Journey of a Rookie Mental Health Ninja

Mental health is such a interesting (and, I would argue, new) focus in the world. It’s this intangible, invisible plane of existence where everyone sees immensely universal themes of human experience with a beautifully unique lens. Often, that lens is kneaded and dyed and cured from the kiln of deep-seated psychic pain. Sometimes this pain is birthed deep within the miraculous chemistry of the brain. Other times it is violently stabbed into existence through trauma that callused, buried, and festered over time. In the case of many, it is a lethal combination of these two origins that mutilate and poison worldviews in such subtle ways that the Devil himself would be impressed.

I had the redemptive blessing of entering into this treacherous world with various transcendentally beautiful souls. I am just shy of completing the practicum segment of my Master’s degree in counseling: in other words, my first real experience in the field of mental health counseling.

I’ve always felt called to work in schools. The certainty of this specific calling made adjusting to a mental health setting extremely frustrating. Long hours, back-to-back clients, inconsistency, and feeling like everyone’s emotional trashcan were among some of the more trivial hardships. On a deeper level, I had to learn to communicate in a brand new way: open-ended questions, intentional listening for patterns/themes, and confronting inconsistencies in client stories are not methods I used to communicate every day. Honing these skills simultaneously in two languages (English and Spanish) brought on anxiety I had no idea I could feel. It also caused me to communicate this way in my own head, bringing to light my own psychic wounds–and often, some healing.

This experience educated my relationship with my boyfriend, my family, my friends, and my self-esteem. It has made interpersonal conflict more honest and focused on change, but has also made it more intense and difficult. It challenged me to a new sense of courage in balancing my needs and meeting the needs of others, which can be an overwhelmingly convoluted process. And, finally, it helped me take away some serious learning experiences that I hope I never forget. So, I’m writing them here.

  1. Focus on the redeeming qualities. I have always loved people. So it was surprising to learn for the first time in a real way that people can really suck. From dealing with a client who skips multiple appointments to hearing about pure evil acts of sexual abuse, it can become extremely easy to make the generalization that people just aren’t worth the effort. But to get hung up in this generalization is to be, at the very least, a selfish counselor (which is a complete oxymoron in my opinion). Sometimes all I could do to get through a hard day was find the redeeming qualities about my clients and counseling in general and repeat them over and over in my head. I owe that discipline to some great advice from my supervisor. Focusing on the strengths of a person or a situation diminishes a selfish mindset and places focus on the person who was courageous enough to place their mental health in your hands. I have to do whatever it takes to honor that courage because it is central to change.
  2. The statement behind the statement is the best kept secret of human communication. How often do people get stuck in recurring arguments that last for years? Extremely often, as I found out. This type of argument is not only annoying and circular in its resurfacing, but it often neglects larger themes that can fester and poison self-esteem and relationships. Too often, we keep conversations to a superficial level because of the fear of what it means to go deeper. Call it the effect of a culture of immediacy or technology, but to sit in the comfort of superficial exchanges often disguises deeper themes that need to be acknowledged in order to grow. All actions, statements, and behaviors can be traced ultimately to the meaning of one’s life. I believe that meaning in life is central to who we are. Some people may disagree, but I have grounded myself in this idea that we are all worthy of encountering meaning in life. Superficial exchanges do not equate our entire identity, but they certainly reflect them. As a counselor, I learned that valuing clients’ holistic identity as a sum of its parts can be therapeutic. Granted, this was a lesson I learned primarily by painful confrontation of my own “statements behind statements”, but it happened. A statement is never just a statement. A behavior is never just a behavior. A shift in focus to deeper themes of meaning and existence will always be more productive (albeit, sometimes painful) than the superficial exchanges we have with ourselves or others.
  3. Balance is everything. A focus on identifying meaning in life (again, a concept to which I adhere as a counselor but others may not), brings along with it certain inevitabilities. These include death, freedom, isolation, and the threat of meaninglessness in the classical existential sense. I value Viktor Frankl’s approach that also emphasizes suffering and responsibility. Most humans I’ve met in and out of the counseling environment are willing to admit that absolute bliss and contentment in life is not realistic or even something desired. Learning to balance things like suffering and meaning, personal needs and collective needs, rights and responsibilities, past and present, and present and future, are just a few things people strive for. For me, balance has come to mean sitting comfortably with my “monsters” or inevitabilities. Recognizing insecurities, anxieties, fears and strengths as all part of my journey and relating it to a quest for meaning in my life. It’s okay to have monsters. It’s okay to be scared and hurt and angry sometimes. But to let them overcome you or to completely deny them can stifle growth.
  4. Dignity is central to humanity. A central struggle I’ve had throughout this process is the reconciliation of my Catholic faith and the practice of counseling. My Catholic faith has become central to my identity and an absolute non-negotiable. Place this idea in a professional field that seems to, at times, embrace relativism above everything else and you can easily find yourself confused or offending someone. Often, it seems to me the idea that “the client’s reality and truth is his/her own” is beat into us pretty hard. I am not willing to abandon my faith for this idea. By the same token, evangelizing in a counseling session is not something I believe is productive. A mental counseling session is a space for a client to grow and heal, and not a space for me to disclose anything unless it is productive to this client growth. But holding fast to the ultimate dignity in human beings (something that my faith strongly advocates) has really educated this struggle. No one client is less worthy of healing and growing than another. Every human person has the right to recognize their own dignity and value their unique place in this world. Whether their past or presenting issues are in accordance with my faith is irrelevant. I am not there to agree or disagree with them. I am there to help them see their infinite worth. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I reflect. Sometimes I tear up with them. But my ultimate vocation as a counselor is to allow a space for reaffirming dignity we all possess as humans made in the image and likeness of God.

