by Justin Andrew Davis
In a year colored by significant creative and professional growth, I consider my return to therapy my biggest accomplishment in 2017. Which isn’t to say it was a timely one.
Unfortunately, my renewed commitment to my mental health was borne out of crisis rather than careful contemplation. For far too long I ignored my emotional needs – either by keeping busy with projects and work, or else convincing myself my pain wasn’t substantial enough to warrant examination. That my depression was a result of not trying hard enough. That it was my fault.
Same old song and dance.
This cycle of denial eventually lead to total burnout, and by the time the physical and mental repercussions were fully registering in my mind, I had permanently ruined several personal relationships, jeopardized my health and well-being, and scared more family and friends than I care to admit.
I had officially hit an all-time low.
The explicit details of this dark time are still too fresh to share. Maybe they’ll always be too personal and painful – I’m not sure. What matters, though, is that this upheaval forced me to acknowledge the severity of my situation. I had no choice but to accept that in order to move forward I would need to seek professional attention and care. I couldn’t just heal on my own.
Maybe it’s working in the arts, or living in NYC (probably both), but I’ve generally found it easy to talk about my mental health struggles. Hell, my upcoming film – You Look Great – is inspired by my personal experiences with eating disorders. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel no stigma in the world, or that I feel comfortable enough to share the most intimate details of my life with just anyone. I just happen to spend most of my days surrounded by people who tend to be kind, curious, and empathetic to the messiness of our emotional experiences.
So when I eventually found enough courage to ask for help during my recent crisis, I was lucky that my immediate circles were at the ready with love, support, advice, and referrals. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Now, I’m happy to say that this has been my longest and most productive venture into therapy yet. There’s a lot I attribute this to, including my willingness to recognize the magnitude of my problems and the boundless love propelling me onward, but finding a therapist who was the right emotional and intellectual fit was paramount. There’s just no other way I would have felt safe and strong enough to explore my history as deeply and openly as I have. And feel understood while doing so.
I know the analogy to dating gets thrown around quite a bit, but it’s for a good reason: it’s true. My previous time in therapy was derailed partially because of my own bullshit (i.e., not being completely honest about my feelings and experiences and/or abandoning the process because my projects demanded “so much time” and felt like they were “fixing me” anyway), but part of me also believes I didn’t have the right voice guiding and challenging me.
It’s a really hard thing finding the right match, and an even harder thing to articulate when you do, but since I will inevitably bring this up in session, I hope expressing a little gratitude here might provide others a small idea of what makes our work – well – work. So thank you for the space you hold for me, for your incredible capacity for empathy, for your jokes that you’re quick to call jokes, for listening to my endless hypotheticals and gently grounding me in reality, for expressing genuine curiosity about my days (especially the difficult ones), for your “off-the-record” advice, for encouraging me to honor the good just as much as the bad, for posing tough questions at the right time, for helping me lean into the discomfort, for sharing your “embarrassing” musical preferences, for allowing yourself to share some of your own vulnerability through my trauma, for showering me with respect and care (even when I feel unworthy of it), for your rad collection of socks.
Because of this and so much more, you have helped save my life. So again, thank you.
This is a little specific to creative pursuits, but I just want to end by saying that while art can be therapeutic, it should never be your therapy. Some of my fondest memories are a direct result of the beautiful chaos that comes from the creative process and collaborations with others, but I’ve learned that letting your happiness be defined by accomplishments and career advancement leads only to fleeting fulfillment, and by extension suffering. When you invest so heavily in the idea of returns and redemption, your artistic efforts become the conduit for spreading your pain – because you’ve given them, as well as the friends and peers working with you, expectations that are impossible to satisfy.
The only reason I’m on my way to being a better actor, friend, family member, and citizen is because I’m taking time to process and name the hurt in my life. And now that it feels like I’m rounding a corner, I’m making efforts – whether through this blog or in my day-to-day life – to share parts of my story, in hopes that more nonjudgmental conversation might inspire others to seek the help they both deserve and need.
Since I’ve been more candid about my struggles, both in-person and online, you wouldn’t believe how many friends have reached out to pick my brain, as well as ask for referrals. While I’ve recommended my therapist several times to people I love and trust, it’s one friend’s private message that’s really stuck with me. To quickly paraphrase, she wished me well and offered me an ear if I ever needed it, and went on to thank me for my openness on social media, explaining how my transparency helped lead her to discussing her struggles with her family and ultimately beginning the process of finding professional help for herself.