I began my first therapy session at 7:41p.m. in the middle of a crowd near Manhattan’s bustling Union Square Park.
I was on my way to the subway when my phone buzzed with a new text from an app called Talkspace. The app is a text-message-based therapy platform that replaces or at least supplements your trips to the offices of a therapist.
“Hi Erin, it’s nice to meet you,” said the message. “Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself? I’m glad you are here.”
Starting that day, I used Talkspace for a week. Here’s how it went:
Not wanting to interrupt things when I went underground, I copy-pasted my first text message from Talkspace staff member Holli. That way, I could type out a response while I rode the train home.
By the time I arrived at my stop, I had three new messages from the therapist, who introduced herself as Holli Fiscus-Connon. Holli said she'd explain how the app works and pair me up with a 'primary therapist' who could meet my specific needs. As soon as I started responding, she began messaging back. We were having a conversation in real time.
At a quiet cafe near my apartment, I pulled up the app on my laptop. Holli had texted me a 'form' to fill out with a series of standard questions, not too different from the intake paperwork I'd have filled out at a traditional therapist's office.
To make sure she picked someone who'd be a good fit, she asked if there were any specific things I wanted her to consider. I mentioned that I'd been having panic attacks occasionally ever since I was a kid. While that was appealing to me (spending hours scouring the internet for doctors that take my insurance isn't my idea of a relaxing evening) it might not be to some.
Cost is also a factor. In comparison to traditional therapy, which is sometimes covered by insurance and can range anywhere from $20 to $250 per session (sessions are usually once a week and last about 45 minutes), Talkspace costs $25 per week.
Other text-based therapy services exist too, including BetterHelp ($40/week for unlimited texting with a licensed mental health professional) and 7 Cups of Tea (free anonymous online chatting with 'trained listeners' who don't necessarily have a degree or licence in mental health or social work).
The next morning, I awoke to several messages from someone at Talkspace. Opening the app, I saw I'd been introduced to my primary therapist, Nicole Amesbury, MS, LMHC. Nicole is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, which (at least in New York state) means she has a Master's degree, spent at least 1,500 hours of working with patients, and passed the licensing exam, at minimum. Nicole is also listed on the blog and therapist database Psychology Today, along with one other Talkspace therapist.
Nicole and I spent the next week texting daily -- both on the iPhone app and on my computer (conversations on either platform sync seamlessly). Sometimes when I'd send her a message, she'd get back to me immediately and then we'd text back-and-forth for anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. Other times, we'd respond to each others' messages a few hours later.
Since we were texting and not sitting in a room together, I couldn't look into her eyes for reassurance. Instead, I'd have to sit with my text and wait.
Typically, by the time I was halfway through re-reading what I'd written, I'd get a message -- or several -- from Nicole. Her responses were detailed and insightful. Once, I told her I was frustrated because I'd either been feeling really happy or really sad, but rarely in between. Here's how she replied:
No matter how uncomfortable those feelings may be, Nicole reminded me, they're there for good reasons. We need feelings to live. They tell us when something is happening that needs our attention, whether it's taking place somewhere around us or internally.
I've thought about Nicole's response many times, and I continue to remember it whenever I catch myself being too hard on myself or feeling like I'm trapped in a feeling and just want to get out of it. I still have Talkspace on my phone, but I haven't stopped seeing my traditional therapist either. Sometimes, I still feel like I need to sit with someone and look into their eyes. Other times, a text will do the trick just fine.
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