Let's Talk About Counseling.
A couple of months ago, I posted to Facebook that I was seeking recommendations for a grief counselor. On my other, lighter status updates, I’ll often get a quick flurry of Likes and playful comments from friends. This time, I could almost hear the collective wince as my words sat for a few beats on their own.
Granted, some of this is the semantics of Facebook: Nobody wants to “like” the fact that I’m grieving something. But I can’t help feeling there’s also a sense that needing a counselor is one of those Bad Things people don’t like to talk about—on Facebook or elsewhere.
Well, I’d like for that to stop. Because I’ve seen a few counselors over the years for a range of issues, and each time I come away feeling better and stronger than when I walked in. No single session is a magic bullet, and at no point can I say a problem is “fixed,” but the mere process of talking through an issue turns out to have a healing effect all its own.
When I mention counseling in conversation, I’m often surprised at how many people have never been or express hesitation at the idea of going. And I can sympathize with the feeling. I resisted taking that step for years, even when I was clearly not myself emotionally or even physically.
So, for anyone who’s going through a rough time and may be thinking about seeing a counselor, but doesn’t know what to expect, I’d like to offer an FAQ of sorts about what it’s like, based on actual questions or doubts I’ve heard from other people (and once had myself).
If I see a counselor, doesn’t that mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with me?
I know it can seem like needing professional help is some sort of red flag. We all go through tough times and down days—isn’t that normal? If someone tells me I need a counselor, what are they saying about me? That I’m a crazy person? That I’m not tough enough to handle my problems on my own?
This was how I felt in the weeks and months after I left my job. At one point, as I sat in tears for the umpteenth time, my husband gently asked if I had thought about talking to someone. I was offended. My mother was sick, I had lost my job—didn’t I have a right to be upset? Just because I wasn’t upbeat and cheerful 100% of the time, I suddenly needed to seek outside help? Are you implying I’m a bad person because I’m feeling this way?
The point, of course, wasn’t that something about me was bad, but rather that I was going through a bad situation. That sure, it’s normal to cry, but I obviously was in a lot of pain. And that my husband didn’t want to lessen that pain for his benefit, but for mine.
If you have someone who loves you enough to nudge you toward counseling, it doesn’t mean they think you’re weak. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They know you at your best, they trust you have the strength to get back there, and they want you to have all the tools you need to do it.
Why should I have to pay someone to listen to my problems? Isn’t that what friends are for?
Well, sure, to an extent. When you’re going through a tough time—be it the death of a loved one, stress at work, an aging parent, a major illness or just everyday pressures—your closest friends will rally around you in ways you never could have predicted. You’ll rely on them for daily support, and they sincerely want to help any way they can.
But the fact is, there’s only so much your friends know how to do. They’re not trained to deal with some of the deeper feelings you’re experiencing. I compare it with going to a friend’s house for dinner. It’s a treat to have someone else cook for you, and they likely can put together a decent meal that satisfies your hunger. But it’s not the same as dining out at a fancy restaurant, with a renowned chef who has years of experience creating gourmet dishes.
Similarly, a professional counselor has seen hundreds of patients and can offer a seasoned perspective your friends simply can’t. (Often times, the biggest relief in a session comes when the therapist says, “This is very common. I see this all the time.”) And the same way a chef can tell you which wine pairs nicely with a signature dish, a counselor can point you to the tactics and techniques he or she knows have been successful for other patients.
Plus, there’s something to be said for an objective third party who’s being paid to listen. Your friends want to be sympathetic, but if you’re going through a long-term issue, it’s difficult to expect constant, long-term support. Going back to the dinner analogy, your friends are likely more than happy to invite you over every now and then. But if you suddenly start asking to come to dinner every night, the gesture shifts from generosity to obligation. Simply put, it becomes work. And people usually like getting paid for work.
There’s a reason counselors have degrees on their walls. It’s a cliché, but just as you wouldn’t ask a friend to examine a pain in your chest or treat the mysterious rash on your arm, you shouldn’t expect them to know how to solve your emotional problems, either. Go with a pro.
What am I expected to say? What is the counselor going to say?
Honestly, it depends on the counselor. Some live up to the stereotype of the therapist who’s playing a quiet game of Gotcha—“What do you think that means?”—but for the most part I’ve encountered a range of styles. It also depends on the patient: Some people want to be offered simple reassurances. Others want the therapist to say almost nothing at all. Me, I like a counselor who has an engaged conversation, who knows when to ask a follow-up question, or when to stay quiet and let me find my way to what I want (or need) to talk about.
During your first session, the counselor will usually help ease you into talking by asking questions you already know the answer to. (“Where’d you grow up?” “How many siblings do you have?”) Then they’ll probably shift into something like, “What brings you here today?”
I think it’s important to note that you may not always have a specific problem you’re dealing with. In my case recently, I’ve had my mother’s death and the upcoming baby as areas of focus, but I’ve also had sessions in the past where I was simply depressed or anxious, and I wasn’t sure why.
