A friend recently shared a video with me in which Jenn Im talked about her therapy journey. I found it really moving, and as I watched it I discovered that I wanted to reflect on my own path and how I got to where I am today. So here goes.
My first encounter with a counsellor was quite by accident. High school was a rough, rough time for me and I found myself drowning in distress on a daily basis. One day when I was struggling with perfectionism, I opted to miss the first two periods of school so that I could finish an assignment that was due by fourth period. I had to sign in late at reception, in the box listing my reason I wrote the word “moribund”. I’d meant it to be a cheeky way of implying that I was sick, and (in my arrogance) I didn’t expect the receptionist to know what it meant and to just ignore it.
Instead, later that day the Head of Year 12 knocked on the door of my Religious Education class and asked if she could speak to me. Terrified, we went for a walk through the school grounds as she raised her concerns. Yes, I knew what the word moribund meant. No, I didn’t mean it literally. No, I doing okay thank you. No, I didn’t need to see the school counsellor. No really, I didn’t want to see her.
But bless that dear, sweet woman, no matter how much I insisted she would not be turned aside. And so to make her go away more than anything else, I agreed to see Counsellor #1.
Counsellor #1 was a beautiful person. She described herself as Funky, Fit and Fun, and she was always smiling. For an hour every few weeks, she would sit with me and provide a listening ear at a time when I was desperate to share the pain inside of me. It felt like I had been carrying this boulder all by myself for so long, and she came along with a wheelbarrow and asked if I’d like to borrow it for a while. Life became more bearable by talking to her, even if it didn’t feel like the weight of my burden was decreasing.
I remember her asking me to draw how I felt inside, and I drew this ragged black thing with cruel eyes and fangs that I called The Nothing. Another time, I said to her that I hated my brother and I found myself sobbing because I realised in the same moment that I didn’t actually hate him, but that I hated the fact that I felt like I needed to hate him in order to protect myself. (Incidentally, we have a wonderful relationship now, and it took us many long years to get here.) Counsellor #1 gave me the validation I had so desperately been craving, and was a wonderful interlocutor as we discoursed on psychology and philosophy.
Things weren’t all great though. One of the things she said to me repeatedly was “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Looking back I think I know what she was trying to do: she was trying to get me to focus on the strengths I had, my victories and successes, the parts of my life that were beautiful instead of the darkness I constantly found myself looking for. But at the time, it didn’t help. I didn’t have the words for it, but there was a part of me that wanted to scream “I’m not okay. I’m so deeply, desperately, broken. I feel awful all the time. Why won’t you acknowledge it?”
One of the effects of seeing her was that I realised when I was feeling terrible I didn’t have to just accept it; that counselling services existed, and that maybe they might help me feel a little better. I started calling the Kids Helpline when I felt overwhelmed, and sometimes they were just what I needed and sometimes they weren’t. They taught me an important lesson too: that all counsellors are just people, and that some of them are absolutely terrible at their jobs (or otherwise not suited to me at all). In those moments, hanging up and calling back to speak to someone else could make all the difference in the world.
Ultimately, Counsellor #1 showed me so much kindness at a time when I needed it most and I will always be grateful for that. She invited me to come back and see her even after I graduated high school, and she always made time for me. However, I realised that I couldn’t continue doing that indefinitely, so upon her recommendation I checked out the counselling services at uni.
That lead me to Counsellors #2 and #3.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about either of them, except that I didn’t get on with them at all. They were both white guys in their 40’s, and their approach was really clinical. I guess that after seeing dozens of students a week, they found it hard to connect with individuals and care about them.
Things weren’t all bad though. One of them taught me two grounding techniques that I still use from time to time. In the end, I found that after two or three sessions with each of them I moved on looking for a better fit.
Counsellor #4 seemed to be that fit. He was warm, came from a social work background, and had a friendliness that was a welcome contrast to the two impersonal approaches that came before him. He told me that I was mature for my age, and with that simple sentence, he captured the wordless despair I’d felt my whole life at being surrounded by people who couldn’t relate to me at all. Furthermore, he seemed to genuinely care about me. When I shared with him how often I thought about dying, he made me promise to call Lifeline before I acted on my thoughts. It seemed to me to be the first time anyone was taking my suicidal ideation seriously, and I found it strangely touching.
