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N Touch
Saturday 23 June 2018
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Getting help: finding the right fit

Crystal Abraham is 33, unmarried, and childless. She is an educator and writer, and in her free time she enjoys reading, hiking, and singing. Crystal is a practising Catholic, teaches confirmation in her parish church, and is also involved in the parish’s outreach programme for displaced people. Crystal is currently undergoing treatment for depression.

MY workplace, like many others, offers free counselling services to employees as part of general employee health and wellness. I decided to take advantage of the offer.

The counsellor was…odd. Her office décor was meant to be homely, but reminded me of a seedy massage parlour, with regulation green chairs, scented candles, and very dark lighting. She offered me a cup of tea, which I declined: I don’t like tea.

At the beginning of the visit, she explained to me that she would be retiring soon, and that the company hadn’t yet found a replacement – funding cuts. I felt myself retreating. Why open up to someone who was going to leave anyway?

I knew I might have to try several therapists before I found the right fit. Therapists are, after all, people, and just as you don’t open up to everyone you meet in real life, you probably won’t in therapy either.

My new psychiatrist’s office is more clinical – white walls, black chairs, posters about mental health, a secretary, no candles, no tea. I prefer this, because it makes me feel as though I am being taken seriously and not as though I’ve come to visit an old aunt.

Each person has to find the treatment that works best for them. At the same time, there are lots of well-meaning people who want to help, but aren’t fully qualified to do so. After my first session, I googled my counsellor. She was a trained social worker, with special training in conflict resolution. Impressive, but it meant that she was better suited to helping resolve office conflicts than to dealing with depression.

It also meant that she wasn’t qualified to give me medical advice. But depression is a medical condition, and needs to be treated with the help of medical professionals. Friends, family, priests, and even counsellors can offer listening ears and a world of support, but they often aren’t able to help beyond that, nor should they be expected to. Similarly, sports and other hobbies are effective coping mechanisms, but they are not cures.

Nevertheless, speaking with the counsellor did offer me an alternative perspective. My depression had caused problems in my relationships, and this was something I felt the counsellor could help me address.

My friends, many of whom I had met through church, seldom got in touch and rarely included me in their plans, exacerbating my feelings of isolation. In my depressed state, I needed to be reaffirmed; I could not deal with rejection. Furthermore, Christianity’s constant challenge to serve, forgive, and above all love, as Jesus had loved, to the point of death, presented me with a set of ideals I could only fall short of. Small but consistent unkindness – favours without thanks, ignored messages, last-minute cancellations – on one hand allowed me to practise God’s selfless love, but with the other delivered me into depression’s darkest depths.

Fr Mike, though supportive of my situation, beseeched me to be more understanding of those that had hurt me, since love is always willing to make excuses. He exhorted me to accept their love as they offered it, just as God accepted my broken and incomplete love. I was angry with him because I felt that he put their hurt above mine, that he was viewing their pain as some side effect of my inability to live out the Christian challenge, but failing to see my pain in the same light.

The counsellor, however, allowed me to feel hurt and disappointed. It was a normal, human condition, to expect that our friends include us, and a law of physics that the force of our love should be returned. I was not being unreasonable.

In my second meeting with the counsellor, however, this new perspective began to unsettle me. “All skin teeth eh grin,” and now that was clear, the counsellor felt that I should bare my fangs, go to mutual friends and explain my position, giving myself the upper hand in relationships. Where Fr Mike had argued for forgiveness and humility, I was now being told to attack first, save face.

I considered this approach, for my depression often left me feeling powerless, and here I was being given a way to have the power of definition in my relationships. It was tempting, but hadn’t I prayed not be led into temptation? After our third meeting, the counsellor retired. I still have not decided how I should proceed. As I see it, I stand at a difficult crossroads: How do I live out my Christian challenge while at the same time looking after my mental health? How do I die to self without killing myself?

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