Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: Is it OK to ask for help?

Published: 8/1/2022 3:54:11 PM
Modified: 8/1/2022 3:51:02 PM

The topic of mental health, especially mine, has been a premise that has been a recurring theme in the majority of my columns to date. Because the ugly truth of the human experience is that every human being out there struggles with something.

For the majority, these daily struggles are invisible, but those with a visible disability are not immune to the internal struggles that nearly every other person goes through. And with the issue of mental health at the forefront of many current conversations, it is high time for me to dedicate a column to mental health within the disabled population — or, more accurately, to the blatant stigmatism and utter lack of resources that exist for the disabled who do try to get help to improve their mental well-being.

This is a problem that I found myself encountering head-on when I sought out therapy, six months ago, for the first time in almost 10 years.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to the disabled population, but one that is arguably the most disparaging is the one I spent the first 22 years of my life believing: you can only present as having physical or mental issues, not both — unless you want to be seen as a complete burden by those around you. For most of my life, I have clung to this problematic line of reasoning — that because this choice was made for me; I would have to spend the remainder of my life suppressing the anxiety that is a byproduct of the tumultuous reality of living with a neuromuscular disability.

It had never occurred to me that there could be a place in which my physical and mental well-being could coexist peacefully. Because for as far back as I can recall, it has always been a choice to prioritize my physical well-being over my mental.

When I was younger, it felt like a dagger in my heart every time I had to cancel plans with a friend because they had contracted a cold, and then COVID happened, forcing me to prioritize my physical well-being to the nth degree. I thought my upbringing had desensitized me to loneliness, but I was unprepared for the emotional toll that these past two and a half years would take on me. Coming to terms with the fact that these emotions were not going away is what finally prompted me to send an email to my team of doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital to ask if they knew about any therapists within the hospital that would possibly be a good fit for me.

I have to ask for help all day, every day, with physical tasks that my body can’t do, and to reach out to ask for emotional help was one of the hardest things I have had to do — even though, the majority of my doctors have known me since I was a child. And the truth is, if my mom hadn’t conditioned me to be a fierce advocate for myself, I likely wouldn’t have reached out at all — out of sheer shame.

Fortunately, one of my doctors responded that there was a counselor who worked within my team of doctors and who specialized in providing counseling for individuals in the neuromuscular community. Another reason why I had been hesitant about seeking out a therapist — aside from the fact that my first encounter with therapy when I was a teenager and going through my parents’ divorce was not an overwhelmingly positive one — was because I was doubtful that I would be able to find a therapist who understood my unique predicament. I was extremely relieved about the fact that I was going to be able to talk to someone who actually did.

The first month in therapy was wonderful. The counselor and I had a brief introductory Zoom call to discuss how I wanted to proceed, and we decided that we would meet virtually once a week and that she would visit my house for an in-person session once a month. I made it clear to her that I was willing to put the work in and that I wanted to improve my mental health. And like the type A dutiful student I am, I would do my homework and even jot down points I wanted to bring up in our subsequent session. I liked her and I thought that we would be a good fit. I remember thinking if I’d known about her, I would have sought out counseling years before I actually did.

But a couple of months in everything began to unravel. My counselor began canceling sessions on a regular basis when I contacted her weekly to confirm our appointments. In the beginning of May, she sent me an email that she wouldn’t be able to proceed with seeing me on a weekly basis and informally dropped me as a client. I say that because I emailed her back that same evening to ask if we would be meeting again where I planned to ask her if she would recommend a colleague of hers to me. She never responded.

I felt jilted and like someone had taken a proverbial sledgehammer to my already fragile sense of self-esteem. I had started to open up to this woman and to the very idea of therapy, and this is what happened?

I have spent the past three months pondering my experiences with therapy, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not designed for people who actually need help. In my opinion, even those within the field don’t understand the courage it takes for some of us to ask for help and how much perseverance it takes to find a good therapist. Going through the motions of that process can be extremely daunting.

Believe me, I know. I’m sure I will pursue therapy again at some point; but for those who can’t fight for their right to mental health when everything feels as though it’s already stacked against them, it should not be this hard.

It kind of defeats the entire point of “it’s OK to ask for help.”

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a freelance writer and an editorial intern at INCLUDAS Publishing. She can be reached at
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