Tagged: counseling

Scrambling

At first I thought I felt like one of the people trying to hoist the elephant, but no. I feel like the elephant. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

I am struggling right now in my other transition–adulthood. I am feeling really overwhelmed. I’ve been stressed out for a while, but I seem to have hit some kind of new threshold. The combination of grad school classes, counseling clients, intensive supervision, my job, joining the board of a professional organization, looking for an internship for next semester with time running out, and, you know, life, trying to be a good partner, son and brother, and all the little tasks that demand doing daily: dogs, chores, shopping, appointments, bills, prescriptions, phone calls… Holy shit, how the hell do people do this?!

Writing it out, at least, I can see why I feel overwhelmed. I really have a lot going on right now. The counseling & supervision is such a challenge in itself. It’s very exciting and rewarding, and I can see growth and change in myself and my clients. But wow, it pushes me so hard, I don’t have that much energy for the zillion other things going on.

I keep getting waves of anxiety, feeling like an imposter. What the hell am I doing? Who am I kidding? I’m terrified.

On the one hand, I feel like, what a joke that I am supposed to be helping others with their mental health–I’m a fucking mess! On the other hand, the nature of the work inspires me to be good to myself, to not work myself too hard, because to make myself miserable helping others be well is just absurd (not to mention impossible).

It is so damn bizarre. I’m like, ok, one minute I’m scrambling to finish a paper; then I’m in a meeting for work; then I’m coaxing someone into a signing a piece of paper promising not to kill themselves; then I’m having dinner with my partner; then I’m giving a presentation on how to help undergraduates write essays; then I’m doing dishes; then I’m listening to someone talk about being raped; then I’m watching a video of myself listening to someone talk about being raped, as another person pauses the video every few minutes to ask, “What were you feeling at this moment?”; then I’m cold-calling agencies and pleading with them to let me work for them for free; then I’m trying to get somewhere on time; then I’m sitting in tiny room with a sobbing man; then I am stopping a moment to smell the first lilacs; and a voice comes through my headphones, saying,

One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.

Alma and I keep joking that we are babies pretending to be adults. Funny cuz it’s true. I am in over my head.

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Onionskin Heart

[A more personal post.]

I’m in grad school studying mental health counseling. Six weeks ago I started seeing clients for the first time. The experience has been amazing, challenging, beautiful, heartbreaking, overwhelming, exhausting… Basically it’s kicking my ass.

A soldier wears a gas mask while peeling onions. I guess that’s one way to avoid shedding a tear. Source.

I am confused and tired. It is strange to be suddenly doing the work for real, after a year and half of training. I feel a bit like an impostor, of course. I find myself acutely aware of my age, feeling both painfully young and oddly grown up. It’s the feeling I like to think of as “7th grade all over again.” The grade/age varies a lot by school system, but you know when you go from being the biggest kid at primary school to one of the youngest and smallest at secondary school? I feel like that, or like the first time you venture into the deep end of the pool. I’m treading water, but I can’t put my toes down anymore. Shit got real.

I absolutely love working with my clients. It’s fascinating, exciting, moving, captivating. I really enjoy it. I find myself extremely awake and present during the sessions. There have been times I was totally lost, and times when we connected and some real work got done. My biggest fear right now is, will I ever develop the endurance do this shit 40 hours a week without keeling over?

I have a wonderful, very committed supervisor who has been giving me great feedback. I am learning to breathe deeply and not rush the process. Interestingly, she pointed out that I seem more openhearted with my female than my male clients. I still carry a lot of “boys don’t cry” baggage and it gets between me and deep empathy with another man.

Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing an emotion in real time. It is so weird; the reflex to swallow, repress, so powerful, and then it’s gone. Not really gone, but no longer accessible, bound to come back later. One of the stranger times: Alma and I watched the very important and heartbreaking film Broken Rainbow. I got through the whole thing without crying, though it hurt. Then a year later, we were discussing the movie one night, and I just burst into tears, absolutely no warning. It felt like the very same tears I swallowed in the first place. I am still letting go of all my backlogged tears.

Flashes of memories of learning not to feel: my father’s exhortations of toughen up, determination, learn the difference between pain and discomfort, stop crying. I think my dad picked up on my masculinity and he trained me the best way he knew how. He taught me that you have to be tough or the world will destroy you. As a young gender-variant person, I keyed into messages of masculinity with a secret intensity, clinging to them for dear life. Onionskin heart, I dismantle one wall and I find another.

My world is changing. It essential to face the world with an open heart. Love is far more powerful than fear. The more I open to the world, the friendlier the world becomes. Strange how my family has changed. What would be dad be like if he were raising me now? Now that he seems so much less anxious and reads the Tao Te Ching?

Brick by brick, I keep dismantling. I will not compromise love.

The 3 Things That Saved My Life

Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”

How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?

1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.

2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too.  I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.

3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.

So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?

I wish that I knew.

Can Men Ask For Safe Space?

In my circles, it’s commonplace for women to express greater comfort around other women. Is it socially acceptable for a man to say he’s more comfortable around other men?

In class recently, we watched a video of a group counseling session. At one point, a male group member said he had difficulty trusting the group. When pushed by the facilitator, he noted that he had an easier time trusting men than women. This particular group had three or four male participants and ten or so female participants. In context, he was saying he found it easier to be emotionally vulnerable with men. I have noticed that many people feel more comfortable discussing personal, upsetting matters with others of a certain gender.

During the discussion, one woman in my class made a dismissive remark about that moment in the video. Basically, she made a joke to the effect that she felt uncomfortable when he said that, that perhaps he disliked women, and that she would have wanted some distance from him. Another woman chimed in along the same lines. They shared a laugh.

