Every other Tuesday for one hour you will find me in the exact same place: sitting on the couch in the office of a lovely woman named Jules. (Well, I get to call her Jules because she also happens to be the sister of one of my closest friends and when you have said the things I have said to her, you get to use her nickname, but you should probably call her Julia.) Anyways, Jules is my counselor…shrink…therapist…mental health care provider…whatever makes you feel the most comfortable. A year and some change ago I started seeing her to help clear some cobwebs and sort some things out and my life is forever changed because of it.
I am fortunate, I suppose, that I have begun my mental health journey at a time in society where mental and emotional health is a well publicized and socially acceptable goal. The trend of seeing a therapist has moved beyond the 90s stereotype of being something only crazy or self-involved (usually from California) people do and so I am by no means a trend setter or barrier breaking participant. But still, every once in a while, I casually mention to someone, usually an acquaintance, that I see Jules and I’m surprised at how uncomfortable people can become at the mention of receiving some help with your emotional health. So I thought I would take a minute to expound upon the benefits I have seen in my own life so far with my time with Jules.
First of all, let me say, while I have been fortunate enough to have never experienced it, there is such a thing as a “bad” counseling experience. Mental health professionals are human and as such, they have flaws or personality quirks or you know, can probably just have a crappy day…or year. So if you have had a rough experience I am not discrediting that. But I would like to encourage you to try again if you so desire.
Like I said, I started seeing Jules because some pretty big life events had transpired in my life in a relatively short amount of time and I was drowning in my attempts to sort it all out myself. I wasn’t have an existential crisis. I wasn’t depressed or hyper emotional. But I had noticed that some of my own personal “quirks” and ticks were getting a little more out of my control. I wasn’t handling my stress levels well and I wasn’t communicating well with anyone that loved me about what I was truly thinking about or feeling. To be honest, I’ve always had a fascination with counseling and to be even more honest, could probably really become a counseling junkie save the fact that I know that one day Jules will kick me off her couch. But I had some pretty big misconceptions about what counseling really was like.
For starters I thought really only the following people merited counseling: newly engaged couples, people who had experienced some sort of major recent trauma, not doing so well couples and people who had experienced pretty awful childhood stuff. Throw in the occasional kid whose parents were going through a messy divorce and you had my basic list of people who should go to counseling. I was stunned, as I started sharing my own (what I thought were relatively small) struggles, at the amount of close friends and mentors who started mentioning that I should think about seeing a counselor. I didn’t really think my little “life got kind of hard” experiences were anything a counselor would be able to help with. But I was terribly wrong. Life gets hard sometimes, probably more often than we like to admit, and sometimes it gets hard enough, even in small ways, that we need someone with an educated, and unbiased opinion to help us sort out what we are really thinking and feeling about those struggles. And in my experience, when you begin to be honest about how hard those things are, all sorts of past struggles or hardships that you maybe didn’t deal with all the way the first time, come flying back in the front door. Life is hard. Talking about it with spouses and friends and mentors is great and healthy. But sometimes, you need that outside voice. Someone who hasn’t known you since you were 16 and can see your life from a fresh perspective.
Another huge misconception I had about counseling was that the role of the counselor was to help you become a better person by forcing you to do things you don’t want to do. I’m not entirely sure where I got this bad idea but it’s probably because every person, myself now included, that I had talked to about counseling had talked about how hard it is. And it is hard. But it’s not hard because someone is telling you that you have to make amends with someone who hurt you badly or because you have to radically change your lifestyle or diet or spiritual life or whatever. It’s hard because if you really do the work of counseling you CHOOSE to make some of those hard decisions on your own. I was astounded the first time Jules made a suggestion of something that I try and followed it up with, “How do you feel about that suggestion?” Counselors are smart people and they know that you won’t actually do anything you don’t want to actually do. In fact, recently in one of our sessions, Jules suggested that I throw the towel in on a small goal I had made that was proving to be more harmful than helpful. I laughed super hard, reminded her that I, Reagan Perkins, do not quit things I have said I was going to do and that there was no way I was going to back down now. She laughed along with me, agreed, and that was the end of that. No big fight. No guilt trip or reminder that she was the professional and this was her professional advice. She quickly recognized that I wasn’t going to budge and she let it go. (Side note: I have since then given up on that goal because I realized she was in fact correct but whatever, it was my decision…to decide she was right.) I don’t know what couple’s counseling is like and perhaps there is more of a give and take in that environment, but for me, Jules has never forced me to do anything I wasn’t willing to do. She is a safe place because of that.
Jules also happens to love Jesus. And she works in a practice that loves Jesus and so Jesus comes up. But, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that He doesn’t ALWAYS come up. Never has Jules insinuated that the one and only way to work through my problems is to pray about it more. My relationship with God definitely weaves its way in and out of our conversations but its because Jules and I know we have that common ground.
She’s never told me to read the Psalms more when I’m stressed or to just pray harder for peace.
In fact, she has forced me to come face to face with some beliefs that I thought I had down pat in my spiritual life and recognize that my relationship with God isn’t nearly as healthy as I thought it was. It’s been humbling to watch my Christian school girl background come crumbling down in the face of some of these hard questions I am asking. And yet, once again, I am in a safe place to ask these questions. Jules is ok with saying, “I don’t know” when she doesn’t actually know and then at other times pushing me to think past the cliches and Bible stories to find a hard answer.
Also, you don’t have to cry. I am not a cryer and for years I was convinced that counseling meant laying down on a couch, sobbing your eyes out while someone scribbles furiously about your disfunction. Granted, if I wanted to cry, I most definitely could and some days I wonder if Jules will consider it a personal victory if/when I shed a tear in her office, but once again, she’s a smart cookie. She knows that while I most certainly could use a good cry every now and again, most of the time that’s not my M.O. So she doesn’t expect me to. (Watch, now I will break down like a baby next Tuesday.) But once again, what happens in a counselor’s office, what you discuss or don’t discuss, decide or don’t decide, that’s all your call. Obviously, if you want to do the work of counseling you will make those hard decisions, have those hard conversations and probably cry a little…or a lot, if you’re a cryer, God bless you.
And lastly the best part about the time I have spent with Jules is that never have I ever not felt the freedom to be exactly who I am. She pushes me to be better and to be healthy and to be balanced, but she has never even remotely tried to change the core of who I am. I’m a serious thinker who likes to make a joke when I start to drown in my own sobriety. And she gets that. We laugh A LOT. I have severe issues with failure and she gets that too. She gently nudges me to come to my own conclusions about facets of my life I could be healthier in. She doesn’t come down on me like judge and jury and force me to face my many inadequacies. I don’t like extreme emotion and so she doesn’t push me to my extremes just to garnish a “breakthrough”. She reminds me of the importance of all emotion, even the extreme ones and she lets me go at my own pace in exploring those far corners of the emotional universe.
We end just about every session with Jules asking me what I need. She has asked me so often that its become second nature to me to ask myself that question when I start to feel like I’m at the end of my rope. In fact, just the other night one of my ropes was unraveling and Greg stopped our conversation and asked, “So what do you need right now?” What do I need? If I remember nothing else from my time with Jules that question will be seared in my mind forever because, if answered honestly, it will always produce a moment of peace, even for just a second, and sometimes for a bit longer.
Right now, counseling is my safe place. It’s always one of the answers to what I need and I can testify that my marriage and my family and my friendships are healthier and richer because every other Tuesday I go talk to Jules for an hour.