How Therapy is Like a Broken Air Conditioner

air conditionerAs I am writing this my house is currently 80 degrees. Our air conditioner is broken, and as Murphy’s Law should have it, it stopped functioning at exactly 3 pm on a Friday afternoon. By the time we figured out who to call everyone was closed for the day.

The after-hours technician I spoke to — after stumbling through a lengthy answering service process — wanted to go through a series of trouble shooting steps with me over the phone in the hopes of getting it running again. None of them worked.

We spent the weekend in a sweltering house… eating ice cream and standing in front of fans. Monday morning came and the HVAC company called us to set up an appointment; finally! But the first available they had was Wednesday…three more days in a hot house. Even after that appointment if they needed a part it might take more time to get it fixed.

I realized my experience with broken air conditioning is similar to the experience people have when seeking therapy. Folks often come to counseling when they feel they have reached some kind of breaking point; maybe a major fight with their spouse, a child is failing school when they otherwise do well, or they feel like they just can’t get out of bed and make it through the day. Something in their life feels broken.

And then they ask for help. Maybe they go to their family doctor or ask a friend for a recommendation about what to. They may have difficulty with asking for what they need because they don’t know what they need, they just want to feel better. Others may offer opinions; what about medication? Or a holistic approach? Or therapy?

So let’s say this person decides to go to therapy. There are all kinds of hoops to jump through —who takes my insurance? Who is the most qualified to help me? Will I connect with this person? Is the office located close to my home or work?

Then they call the counseling office to schedule an appointment and find out there is a long wait. You finally decided to get help and found the best person to help you and you have to WAIT. Just like I have to wait (much longer than I would like to) for someone to come fix my broken air conditioner.

Folks want to feel better… right now! Just like I want my air conditioning fixed… right now! There are a lot of issues with the mental health system in this country in general that cause these issues, but without getting into all of that, the point is that we often don’t get the exact right help that we need when we need it.

One of my goals at Move Forward Counseling is to avoid having people who need help wait a long time to get into therapy. So far I have been able to achieve that and I hope that as we grow and serve more people we will continue that for our clients.

So let’s say that you start the process of therapy with the expectation of hoping to feel better right away. This is not how therapy typically works. Therapy is a process of small steps that when taken as a whole result in significant change (hopefully). It may take several weeks or months of making consistent, positive changes in your life to make progress. In the middle of that process you may not feel like you are making progress at all—don’t worry, that’s normal.

This is what I call the “messy middle.” You aren’t sure if you are getting better or feeling better. Others may notice you seem better, but you don’t know yet. Sometimes folks get frustrated and drop out of therapy or declare that therapy “didn’t work for them” because it isn’t an instantaneous result of feeling better.

I want my air conditioning fixed, but I learned the hard way, just because it’s broken today, doesn’t mean it will get fixed today. Therapy can be hard and it takes work, not only to start, but also to make progress. It takes time.

I am hanging in here until my air conditioner is fixed — even if it takes awhile. Someone pass me the ice cream!

Alison Pidgeon is a licensed professional counselor who loves helping clients make progress (in good time). When she is not on the phone with HVAC repairmen she is usually running after her two young children.

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Author: Alison Pidgeon, LPC

Alison is the Founder and CEO of Move Forward Counseling, a boutique private practice for women with three locations in Lancaster County, PA. She is passionate about reducing the stigma related to accessing mental health services. She can be reached at: alison@moveforwardlancaster.com.