These comments got under my skin. As a man, I am used to women saying they prefer the company of other women sometimes. I completely accept it. Many women have had bad experiences with men, while others just feel another woman will be more likely to understand them. At the crisis hotline where I volunteer, I don’t work a single shift without a woman calling and asking to be transferred to a female volunteer. It doesn’t offend or upset me in the least–I know it has nothing to do with me.

I acknowledge that because of the very different social positions of men and women, female-only space and male-only space are not the same. To take just one important example, women are much more likely to have experienced violence from a man than the other way around.

Still, in a mental health context, it is imperative that we take individuals’ unique needs seriously. The fact that men and women have different experiences on average means nothing about the needs and experiences of a specific person. Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment; I attribute this to a masculine imperative around not asking for help. If an all-male environment makes it easier for some men to do this difficult work, I think we should encourage it.

It really bothered my that my classmate inferred that the man in the video disliked or disrespected women. What he said was that he found it more difficult to trust women. Note that he didn’t say, for example, he found it difficult to trust women with important responsibilities. He said he found it difficult to trust women he’d just met with his emotions and struggles.

I can relate. When I was in counseling recently, I asked for a male counselor, because I knew I’d feel more at ease. The only time I have been in group counseling, it was a group reserved for trans men. I love women, I respect women, I have wonderful close relationships with women, and I am an ardent feminist. But when it comes to the rather odd situation of sharing my personal struggles with someone I just met, I feel more comfortable with other guys. It’s easier to speak frankly about private and difficult topics. It’s easier to share challenging emotions. I feel less need to downplay bad things, to use inoffensive language, to look like a strong, tough dude.

“Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.

So I think that, in mental health services, men should be able to ask for safe space. Maybe, just maybe, it will make men more willing to seek help and more able to really use it when they get it. These spaces harm no one and might really help some.

The appropriate response for women who hear men express these preferences–especially women who are aspiring mental health professionals–is not derision or laughter. It’s not taking it personally or as some kind of larger comment about women. The appropriate response is compassion.

Pink Collar Man

A wave of anxiety crashed over me. I was overcome with the sense I had made an embarrassing mistake, like walking into the wrong bathroom. Looking around, I first saw only female faces. But I wasn’t in the women’s restroom. I was in the first day of Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Me, a male professor, another male student, and our ten or so classmates–all women.

I just started my second semester of grad school in mental health counseling. My program, like the field as a whole, is heavily skewed towards female. (The faculty, on the other hand, includes plenty of men–interesting bit of sexism, that.) I knew this when I applied and didn’t give it a second thought. I am comfortable around people of all genders. I reject the sexist forces that push more women and fewer men into this profession. And I think it’s important that more men get involved.

Counseling is a pink collar perfect storm. Caring for people–check. Low paid (relatively speaking)–check. Under appreciated–check. Warm and fuzzy–double check. I think most men just can’t picture themselves doing it. Those who are interested in mental health might opt for a different track, perhaps one more associated with authority, science, and a big paycheck.

I think that’s a loss. Men are less likely to seek counseling, but there are many who do, and some might be better served by a male clinician. Men are also much more likely than women to be in court mandated counseling. Some women and non-binary folks might prefer to work with a man. Many boys could benefit uniquely from working with a male counselor.

I’ve seen a handful of counselors myself, and the counselor’s identity has made a huge difference to me. I was in counseling as a child and adolescent, during transition to get a letter for surgery, and in the last few months as I process my grandmother’s death. My most recent counselor is a gay man of color, while all previous counselors were older white women (at least one was definitely straight, not sure about the others). I really wanted to see a male counselor when I needed my surgery letter–I had a lot of male-specific stuff on my mind at the time–but I couldn’t find one. While working with my most recent counselor, I found that I was much more comfortable speaking frankly with him. The fact that he is gay and Latino also really helped. I could see myself in him.

So both my politics and my experience tell me that pursuing counseling as a man, and particularly as a Sephardic Jewish trans man, is a great idea. But that didn’t prepare for how it actually felt to walk into a classroom that was almost all women.

I felt embarrassed, anxious and confused. I kept wondering how being transgender played a role in my decision. Would I have thought of this path I weren’t trans? Would I have entered this program? I felt like there was some unspoken guy signal I hadn’t heard, an open secret that only I missed.

Of course, there are a bunch of other men in my program, and as far as I know they are cisgender. But that didn’t stop me feeling like I’d made an unbecoming mistake.

I guess I wanted to think that being transgender didn’t have anything to do with it, with any choice I make or thing I do. Maybe part of me wants to think being transgender doesn’t have anything to do with me. It bothers me to think I might do something a cis guy wouldn’t–even though it’s a point of pride that I do certain things (being a feminist, for example) that most cis dudes don’t.

But being transgender has everything to do with it. Not because I missed some male socialization signal that would have turned me away from the helping professions. Not because I shouldn’t be there or because a cis guy wouldn’t want to be there. Being transgender has to do with it because I have years of firsthand experience with depression, anxiety, and mental health professionals. Being transgender has to do with it because I know it’s possible to make changes that make a difference in your wellbeing. Being transgender has to do with it because it’s given me more empathy for others. And being transgender has to do with it because I know I don’t need to live my life according to stereotypes. I did not transition just to trade one suffocating box for another.

I’m feeling much better about it this semester. It would be nice to see more guys around, but it does make it easy to become friends with the dudes who are there. We have a certain solidarity.

I still dread walking into a class to realize I’m the only male student. You can imagine my relief when I sat down in Human Development Across the Lifespan yesterday. I counted eighteen students, eight of them guys.