Counsellor #4 also taught me how to communicate more clearly. At first the talking ratio during appointments was skewed about 70:30 in his favour, and I found it harder and harder to wait for him to finish speaking before I could share what was going on for me. Eventually I just stopped waiting and started speaking when I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and this turned out to be a very successful way of getting my point across. However after several sessions of this he gently informed me that what I was doing was called “interrupting”, and that some people might find it irritating even though he did not. That was a super important lesson that I’m glad he taught me early.
In terms of the therapy he offered, we weren’t quite a good match. As a student I could only see him 10 times a year, and so most of our sessions were based on anxiety-reduction techniques. He preferred to focus on the present and soothing my anxiety when it emerged rather than delving into my past and exploring the reasons it was occuring. He was really into this thing called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and in a nutshell he wanted me to acknowledge the presence of thoughts in my life without challenging them. This was not helpful to me because as far as I could tell, I wasn’t having any thoughts in particular that were causing me to feel distressed; anxiety was just my default state.
Ultimately, even though he was a welcome improvement from my previous counsellors, I stopped seeing him because I really wanted to delve into the deep stuff and bring about some lasting change in my life, and he just wasn’t willing to do that. I figured that I could work on mindfulness and soothing strategies on my own, and so I tried going without a counsellor for a while.
It did not end well. I hadn’t realised how poor my mental health was until I was on my final placement and the supervisors organised a meeting to advise me to withdraw. As far as I had known, I had been doing a great job, and it was a tremendous shock to my system to see that “my best” was actually a hot mess in the eyes of others. I decided to make a concerted effort to improve my mental health before trying again.
Finding a new counsellor was unknown territory to me. Up until that point I had been just seeing the most convenient counsellors that were available to me, and I didn’t really know where to start. As it happened, Beth had just started seeing a psychologist that her naturopath recommended, so I checked out her website, saw that she was into Buddhism and figured that it was worth a shot.
I saw the first available GP at the Uni’s medical centre to get a Medicare Mental Health Care Plan to see her. This was another instance that I opted for convenience and accessibility instead of planning for long-term healthcare, and I ended up regretting it too. That doctor at the med centre didn’t give a shit about me, and he seemed irritated that I’d come to him about something non-physical. When I filled out his questionnaire and all of the boxes were “moderately to highly distressed”, he begrudgingly approved the health care plan without a shred of empathy or patience.
Still, it got my foot in the door and I was able to set up my first meeting with Counsellor #5. The first session started pretty typically as she talked about confidentiality and I gave her an overview of my life story. It hadn’t been a particularly satisfying session so far, so it really caught me off guard when she said to me “You just want people to see how hard you’re trying to be a good boy.” I burst into tears, because it felt like that was all I’d ever been trying to do my whole life. It was a miracle to me that this stranger had seen and voiced in an hour what I had been struggling to notice in two decades. It taught me that having the perspective of a neutral observer could help me discover things that I just couldn’t see from my own point of view.
At the end of that first appointment, there was one other thing that really struck me; she seemed to have this idea that my life would get better. I found this very hard to wrap my head around because I had come to the conclusion that I would feel anxious every day for the rest of my life, and that all I could hope for was that some days it would be mild enough that I could function. I felt disconcerted by the optimism she seemed to have when faced with the crippling distress that stretched out into my future, so I asked her directly, “Do you really believe that one day I won’t have anxiety?” She answered “If I didn’t believe that, I’d be out of a job.” And with that, hope burned inside of me with a ferocity I hadn’t felt in many long years. She told me that I was safe with her, asked me to trust her. And so I did, putting blind faith in the idea that she could help me if I let her.
