As a teenager, Dr Crystal Benjamin was intrigued by love and relationships. She made a point of watching reality television shows and paid keen attention to how the characters socialised and bonded.
Benjamin, now 32, said her past romantic involvements were also a key factor in her decision to pursue a career in marriage counselling and family therapy.
"I have had more than my fair share of failed relationships and I have seen relationships around me fail and I wanted to learn more," she said of her decision to enter the field.
Now, after nine years of counselling individuals and couples and working in several public and private sector institutions, Benjamin has started a new chapter in her life. On May 1, she established her own practice, the flagship arm of Enriched Life Ltd, at 13, Buccoo Road, Carnbee, Tobago.
She said given her years of experience in marriage and relationship therapy, branching out on her own seemed natural. However, Benjamin said starting her own business has been an eye-opener.
"I have experienced the full range of emotions. One could conduct research and create a detailed plan but we never truly know what the result would be until we execute. I am happy I executed. I am happy that I did not listen to the voice of those who discouraged me from moving forward."
Benjamin added: "The journey has not been easy and I have thought about taking the easier path. But after much thought, I realised there is no easy path. That no matter if I chose to be an entrepreneur or an employee, life in and of itself has challenges that I can never escape. It is through those challenges that we could see our character, that we grow and could mentor others."
An influencer in the Ministry of Sports' recently-launched 40 Under 40 youth mentorship initiative, Benjamin told WMN she had no intention of being a full-time entrepreneur before last year. She said she was simply happy to return home from the US to serve in the public service.
The Newsday Tobago columnist, fired up about on making a difference, said she even thought of becoming an independent senator to advocate for social inclusion and family friendly policies.
That dream had to be shelved, when, at the beginning of last year, she learnt that her job was in jeopardy. She said the experience took a severe toll on her. "I was tired of fighting. I was tired of feeling depressed and anxious. Tired of feeling like I was misplaced."
Benjamin said it was during that time she observed the need for professionals with training and experience in relationship therapy and began to draft a plan to start her own business. She said she also started a blog about her journey from employee to business owner.
"It was as if the door at my job was closing and the door towards serving clients was wide open with persons waving at me to walk right through. And after much prayer and discussion with family members, I decided to walk through the open door and explore what was in store for me."
A Plymouth native, Benjamin knows only too well the apprehension Tobagonians may experience about opening up to a therapist about their personal lives. And while she welcomes the challenge, she also believes such feelings are justified.
"Some persons I have interacted with have expressed concerns about confidentiality but I have told them about professional ethics and I have also informed my clients about their rights. I have made them aware that if any professional ever breaches their confidentiality, they are within their rights to take legal action."
She said some of her clients have reported "disturbing experiences" from so-called professionals in the field.
"The comments are sometimes sexist, intolerant and inappropriate. But as professionals, we have a responsibility to represent our fields with the highest respect. We must practice within the law and be ethical." Benjamin said family life practitioners must be subjected to stricter oversight. "I also long for the day that clients understand their rights to hold us accountable to ensure that we provide the best standard of care possible."
Asked what is the biggest misconception about her field, Benjamin said: "People think that if we are working with them, something must be wrong with them. They believe they are broken and that their situation is hopeless." Benjamin said she always tries to help her clients externalise the problem by letting them know that what they are experiencing does not define who they are. "I wish we were taught to be gentler on ourselves and to exercise more self love in the midst of our trials. Negative self-talk cripples us."
The seeds of Benjamin's interest in marriage and family life therapy were sown when representatives from Loma Linda University visited the University of the Southern Caribbean to present on the programmes they offered. She was a student at the University of the Southern Caribbean at the time. After the presentation, the former Signal Hill Secondary School student said she immediately visited the Loma Linda University's website and found a Master's programme in Marital and Family Therapy.
"I got excited. I reviewed the course title and thought that this would be a great fit for my interests and future work.
"I viewed myself as an agent for social change, that with knowledge about relationships, I could help people avoid toxic relationships and enjoy healthy relationships for a lifetime. I knew how devastating heartbreak could be." She holds a doctorate in family Studies and a Master's degree in Marital and Family Therapy from Loma Linda University.
According to Benjamin, the biggest problem confronting marriages and relationships, generally, is that the average person does not understand how marriages work. She said they also do not understand how his/her communication style could damage their relationship by limiting trust and fuelling betrayal.
The average person, she observed, has difficulty with accepting responsibility for their actions. "As a professional, it is my responsibility to help share those findings and to help persons re-negotiate their relationships with their partners."
Benjamin said the most telling truth of her career thus far is that people need support. "It has also taught me that human beings are incredibly resilient and that we could bounce back from virtually anything with the right support and mindset."
However, she said being a trained therapist does not exempt her from marital and life issues. "Now that I am married, I have a deep appreciation for the work couples put in. I am also aware that I need to debrief to ensure that I do not take home my clients' woes and project them unto my family."
Benjamin said she wants to apply her skills to her own marriage more often.
"There are some days when I choose to be 'petty' and I practice the communication styles that are not healthy and I experience the consequences of those actions like anyone else. However, with each conflict, I use it as an opportunity to create a new strategy to move forward."
Benjamin said being selected as one of the Ministry of Sports' 40 Under 40 influencers is one of the most gratifying experiences of her career thus far.
She said: "The fact that I was there minding my own business, doing the work that I love and an entity observed my work and thought that it was something they wanted other young people to be exposed to was an honour."
Benjamin said she does not take the title of influencer lightly. "My life is now up for public scrutiny and I intend to use this opportunity to showcase my authentic self and help other young people know that they are vulnerable just the way they are, that their background does not disqualify them from a purposeful future."
Benjamin gauges the success of her work through client feedback. "At the end of each session, I usually ask clients to identify what was helpful and what was not." She said they also collaborate to create what she calls SMART (acronym for Specific, Measurable, Realistic and Time-Bound) goals and an action plan. The action plan, she said, ensures that all players are clear on each person's responsibility and are therefore able to track progress.
"My role includes a comprehensive assessment, co-creating the action plan, providing the tools needed to develop a skill or reduce a behaviour and transition the client out of the therapy/coaching programme."
How does she do it all?
Benjamin admits juggling work, a new marriage and family life, has been "a constant battle."
While she enjoys her work and finds it difficult to switch off, she knows for any relationship to thrive, time must be invested in her loved ones.
For now, she observes it helps to have a routine and work around it. Saturday nights, she joked, are reserved for date nights with her husband.