[TW: self harm mention]
By Jess Spayd
My story with counseling and therapy began in tenth grade in the Student Assistance Coordinator’s office at my high school. In the state of New Jersey, a Student Assistance Coordinator (better known as SAC) provides counseling services to students regarding substance abuse and related issues. I was a straight-edge teen, “emo” by self-definition, with dyed black hair and dark eye makeup, band tees, wristbands, and Chuck Taylors. I didn’t drink or use drugs, but someone had tattled on me – I was a cutter.
My depression and anxiety would escalate over the next few years, but at this time I barely had a name for what I was experiencing. I was sad, angry, and afraid nearly all the time. I excelled at school but had turbulent relationships with friends, boys, and especially my family. I found solace in music, but often I believed the frustration I couldn’t name would only be quelled by hurting myself. I thought I hid it well, but my friends knew something was wrong.
I was mortified when I was asked to report to Mrs. C’s office. I thought for sure I was in trouble – that I’d be scolded and have my parents called. I remember entering her office with shaking hands, my heart pounding out of my chest, tears already welling in my eyes.
Mrs. C welcomed me into her office. She asked me how I was doing in school. She asked me about my family, my friends, my hobbies and interests. She asked me how I was feeling. When she finally asked about self-harm, she didn’t scold me, but simply asked that I make sure I kept my wounds clean. Soon, we were discussing my home life and how I was struggling to cope with my emotions.
Over the next few months, I would meet with Mrs. C on a regular basis. She was the kindest adult I’d met in my life at this point. She was always so calm, and I really felt that she cared about me. She let me talk about whatever was troubling me. Not only did she give me a safe space to work out my struggles – she helped me grow into the person I am today. Once an I’m-not-going-to-college rebel, I decided I wanted to become a counselor like Mrs. C, so I could help kids like me.
I would have many more experiences with therapy and counseling over the next decade. A brief stint in family therapy would leave me feeling resentment and discouragement. At my rock-bottom at age 17, a therapist would ask that I return once I’m stable on medication and crying less, and a psychiatrist would mis-diagnose and over-medicate me. Soon after, I’d meet Sharon, a tell-it-like-it-is psychologist with an expensive session fee, whom I’d see on-and-off for the next six years.
As an undergraduate in college, I studied clinical and developmental psychology, volunteered for a crisis and suicide hotline, and interned in psychology research labs. After toying with the idea to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, I ultimately decided to attend graduate school to become a master’s-level counselor.
Graduate school turned out to be an absolute dream for me. I loved learning and practicing counseling skills; delving into theories of personality, development, and the counseling relationship; and exploring self-awareness, who I am as a person, and who I would be as a counselor. Finally, in my third and final year, I began my clinical internship in a college counseling center.
All along, I had a gnawing feeling that my personal challenges with mental health would make me less of a counselor – that somehow I couldn’t help others because I needed help, too. I was back in therapy myself as the pressures of graduate school and starting my career weighed on my fragile sense of emotional stability. This was the moment of truth.
The anxiety I felt leading up to my first counseling session was incredible. My supervisor would be there in the room with me, but I had to lead the session. What will the student say? Will he be able to tell that I’ve never done this before? What if I don’t know what to say? What if I can’t help him? In other words: I’M A FRAUD.
Of course, the session went fine. I gathered a lot of information about the student and we developed a rapport quickly. This student turned out to be very easy-going and open-hearted, and I will always remember how kindly he expressed his gratitude for the work we did together when we terminated counseling, saying I was “the best counselor” he ever had. *HAPPY CRY*
There would be many experiences in my internship and subsequent professional work as a counselor that would throw me back into the I’m-a-fraud mindset. I had moments where I believed I couldn’t help adult clients that were older than me, or that I couldn’t handle severe crises, or that I might cry in session, out of empathy for my client. Thankfully, through supervision and as a therapy client myself, I have been able to work through this self-doubt and prove to myself that my own struggles with depression and anxiety, and my experiences as a client, indeed make me a better counselor.
What have I learned from my experiences on both ends of the couch?
First: You aren’t alone in feeling those nerves leading up to a therapy appointment. Many people feel that way – including the therapist! I hope this fact helps to normalize the experience and humanize therapists a bit.
Second: Counselors and therapists are there to help. To provide a safe and comfortable space. To develop trust with you, so that you can share your experiences and feelings, and ultimately so that you can grow as a person. Sure, not every therapist will be a good fit for you, and that’s okay. Give it a chance, and if it doesn’t work, give another therapist a chance. There are so many wonderful counselors out there ready to offer you support.
And third: Your struggles make you stronger and help you grow – and most of all, you can use what you’ve been through to help others experiencing similar struggles and feelings. Empathy comes from pain – And empathy heals pain. Your challenges don’t make you less able to help others – they make you more able. I’m not saying we should all go out and be counselors – Certainly it is not for everyone. But if you want to help others, there are so many ways to do so, both big and small. Offer support to a friend. Volunteer with a social services organization. Advocate for access to mental health treatment and services. Share your experiences on social media. You can make a difference!