After receiving my Master’s Degree in Social Work, I have spent the last 10 years working primarily with young people facing adversity and trauma. I have held stories that I cannot tell, I have held hands and wiped tears from sweet faces. I have looked my young people in the eye and told them I believed in them and that they mattered.
But this story isn’t about the love I have for the profession or for the clients I serve. It's about doing the work that I love, while also healing myself.
Before getting there, I want to share some experiences that I've had over the past few years to provide context.
In October of 2017, my father was diagnosed with Advanced Lung Cancer. As a therapist, I thought I could “prepare” myself in some way. I thought that somehow I could safeguard myself against the grips of pain and suffering that was to come. But I was wrong and incredibly naive. Grief showed up and didn't politely ask for permission to stay, like an untimely house guest, it came in without knocking.
On August 28th, 2018, my father took his last breath with us all by his side holding his hands, whispering, that it was okay to go. My sweet family and I held each other tightly, noticing the faint train whistle in the distance. After 38 years at the railroad, we were certain it was his final farewell.
Often times, grief is described as “waves” or stages. People often say, “Some days are just better than others.'' Grief is a feeling.. a process. A riptide.. often lingering just below the surface. What people don't tell you.. is the intensity of the waves and how it will knock you off your feet, unexpectedly, on a random Thursday morning when you are on your way to work and hear his favorite song.
My dad loved music, particularly from the 70s. Let's just say...I've cried my way through an entire Eagles cover band a time or two.
Several years ago, I entered therapy for the first time in the midst of a break-up. My therapist said, “This pain will help you.. this pain will help you relate to your own clients”. I have returned to those words in the aftermath.. to figure out how this “new pain” will do the same. A dear co-worker echoed a similar sentiment, "It's going to make you a better social worker".
In the weeks after, I returned to work... Trying to feel my way through it all. The support and love of others lifted me up. The joy from the young people I worked with rekindled my spirit and gave me purpose.
I carried on. The grips of grief let up some. We made it through the holidays and exhaled a sigh of relief
In February of 2019, I faced professional challenges…ones that shook me to my core and knocked me to my knees. But I didn't get right back up.
I became somewhat of a contradiction. I was tearful and angry. I had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning; I became restless and couldn't sleep at night.
My friends started to ask about the changes in my weight. I was sick more frequently and took some time off. But I found that I struggled.. mostly when I was alone. My mind would race. I became paranoid and didn't know who to trust. Even though I did nothing wrong, I felt all alone. My back was up against the wall in my small little apartment.
So, I began (therapy) again...
I imagine therapists aren't the easiest clients, but I knew that I had an ethical responsibility of self-care. I was open with my supervisor. My friends were kind and didn't judge, but were also concerned.
As time passed on, I grew frustrated with myself; after all, wasn't I a mental health professional? One with a clinical license, even? Why couldn't I piece together what was going on? Why couldn't I fix it? It was messy. It was unfamiliar and I was exhausted.
I was spinning my wheels.
In April, my therapist pointed out that I was having a trauma response and that I was starting to show some symptoms of PTSD. The very subject I pride myself in knowing a lot about! But trauma was different than grief; it was unapologetic and harder to predict. Instead of coming through the door, It shattered a window and climbed in.
I felt some immediate relief just hearing from another professional that there was something bigger going on.
Over the last several months, I've had to learn how to hold space for both. I've had to dig in and explore uncharted territories. My therapist has guided me and kindly had to remind me more than once that I was the client and not the therapist. And that I couldn't think my way through it; I had to feel.
It isn't without reservation that this story is being shared. I have feared what clients and colleagues may think or say.
But as the extraordinary author, Brené Brown, has said, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome”.
To me, this story continues to evolve and isn't over.
It is about wellness among professionals.. a conversation about mental health and secondary trauma… about gaining perspective and being transparent. About getting knocked off your feet and learning how to stand again. And again.
And above all, it's about getting help and not being ashamed to do so. Mental health is a topic on the main stage, yet people continue to whisper that they have a "therapy appointment". People continue to suffer in silence and hide their pain, as if we don't all have it in some form.
I'm starting to believe that challenges are transformative. Discomfort and pain only add to our depths. I do believe that I can relate to my clients in a different way than I ever have before.
I want to continue to inspire and motivate others. I want others to know that true healing is hard. It's messy. But when the dust settles, you will rise.
In closing, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Mary Anne Radmacher:
“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.”
I hope to see you there.