We all have mental health issues at some time in our lives. But too few of us seek counseling when we need it. In my own family, there is a history of depression and suicide on my father’s side.
My daddy succumbed to depression when he was in his forties. He bought a farm, the biggest gamble of all, and had to make payments on a loan. He had such pressure on him to make that loan payment that when his crops failed and he lost some of his livestock to lightning, he became extremely despondent.
I remember him sitting, one early morning, in front of the gas heater, his head in his hands. Mother sat beside him, her arm around his shoulders. They talked softly and I did not understand all of what was said, but I heard Mother comforting him. We will make it through. Don’t worry now. You will find a way. She tried to cheer him up.
I believe my father was actually crying, but I was a child and I’m not sure. I do know that he was unhappy and irritable most of the time. It was years later a medical doctor prescribed an antidepressant for him. However, no one talked about it. Mental health problems have always been hidden because our culture stigmatized those who needed help for those issues.
Thank goodness, Prince William and Prince Harry are opening up about the dangers of holding in your painful feelings by finally talking about the terrible grief of losing their beautiful, beloved mother, Princess Diana. I know that children have long lasting effects from grief that they can’t talk about. Often adults tell children, “Be strong for your mother now. She needs you.” What a burden to put on a child.
I am afraid I did that with my nieces when their father died. I hope I did not, but I probably did, because I was ignorant of what they were going through. They seemed, at the time, to be handling things so well. But I am sure they pushed that pain as far away as they could.
Some people say that kids are resilient and they spring back better than adults. That is not always true. Sometimes kids seem to be fine when they, like Prince Harry, are suffering deep inside.
Having lost so many of my loved ones, I know that grief hits one in different ways. And we grieve over many kinds of loss. Women grieve that they cannot bear children, but they don’t feel they can say that out loud. I know women who have lost infants in miscarriage or at birth, and they don’t have a time or place to grieve. Unthinking friends often say, “Well, you can have another one.”
Another one will not replace that child that died. That pain will always be there.
I first went for counseling when my mother collapsed with a ruptured aneurysm on her carotid artery and almost died. She had to be cared for the next ten years until her death. She lost her short term memory and could no longer cook or drive a car. I had no idea how to care for anyone, certainly not the one I had always turned to for my own needs. The stress was overwhelming at times. I had a husband, a job, and a house and yard to take care of, but I was also on call 24/7 for my mother.
|Lois Robison Council, my mother, who lost her short term memory at the age of 70|
I told no one, but I sought a counselor where I could cry and not feel ashamed or guilty, where I could pour out my sadness and my low feelings of self-esteem, my fear that I was not up to the task. That was when I realized that many others I knew could benefit from counseling as well. When I expressed to my counselor that I would be considered weak if I told my family I was in counseling, he said, "Actually, you are the strong one in your family.” He said it takes courage and strength to face the truth and to talk about the pain in our lives. He was right.
When a troubled niece came to live with me as a teenager, I had to seek help. I had no training in dealing with a girl who was grieving the death of her father and, in a way, the loss of her mother who had to go back to work and had to move the family away from the school, the friends, and all familiar things she knew.
I did not know what to do. It was such a relief to talk with a mental health counselor who worked with children. The best advice she gave me was so simple to follow. “Just love her. Let her know you love her.” That was easy.
Ten years later, when my mother died, I was devastated. No one in the family seemed to grieve the way I did. I just could not get back to normal. I went back to my counselor who knew me so well. He knew me better than anyone because I was free to tell him what I was feeling. I learned during those weeks and months that I was suffering because I not only lost my mother, I lost my purpose in life. I had to make a new life for myself that did not include my mother.
My purpose for a decade had been to keep her alive and to dedicate myself to her care. I was the one who knew her prescriptions and when she should take them. I was there at the doctor's office to hear his words because Mother would not remember to tell me. Once she was gone, I felt I had no purpose.
Someone said to me, “But you had your husband.”
Yes, I had my husband and I still cooked meals, kept house and spent time with him. I loved him dearly. But if I didn’t cook a meal or if I didn’t keep house, he would still be fine. He would not be upset one minute. Thankfully, he was that kind of man. Caring for him and my home was not a life or death matter.
The death of my mother changed my life completely. I became so depressed I lost interest in everything. That is the reason I have empathy for anyone who has lost a parent, a child or a spouse. Each loss is an individual issue that affects each survivor in a way no one else understands. My sister said she thought my grief for Mother was harder for me than the grief she and the others in the family felt.