 

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Get On Your Knees

What you told me to do.

What I tell you to do.

Get On Your Knees

That which I brutally endured

is now for you.

Exchanges of oppression, yokes of history

now your gift, your curse while I’m out doing me.

Get On Your Knees.

I objectify me

flaunt my beautiful body

in the name of female authority, female priority

but you can’t like what you see

because of your [ASSumed] inability to see me

as little more than grade-A meat.

Get On Your Knees

As long as I’m in control

the casualties of your will can fall

in complete defeat.

Get on your knees.

I don’t want to defeat

except for the subtle Evil that speaks

of the Myth of Power and Greed

and Superiority.

Get on your knees

not in submission

In humility. In harmony.

I’ll meet you there.

Eye to eye, our misplaced wills can meet.

In empathy. In intimacy.

Get on your knees

with me.

We can pray

or hope

or kiss

for healing.

Together.

Living National Anthem

So I went to the Tesuque Pueblo feast day today and was so completely struck by the rich ancient culture that is still practiced today. And I wrote about it so here it is.

Nestled in the cradle of the mountains,

ushered by holy unwavering tradition,

lies the ultimate patriotic hymn.

Red burns fiercely in paint

adorning solemn faces of strength.

White beats quietly in moccasins

that massage the Earth in sacred dance.

Blue billows against long black hair

as hand-woven shawls sway in rhythm

with the women on whose shoulders they rest.

Drums and voices and stomping feet

undulate unity, power, grace, a spiritual force:

an anthem to a binding covenant

to stay true to the roots

of the land and each other.

This hymn refuses to fall victim

to changing times

to colonization

to stereotypes

to the ignorance and brokenness

of the “land of the free and the home of the brave”.

These people are dancers,

defenders,

artists,

protectors,

families

and testaments to a vast perseverance throughout history.

These are Americans.

And their song makes me proud to be one.

Take a Wild Guess at the Title after Reading This

I’ve been told lately that I’m…mean.

Ironic, I’d say.

That’s all I am trying to do

is mean.

From someone who meant

to apparently someone mean.

I became mean because I gave up a meaning

that I didn’t know was rented until

time was mean and made me return it.

I am mean because it gives me reason

to find meaning.

Someone has to be mean in this place

where meaning equals pleasure and pleasure equals

the end

and waiting for pleasure just makes everyone

mean.

Ashes

Rarely do we revel in rubble

or frolic through remains of thorough destruction.

But there is something level

about being leveled. And reduced to nothing but

ash.

Something so cleansing about being 

burned to the core. 

Ashes birthed from kindled chaos

are transformed from bright hot color

to a quiet peaceful gray.

The seduction of a beautiful fire

leaves little room for admiration of its bland casualties.

Or acknowledgment of their incredible importance

in the cycle of sterile rebirth and

hope. 

I have finished the race…kind of.

My last few posts have been pretty heavy. And some downright depressing. It would be an understatement to say that the last month or so has been a test to my strength and faith. I finished one chapter in my life. A chapter whose significance I had grossly underestimated until it was done and I had to say the hardest goodbye in my life. But now that I’ve been adjusting and refocusing my energy towards the future, I can look back at that awful month and at the last few months really and say that I have witnessed my own growth. And I just want to take a second to celebrate it. Because it has been a truly beautiful thing to see Victor Hugo’s words come to fruition in my own life: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise”. And though it has been slow with and with more pain and tears than I thought were humanly possible, my sun is slowly beginning to rise. I am beginning to gather strength from this extremely difficult time. What a uniquely wonderful feeling. So I’m going to write about it.

