Years ago, when I was in my twenties, a friend suggested I reach out to a therapist to talk about what was going on in my life or, more aptly, what was not going on. I was stuck trying to figure out what to do and which direction I wanted to go in life. I was anxious, depressed, and confused as to whether I should settle for a secure “regular” job with good benefits, as my father wanted me to do, or dare to have higher aspirations and build a professional career.

After graduating high school, I did not have plans for college, nor did two of my high school buddies. The thought of not having much to do that summer did not sit well with me. One of my friends came up with the idea of driving across the country to see his brother who was in the air force in California and had an off-base apartment, where my friend was planning to stay. Another friend had been invited and joined suit, and then I was invited. After some haranguing with my parents to let me go, the three of us hopped in a Chevy van and were off. For me, this was going to be the beginning of a journey, literally and figuratively, in finding my way in life. I was going to the West Coast to “find myself,” as did many other seekers in the 1960s and 1970s. The trip itself was wonderful. My friends and I discovered what a vast and beautiful country we have, with so many various points of interest. From the cornfields of Indiana, to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the Pacific Ocean and Mohave Desert in California, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, I knew I would be a different person when I returned home. Several weeks later, back to New Jersey we went, filled with tales about our trip. But after the photographs were developed and the adventures discussed, there was reality staring me in the face again. What did I do now? And where were all those answers I was hoping to find on the trip? I started working a succession of odd jobs, but nothing meaningful came of it. I did some house painting, helped my girlfriend’s parents set up antique shows in malls, dabbled in some retail work, and was given a job by a relative driving luxury cars off the New Jersey docks into New York City. It was fun for an eighteen-year-old, but it didn’t last long. It seemed like everyone around me was offering suggestions as to what I should be doing, but I had little interest in what they were saying. Eventually I found work as an ID checker in a bar, then graduated to bartender. That job was fun, fast-paced, loud, and high energy, everything a late teens–early twenties person would want. Making quick tips and getting paid “under the table” wasn’t a bad deal either.

Eventually, after doing that for a couple years, I decided to look for work that would earn me a steady paycheck in a less chaotic environment. I found a job in a retail wine store and began to feel as though I had finally landed and had the structure I was looking for: eight-hour days, five days a week, regular paychecks, and an environment where I learned a considerable amount about wine. Here I had a “following” who would come in to see me for my wine selections, which did a lot for my ego. With friends, colleagues, and customers who became friends, I put together wine tastings, wine dinners, went to tastings with the owners and winemakers of established wineries, and did just about everything that could include wine. I even worked my way up to wine manager—a proud achievement. Life was good. However, I knew deep down that this was not my future. As much respect as I received from the customers and the satisfaction I derived from teaching new staff members about the wine business, there were still issues I wasn’t addressing—issues regarding my parents and family, relationships, self-esteem, anxiety and depression, not to mention the financial struggles that ate away at me incessantly. I developed ailments, such as stomach issues, IBS, what I thought was a “brain tumor,” anxiety attacks, fatigue, and other “conditions” that could not be diagnosed by the many doctors I visited. Spiritually, I was lost.

I didn’t know who I was and felt I had no purpose. I felt directionless, confused, and was numb to life. This was particularly frightening because, at times, I was sure I didn’t exist at all. At this point, a friend of mine started to push me toward calling a therapist, but my anxiety increased with the pressure to do so. My friend had already been in therapy and found much of it to be a good experience at a time when he was having increased anxiety after he’d left a position at an Ivy League university and started a family of his own. Therapy, for him, was a way to work through his anxiety and helped him change his angst into more positive thinking patterns. If it had helped him, he believed, it would help me too. I began searching for a therapist close to home and was amazed at how many therapists there were in my hometown. I jotted down several of the names I found through various resources (there was no Google at the time) and began to call them. With most, I did not make contact directly but was given the option to leave a message.

