I often mention my experiences battling depression and reference my mental health challenges over the course of my life, but I’ve never really given the full narrative. Part of that is because I have to be very thoughtful about what I put out on the these ol’ internets as a therapist. Part of being a counselor means there’s a significant piece of yourself and your personal life that you just don’t talk about. The motivation behind this is a few things:
- You want your client(s) to see you as a blank slate. It’s not your job to bring your life into the therapy session, it’s your job to make the session about your client.
- Personal information can be used against you. For example, if you’re a couples therapist and you’re getting a divorce, you may not want your clients to know about that. Regardless of your reasons, your clients may be less likely to trust your judgement. It’s the same thing teachers who don’t have children probably deal with when parents become concerned if they know how to handle a child. In essence, they really want to know you can help and you can relate.
- Some clients may use the information to harm themselves. If a client sees on social media that you went out on Saturday night and had a few drinks and you’re counseling them on how to abstain from alcohol, they may say think, “Well if he/she gets to drink, I should be able to as well.”
It goes on. It can be very sticky.
One of the main tenets of counseling and self-disclosure is that it has to be therapeutically relevant and it must be beneficial to the client. I feel like my journey through my life, specifically my struggles maintaining my mental health, is therapeutically relevant. If something I write here finds someone who believes they’ll never be happy again and they relate to my story, then it’s something I feel is worth the risk. Especially if they see that I am currently happy, it may instill hope.
Much of what I have gone through doesn’t mirror other people’s lives, because we all have unique paths and experiences in life. However, I firmly believe that without what I’ve gone through, I would not have become a counselor. I wouldn’t have found a job I love and I would have a very hard time empathizing with my clients. I believe I have felt some of the deepest feelings on the human emotional spectrum which allows me to understand when someone says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again,” because you know what? I’ve been there.
That being said, I’ve had requests from some to know the whole story. So, I’m going to share it the best I can and hope that it is received with understanding and if it helps you, then I have done my job.
I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in Tampa, Florida. My parents were high school sweethearts, married at 20, had me at 28, and my sister at 33. My mom worked in retail and my dad worked in various white-collar jobs. Life was pretty picturesque and very much the American dream ideal. We lived in a four bedroom, two bath house with two dogs and a cat. Our neighborhood had a bunch of kids the same age who played together, the parents did things like have Bunko tournaments, we had a Fourth of July block party, and everyone got along (mostly).
As I look back at my childhood, I feel conflicted. I remember believing my life was pretty perfect when I was little. I played softball, we all had family dinners, I did well in school, and I just thought everything was so perfect. My parents were happy, all my needs were met, and things were pretty carefree.
As an adult, things are different. Things are much different. Some of it is because I know enough now after hearing reports from family members about what it was really like during that time. Some of it is because I’m educated enough now to see some of what wasn’t normal. When you’re a kid and all you know is one reality, it’s hard to understand that the life you’re living isn’t healthy.
One specific example involves the first time I went to a sleep over. I remember laying in my friend’s room and hearing silence. The whirr of the ceiling fan, the eerie calm of her house. I didn’t hear her parents yelling. I didn’t hear anyone turning up any music to drown out the fighting. It felt weird. I didn’t make an evaluative judgement until years later when my parents told us they were getting a divorce.
I was on the escalator in some department store Christmas shopping when my mom told me. I was 13 and my parents had been married for 20 years by that point. All I remember is feeling pretty numb. We had had a Halloween party just months before where I saw my parents slow dancing together, looking very much in love. Lots of my friends’ parents had been separating during that time and I remember feeling smugly grateful (is that possible?) that my parents were still together and still happy.
I don’t remember crying and I don’t remember caring that much about the divorce itself. I just remember feeling very cheated. I felt stupid for being so blind. I felt very angry. I didn’t show it though because I didn’t have much time. Being 13 and being mature for my age, my parents saw me as a refuge for their angst. I became the mediator for my parents. I became parentified and triangulated. It was my first experience being a therapist. I was conditioned to do this work long before I knew what I was doing.
I will say that I know both of them did the best they could in their situation. Unfortunately, it ended up getting pretty bad. I eventually decided I needed to live with my mother full-time. This caused a pretty bad rift with my father that lives on to this day. I haven’t spoken to my dad in about a year. I have tried to repair our relationship on multiple occasions, but I’ve found the pain of trying to connect with my father is more than I can handle. It took me several years to decide this was ultimately the best decision for my happiness and health.
My relationship with my father is a big source of my issues with depression. Growing up, I was very much a “daddy’s girl”. My dad taught me how to play softball, he always made me ribs on my birthday (yes, my birthday meal was ribs – how times have changed!), and I could always count on him to hide behind the couch and scare the living daylights out of me by jumping up suddenly and being The Tickle Monster.
It’s pretty well-known that lots of kids struggle with emotional issues in college. It’s the first time away from home, the first time developing some independence, and the first opportunity to really assess your life on your own. It’s tough for kids who lived a relatively stable home life. Unfortunately, while my life wasn’t in shambles, I was dealing with regular life stuff, plus college, plus family upheaval. I had grown up never really having to worry about money and all of a sudden, money had become one of the most stressful things I have ever dealt with. I started drinking. It was college, right?
Sure, in some way it was. But, I was skipping classes and failing at my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Like, not just doing poorly, but like my life was epically going up in flames. I was always a straight A student and my first semester of college, I got some of the worst grades anyone could get, not just someone who is used to getting As. My sense of self was pretty fractured.
Couple that with my romantic life and I was a sad image of the girl I was raised to be. I had spent so much time being what others wanted me to be (thinking that was ultimately who I wanted to be), that once it was time for me to do things I thought I wanted to do, I ended up failing at them or hating them (probably failing because I hated them). I ended a long-term relationship with one of the nicest and sweetest men I had ever known, because I just didn’t trust men. I didn’t trust relationships. I figured our relationship was destined to fail, so why even try.
