Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash
It’s no secret that the field of mental healthcare attracts individuals who’ve experienced receiving mental healthcare themselves. Most of us become therapists because we’ve either needed therapy or benefitted from it (or both!).
Currently, I’m a Child and Family Therapist, and I happen to have my own mental illness.
While some may argue that my mental illness impacts my work as a clinician in a negative way, I believe it provides me with additional insight and skill. I’m a therapist with mental illness and, while my work is challenging, I’m better because of it.
I suppose we could rewind to my childhood years to talk about my mental health. The truth is, mental illness runs in most families, but in mine? It steamrolls, if you will. From relatives in prison to alcoholism, I’ve got it all in my lineage. Jealous? Don’t fret, you probably have it too, even if you’re blissfully unaware.
Current theories state that a genetic tendency toward the development of certain mental illness is present in most of us in our DNA, but it is our environment and experiences that determine whether or not those light switches get turned on over the course of our lives.
These “switches” get activated by what we refer to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACES). When we have a high number of ACES, we are more likely to suffer from addiction, maladaptive (read: criminal) behavior, and mental illness.
I have a high ACES score. I am reminded of this every time I go to a training on trauma (which is often… I am a trauma therapist after all).
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So, I go through bouts of depression and occasional anxiety and have recovered from an eating disorder, but what’s pervasive for me is Developmental, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Complex PTSD/C-PTSD). How does this manifest? I have an addictive personality. I am sometimes a control freak. I often want to plan my every waking (and sleeping, to be honest) moment down to the minute. I demand consistency from my loved ones and flip out on them if they’re anything but. I have sensory processing issues that leave me unable to function at Wal-Mart on a crowded Sunday afternoon (as in, leaving a full cart of items in the middle of the store and running for the door with tears streaming down my face). I have mood swings and migraines. I have somatic symptoms including eczema and fatigue. When engaged in conflict, I tend to cry and shut down, running away from conversations that could help me grow if I just gave myself a chance. I could go on…
So I’m complicated to love and be around much of the time, but you know what else? I’m compassionate as f*ck to any, all, and every being on this earth. I feel your pain, your dog’s pain, the pain of the bug under your shoe — I feel all of it — sometimes so you don’t have to. I can carry and navigate an emotional load bigger than a boulder all while multitasking personal and professional responsibilities.
This means, as a therapist, my mental illness has provided me the tools to work through feelings with my clients.
While I don’t always allow their emotions to permeate me, I am always comfortable with the uncomfortable in my space which means my clients can feel safe feeling even the most difficult of emotions with me, in front of me, alongside me. I can alter my approach to facilitate regulation and safety when emotions feel out of control or (and sometimes and) I can create the cocoon — a sort of feelings vacuum, wherein a client feels safe to venture outside the lines of what they usually tolerate. They can then express the full range of a feeling to experience true processing of their trauma.
Practically speaking, I have self-care and coping skills coming out my ears and am happy to help clients learn to use journaling, yoga, creating a support system, mindfulness, art, and a hundred other skills to start feeling better in their daily life from the moment they walk through my door.
The most valuable thing though, being a therapist with mental illness, is that I get it.
I know how desperate you feel to change your life while you seem paralyzed and unwilling to do anything different. I understand how intimidating both therapy and emotions can be when you’ve experienced trauma. I know that not all trauma is war-zone, house-burning-down stuff and I believe clients when they tell me they’ve experienced traumatic things, no matter how small or insignificant they’ve been told those things are.