Years ago, I went through a period where I suddenly wasn’t sleeping or eating. My apartment felt foreign to me, as if a stranger lived there. I was distracted at work and would frequently break down in my manager’s office. There was no clear trigger for these feelings, but something was obviously off.
When I started seeing a counselor back then, we simply talked through some of the factors in my life at the time. I’ve had therapists refer to this as “unpacking.” I might mention a conversation with someone that left me feeling hurt, and they’ll say, “Let’s unpack that a little bit.” This process can feel vague and even pointless at first, but it’s remarkable how just expressing feelings out loud—even if you don’t know why you feel that way—can suddenly bring things into focus and provide instant relief.
I’ve found it’s these open-ended issues that, when left unattended, cause the most stress and fatigue, because you don’t realize how much energy your brain is quietly siphoning as it works through them in your subconscious. You know how sometimes your computer starts chugging, and the IT guy discovers a program that’s been running in the background, slowing everything else down? A few clicks later and you rediscover how fast your computer can run at top speed. That’s sort of how it feels when a counselor helps you uncover a problem you didn’t even know was bothering you, letting you run a mental Force Quit on that sucker and redirecting your energy to more productive pursuits.
What if I cry? I’m probably going to cry.
I’ve talked before about how crying is a natural response to emotional trauma, and how cathartic it can feel to let it out. When I asked for counselor recommendations, one person who had been through a particularly hard loss told me she went to a therapist because “I just needed somewhere I could go bawl my eyes out once a week.”
Counselors won’t find it awkward to see you break down (the way your friends will). I think of the time one of my friends asked about my dad’s experience working as a urologist. “Chrissie,” he said. “Think of all the penises your dad has seen.” I laughed. “Seriously, there must be nothing that could phase him.”
I told my dad the story and he immediately agreed. “At this point, it’s like looking at a knee.”
My point being: Counselors are used to people crying. There’s a reason they have a box of Kleenex right next to the couch. For them, it’s like looking at a knee.
Because you’re likely to get emotional, my tip would be to schedule your appointment towards the end of the day, when you can go straight home. Or at least have some concealer and fresh mascara in your purse.
I went through something traumatic, but I’m feeling good right now. So I probably don’t need to see someone, right?
Eh, it couldn’t hurt. You may not be doing as well as you think you are. It can be easier to coat that pain in layers of denial than dealing with it head-on. But the latter is the only way to truly come to terms with it. (And trust me, I’ve done my share of the former.)
Plus, it’s important to view counseling not just as an emergency treatment, but also as a preventive measure. For one thing, if you’re in a more rational mindset (and not mid-panic), it can be easier to articulate how you’re feeling and analyze what you’re thinking. You may be able to nip something in the bud before it becomes overpowering.
Also, emotions are by nature unpredictable; you never know when a wave of grief or anger or resentment or self-doubt is going to hit. If you prepare yourself with the right tools during your stronger moments, you’ll be better equipped to handle the downturns when they come.
This is another key reason I’ve been seeing a grief counselor. On the whole, I’ve been doing pretty well processing my mom’s death. As I mentioned, this blog and everyone’s response has been a huge part of that. The long-term nature of her illness certainly helped us prepare for her passing. And of course I’ve had the excitement of a pregnancy to keep me focused on the future.
But that said, I have real concerns about postpartum depression. I’ve had issues in the past adjusting to major changes in my life, and given the mix of emotions already swirling around the arrival of this baby, I’m worried it could all come together as a perfect storm that overwhelms me. Again, for all of our baby prep check marks—crib’s assembled, diapers are stacked, stroller is ready to roll—the emotional factors can’t be lined up quite so neatly on a to-do list.
I told my counselor this, and she said simply being aware of this concern is already helpful. “And if you do find yourself feeling down, you come talk to me,” she said. Having that relationship already established will make the process that much easier, whether I’m talking to her for a serious issue or just as a check-in for typical new mom worries.
OK, so how do I find a good counselor?
I’m lucky to have benefited from Turner’s mental wellness program, both as an employee and a dependent on my husband’s plan. If you have Turner coverage (which continues during severance, btw), you can call what used to be known as the Employee Assistance Plan, now under the terrible name ValueOptions. Their number is 1-855-356-7336 and the person who answers will be a licensed clinical social worker. They actually know how to talk to real people and won’t just process your call like an overworked operator.
Other companies may offer the same or similar coverage, so check with your HR rep to see what services are available. If you belong to a church, they may be able to give recommendations or even offer their own support systems. Many hospitals and hospice programs provide counseling for families of loved ones. Or you really can just Google “counselors” (or a specific specialty, e.g. “grief counselor” or “marriage counselor”) and find listings in your area. It may take you a few visits to different people to find a counselor who clicks. As one of my friends said, “Churn through as many as you need to.”
Or put out a call for recommendations on Facebook. If I can do it, you can do it. And for all the hesitation I felt from people on the post itself, I was immediately encouraged by the offline response. I got messages from people who shared not only their referrals, but their own stories of loss and healing. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many other people are willing to connect through those shared experiences, and that alone is a step in the right direction.