by Hannah Kazemi

In July 2019, I had the single worst emotional breakdown I have ever experienced, driving down the highway at 2:00 a.m. on the way back from the drive-in movie theatre. I was crying about the zoo.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Greater Vancouver Zoo led to my big breakdown moment. The one that happens to movie characters when they go through something really awful. Usually, this is followed by the character deciding to overhaul their life by going to yoga classes or something. Except, I didn’t choose yoga; I chose therapy and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I was always the “mature for my age” kid in elementary and high school. I’m also the oldest daughter in a family with divorced parents, which meant I took on a lot of responsibility from a young age. I learned to always put others before myself, even if it meant I suffered or lacked support in return. But I didn’t quite realize this until I reached a turning point.

All of the stress, anxiety, and weight that came with being the oldest daughter culminated in a loud, messy, uncontrollable release of emotion. All because I said I liked the zoo.

We were driving past it when I made a comment about how I loved going there when I was younger and looking at all of the different animals. My mom was surprised when I said that, despite being the one who had taken my sisters and me to the zoo when we were young. I never shared anything with her when I was a kid — she didn’t know when I was sad, when I was happy, or even when I was feeling sick because I kept it all inside. I didn’t want to be a burden, especially having two younger sisters that also required care and attention. I took on the role of mom #2. It was my mom’s shock and genuine confusion at my statement about loving the zoo as a kid that made me realize just how deeply I was hurting, and that I needed to do something about it. I had been keeping everything inside for years of my life, and eventually, all of that sadness and anger and frustration manifested as stress and anxiety.

So I started to go to therapy and it helped immensely. Talking to an unbiased third party whose job is to help you talk through your problems actually works, in case you were still doubtful.

I went to a few sessions over the summer before I started university and worked through some of the things that were bothering and affecting me the most. Summer came to an end and I started my first semester at SFU feeling like I was a new person, like I had a sense of control and an understanding of myself that I had never felt before. I felt like I was being heard: I had a safe space where I could speak freely and openly about my life and feelings without fear of judgement. I also finally realized why I had increasingly been experiencing anxiety as I got older. I figured out that the stomach aches I had been getting during moments of extreme stress, or times when I felt like I had to hide my feelings and emotions, were linked to that anxiety. I had been making myself physically sick.

I stopped booking sessions when I felt well-equipped to handle bouts of anxiety and insecurity on my own using the mental tools I gained from therapy. I was okay for a long time after that: I became more comfortable being vulnerable and expressing when something was wrong or making me feel a certain way. As a result, my relationships with my family strengthened, I became closer with my friends, and opened myself up to new relationships. The anxiety-induced stomach aches started to dissipate, and most importantly, I felt like I had finally started to heal the child inside of me who hadn’t felt heard, safe, or understood for so many years. I now pride myself on my ability to be open and honest about my feelings with others, and therapy is to thank for that.

Almost three years later, sometime during Spring 2022, I started to feel myself slip into old patterns that I thought I had broken. For a while, I couldn’t quite place what I was feeling, just that I was finding it harder to be myself again in certain spaces and to figure out what I needed emotionally. I started isolating myself from my family, shutting down emotionally, and dismissing comments about how I “seemed off” lately. I felt like I could truly be myself only when I was out of the house and around my friends or boyfriend. I was still feeling fulfilled in most of my relationships and I didn’t doubt my ability to eventually bounce back, but I quickly realized that I required a little bit of extra support to navigate the emotional changes. The tools and skills I learned three years ago became more difficult to put into action. I decided to go back to therapy.

I knew from the get–go that I wouldn’t need many sessions because I identified the problem before it got too difficult to manage, but the fact that I advocated for my own needs made me really proud. I don’t think I would have been able to come to this conclusion had I not gone to therapy three years before. Recognizing when you need help takes a lot of self-awareness and reflection, which can be difficult when your mind is consumed with other things.

I just started going again recently. I reached out to someone I felt comfortable sharing with, and let them know that I was feeling the need to go back. They pointed me in the direction of SFU’s Health and Counselling services and I started the intake process. I’ve only had one session since that initial ask for help, but it has been the single most beneficial session that I’ve had since I first went to therapy. I’m booked in for more sessions and am really excited to keep taking steps to better myself and feel more confident and secure in my relationships.

I think that everyone should go to therapy at some point, even if they don’t think they need it it’s changed the way I view myself, and it’s certainly changed my relationship with my family and other people around me. You don’t need something to be “bad” or “wrong” in your life to make the decision to talk to someone about it. Rather than feeling like you’ve lost yourself, try therapy — you might gain something from it.