Now for those of you who are still reading despite my ridiculous nature, I will tell you more. (What? He's adorable. I just picked him up over his food dish, and he was a squirming, purring, I-love-you-too-but-put-me-down meowing mess. And now he is munching but will return in moments to rest at my feet.)
A couple of years ago I was attempting to enjoy a graduate program that I really couldn't enjoy. I was in my first (which would end up being my only) semester of a Social Work program, simultaneously losing my mind. Okay maybe I wasn't losing my mind, but at times it felt like it and I sincerely feared I might. It was at a point where I had exhausted my normal resources--my extensive family (three brothers, two 'rents), my best friends, acquaintances, the casts of various TV sitcoms--that I decided, encouraged by my brother Kelly, visiting a counselor wouldn't hurt.
In my Policy class that semester, we had watched a video on reforming legislation. The video followed a group of individuals who sacrificed their own precious time to attempt to loosen some of the strict reins on welfare policy, I believe, that had greatly hindered their quality of life, though they worked hard every day of those lives. During the course of time that was covered in the film, this group had some moderate success, followed by what seemed to be pretty awesome success in influencing legislators to make some changes.
After much hoopla and celebration by the group that so valiantly fought for the change, the new law that had been put into place thanks to their grueling efforts, was vetoed. Following the rest of the film that had consisted of conversational dialogue, this information was starkly presented as type on a black screen. Following this message that already made my heart sink, there were bios of each of the people in the video, explaining where they were about three years later. Two of them had died, one in NYC on 9/11, another from extreme health problems that spiraled out of control due to his lack of health coverage. Others, as I recall, were somewhere back near Square One in their lives.
After class I got in my car, merged on the interstate, and started bawling. I called Kelly the second I got in the door and told him "I can't be a social worker." He walked me through it, listened to the snot and tears. I told him that I was afraid to see a therapist, that I didn't want to be "that screwed up" to need one. Having been a social worker, suffered from anxiety, and seen a therapist himself, he slowly explained to me that, ultimately, a counselor is just a non-biased third party to listen to you. Those words have never left me, and I have passed them on to others who were (or maybe were not) considering seeing a counselor themselves. I am a huge advocate for the practice, and believe that the second you start talking in that office you will no longer feel self-conscious but will realize how normal you actually are and that everyone could benefit from the professional listening ear. Even when that couch with the box of tissues next to it looks like a huge, growling leather bear.
My counselor walked me through my semester of social work, which I finished, and helped me sort out my thoughts about whether or not to continue on toward the degree. Because of her help I have been able to, for the most part, use my old line of resources, but occasionally she'll get me through a rough patch. Most recently when I walked out of her door she asked, "Are you ready to walk through this?" I told her yes, and then she said, "You know where I am."
I bet you're all wondering where Dibbs the cat comes into this. Or for those of you who know me pretty well, probably just think I started to talk about the cat and then got distracted. Oh there's a connection--I would never disappoint with a lack of connection.
Conversely to my last visit with my counselor, the first time I visited her I had to fill out some paperwork that I downloaded off of her website. It had questions about familial mental illness, etc., and towards the end of the page it asked, "What actions, if any, have you taken toward finding a solution?" In the two and a half lines provided I listed my beloved "resources:" family, friends, as well as books, prayer, church, journaling. I also made room for "petted my cat." When my counselor read that piece, she smiled. She knew, though, that I was serious, and in turn took me seriously. That is another great thing about counselors: if you are looking for dignity and respect, there are few better places to find it.
In another one of my courses that semester, we discussed Strengths Theory, which focuses on individuals' strengths that they can use to solve problems and crises in their lives--monetary assets, skills, great people in their lives, and moments that are so natural to them that everything else fades away and they forget that they are suffering a crisis. A woman could be grieving the death of her husband, for example, but say she's a ballerina and when she is doing a pirouette, she completely forgets that anyone has died. Forgetting obviously doesn't make a problem go away, as you will soon remember once again. But the point is she loves ballet so much, once danced on feet much smaller than her adult pair and has never stopped, and because of this it is so much a part of her routine and her core that it passes the time and helps heal the wound.
In my class we were tossing out examples of these types of strengths, strengths in activity and routine that we could identify in our clients, strengths we could remind them of so they could use them to get back on their feet. I remember I didn't say my answer out loud, but not because I was ashamed; I recall I was ready to explain myself should I speak my words into the room and be greeted by head scratches in return. I probably kept my mouth shut because I like to speak up a lot in class--if you can imagine--and eventually I like to let other people speak. But to myself I thought, if someone can pet her cat for five minutes a day and think of nothing but the purring ball of fuzz in her lap, then that is a blessing from God. And she may have 23 hours and 55 minutes left in her day to fight some rough battles, but I am going to declare those remaining five minutes her strength.