My mission to live transparently wasn’t always a part of my journey. For most of my life, I was stuck inside of my head, experiencing my depression and anxiety silently. My lack of support was in part due to my inability to formulate a cohesive explanation that I felt could adequately describe just how lost, overwhelmed and low I felt. I was so scared of what people would think and say about me. I was caught up in the “what ifs” and every time I tried to open my mouth, I felt consumed by self-doubt and shame.
As the years went on, I began to struggle in school, especially throughout my years in junior college (yay OCC). I could never pinpoint why I felt the way that I did, why I would sometimes feel everything, and then other times feel utterly numb. Luckily, now I have some answers that make a whole lot of sense to me, but that certainly wasn’t always the case. For years, on and off, I felt less than, unimportant and unsure of myself. My negative thinking patterns and less than ideal self-image caused me to seek out temporary fixes for what seemed like permanent pain.
It wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I realized the power that rested within my mind, heart and soul. I felt seen, heard and understood. I can attribute this change to a few significant things, but the one that stands out the most is my second-year placement where I worked as a trauma therapist. My experiences as a therapist helped shape me into who I am today. Particularly, the moment I asked my supervisor if I could talk to her alone for a few minutes during my first week of training. This moment was huge for me in so many ways.
I want to share a little bit of backstory before I continue on with what was said during our talk. Around the time that I started graduate school in 2016, my depression and anxiety were getting out of control. I made it through my first-year placement but by the time I started at the trauma center, I was falling apart. I was experiencing multiple panic attacks per day, each one more debilitating than the last. I was isolating myself because I was living in fear of facing another one of my triggers. Crying myself to sleep became the norm because I wasn’t able to overcome the heaviness that plagued my chest. From the outside looking in, my life seemed pretty awesome, and it really was. I was halfway done with my dream graduate program, I had just married my best friend, I had wonderful people in my life, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, none of that really mattered at the time and whenever someone brought all of that up in response to my symptoms, all I was left feeling was guilt.
Eventually, I decided to get help. There is a lot that went into that, but I’ll save that for another time. I scheduled an appointment with a therapist and a psychiatrist and started down the path that I’m currently on. As a trauma therapist, I had the honor of sitting with my clients in whatever they were experiencing. I had the pleasure of witnessing the pure resiliency, strength and courage within their hearts. Every person I came into contact with inspired me to take back some control over my life. I decided that I didn’t just want to “make it” through my day. I didn’t want to continue counting the hours until I could go home and go to sleep. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what my ideal life would look like, but I knew that this wasn’t it.
After many discussions with my husband, I decided that I would pull my supervisor aside and let her know what I was facing and working through. I wanted to speak my truth because living in secrecy was only exacerbating my symptoms and perpetuating the fear that I had carried around for so long. My hope was that she would give me tips on how to ensure that I have a healthy work life balance, especially during this turbulent time. I wanted to soak up as many tips as I could regarding how to best care for myself after each session. I figured, we’re both mental health professionals, how scary could this be? I found out very quickly just how scary it was while walking into her office. Needless to say, grounding skills came in really handy before our chat. I wasn’t afraid of her reaction because I could tell how genuine and kind she was. I was afraid of letting even a small part of my chaotic mind express itself. I was afraid I would lose control and spiral into a panic attack right in her office. Guess what? That didn’t happen at all. Instead, an awesome bond was formed based on honesty and respect.
Instead of the doom and gloom I was imagining, we had a great conversation about ways to de-stress after each session and general self-care tips. This ten-minute meeting is what ignited my journey of unadulterated honesty. It was the start of something beautiful. I began to believe that I could struggle with my mental health while being a successful mental health professional.
To be honest, I don’t really remember what I said because I was so nervous. I do remember telling her that I was experiencing panic attacks daily and that I was currently getting professional help. We talked about spacing out clients and taking time to practice mindfulness throughout the day. We discussed the power of deep breathing and spending as much time outside as possible. She thanked me for my honesty and in that moment, I felt like I got some of my power back.
I’m aware that not everyone is able to discuss their mental health with their supervisors, coworkers or peers for one reason or another. It’s not an easy task and it requires being vulnerable and open to whatever reaction may arise. I will say, life changed for the better after that moment. I feel empowered and loved. I wish the same for all of the warriors out there who are facing their own battles.
