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I Started Therapy in My 50s: How It's Helping Me

Unpacking the baggage of life is lightening this author's emotional load

By Michelle Newman

I was 50 years old when I finally decided to unpack some of the baggage I’d been carrying around since childhood.

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Despite the weight, it wasn’t an easy decision. Those bags were familiar, and I’d packed away their contents in a neat, organized fashion decades earlier.

Imagine, if you will, oversized cases full of packing cubes labeled with things like abuse, anger, turmoil, inconsistency, guilt and responsibility. I knew unpacking them would be daunting.

Where would everything go? Did I have space for the explosion that would certainly burst forth when I opened up those tightly closed compartments?

It seemed easier at this point in my life to just continue to carry the bags. After all, I’d gotten pretty strong.

Consumed With Complicated Emotions

But then a year ago, my arms gave out.

Life as I’d known if for the past 23 years was splitting apart. My younger daughter graduated high school and was weeks away from moving to college in a state in a completely different time zone; my older daughter was working and living in another one and my husband and I were trying to remember what the hell we did before we had kids.

I was consumed with complicated and powerful emotions. I experienced an almost paralyzing realization that life was flying by at warp speed and somehow knew that freeing myself of the burdens that I’d been holding onto for most of my life would be necessary in order to be able to fully enjoy this new chapter I was embarking on.

Starting therapy at age 50 is overwhelming. There's a lot to cover.

Because I’d attempted to unpack my baggage by myself in years past — I’d start to unzip the case but when things would instantly start popping out I’d quickly sit on it and struggle against the zipper to close it right back up — I knew this time I needed help.

“It doesn’t take a therapist to tell me why I’m this way,” I’d been saying for decades. But all of a sudden, I felt sure that it did.

Starting therapy at 50 is overwhelming. There’s a lot to cover. And when you’re a talker who has a propensity to overshare — ask me how I’m doing and you might somehow end up hearing about the time I vomited in the library in fourth grade — it’s downright exhausting.

Not just for me, either. I’m pretty sure the almonds my therapist often snacks on during our appointments aren’t for hunger, but for stamina.

But really, where do you start? Which bag do you choose to open first?

When you’re 50 years old, it’s a good bet that you’re carrying a more assorted collection than you originally thought.

The Work Would Not Be Simple

I was nervous at my first appointment, and as I always do when I meet new people and feel the need to fill the silence, I began by babbling (and then, naturally, spent the next 12 hours over-analyzing everything I’d said).

I detailed all the changes currently happening in my life, but as much as I wanted to think that embarking on this new chapter was the reason I was sitting on her couch, deep down I felt I was actually – surprisingly – handing that transition fairly well.

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I soon realized that the work I had to delve into wasn’t as simple as dealing with sadness because of my family separating or a fear of the empty nest.

I knew that while I might have originally admitted to carrying a few heavy bags, there was a whole luggage cart just out of sight behind me that I’d been pulling around for decades. And in a few short weeks, my therapist knew it, too.

Over the past year, we delicately began unpacking all the cubes. We often unpack a few at a time, as most of them are interconnected. (You can’t open up that giant one labeled “boundaries” without finding more than a few others tucked inside.)

I recently saw a graphic on Instagram with colorful, hand-drawn stacks of luggage that said, "Maybe the weight you've been struggling with all along wasn't even yours to carry."

We open them carefully and remove things a little at a time. Taking everything out all at once would make a huge mess, after all.

We don’t ever really close things up, either. Instead we go back to certain bags time and time again.

And over time, slowly but surely, my load is beginning to feel lighter.

“You’re going to want to write this down,” I now often say before delving into a story. She chuckles, pops a few almonds in her mouth and grabs her pen.

A Move to FaceTime

Pre-COVID, we’d sit in her lovely office where I’d watch the birds flit about in the tree out the window, her gigantic Goldendoodle often using my lap as a bed. But now, we meet via FaceTime in our separate homes, her dog on her lap now, my cats strolling across my keyboard occasionally.

It’s different, but the connection we’ve made remains intact, even through our screens. And with the constant new anxieties this year is throwing at us, I’m more grateful for that than ever.

I recently saw a graphic on Instagram with colorful, hand-drawn stacks of luggage that said, “Maybe the weight you’ve been struggling with all along wasn’t ever yours to carry.” I liked it. I shared it (of course I did).

But most importantly, I thanked myself for knowing it wasn’t too late to get the help I needed to truly believe it, and for freeing myself up for all the journeys to come.

Michelle Newman is a Minneapolis-based writer who shares stories on her blog, You're My Favorite Today, contributes to sites such as Grown & Flown and The Girlfriend, and has work included in a New York Times bestselling humor anthology series. She is also one of the hosts of the forthcoming podcast, "Pop Culture Preservation Society," where she and her fellow fangirl friends dissect the things that defined their '70s childhoods. Read More
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