Since my anxiety was so high, I do not remember leaving a message for anyone. I just hung up the phone. But one day I called a therapist on the list and was surprised when someone actually answered the phone. It was one of the therapists at a counseling center who identified the center he was calling from and then asked in a calm and steady voice, “How can I help you?” Since my anxiety was so high, I was barely able to get the words out. I remember saying something like, “Hi . . . I’d like to get some information on the counseling center.” I waited for a response. The person at the other end of the phone politely asked me what kind of information I was looking for, which put additional pressure on me to come up with another response. I told the person I was thinking about making an appointment to see a therapist but was not sure how the process worked. The voice told me about the center and said there were several therapists who worked there. He indicated that he was one of the therapists and asked me what had prompted me to pick up the phone and call. Again, I wasn’t sure how much to divulge, and so I just explained how I wanted to find direction in life and was unsure where I wanted to go and how to get there. The therapist felt he could help me and asked if I would like to set up a time to meet. I froze and felt put on the spot, and I remember saying something like, “Thanks for the information. I’d like to think about it, and I will call back.” In a soothing voice, the therapist said he understood that I may not be ready and that I could call whenever I would like. I ended the call and for a while sat introspectively, wondering if therapy was something I really wanted to pursue. The idea of entering therapy increased my anxiety, but the thought of not trying to work through my issues also fueled that anxiety. I seemed caught in the middle. I let my friend know that I had called but did not feel ready to make a commitment yet. He seemed to understand and congratulated me for at least making the call. I felt like something in me was changing. Several weeks passed, and I called the counseling center again. This time I did leave a message with my home phone number. Surprisingly, a short time later, the phone rang, and the same therapist I’d spoken to weeks prior was on the line again. After a brief conversation, I was again invited to set up an appointment, and again I indicated I was not ready for that. We ended the call with the therapist reassuring me I could call back anytime. I felt bad I had called the counseling center a second time and still not made an appointment. I was worried the therapist would think I was playing a game and really wasn’t interested in therapy.

Now, in addition to my general anxiety, I was beginning to have self-doubts about my sincerity to begin the process. This weighed on me for about another week, when I called a third time and made an appointment for the following week. I felt relieved in the moment, but I obsessed about the appointment and worried about the upcoming session. I had my first appointment the following week. I felt plenty of uneasiness and trepidation about what therapy was all about, and I was skeptical of what I could gain by going, but the therapist was a kind and gentle person who saw how anxious and depressed I was. He guided me expertly through the process each week, and I always left the sessions feeling relieved and empowered. After some time, I sensed I was becoming a new person. As the sessions continued, I was starting to feel less anxious and depressed. I seemed to have more confidence, was worried less about what others thought, and was starting to make requests of others, something I had never done before. Also, I remember being validated for the progress I had made, which made me feel like a “worthy and good” person, and in my dull, black-and-white view of the world, I started to see some color. I liked my therapist because he was real. He was nonjudgmental in his guidance and would tell me when I was going down the wrong path, but he would also reward me for the progress I made. I began to feel that this was the right decision at the right time for me, and those closest to me noticed my growth. As I became stronger, a few people wondered what was different about me as evidenced in the way I now interacted with others. I began to question everything I knew, including the people, relationships, and direction I was going. At times, my world felt upside down as I left my “comfort zone,” but, as they say, change occurs when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of trying something new. I became excited by what I was going to learn next and what “secrets” I would uncover about myself in the next session.

What I discovered was that I was a complete and whole person, but based on the circumstances and skewed perceptions I’d developed in my life, these positive qualities had been eclipsed by anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Years of therapy help me reshape my thinking and persona, which led me to having the courage to enter college and excel in all of my courses. For a while, I was in both individual as well as group therapy, where I received feedback from a broader group of people, which also added to my growth. And later, because I found therapy so helpful, I added couples counseling with the woman I was living with at the time. I was seeing my therapist for individual therapy one to two times a week and going to group therapy once a week.

Then, when my eight-year relationship with my girlfriend started to unravel, we began couples counseling once a week. That was a lot of therapy; however, in retrospect, it was a necessary part of my overall growth and progress. The relationship did not survive, but before it dissolved, I was enrolled in college and on a path that would change my life in ways I never dreamed. It was a long haul, burdened not only by the breakup but also by the fact that our shared condo was going into default. Even with what appeared to be losses at the time, I later realized that these were necessary losses — aspects of my life I needed to jettison in order to move forward. When everything was said and done, I’d not only completed my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I’d also finished my master’s in social work. I was on my way and had my friend to thank for steering me in the direction of therapy, which ultimately changed my life.

Therapy helped transform my life and point me in a direction I may not have otherwise gone. It’s scary to think what path I might have taken if not for those who were instrumental at that point in my life. Sometimes I lament the fact that I was a “late bloomer” and that I should have begun my journey earlier in life. It worked out for me in the end, but my advice to others now is do not delay. Tackle your problems sooner than later so you avoid not only the time wasted but also the pain that delaying the necessary work often brings.

Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW, author of the book, When to Call a Therapist, and psychotherapist in northern New Jersey.