to Cape Town. We tried Skype sessions for a while, they went really well, but slowly life started to get in the way and we couldn’t sync calendars and the sessions fell through the cracks. We were both confident I didn’t need them anymore, or that much at least anyway, and we were right. She isn’t the type to bleed you of cash for absolutely no reason and I trusted that if and when I did need assistance, she would be there.

But the thing about long-distance relationships with your therapist is that it’s far too easy to not commit. So even if something does come and you need to press dial, you don’t. You convince yourself it’s unnecessary and a waste of time and you just move on, until of course, the inevitable happens – you can’t move on any more and you need the nagging sensation of an upcoming appointment that you will be held liable for if you don’t show up.

Just thinking about the stages of shopping for therapy is an exhausting exercise that fills me with trepidation. The online research, which involves clicking on page after page on the interwebs. First you start your search locally. Is there anyone nearby? Then before you know it, you’re 30km away in Tygerberg, trying to understand the bio of a woman that reminds you of someone you went to once who you absolutely hated. So you start again.

You apply some more filters. You look for the course of actions they’re likely to take, their mode of operation, their focus areas, and you look more locally again. You can’t make sense of anything, so you hurriedly jot down three names and start making a few phone calls. You anxiously check your calendar and try and match the openings they have – therapists are very busy these days. You speak to the assistant on the phone and not the psychologist herself, so there are very few questions you can ask and, of course, it’s a money-saving strategy because you’re bound to be charged if you have an initial call with them directly.

After this, is the awkward first visit. You walk in and immediately feel like you’re working harder to figure them out then they are you. You will notice everything. What kind of books do they have in their room? Do they have art? Is it generic hallway art? Are there any certifications on the wall? What kind of vibe are you getting? All of this happens while you try and start from point A in your life. The very beginning. Your relationship with your parents. Your relationship with your siblings. Your love life. Your medication. Your mental health history. By the time you walk out you’re completely fatigued and then tomorrow or the next week you have to do all this again, word for word, with someone new. Therapy isn’t cheap. And before you know it, you're out a couple of grand because you’ve had to pay three different people who have done absolutely nothing for you and whom you will never see again.

Therapy is a lot like dating: in order for it to succeed you have to find someone who you actually enjoy spending a lot of time with, who you feel safe talking about yourself with and who is willing to take you at your absolute worst, as well, of course, at your best. Not someone who demands or threatens that you will constantly be depressed if you don’t keep seeing them on their terms. But I hate dating, that’s why I got married. So that I never had to date again, but here I am, aching for the pleasure of physically walking into a room to “lie on a couch” so that someone can indulge all the emotional turmoil I find myself grappling with and help me find resolutions to my Kafkaesque existential crisis. And so, I am once more, shopping for therapy. If only they made them in one-size-fits-all.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.