In spite of what you’ve seen on TV or at the movies, visiting a therapist isn’t an admission that you’re somehow crazy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Not everyone has been to counselling. But, I sometimes have to remind myself that many people are not even open to it. I first went to a counsellor in the ‘70s when I was a teenager, and I now believe that it’s as essential to wellbeing as a tune-up is to a motor vehicle. After all, our mind and emotions could be seen as the vehicle that drives our lives, right? However to some people, counselling is still considered something that neurotic characters out of Woody Allen movies go to; you know, laying on a sofa to have their innermost selves dissected and judged under a microscope.
Some years ago when I was working in a government job, I was interviewing and counselling approximately 5 parents in a day; most had just received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder for their child, so the counselling was an integral part of the job. Many parents were in shock; some were angry; some were in disbelief; and a lot were just holding it together whilst in ‘action mode’, a common way in which we channel our stress.
There are a handful of parents who stand out in my memory for the raw grief and emotion … such as Anna, whose 3 year old boy had just been diagnosed with ASD – and she had just given birth to a second boy. This poor woman’s hormones were all over the place, and although she tried to hold it together, all she could do was sob. I encouraged her to let it spill right out as she so obviously needed. She explained to me about the stress of managing the reactions of her parents and in-laws… and that she’d decided not to tell them because they didn’t speak English and wouldn’t understand anyway.
I left my interview form and mandatory box-ticking aside and attended to this crying woman by being as absolutely present for her as I could. I listened and empathised. I answered a question here and there, and noticed her visibly relax when I disclosed that I had been through this very same journey myself. My own son was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and although I hadn’t just given birth to a second child at the time of diagnosis, I do know what it’s like to experience a double whammy in terms of shock. My father died in the January and we received a diagnosis in February – needless to say, it was a very difficult year.
After a long appointment, Anna thanked me profusely for listening and told me how much better she felt. I had already suggested a follow- up appointment so I could relay some information about services. But what I urged most was that she look for some extra support for herself; to find a counsellor, psychologist, or a parent group to provide support as she set out on this journey. She looked quite surprised and shook her head emphatically. No, no – she was fine and didn’t need anything like that.
It was as though I’d suggested she sign herself into a psych ward, so I guessed that she might not really know what counselling actually looks like. I said to her: “you realise I have actually been counselling you for the last 90 minutes? I explained carefully how she may benefit from further counselling and support, and I know she listened to me because I came across Anna again about a year down the track, and learned that she’d been seeing a psychologist who specialises in autism spectrum disorders and family therapy. I was so very pleased that she had taken my advice.
I thought it was interesting how Anna reacted to my suggestion, showing that what I was doing for her was obviously not what she perceived therapy to be. When I later relayed this situation to a colleague, I remember him joking that it was a bit like the old Palmolive commercial, you know …
It struck me back then, that many parents just soldier on and don’t realise how much benefit they may find in talking things over with someone… and that many parents may not know what counselling or support actually looks like. So what does it look like?
If you’re overwhelmed or struggling in any way along this journey, particularly if you feel isolated… seeking support can be extremely positive. Not everyone benefits from the same kind of support, and not everyone will find appealing the thought of talking things through with one person. Some people prefer a group setting; others would rather stick pins in their eyes than sit in a group talking about their struggles ‘just like they’re in an AA meeting’ as one dad I spoke to put it.
Some parents find it a great help joining playgroups. Discussions don’t have to be of a particularly personal nature, but once people get comfortable they inevitably begin to share their feelings and experiences. As well as the emotional and social benefits, there can be good information shared at such gatherings. I’ve also heard from clients that they’ve found this kind of support at workshops… where the mere commonality of having children with autism seemed to create a kind of bond for them.
Life in a big city can be very cold when you’re dealing with adversity of any kind, and if one does not have strong family support it can be tougher still.
Studies in resilience show that when we’re faced with challenges in life, we cope better if we have strong relationships (family, friends, church/community), or a strong faith – or constructive philosophy that gives life meaning.
Sometimes it takes a colossal challenge in our lives to show us that our existing coping skills – or something in our belief system is no longer serving us, and needs altering… this is where talking to a trained therapist can be especially beneficial. And for the record, it’s not about laying back on a sofa and having your innermost thoughts dissected and poked at. Counselling should be a positive and beneficial experience where you feel respected and safe, and where you know you can be heard and understood without judgement. And you should feel better for it – just as when you soak your hands in a soothing balm (or Palmolive, so it seems).