…and that’s a big deal.
I have been threatening to go back to counseling at least since last year. I remember feeling like I was succumbing under the pressure of working a full time job in DC and then driving an hour to Manassas at least three times a week to perform another at least 10 hours a week at my internship. But I didn’t go and it was more than the lack of time that kept me from going.
I have seen a total of three counselors/therapists in my life. I first found myself in a counselor’s office during my freshman year of college because I wasn’t sleeping, I was eating too much, I couldn’t concentrate, and I had zero energy. On the days that I could pull myself out of that hard dorm bed, I would go to class and come back. I might hang with my friends Denise and Francine down the hall and then I was back in my room/bed. I knew something was wrong. I sat in the semi-crowded waiting room at CAPS (Counseling & Psychological Services) on UPark’s (Penn State) campus just looking around. No one looked like anything was really wrong but I still tried to read people while sitting there trying to hide what my issue was. I started to second-guess my coming there and no lie, just as I was about to get up to leave my counselor came to get me. My counselor was nice enough – a middle-aged white lady who asked me a bunch of questions and nodded empathetically as I explained to her how I was viewing life. There were no major breakthroughs (or at least I thought) but it wasn’t horrible enough that I couldn’t agree to come back. We had three more sessions – on the second of those sessions, she introduced the idea to me of using medication as a means to help me manage my depressed mood. Once the semester was over, I never went back.
When I got home in 2009, I had melt down one day and it was suggested that I go back to counseling. I can’t remember who referred him to me; all I remember was sitting in front of this African American man, who happened to be a counselor and minister. I don’t remember much about the first session – I remember focusing on his diplomas on the wall in order to separate me from the anxiety I was feeling about being back in counseling. By that time, I thought I had done a lot of work on myself to be past that point – the point of needing someone to help me dig in and heal. I was wrong. I needed all of that and more. I kept going until I moved to Dallas. Then…2013 happened. I lost my job, my boyfriend broke up with me, and I moved back home. I NEEDED A THERAPIST. It was going well for awhile until the therapist began to take on a tone that was more reminiscent of a father than a therapist. I’m sure there was some transference going on there but I couldn’t fade it at all. The more I went, the more I felt preached at when all I wanted was for someone to say, “Ashley, you’re not crazy for grieving over these things. Take your time and do the work.” Instead, it felt like someone was pushing me with minimal support and with a lot of personal opinions mixed in there. I wasn’t far into my counseling program at that point but I knew what I could expect. I made the decision to leave counseling again.
I knew I shouldn’t have left counseling. I needed counseling. But I couldn’t bring myself to go back like i knew I needed to. My friend (thanks, Lisa!) stayed on me about getting back to counseling. She reminded me that I could not do all the good I desired if I wasn’t here – either because stress and anxiety took me out or because in a depressed mood, I took myself out. She even recommended me to her counselor and gave me all of the contact info. Even with that understanding, it took me the whole summer to make that phone call to set up my appointment.
I was so nervous leading up to the appointment and considered canceling it. It wouldn’t have been the first time I had done so (with the previous therapist). However, with my anxiety being what it has been over the past week and a half, I knew I had to go. Imagine that – a person who has been a student-counselor (under supervision) to others considering backing out of counseling. Sounds silly, right? It’s actually not.
More than anything, I think counseling offers us the biggest chance for vulnerability, honesty, and no-holds-barred conversation in a judgment-free environment. It offers a safe space and a safe person with whom to walk through the nuances of life. While on the surface that sounds great, it can actually produce a lot of fear and anxiety.
My new counselor is an African American woman. She was nice – not flowery nice but a consummate professional. While we talked during our session, she let me talk and was careful to let me know that she was listening through tracking and nonverbal cues. What I appreciated most about her though was that she did not shy back from challenging me even in the first session together – “This seems to be a cycle. What are you going to do to stop this?”; “You have a degree in this so you know all of the things I could say and you know all of the things you can do. When are you going to use those things?” I was thankful and saying “yo mama!” in my head. She’s setting the tone early on that she is not afraid to challenge but not afraid to support either “Have you considered…”
As a person who has been academically trained to be a counselor, I do not know how my life will allow me to utilize that training in a official professional way (which is part of my anxiety right now, TBH. I need to justify having to pay these student loans until my children’s children reach four-score). But one thing I can appreciate about the fear and anxiety that I am feeling about going to counseling is that it keeps me empathetic to the fears and anxieties clients may have coming into counseling. It allows me to appreciate that our number one duty is to do no harm. Holding a safe space and being a safe space is a tremendous opportunity; it is essential for me to remember that my ability to hold space for others is dependent on the space I hold for myself and how I entrust others to hold space for me.
I’ll keep you all posted on the journey.