My resistance to psychotherapy was not without good reason. I had spent two years being bounced around by doctors who, because their tests showed nothing wrong with me, kept suggesting I see someone in the mental health field. They were sure my problem” was all in my head. Their words stung me-and made me angry. I refused to believe that the deep muscle pain, overwhelming fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia were due to my mother potty training me too early. I knew there was something physically wrong with me, and if that caused depression, what could be more normal?
I persevered and finally found a rheumatologist who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. I almost hugged him, I was so relieved. Then came the long journey of trying to find ways to ease the misery of living with this disease. Psychotherapy was at the bottom of my list.
Frankly, I couldn’t see what a therapist could do for me. If I could just find the right medication, exercise regimen, and diet, why would I need someone to get inside my head?
I could no longer run and bicycle like I had for years, nor could I travel as much. I had to break engagements at the last minute and often called in sick at work. I’d been a highly responsible person all my life, but I felt I was becoming flaky and undependable. As much as family and friends loved me, they couldn’t understand. They’d look baffled and say, “But you look so good.” Those complimentary words became yet another source of pain.
My depression increased. I was getting scared that I would sink so low I’d never be able to resurface. In desperation I finally called my insurance company for referrals to therapists. It took energy I didn’t have to make those phone calls. Eventually, through the fog, I picked one with a kind voice. He turned out to be a kind man, a psychologist about my age with years of experience. What I failed to ask, however, was whether he had much experience with people suffering from chronic illness.
Our meetings did not go well. His voice was too soft in his effort to be soothing, his rambling observations too boring to follow, and his eyes brimmed with what I perceived to be pity. He assigned me homework that seemed pointless, and like a rebellious student I refused to do it. But what bothered me most was the phrase he often used: “Now, I don’t mean to downplay your illness, but … ”
He did downplay it. He concentrated on other issues, not this disease that had become the focal point of my life and changed everything. In short, he didn’t get it. Because I have never been a quitter, I hung in there for three months. I kept thinking we’d have a breakthrough. It was like staying in a relationship when you know it’s over. It left me angry for wasting so much time and energy.
After anger came despair. I crossed therapy off my list of things to try for fibromyalgia. My longtime primary care doctor gave me the card of a psychiatrist whom he said was a friend of his. He strongly urged me to call him. Dr. Briggs (not his real name) was nothing like the first therapist. He had a sharp eye that studied me without a trace of pity.
He was direct and frank. He understood, from our very first visit, that I was handicapped with a disease. There were no soft words, no sugarcoating of the future, no denial of the hardship. He acknowledged that my life had changed drastically, that my losses were huge, and that working on acceptance would be a very tough journey.
During our year and a half together, Dr. Briggs helped me to find the strength and self-confidence I thought had been lost forever. He challenged me when I needed it, comforted me through the rough moments, and never let me off the hook. He kept pushing me through the darkness, and by doing so showed me I could and would reach the light again.
Psychotherapy can be extremely helpful in coping with the difficulties of fibromyalgia, but I am convinced that the therapist and patient must have the right chemistry. It’s also essential that the therapist have a realistic understanding of chronic illness. It’s hard to find the energy to make those calls, try a session, and ask the therapist how he or she plans to approach the issues. But while the process is draining, it’s well worth the effort to find the right match.
Living with fibromyalgia is daunting and lonely. Spouses, family, and friends mean well, but they have no experience with it. Support groups can be wonderfully comforting, but they lack expertise. Doctors may be sympathetic, but their role is to address physical care. The right therapist, however, can provide insight and guidance to help ease the journey that, while we never planned to take it, must be made.