I remember the first time I ever went to a counselor.
It was 1990, I was 9 years old, and my parents were getting divorced. I had frizzy hair and a headband holding it back from my face. Internally I was a wreck, but I also was stubborn.
The main reason for the counselor’s involvement (at least as I remember it) was to help determine custody. My parents were locked in a nasty (and I mean nasty) custody battle and I felt like the pawn in the middle. My brother’s future was less contentious than mine. He is six years older than me, and at the age of 15 had already run away from home twice, been to jail a time or two, and was in the full throes of a teenage rebellion. Since he had limited time left as a minor, he got to pick where he lived. He chose my dad. I got to at least give my preference to the judge. I remember meeting him in a courthouse room with a very long wooden table. He sat at the head of the table and I sat to his left. I chose my dad too. Why did I do that? Well, that’s a story for another time…
I am happy to report that these days, more than 30 years after their divorce, my mom and dad get along, something I never thought would be possible. I have a very good relationship with both of them, which is something all three of us had to work at. I think the things that collectively broke us have, in time, made us stronger.
Back to 1990: I remember I was silent in those counseling sessions. I refused to talk and sat there truly annoyed, probably rolling my eyes more than once. In my mind I thought, “Who is this lady and what does she know about what I’ve been through?” Looking back, everyone was probably frustrated with me, not least of which my parents, who paid good money for this out of their very limited resources. My dad was a diesel mechanic and my mom an interpreter for the deaf, so spending money on mental health wasn’t a priority (although once the courts get involved, your priorities change).
The next time I saw a counselor wasn’t until Oliver was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis in 2010 and began to have daily seizures.
Watching his little body convulse and go limp from a lack of oxygen was wearing on me. I thought I was strong. I thought my childhood had prepared me for hard things (and it actually did), but nothing prepares you to watch the ongoing suffering of your child. I felt a darkness, a blackness, creeping into my life that I couldn’t stop. I realized I had known this feeling once before, in high school, when there was another out-of-control scenario in my life that I couldn’t stop. I didn’t get help back then from a counselor. Rather, I found myself in the gastroenterologist’s office with crippling stomach pain and other IBS symptoms. I needed a therapist, not Imodium. But I even had a colonoscopy, the concerns for my health were that great. They say the gut is the second brain and now, 20 years later, we know how much IBS is related to depression and anxiety.
In 2011, as the reality of our new normal following Oliver’s diagnosis set in, I found myself crying… all the time. Anything and everything was a trigger for me. I don’t think anyone told me how much I would grieve and that the process would actually never end. Anticipatory grief is possibly the worst, because there’s no closure.
I told my new counselor, Snowy, how many hours I spent sitting on the powder room floor, back against the wall, as Oliver played or slept, just weeping. Heaving sobs, the ones that make it hard to catch your breath, for an hour or more. I told her how I’d look in the mirror and yell at myself to pull it together, and when that didn’t work, I’d say over and over again — like I was in a trance — “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” just like I did when I was a little girl. But I wasn’t okay and I knew it. My time in graduate school, when I became intimately acquainted with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, helped me know I wasn’t in a funk. I wasn’t just “down.” I was likely depressed and heading into a vortex of darker thoughts.
I couldn’t pep-talk my way out of it.
I couldn’t do the things that usually made me feel better, things I had used to cope in the past. When I tried to talk to friends about it, they’d often do more harm than good with their advice or with stories of when they “pushed through hardship.” I even felt jealous of some of their hardships; they seemed so much more manageable than our future with Oliver.
I am not a crier in general, so not being able to stop crying was concerning. After a few sessions, Snowy diagnosed me with depression. As time marched on, we decided I needed to explore taking medication. I was on depression medication for two or three years. When I first tried to go off it, when I thought I was ready, the blackness poured back in and the emotional roller coaster fired back up. The second time I tried to come off the meds, I was ready. My brain had healed in some areas and you just can’t rush that. I had also begun some self-care practices that felt sustainable and fell in love with a new career in real estate that was bringing me joy and confidence.
I thought not that long ago I’d need to get back on the meds, and my counselor and I discussed the pros and cons. She has been walking with me through life for more than 10 years now. Sometimes I see her weekly (though we talk via phone amid the pandemic); other times I’ll go months without needing her. I count her as one of God’s angels in my life. She supports me, understands and validates me, sometimes offers a little correction and guidance (which I truly appreciate), and prays with me. Since she is a Christian counselor, I can freely discuss how my faith and beliefs fit into my worldview and my life. She also gave me permission to say the kinds of things in prayer I didn’t know I was “allowed” to say. She assured me that God could handle the fullness of my emotions and that was a breakthrough for me spiritually.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
I hope we all spend the next few weeks paying closer attention to our emotional needs and those of our loved ones. I see the stigma associated with mental health diminishing each year, but there’s still a long way to go. Talking about our mental health journeys benefits not just ourselves but all those around us. Remember, we are stronger together… and with the help of mental health professionals.