Richard, my counselor, showed such kindness, understanding and caring he helped me pull myself out of that dark time. I had taken painting lessons and I lost myself for hours sitting in front of a canvas creating a work of art. My husband and friends found my work pleasing and praised me as an artist. Using your hands helps with grief. Creating something new brings stillness to your mind, and takes away the pain for a time. Art can heal and I found that writing and painting is very healing for me.
When I see a mother lose a child to cancer or some other horrendous disease, I say a silent prayer that she will seek counseling. Some deeply religious people find solace in talking to their priest or minister, but some don’t get what they really need. They don’t need to hear that God will not give us more than we can bear. They don’t need to hear that time will heal our pain. They don’t need to be made to feel they did not live a good enough life or that it was for the best. Some platitudes are spoken that only hurt, not heal.
Sadly, the stigma of seeking mental health care keeps many from reaching out. Grief not only hurts us in our heart and brain, but it makes us physically ill as well. When my husband died, it seems I had more sick days than well days. I needed more sleep, yet when I awoke in the morning, I felt I had not slept at all. I could not focus on tasks or even read without going back to read the same page again. My mind jumped from one thing to another, mostly about what I need to do or should be doing, or how am I going to do that or how can I do this. This did not go away in a few months or even a few years. I had to work on this every day and I sought help.
I am grateful to another counselor in my life. She is my sounding board. One time I might think I need to sell my house. The next time I might say I love my house and don’t want to sell it. She never tells me what I should do, but helps me think through my dilemma.
“Psychotherapy doesn’t help people become unstuck because of what the therapist knows, but what the person who is stuck knows.” *
She reminds me that when I am not feeling well physically, I turn negative. But when I am not sick or in pain, she helps me see how I can reach my goals. She helps me understand I don't have to give up and call it a life. She asks the questions I need to hear.
Right after Barry died, I poured out my hurt and pain to her. I didn’t worry about what I said, or if I sobbed. She handed me a tissue box which she keeps in her office, just as I do in my studio. I hand them out to my students when someone writes and reads about his/her life and brings tears to the eyes of the listeners. We don't feel embarrassed.
Counseling has helped me overcome anger and fear. I was angry at members of my family even though I loved them dearly. Once I talked about these people and discussed events in the past, I came to understand my anger. I also wrote about all of these things so writing was also helpful, especially writing about my father and understanding his fears of failure.
After my husband died my emotions were like a roller and that was detrimental to relationships with my loved ones. I had to let my anger out without hurting them. My therapist let me grieve anyway I wanted. She told me I had a right to my feelings even if it was anger I felt. Even if I felt abandoned I had the right to that feeling and I had the right to cry, to mourn and to hit something or kick something as long as it was not someone.
I didn’t have to pretend to be stalwart, strong when I didn’t feel strong. I had the right to sit home and watch family videos and cry over all the good memories we had made together. I did not have to be Jackie Kennedy, and have others say how strong I was or how well I was dealing with my loss. In our culture we often pretend to be fine when we are with people, but fall apart when we are behind closed doors.
My therapist encouraged me to do things I once enjoyed or take up something I had never done. She inspired me to give myself permission to travel and do things I had not done when Barry was with me. By doing those things, I developed more self-assurance. I made notes in my journal when I did something I had never done before. I patted myself on the back when I accomplished a new task.
Mental health makes a huge difference in the lives of us all. I once told my therapist, “I always feel better when I leave here.” I wish I could say that when I go to my medical doctors.
Think about what it feels like to be carrying a heavy piece of furniture and to finally put it down on the floor. That is often the way we feel when we talk honestly to our therapist. We take that load off our backs. We bring it into the sunlight and see it differently.
Keeping painful thoughts and feelings hidden deep inside makes us ill, physically and mentally, so if you have lost a loved one or if you have gone through divorce, or if you have found you cannot have children or if you have been diagnosed with a disease, find a good therapist. Find someone you are comfortable with and don’t expect to be fine after one or two sessions. Stick with your counseling and I am sure you will find it is very helpful.
When my older sister, June, was in her last months of life, she wanted to talk to a therapist who counseled her about dying. When June accepted that she was not going to get well, she talked on the phone with her counselor. I don't know what was said, but after she hung up the phone, June said to me, "I love her. I mean I really love her."
* quote from a TED talk on psychotherapy