What It's Like to Have Five Mental Illnesses and Start as a Counselor


I had just started working at the university counseling center, as a practicum student. I’m in my third year in a graduate program in clinical mental health counseling, and my classes prepared me with the knowledge and skills for this moment. My life experiences prepared me too. My experience of having five mental illnesses and grappling with severe mental problems for years had prepared me to be a counselor, but also made everything feel personal. A new client’s story really hit home. I saw much of myself in her. While I was in session, I was professional, empathic, and helpful. I was proud of myself. I saw myself using my counseling skills and being able to calm her and show her this was a safe place. She had been incredibly nervous about being there, and I saw her slowly relax under my reassuring words. I was calm and spoke gently to her during the session.

But after the session ended, I went into the back room and nearly collapsed. My client’s story was heartbreaking and I was overwhelmed by what she had shared. Besides, in her, I saw myself, the quiet intellectual who was misunderstood and had bizarre mental problems and scared people. I hurt for my client and myself at the same time. I was overwhelmed by what she had shared and kept thinking, how could I possibly help her? I felt inadequate to the task.

Thankfully, I shared my thoughts with a few doctoral students and they comforted me somewhat. After they left, I was alone in the counseling center and fighting tears. A classmate friend stopped in to check her schedule. She couldn’t stick around, but I asked her, “Can I have a hug?” As she held me, I started crying hard. I feel like I have the skills to be a counselor, but then I feel like I am too broken and too sensitive to make it.

I drove home soberly, with all of these thoughts racing through my head — thoughts I could not share due to confidentiality. I appreciate and respect the need for confidentiality, but at that moment I ached to share with someone the words that triggered me and brought me to tears. Tomorrow I could consult with my supervisor, but I was hurting now.

I called my husband and shared my emotions vaguely. I got home just as he was leaving. I gave him a hug and kiss, and then was alone in my house all night. I sat by the TV and tried to slow my racing heart. Gradually my mind calmed. My body was still tense. I did some muscle relaxation exercises and deep breathing to calm. It helped somewhat. Still, I was grateful when my husband got home late that night and I wasn’t alone anymore.

The next day I felt better. I reminded myself that I’m new to counseling and it’s normal to feel emotional and overwhelmed. I reminded myself that my life experiences will help me become a good counselor. I got my things together for work and school and decided I was going to be ok. My life experiences and abilities are coming together for me to shine in this moment. I wish I could completely take away my clients’ pain, but I can’t work miracles. Still, I can be someone who helps guide them through life’s difficulties; a resource they can use during their struggles.

When I met with my instructor, she gushed about how I was doing excellently, and have such a gentle way about me that clients instinctively trust me and are comfortable confiding in me. She said that my kindness and listening skills will make me a good counselor — I just need to learn some techniques to be a great one. I smiled to myself. My instructor doesn’t know I have mental illnesses. I don’t know if my listening skills are that natural, or if that they are something I have developed over years of being in therapy and dealing with my mental illness. Well, whatever brought me to be who I am now, the person I am now seems prepared to be a counselor. Although I have weaknesses, I am confident I will excel as a counselor and be able to help others who have brokenness like me.

I want to encourage people with mental illness to pursue careers in counseling and related professions. We know what it’s like to hurt and struggle with mental illness. We can help others heal in ways we have found healing. We are uniquely equipped to make a difference. And even if we don’t go into that kind of career, we can all make a difference in encouraging people we meet who are struggling. I pray I will truly make a difference as a counselor, writer and friend.

I saw a client for a second session and she said, “The other day I was anxious, and I wished I was talking to my counselor that day.” My heart skipped a beat. It’s only our second session, I’m brand new at this, and she is referring to me as “her counselor” and wishing she could talk to me on a bad day. It warmed my heart and felt like everything is finally happening for me. I have wanted to be a counselor for 14 years, ever since I was first diagnosed and mistreated by the mental health system. Back then, I promised myself: if I ever get healthy enough, I want to be part of this system so that I can make a difference. Finally, 14 years later, I am here.

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Thinkstock photo via shironosov


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