I had just come out of a session with a client. It was maybe two or three months into my MSW internship at a rape crisis center as a trauma therapist (nevermind that I had zero experience of doing psychotherapy before). I walked into the office that I shared with my co-intern (we’ll call her Sadie, who was an MFT trainee) and sat down at my desk, finding it hard to breathe. I looked over at Sadie who looked up from her SOAP notes and asked excitedly, “How’d it go??” We were still in the early stages of our internship where after each session with clients, we would ask this question; it was sweet really. I just looked at her with a nervous smile on my face, already knowing that blotchy red patches were crawling up my chest to my neck.
I said, “Do you ever feel like you can’t move, like there’s a thick vine that’s wrapping itself around your whole body and you feel like you’re wired shut?”
She looked at me and said, with simultaneously kind and shocked eyes, “Oh my god, ME TOO.”
The vulnerability that must have showed on both our faces marked the first time I can remember taking the risk of sounding like I didn't know what the hell I was doing and just come out and be honest about what I was feeling. Sadie and I went on to talk about our somatic experiences that came up when in the room with our clients and the “morbid” relief we felt that each of us felt the same way. And I have to say, that was probably the moment when I was first honest with someone else about what I was feeling. I’ll save vicarious trauma for another time, but this moment in time really sticks out to me as I began thinking about what to write.
The next moment I recall was much later, and VERY recent, only this time, the honesty would be toward my supervisees. One of my supervisees, whom you know as my lovely co-blogger Natasha, had been open about her mental health with me from the get-go; a brave, inspiring act that will always hold so much awe and warmth for me as a supervisor. Each of my supervisees, like people in general, were all at varying stages of their own self-discovery, something that had grown to be such a beautiful, open discussion in our supervision, both in individual and group sessions.
I can’t for the life of me recall what the topic was during this particular group supervision, but I remember it was toward the end of their placement. We were probably reflecting on each person’s personal and professional growth during the past nine months, and I’d always made it a point to include myself in these kinds of conversations- not as a focal point, but more so as a means to demonstrating an equal power structure and relatability instead of the “I vs. Thou” style of supervision.
Everyone was becoming emotional, as we had all grown so close and felt so at home with each other. When it came time for me to speak, with an internal shaking and raw fear of what they would think of me, I uttered:
“About two months ago, I was finally diagnosed as Bipolar.”
I went on to tell them how, without their knowledge, they- in addition to my clients- had been the main reason I came to work each day. And that my relationship with them had gotten me through some of the hardest, darkest moments of my life- including a long manic episode that left me with close to no savings left in the bank, ongoing depressive episodes that brought me down to barely showering or physically moving at all, calling off sick to work because of debilitating anxiety, a horrific breakup with someone who actually exploited and used my mental health battles against me and eventually led me to having the first panic attacks I’d had in over a year, and ending with going back on psychotropic medication that actually worked.
The response I received was overwhelming. There were tears and looks of such raw, undiluted empathy, that it almost brought me to tears myself; I was so touched. And no one- not even a little- thought any less of me.
In fact, it made our relationship even stronger.
This taught me, as I am constantly learning, that embracing the parallel process of practitioner to client, supervisor to supervisee, is so important. It could not be more vital to my growth or my practice or my soul. It reminds me that if something is a combination of brutal and beautiful that I need to do it. And maybe sometimes I get too scared and don’t, but that’s okay. I’ve never been more nervous, but I’ve also never felt more freer or connected.
It’s okay to be honest. And yeah, the reality is that some people just aren’t ready for it, and sometimes you do have to customize your delivery, or even consider delivering your truth at all. And that’s okay too. The bottom line is that it’s a choice. And I’ve been honest in situations that felt safe and situations that felt unsafe. I’m not gonna lie- I’d definitely recommend the former over the latter. But that is 100% our choice.
What’s made a difference for me is knowing where my desire to be honest is coming from. If it’s coming from wanting someone to have pity for me or gain someone’s approval or attention, then I’ve learned that it’s not in my best interest. However, if it’s coming from a place of me just being real, helping someone feel less alone, relating to someone, or just because being fake is simply too damn hard, then I’m honest. And I’m far from perfect in my delivery, but I’ve got to say- when I’m honest for the right reasons, I have never once regretted it. Ever.
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