Sitting in the other chair: A therapist being a client

As someone who works a six-day, fifty hour week in the mental health/ social sector that offers close to squat in terms of benefits to employees, I always knew that burnout or something akin to it was an occupational hazard that I would encounter sooner than later.

To be fair, I was warned by my teachers and mentors. I was even asked at my interview  for admission to the Master’s Degree  whether I was really prepared to work in a sector that would offer emoluments  of about fifteen thousand rupees after a two-year professional degree while the HR kids made four times the same amount during their student internship itself! The answer was always a yes.

I was never in doubt about my career choice of becoming a Counselling Psychologist (the only other option that caught my fancy was a Lit major, and that would probably pay worse), and five years into the field, I have no regrets in hindsight either. When all of the aforementioned is taken into consideration, I should ideally have been more immune to burnout than the average bear. If you further add the fact that I had been in ‘that conversation’ with many peers and colleagues which told them that it was time to consider undergoing counselling for themselves;

being somehow caught unprepared myself when the stress reached overwhelming proportions may seem downright baffling. But yet, it isn’t.

Despite multiple stressors and the constant feeling of being overwhelmed, everyone thinks they would be the last ones to need counselling. I’d go a step ahead and say that we mental health professionals are probably the worst offenders when it comes to this.

For us, acknowledging that we are finding it hard to keep our heads above water is seen more as an injury that would keep us out of action, rather than routine maintenance to keep the engine running.

And therefore, we carry our niggles with us, whether it is by attributing frequently poor health to unpredictable weather, or our ever-shortening fuses to the annoying-ness of those around us. None of this was unknown to me. Yet, it took me at least 18 months from the time I first said to myself that I might need to seek counselling to the time I actually scheduled an appointment with a therapist.

Once I made the decision, I took the first available appointment but it took me a year and a half to get there.

As I sat in the hospital’s examination room which doubled as my therapist’s office (which again speaks of how un-important the healthcare system considers non-psychiatric mental health interventions), I found myself asking the same question –

‘What took so long to get here?’

And the answer that came to me was that despite all that I knew about the pitfalls of working in the social sector: the stressors that could affect a mental health professional, and the strain that is brought on by slogging 5 years without a real vacation, I was somehow still waiting for someone to have ‘that conversation’ with me.

Being an insider I had learned to cheat the system (including myself) to the point where  I let myself believe that nobody really cared or felt the need to come up to me and tell me that perhaps it was time for me to slow things down myself.

On one hand I felt pretty stupid for expecting this, yet on the other hand it made me feel sulky about the fact that no one actually came up to me to ask me if I was doing alright. As the ‘Nobody cares if I am doing okay’ self-talk began to get louder, I , as I would have expected from any half-decent therapist, asked myself if there was evidence to support this belief. Surprisingly, there wasn’t. There were in fact multiple instances where people tried to get through to me – be they my spouse, or my senior colleagues. Yet I always eschewed any meaningful expression of my feelings in response to their enquiries in favour of generic responses devoid of any real emotional content. The circle had been completed, and I was actively isolating myself from anyone who wanted to give me a chance to vent, while at the same time feeling let down by those around me for ‘not caring’ about me. And that’s a pretty rubbish place to be in.

I was hoping to have something succinctly profound to say by the end of this piece as a sort of a moral of the story or a lesson learned, but I am afraid I don’t have that yet.

What I do know even more clearly now is that I am just as likely as any of my clients to need counselling.

One only hopes I can learn to be as mindful and considerate of my own needs as their needs, as time goes by.

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A Counselling Psychologist by training, I prefer to go by the title ‘Mental Health Professional’ instead. I’ve been working in the field for nearly five years and currently head an amazing team of young counsellors at a nationwide telephone helpline based out of Mumbai. Things that make me happy are writing, music from diverse genres, desserts , a good night’s sleep and my wonderful puppy, Zoe