May is mental health month and it’s been a most inspirational and uplifting one so far! Literally thousands of personal stories and wisdoms have been shared – we’ve all been spoilt for choice on Twitter and Facebook! There is a real sense that people are starting to ‘get it’ you know? Starting to understand that we are all vulnerable at times, we all need and deserve help and now, it’s easier than ever before to say that out loud.

We still have a long way to go though, we know that. That’s one reason we chicks keep doing what we’re doing.

It’s a question often asked of us by clients and friends – why exactly do we choose this career path? And is it not depressing? Tiring? Costly? Lonely?

Now is as good as time as any to answer everyone in one go we reckon! (This is a long one so make that coffee and settle down ;))

First the “WHY?” (and some “how”)

Well, personally speaking, I’ve been fascinated by psychology since my parents gave me my first book on the subject in 1986.Sally Thinking Out Loud It was the Psychology of Communication – George Miller.  I was immediately hooked. People who know me have asked if my father’s sudden death when I was 14 spurred my interest – I’ve often been asked this actually. But no, that wasn’t the sole trigger.

There was a set of triggers and I remember some of them well.

My uncle was a psychiatrist and I met him for the first time when I was 9. I thought he was incredibly cool and interesting. That was a biggie, I wanted to be like him. Every kid has heros, and although I knew him only briefly, he was one of mine.

Next memory flash as I write this is my mother telling me that I would do well to understand why people behave the way they do rather than rush to judge. That intrigued me because before that, I, as all kids do, boxed behavior into ‘good person’ and ‘bad person’. So there might be a reason? Someone might be capable of doing both “good” and “bad” and might even change? Hmmmm… Seed firmly set.

Next up comes secondary school (highschool) where I started to understand the notion of transference and confirmation bias. I didn’t have that language at the time of course. What I was seeing was how easily people slip into treating someone one way or another based on something that has absolutely nothing to do with that person in reality.
On one level it interested me, on anther I found it deeply painful, and wasted many hours wondering how to make people change and how to make them like me. I now know that this is a common angst – just last week a student slipped me this note:

It took years to realise that people don’t change unless they want to – but then that change can be profound. This is a real hook for me: change.

It took years to cop on to the fact that people don’t change unless they want to – but then that change can be profound. This is a real hook for me: change.

My father’s death at 14 did of course have a profoundly negative effect on my development. At that age the ‘management’ of bereavement is vital for a child to continue to thrive and grow. So there was a period of pause. There was no formal support available at the time, and being the watcher I already was, I witnessed myself spiral into teenaged despair and chaos. This is a time that disappeared and resurfaced in my 20’s with more clarity and understanding. I now know this is normal. Now it’s vivid, and enormously helpful in my work with children and parents. That inspired me to work with a Bereavement and Trauma service for children and families in Barnardos for several years. It was a post in which I felt complete ease for a long time. I guess I  knew what I was doing!

Next up came college decision time – I dragged this out for a whole year, hopping back and forth from music to psychology. I was accepted onto several good music degree courses, but at the last minute I backed out and decided on psychology – partly because I feared there might be too much emphasis on performance in music and my self-esteem wasn’t there yet!

I spent the happiest three and half years (thus far – it got even better!) of my life in Galway studying pure psychology. This is where I first met Tanya – fellow chick! And whilst I was not the most studious (fondly remembering the Prof raising an eyebrow and thanking me for joining him for an early morning lecture…) I in fact loved the course a lot more than it probably seemed to my peers and lecturers. I enjoyed research tremendously (apart from the nightmarish stats part), and was gripped by the notion of critical thinking, which was new to my 17 year old self. I spent hours after lectures chatting with a mentor about different experiments and the nature of humanity. We still meet to do that – as recently as two weeks ago when this pic was taken! Me and JohnHearing the stories told by working psychologists and learning about how people work made the next step easy – for me it was a no-brainer, I wanted to be a therapist in private practice and I wanted to do a Master’s in Counselling Psychology. The seed had sprouted and was starting to flourish.

Is it depressing?

This one is easy – the answer for me is no. Of course there are things I hear that are awful, traumatic even. It can and does sadden me that humans experience such depths of pain that they might even feel that their death would be preferable. It irks me that some people choose to behave badly, to abuse others, to view them as ‘less than’. It still takes my breath away how random events can change a life forever, with no warning. But the people who seek my help want change – how can that be depressing? It’s a source of constant joy to me to be in the extremely privileged position of witnessing another human being’s growth and change.

p's poem extractTo watch them plant their own seeds, assist in nurturing them, witness their resilience and tenacity, their hope, and watch the gradual bloom – it’s just great 🙂

When a client wrote this about his experience of therapy I was hugely moved. I think it beautifully captures the relationship that is therapy, and I am grateful that he is happy for me to share an extract of his writing here.

Isn’t that beautiful? It’s the opposite of depressing!

As I’m here, a common misconception of therapy is that it’s all about pain. For me it’s not, a lot of it is about celebration, fun, being happy. Because we are more than our pain, and each part of us deserves acknowledgement – the sad, the wrecked, the fun, the mischievous, the sexual – it’s all there and it’s all good.

Is it tiring?

Sometimes it is yes. So I watch that. Part of my job as a therapist is to teach people how to look after themselves, and part of that is modeling – teaching by example. If I don’t look after me and if I am not seen to place a value on me, then how can I be taken seriously as a role model? And so I work four days a week, I take a full month at summer, and I look after my own mental health by seeing a supervisor regularly, which is a requirement to retain registration in Ireland. Even us supervisors have supervisors!

Is it costly?

Yes it is. Therapists and psychologists in Ireland have to invest heavily in CPD training, professional body membership(s), insurance, supervision and so on. 88401cf77968cb18ddf73f0b50084119Sometimes I wish I could get sick pay, or be assured of a state pension. But honestly the bottom line for me is that it’s absolutely worth it. I go to work every day knowing that I will feel that buzz and be fulfilled during and after. That’s a good deal! 🙂

Is it lonely?

Private practice can be challenging in that we have no colleagues in the ‘normal’ every day sense of the word. Now some of you will read that and think – “OH! How I’d love that!” 😉 But we do need company, some of us more than others .

I make sure I meet my need for connection elsewhere, that balance is important for all of us.

??????????????????I make sure I have a good social life and that I connect with colleagues when possible. I don’t get to talk about work with my friends like other people – that’s one thing that’s quite different from other jobs I guess, but that’s what supervision is for! And that’s OK.

Possibly the biggest difficulty I will ever encounter is the notion of retirement. It’s something I actually can’t visualize… sure we’ll see what I choose to do when the time comes!

So that’s me and thanks for reading! Tanya talks about her own personal path and career choice here, go have a look ! 🙂

Happy reading!

ps: I changed the handwriting in the student’s note to protect confidentiality!