Thinking back, I feel complexly about our relationship. In many ways, Counsellor #5 was exactly what I needed to transform my life. And yet when I recall her, all of my memories are tinged with a gut-clenching fear and an effort to remain calm on the outside so that she wouldn’t notice my terror.
On the one hand, she seemed to me the very model of success: she was happy, and wealthy, and convinced me that she’d once been a mess just like me, and that she knew what I was going through. She could be sharp one moment and gentle the next, saying something that brought me to tears and then soothing me as I worked my way through it, smiling at me all the while. She made me aware of how out of control my anxiety had become, and had this ability to snap me right out of my thought spirals and back into reality.
She asked me to start attending the group therapy sessions she ran with her colleague, and so introduced me to Counsellor #6. In a nutshell, all he wanted for me was to care about something other than myself, and this was a lot to ask when I’d been stuck in flight or fight for so many years. He challenged me to lean deep into distress, to feel tremendous amounts of fear and just keep walking forwards rather than curling up or running away. Sometimes he was gentle, but those moments were rare. More ofter he would shame me, belittle me, tell me to “grow a pair”. And all the while he said it was for my own good, because he cared about me more than I cared about myself.
And to be fair, I think I needed to be pushed. I needed to be shown that I was stronger than I knew, that I could survive more than I gave myself credit for. It was their pushing that allowed me to stand up and fight for myself when my supervisor on my next placement threatened to fail me again. It was their pushing that allowed me to work six days a week and still face every day even when I felt like I was drowning in terror. They taught me to hide my fear, and this proved to be an armour that protected me from most harms. They taught me many useful lessons that I’ve summarised here, each of which were paid for in sweat and tears.
And money, I guess. In the end, this was the catalyst that lead me to stop seeing them. An individual appointment cost about $140, and the group therapy sessions were $120 each, sometimes twice a week. When I told them there was no way I could afford the group sessions, they agreed let me pay $40/session, and so I attended weekly or twice weekly for two years. Then one night they took me aside and told me they had only given me the discounted rate under the proviso that I was fully committed, and they didn’t feel like I was trying hard enough any more so they were going back to charging me the full price.
I never went back.
I haven’t quite forgiven Counsellors #5 and 6 for the hurt they inflicted on me, the scars they’ve left. Maybe one day I will. But for now, I’m glad that those years are behind me and I can let go of some of the lessons I needed to survive that time in my life.
It was several years before I was willing to try counselling again. Things in my life weren’t going particularly well, so I accessed EAP through my work for four free sessions, and that lead me to Counsellor #7.
Counsellor #7 was a welcome change from how hard Counsellors #5 and #6 pushed me. I’ve been seeing her for two years now, and I love and respect her for so many reasons. One of the things I love most about her is that she is careful not to push me in one direction or another: she sits with me where I’m at, strives to understand me, and reflects back to me what she sees. She lets me come to my own revelations, and she never pushes me without asking first.
It’s hard to list all the ways in which I’ve changed since I’ve started seeing her. She helps me understand myself so that I can grow and change as I desire. I still come home reeking of what I call “the fear sweats”, but it’s been so good to have a safe space to lean into my fear and explore it. She’s planting the seeds that one day sprout into my consciousness, enabling me to access thoughts that haven’t previously been part of my narrative, and that gives me hope. Each session, as I settle deeper and deeper into my knowledge of myself, I’m forever amazed at what I discover inside of me.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but recovery is not a linear jouney; it’s all kinds of messy. As one of my mentors said, “We have five degrees between us and we’re still fucked.” There will never be a day that I put a trophy on my mantlepiece and say “I did it, I recovered.” And that’s fine, because each time I find myself struggling with the same problems, I’ll have more experience, more wisdom with me, and I’ll navigate the rough waters a little easier.
I have no idea who I’ll be in ten years time. But I’m so grateful to all of my teachers past and present for helping me become who I am today, so that one day I’ll become the person I’m destined to be.
If you’d like to talk about your experiences with counsellors, therapists and mentors, I would be honoured to hear about it. You can find my contact details here.
Whatever your story, I wish you peace and wellness, now and into the future.