Which of course, led me to date lots of guys who continued to prove to me that men were bad and relationships were stupid (none of these men were Jesse because Jesse is awesome). Nice job with the whole self-fulfilling beliefs there, Jen. My drinking continued in regular collegiate fashion, but unlike my friends who were drinking to have fun, I was drinking to drown out some really nasty dialogue going on in my head. I was usually sober just long enough to go to work, go to class, and then start all over again.
It got to the point where if I wasn’t partying, I was sleeping. I managed to make friends, get involved on campus, figure out my classes (once I found a major I enjoyed), but my sense of self was still fractured. A big misnomer with depression I find is that people think depressed people just sleep all day or don’t really function. Sure, I did my fair share of that, but I was still active. I still had friends. My life had meaning, I just couldn’t see it. There was a grimy film over my worldview. I was miserable. I was miserable to be around, especially those who were closest to me. I was a dark cloud. I could find the crappiest thing in the most perfect day. It finally got to the point where my very brave and kind roommate came and told me something like, “I love and you and because I love you, I’m telling you I can’t stand you. Please stop talking about going to counseling and just go.”
I went. It sucked. I tried again. It sucked. I finally tried one more time and I found the counselor who helped me change my life the summer before my junior year.
I had become really obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy. Like, really obsessed. For those of you who watched, you can guess why based on what you’ve read so far. It was around the third season when I finally went to counseling, which at that point had paralleled my life almost completely. I felt like I was Meredith Grey. Meredith had daddy issues and hadn’t talked to her dad in a long time for many of the reasons I had not spoken to my father and had struggled to have a relationship with him. She abused tequila and dated bad dudes. She was a smart woman and a major over-achiever, but was one of the most depressed and pathetic people on the planet. She had recently been dumped by Derek and I had recently been dumped by someone who I thought was Derek, but was really like the worst person for me imaginable. Ok, not that terrible, but seriously… not a good person at all.
I sat in the chair in front of my counselor shooting the breeze. She asked me about why I had come to counseling and I shared that I was depressed. She asked me if I had thought about killing myself. I said, “Mostly, no. I just keep hoping I’ll get hit by a bus or something.”
So, yeah. I really liked myself back then.
She didn’t waiver and just stuck with it. It meant a lot to me that she didn’t look at me like some damaged bird like so many people had when I began telling her my story. She didn’t freak out and call the crazy people police (that’s what they were in my head at the time) when I told her I didn’t want to live anymore. I told her about my parents’ divorce, about my dad, about my drinking, about my experiences in school, and about my life. I cried a lot. It sounded so sad when I said it all out loud.
She asked me about what I did when I was feeling sad. I told her I’d mostly watch Grey’s Anatomy on repeat. I particularly enjoyed the episode where Meredith monologues about, “Pick me, Choose me, Love me,” and then Derek doesn’t pick her. I would watch that one and cry in my room a lot. I was a freaking masochist.
Then my therapist said the seven words that made me know she was the counselor for me.
“Oh my god,” she said. “You’re Meredith Grey!”
I started laughing and basically said, “Yeah, how messed up is that?”
She understood me.
I got diagnosed with hypothyroidism at the beginning of counseling and started my medication. For those of you who don’t know, hypothyroidism can cause depression. While I’m sure it didn’t help that my thyroid was broken, I am convinced that counseling is what saved my life. I had a lot of stuff going on that probably wouldn’t have changed without the help of therapy.
I could rattle off a list of what I know to be my issues now, but at the time I didn’t conceptualize my depression as something I might now as a therapist. I had a lot of irrational beliefs surrounding how I felt life should be, a lot of anger and sadness that it wasn’t the way I wanted it to be, and a lot of feelings of victimization and an external locus of control about my parents’ divorce and my relationship with my father and men in general.
I also did a lot of digging into my family and pulled up a lot of reasons for my depression and excessive drinking. Mood disorders and substance addiction/abuse run rampant on both sides of my family. Becoming aware of this through counseling and my education has been invaluable.
I cannot stress how important my relationship with my counselor was in this process. I loved her and because of that, I trusted her. She was a good counselor and when you have a good counselor + a good relationship with the client, the chances for success in therapy grow exponentially. The foundation of our relationship allowed me to take her feedback without being offended, it allowed me to trust her recommendation that I participate in group therapy (which eventually convinced me to become a counselor), and it allowed me to trust her when she told me it was time for me to discontinue treatment and start growing outside of the therapy session. She taught me how to live my life the way I wanted to live it. I got to know myself in therapy.
The Rest of It
Just because I went to therapy and I’m happy with my life doesn’t mean everything is perfect. I’ve had days since that time where I’ve felt really sad and I’ve been worried I’d slip back into depression. I’ve had friendships end, romances fail, and personal and professional setbacks. What counseling taught me is that none of this stuff is permanent. For the most part, I am now in control of how happy I am on a day-to-day basis. I also know myself enough now to know what will make me happy and what won’t. Romanticizing sadness and doing self-destructive things to fulfill some messed up ideal about how “life really is,” was only a self-fulfilling belief for me. I recognize this now.
I still struggle with anxiety. I struggle with my fair-share of irrational thoughts. I think crazy things that sometimes, I’m like, “Where the HECK did that come from?” Random, weird thoughts just jump into my head still. Instead of thinking I’m crazy or worrying about that thought, I just practice mindfulness and I laugh at how strange the mind is and how quirky I am. I don’t worry about what everything means and I try not to stress about the future. Allowing myself to be free from those stresses has been all the difference.
I’m happy with today and that’s really what matters. The future will happen eventually.