Essay Project 2021: Unraveling the Curtain of Therapy
By: Abigail Davison
Imagine for a moment, you are walking into a therapist's office for the first time. Your hands are sweaty and your gut is churning. You've waited a long time for this, and it took you great strength to get here. Finally, you open the office door and there awaits you a smiling face. That smiling face has gone through years of classes, volunteering and training just for you to walk into their door.
Discussing and directly being open about mental health has become more accepted over the last few years. Going to counseling or addressing mental health issues has worked its way into many people's lives. In Portland, we are starting to embrace mental health awareness. With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have normalized talking about one's mental or emotional health. Schools reach out to every student in order to make sure we are doing alright. Counseling offices are working to spread kindness and services throughout the Portland community. Even before the pandemic therapists have been working to reach out and lend a hand to citizens to discuss and work through any issues.
Working as a therapist is one of the most difficult jobs to uphold. A therapist's job is to be there for someone, sometimes as they are going through some of the toughest times of their life. Being a therapist can be emotionally and mentally draining for many. With this weight, I have always wondered about how each therapist feels. Why did they choose this job even with the warnings against it? I have taken this opportunity to interview some therapists in Portland to shed some light on their point of view, to get an answer to my question: what is the individual story behind each therapist office?
I first had the honor to interview Angela Browne, an outpatient therapist at the Right Door. She has worked for the Right Door for about 7 years, and started working at the Portland Right Door around 2 years ago. Angela specializes in children and family trauma. Angela decided to be a therapist after many years of training, volunteering, and schooling.
Why did you choose to go into counseling?:
“I did alot of community service and I volunteered a lot, and that was what made me happy, overall it was just helping people. I ended up stumbling upon social work and I really just knew I wanted to work with kids and families. My internships in college were in therapy so that's what really drew me towards therapy. It's really just to be a part of someone's journey and story that I feel really grateful for. To be able to help someone come out of some really dark times, and to just be a person they can turn to, just a person that they can talk to.. It's more about having connections with people and knowing that they are not alone, and being able to provide support to them.”
How do you cope with the emotional baggage that comes with being a therapist?:
“Burnout and secondary trauma is a very real thing for social workers as well as healthcare providers, you see and you hear some of the most terrible and devastating things and it's hard for it to not impact you. The biggest thing is the self care piece, whether you are a therapist or a healthcare worker, the importance is knowing what it is that you need to do at the end of every single day, to let go of that pain and that emotional trauma that you were apart of, because at the end of the day, you can be and do everything you can for somebody else but ultimately the change falls on them... My frame of mind for every session is that if they can walk away with one positive, even if it's just that they came to therapy for the first time, that means they got something out of it.”
Next I interviewed one of Portland High Schools student counselors, Paige Patterson. Mrs. Patterson has been with Portland High School for 19 years. She counsels students, works though student schedules and helps many students plan for their future.
Why did you choose to go into counseling?
“When I was in High school, I wanted to be a school counselor because I thought that my school counselor was terrible. Even though she had a fabulous reputation as a school counselor I thought she only wanted to work with the college-bound kids who were going to go to good schools. My high school was very college focused, and I thought that was just wrong, I thought school counselors should be there for everyone, and school counselors should help everyone figure out what they wanted to do after high school and so I decided I wanted to be a school counselor and I was going to be different from my school counselor... Before working for Portland I changed my jobs about every 2 or 3 years so Ive had alot of jobs and then I started here in 2001 and it is the only job that I've had since.”
How do you think we do well as a community when addressing mental health concerns?:
“As a community, and as a whole I think there is more awareness in Michigan, and more and more awareness of the importance of mental health. I feel like the tables are turning a little bit in favor of getting rid of or diminishing the stigma there is associated with getting mental health help and services. I think on top of that, the pandemic has also added to people's positive perception of how mental health needs are not necessarily stigmatized. As a community with Portland being so small, we have several mental health counselors. We have Community Mental Health, which is now called the Right Door… there are alot of services for a lot of different types of insurances and all different types of people, and I think we're pretty fortunate.”
Where do you find enjoyment in the therapy process?:
“The opposite answer is what's hard, what's hard is that I listen and I find a solution to this tough problem they've [a student] been struggling with and seems so clear to me, but it's not clear to the person I'm working with. That's hard. So where I find happiness or fulfillment, is when the person that I'm working with feels that they've made a positive change in their life, and they're just super happy about it. That's the fulfillment for me. That person has worked their way into a solution, with some guidance, but worked their way into a solution that they feel happy with, that they feel has benefited them, that's the awesome thing.”
How do you take care of yourself?
“A lot of how I take care of myself, is the same way I tell the people that I work with how to take care of themselves. I have to really look at what I have control over and what I do not have control over. I don't get to make decisions for other people so when I'm having a bad day because someones having a really rough time and they possibly have something very negative happening in their life, I have to remember I've done the best I can with trying to help that person find the tools and resources and that I don't have control over the outcome.”
I have also taken this opportunity to interview a resident in Portland who has been going to therapy, in the interest of privacy they chose to remain anonymous. After facing their mental health concerns, it took them some time to consider therapy. When addressing the negative stigma around therapy, they said: “I know it's there, and I know some people are worried about it, but I'm not…. My therapist taught me that there are different types of people that are hardwired to do different things. I should do what I want or do what I need, and it's okay if it doesn't match what other people want or believe.” If you recall back to the first paragraph, the description was given by the patient. They remember walking in the door the first time and feeling nauseous and nervous. It took them a few weeks to get used to walking in the door, but they give this advice to anyone who is just starting therapy: “Don't be afraid. It will be uncomfortable at first, but it will get better. Even if you're thinking about it, and it's taken a long time, don't give up on yourself.”
My goal of this project was to show you the caring perspectives behind therapy, and to humanize the experience of getting therapy. I, just as all the therapists in Portland, want each citizen to be comfortable to reach out when they need help. In the Portland community we are lucky enough to have each other. We are often described as small and tight-knit. Our size and resources give us the opportunity to be a supportive community. Because of our supportive community, I have become more in touch with myself and my own emotions. When I moved up to the high school, I met a new group of friends. I was infatuated with each of my friends because the stories and experiences they would tell me about. I listened to each of their stories and compared them to my life. I realized I had my own feelings and issues to confront. With help, Ive been able to find myself and address my mental health. I am aware of how lucky I am to have the support that I do. I still remember the times alone in my room and I remember feeling lost. I would never wish those feelings on another person. If discussing my issues or writing about therapy helps one person feel comfortable reaching out, then I succeed in my small goal to make our small town, just a little better.
You can contact The Right Door at: (616)-527-1790
24-hour toll free crisis hotline: 1-888-527-1790
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.