“What made you want to become a therapist?” That’s one of the most frequent questions I get asked by adults, many who marvel at me as if the ability to sit with, empathize, listen to and accept someone just as they are is some mystical superpower bestowed upon a select few.
Many follow that question by saying that they wouldn’t be able to deal with talking with “crazy people” or emotionally disturbed children all day without going crazy themselves, even saying that they can’t deal with their own children, friends or family members when they are angry, sad or being irrational.
There was a time when I thought that counseling was something any and everyone could do, but now I know that not everyone can or should be a therapist. I’ve met some very bad therapists, people who may have had the education and credentials to counsel people, but definitely didn’t have the heart, patience or personality that is just as important if not more so.
Thankfully, most of these counselors learned pretty quickly that sitting down and helping someone unravel the complexities of their lives weren’t for them and ended up either getting out of the helping profession all together or moved to a part of the field that was less people oriented, such as working for insurance companies or becoming program directors.
I’ve witnessed teachers, administrators and other professional adults with good intentions do some very bad counseling. Some even made me cringe at either their bad advice, judgmental attitudes or total lack of empathy and I honestly was very thankful and relieved that these individuals weren’t officially counselors.
Being a therapist pretty much comes natural to me. Growing up I was always a very intuitive, carrying and empathetic person. I was always in touch with my feelings and would spend ours alone just trying to figure out why I felt a certain way. That curiosity soon lead to wandering why other people felt certain ways and why they did or didn’t do certain things. People watching became one of my favorite past-times.
In high school I was the person that girls would call and talk to about their problems with their parents, friends or boyfriends. I enjoyed helping them figure out and solve their problems just as I enjoyed sitting in deep reflection about my own. I was probably one of the only boys in my high school that keep a journal and read self-help books.
Still, at that time I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a counselor. At that time I was interested in becoming a writer, an artist, a dentist or a meteorologist.
In college I decided I wanted to lean towards becoming a writer or an English teacher. I enjoyed writing just as I do today and it was writing that lead me to psychology. I was always interested in making my characters real and multi-dimensional which lead me to reading books on character development and eventually personalities and personality disorders.
There I found my love for psychology.
Soon I started taking every psychology course I could because I found it interested, but even more so because it helped with my writing. This is where I came in contact with Dr. Skinner who was not only my favorite psychology professor, but also became one of my first and most important mentor. He was always encouraging me to further my education in psychology which is one of the main reasons I decided to go on to graduate school.
In graduate school I initially was going to become a guidance counselor because I wanted to work with teenagers, but after taking all the courses required for guidance counseling, I still felt a hunger to learn more about psychology and counseling in general and so I transferred to the counseling and psychology track which was a lot of hard work when it came to reading, writing papers and giving presentations almost constantly.
It was learning the stuff I loved which is why I maintained a 4.0 throughout graduate school while working as a substitute teacher.
It was in graduate school that I started doing official counseling, and I was terrified! To graduate from the program you had to do a 1,000 hour internship, not with friends or people I already knew, but complete strangers. To make it worst, I knew that I never wanted to be a substance abuse counselor and yet, my internship was at an inpatient substance abuse facility. I was determined to hate it.
I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood. I grew up around drug addicts. I already had my prejudices about people who used drugs and didn’t want to have to deal with them more than I already had growing up.
My dad also had struggled with substance addiction pretty much my whole life. He had been in and out of numerous treatment facilities and I had decided that substance abuse counseling just didn’t work. I tried my hardest to get my internship site changed, but couldn’t.
By the end of my 1,000 hour internship filled with individual, group and family counseling, I had a new respect for those who struggle with addictions and their families. I met people who had been trying to get sober since the 1970s! I met a popular high school football coach who gave up everything, his wife, kids and his prized job for alcohol.
I met women, mothers and daughters, so addicted to drugs and alcohol that their families had them committed to treatment and they were some of the sweetest women you could ever meet, who struggled everyday to control their cravings and stay clean.
Sure it was hard work, sometimes frustrating, disappointing and hard breaking (relapse is a b*tch), but it helped me deal with one of my own demons… it helped me understand my father and his battle with addiction so much better. It allowed me to forgive him.
After graduating I moved on from addiction counseling, perhaps it was still too close to home, and went to work in a psychiatric hospital. I always wanted to work with the severely mentally ill.
In the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) taught to us in school, I had learned so much about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions that are rarely seen, yet I wanted to experience them face to face.
I spent three years working overnight in the psychiatric hospital giving psychological evaluations and crisis counseling to some of the most fascinating people ever.
I’ll never forget talking to a rather lucid schizophrenic woman who was having visual hallucinations. She gave me the best explanation of visual hallucinations ever, better than any professor or textbook I had ever read.
I remember trying to calm down a paranoid schizophrenic woman who was shaking like a leaf because she believed a killer was locked in the hospital with us and was specifically trying to kill her.
And I remember giving an evaluation to a tomato red faced woman (all the blood vessels in her face had broken) who had just been released from the hospital after trying to hang herself after finding out her husband was cheating on her.
So many experiences came from my time there, but I knew I was missing out on truly developing my counseling skills. One of my goals was to become a licensed mental health counselor, which is a whole lot of extra work after graduate school and I believed to be a great therapist, I had to know how to not only assess, diagnose and do crisis counseling, but also how to do more traditional counseling with clients who had more everyday type problem.
I still longed to work with children as well so I left the hospital and started working at an inner city high school, focusing mainly on anger management and substance abuse, but soon my job description expanded to include pretty much any and everything that stood in a child’s way of being able to concentrate and focus on their school work.
This is where I learned to work with defiant teens, broken families, damaged teens and teens who just needed someone to guide, care for and encourage them. This is where I saw our future, both promising and disheartening.
While here I also attained my goal of becoming a licensed mental health counselor and continue to learn every single day.
One of the most important things I learned is self-care and to take breaks for myself. Carrying the weight of so many other peoples problems can sneak up on you and break you down before you know it. Sometimes when people know you are a counselor, they will purposely or inadvertently dump their problems on you and that includes family and friends. It becomes important to take the counseling hat off sometimes and if that means going and sitting some place alone, then that’s what I will do.
Being a counselor/therapist is a very rewarding career, but it is probably one of the most mentally and emotionally draining careers I can think of. I enjoy the skills I have developed to analyze people, to read body languages and to be able to already have some ideal what’s going on with a person before he or she even says a word, but sometimes it’s hard to turn that off which sometimes impact my personal life.
One minute a friend will be asking me for advice or wanting to talk to me about a problem, but they don’t want me to “counsel” them. Then the next minute when I make a statement, they will stay “get out of my head” or “stop analyzing me”.
Sometimes I am more comfortable when I am in the counseling role and I will find myself retreating to that mode whenever I am uncomfortable or meeting someone new… not always a good thing. I realize it’s a defense mechanism I use where I limit the amount of information a person knows about me while I gain tons of information about them. That isn’t really fair, but I do it all the time and most people are so happy to talk about themselves that they never call me out on or even notice it.
Lastly, another thing I’ve learned is that being authentic with someone… being present with them and actively listening does miracles. There’s been times when I listened to someone and was present with them, but had no real ideal what to do or say, and after our session they were so grateful to me for listening to and helping them. It’s amazing. Sometimes I didn’t even say a word and yet they would be so grateful. That’s why I stress so much on listening, rather than talking in this blog. I believe that listening sometimes solves more problems than talking, lecturing or berating someone.