Taking the First Step…

Since I have entered this field, I have heard person after person tell me how long they struggled without seeking help. It is very strange to me sometimes, sitting on “this side of the couch”. What I mean by this is that – I, like many counselors, started as a client. From the time of adolescence, I struggled with emotional regulation and feelings of rejection. I found it difficult to build meaningful connections with peers and struggled with self-esteem. Luckily, my mother was a proponent for therapy and took me to see several counselors. Unfortunately, I resented her “thrusting” her idea of help on me, so I struggled to meaningfully engage with my early counselors. However, they planted the seed. Sometimes, that is the most important function of a counselor.

Later, when I slipped into struggles with substance use, my parents, again, tried to get me the help that I needed desperately. Still clinging to my new “tools” and “friends”, I resisted, knowing deep-down that my current path was unsustainable. However, my “inner rebel”, refused to admit defeat – how could my parents be right? Finally, at the end of a rope, my parents set a hard boundary: get help or leave their home. Luckily, I was also at the end of my rope. Shocking my parents, I decided to go to treatment and make some lifestyle changes.

However, even though I learned so much from my treatment experience, I was not through with substances or with my emotional journey. However, since the seeds had been planted, I knew where I could go when things got tough and they did – again and again. Each time another challenge that seemed insurmountable came up, I knew I could reach out for help. But it was still hard. It was hard for me to be honest with myself and admit that I could not figure it out “all on my own”. It was also hard to accept that even just admitting that I needed help did not make me a total failure. It did not mean that I was weak or pathetic. It did not mean that I was not smart or capable and it did not mean that I was “broken”. It just meant that I did not have all the answers and, what is more important, I did not need to have them all to be ok – to be “enough”.

Every day, I see all kinds of messages, coming from everywhere: media, social media, other people, workplaces, friends, family, and my clients. Some of the messages are quite uplifting and encouraging. But even though there is some progress being made, there are still some very damaging stigma floating around regarding mental health. It seems that every time something “extreme” happens, there is always a news reporter stating that the perpetrator was “mentally ill”. What does that mean? The blanket of “mental illness” is so broad, so encompassing that it is almost meaningless. They never report what kind of mental illness this human being had. They rarely discuss who that person was, they simply label and move on. The issue I have with this is that now all people think is that “mental illness” is something to be feared, loathed, and it must be a really big problem. When people fear being like the “crazy person” on TV, how likely are they to reach out for help? The fear of being stigmatized or labeled is intense and can prevent pattern-breaking action.

More than ever before, people are starting to examine what mental illness is and what it looks like. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer. It might not look the same for you as it does for me. And that is ok. Mental illness can be severe and debilitating or it can be more subtle and eroding. Whatever it means or feels like to you, however it affects you, you should know – you are not alone.

Without a support system, no one can survive. I believe this, 100%. Look at those who are extremely successful, they did not get there alone. I would not have gotten through the struggles I have without the support of my family, partner, friends, counselors, co-workers, and mentors. As we look at the world today, amid the pandemic, one thing has become quite clear – we cannot do this alone. Because, when we try, it gets way too hard. We need each other, we need connection, and we need support. Human beings are hardwired to desire connection and this is because the humans who connected with others survived. I am not quite sure where along the way our society developed this “you gotta figure it out on your own” attitude, but I will challenge this notion as long as I am able.

I know that one of my biggest goals as a counselor is helping people feel better and one way that I attempt to do that is simply to listen. In a world where everyone is talking and trying to talk above everyone else who is also talking, I try to be still and listen. That is what being “on this side of the couch” means to me. I hope that you will share what being on your “side of the couch” means to you.

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