My faith, though a constant, has been in such turmoil lately. When I said goodbye to a three-year relationship, another young man with whom I fell harder than I intended, a cushy network of friends and daily routines, and a whole life really, I fell into a certain hopeless mindset. It was a mindset that was convinced that everything and everyone I will ever fall in love with will be ripped from my hands the same way. Couple that with the guilt I had been feeling from years of emotional and physical infidelity in my romantic relationship, and I truly felt like I deserved the misery I was feeling. I was so mad at God for making me be the one to have to say goodbye and transition into a life of isolation and uncertainty AFTER it was me who did the brave thing by building a life at Gonzaga in the first place. It was ME who had to suck it up and be away from my family during holidays. It was ME who had to take a taxi by myself to go to Easter Mass in the middle of a city I knew nothing about. It was ME who was the only one who missed the passing of my grandfather to be at school 1300 miles away. It was ME who had to be at home with my super-Catholic family after graduation without the alcohol or social life I came to depend on so heavily at school to cope. All of these thoughts left me sad and mad and bitter as I unpacked what was left of my life at Gonzaga in my childhood bedroom. Even writing about them now tugs at a scar on my heart that is just now starting to heal. What my broken heart didn’t realize is that I was just looking at everything the wrong way. And it took some serious spiritual turmoil to realize that.

This past weekend during mass (to tell you the truth, I’ve been dragging myself. I haven’t wanted to go at all), there was a reading that proved that there’s a powerful spiritual force at work to help me heal from all the brokenness. It’s one of my dad’s favorites and, now, one of mine. It’s from St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy and the verse that God kind of yelled at me said,

“I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

I think about where I am today, at this very moment, and it is absolutely amazing to me how clearly God speaks to me sometimes. I got my diploma in the mail today. My college diploma and my transcripts with every grade from every class I ever took in college. As I held those things in my hands, I thought of a lot of things. Every test I failed. Every snow storm I walked through to get to a 50-degree house. Every time I dejectedly went to the bank to dip into my savings to pay my utility bill. Every friend that ever betrayed me. Every time I went for a run just to get my mind off of homesickness and stress and surviving on my own. Every time I went to confession after making a horrible decision because I was in over my head. Every time I sprinted through crowded theater lobbies because everyone was talking to their parents who came to see them perform in a dance concert when mine were across the country. Every time I sat in front of the beautiful grotto of Our Lady and sobbed, not knowing how I would pay for everything or what the next day would bring. All of these and more came to my mind when I looked at that simple piece of paper today. And then, I thought of the verse. I have finished the race. I did it. At least this part. During this chapter, there were SO many people who told me, “I don’t know what to tell you”, or “I’m sorry, I wish I could help” but I somehow figured it all out. On my own. And graduated. What a mind boggling thought. I did it.

And then I did something else unthinkable. I left it all. I left it and came home to a life I abandoned 4 years ago. With minimal peers, too many ghosts of the past, and a gut-wrenching nostalgia for my Spokane comfort zone. I had come to depend so heavily on alcohol to help me deal with it all before graduation, and leaving it made me realize how unhealthy it was. So I gave it up completely for awhile. I dove head first into my work which, Thank God, kept my mind occupied on the days where it took everything I had to even get out of bed. I reforged a couple of old friendships. And I reconnected with my family who has been desperately trying to help me get through this. There was a lot of fighting and bitterness and attempts on their part to understand what I was going through. But I just got up every day and somehow made it through. And today, with 15 days left of my countdown to go visit my Spokane, I look back on this journey more content than I was yesterday. And the day before. And a HELL of a lot stronger. I did it. I made it through the hardest month of my life with no help from the crutch of alcohol. I. did. it.

I’m not naive. I know that just because I got my diploma today and we finally have running water in our house again (that’s a whole other story) and had a hell of a 4-mile run, doesn’t mean that the hardships of transition are over. I’m probably going to wake up one of these days and feel pangs of that awful dark place I was in. But I’m noticing that as time goes on, those pangs get less frequent. And less ruthless. Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to look back at old pictures and not feel heartbroken. It’s a good thing to look forward to. But until then, I’m just going to sit here and celebrate the days that I feel like this. The days that I feel I have truly “competed well, finished the race, and kept the faith”.

 

Soundtracks

A peculiar home of steady bass and lazy melody

lulls me to order

sings me grounded through altitude change

when my mind can’t see nary a footpath.

Walking through and past

in and out 

of my collection of strange thoughts

seems bearable with a beat.

The beats march me through borders and barriers

dance me through road blocks and security lines.

Empty minded ambles, endless stints of intellectual exhaustion

Confusion, boredom, nostalgia, heartbreak, euphoria 

STOP. There’s nothing you can do or say. 

Life packed up and put in a suitcase

in the air between identities?

Headphones go in and suddenly

the music is the ironic eye in Hurricane Transition

The hums and syncopation 

seem quite a peculiar home

but the only one that unifies

the only one that reconciles

all of me.