As a new counselor still under supervision and still completing the initial hours for independent licensure, I already fully realize this “job” provides me with the most amazing opportunity in the world. Biased opinion? Yes. But it is one that is constantly reinforced by my experiences. Yalom and other greats in our field have suggested how powerful the therapeutic relationship of one human’s acceptance and support of another can be. After living 5 months in an Afghanistan combat zone and using this foundational premise, I’m here to say their wisdom is spot-on.
I just replied to a strand of shared emails from the best classmates/friends in the world, Cara Alexander, Douglas Dye, Otiz Porter, and Sarah Scott. Without going into detail, we just completed a very trying PhD course that literally caused physical stress reactions for some. I reflected to them about how this shared experience—while not fun at the time—has brought us even closer together and will be something we will reminisce about when we are catching up over drinks or dinner while on business trips somewhere, someday in the future. This is but one example of how hardships and stress can bring about resiliency, life lessons, and closer relationships. I think this is a useful point to bring up to clients who decide to only see the negative.
While I see some usefulness and validity within different theories of psychology/therapy, I personally support CBT the most. I believe, for the most part and to at least some degree, people can control their emotional and stress reactions by their thoughts. To me this view creates a position of hope and strength—one that can greatly empower an individual to take control over their moods and their lives. As I have met with Soldiers and Marines in my office and in the field these past few months in Afghanistan, I’m reminded of the usefulness of hard times in our life to develop who we are---when we choose to view them as such.
EACH of the Soldiers and Marines I’ve gotten to know through therapeutic encounters has been brave and inspirational in some way, despite their hardships—no exceptions. (Air Force and Navy personnel are here too—just not as many and I haven’t had informal or formal therapeutic encounters with members of these groups.) Their hardships have been both military-related and non-military-related. They have ranged from nightmares of piles of dead bodies from Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq; to separation from a recently-diagnosed sick son; to rape; to smoke inhalation difficulties from being trapped inside a burning truck due to an ambush of Taliban gunfire; to physical and emotional pain from the aftermath of death and shrapnel inflicted by a suicide bomber; to a childhood with a repeatedly abusive and even murderous “mother” who reinforced a belief that no one can be trusted or loving. But here’s the honor-worthy truth I’ve experienced through hearing of these and other hardships:
THROUGH THERAPY, WE CAN OFFER THE GIFT OF EMPOWERMENT THROUGH ALL THE TRAGEDY IN THIS WORLD.
Not everyone comes from a background that equips them with the ability to make lemonade out of lemons. I realize not everyone has the luxury I have of a best friend like Jillian who’s constantly supportive and available for talks and laughs. Or dependable, loving family members like my parents, my Nana, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Not everyone can draw from numerous life experiences which have reinforced an inclination toward hope and optimism. Not everyone has supportive relationships to lean on during difficult times. Not everyone has that voice of strength that speaks from within to say, “You can do this! This won’t last forever, you can get through this!” We, as therapists, have the most amazing job in the world of being these missing strengths in a person’s life for a brief moment and/or to show him or her that these elements of resiliency exist and can be found.
As therapists/counselors we have the unique and precious opportunity to truly impact people’s lives by offering them an alternative to a life of misery, despair, hopelessness, loneliness, pain, doubt. With nothing more than the sincere sharing of ourselves and a bit of book knowledge, we can offer people proof that someone can care for them; that there are reasons to hope; that they are loveable; and that no experience in life has the power to dictate the tone for rest of it. Specifically when working with members of the military, this acceptance and unconditional support is so vastly important—I’ve seen that they need more of this. They need LESS 10-to-30-minute-only clinical assessment sessions resulting in a piece of paper with a scribbled prescription to “address” their mental health needs and they need MORE authentic positive connections with other human beings. They need MORE professionals to meet with them more than just once to listen to what’s bothering them and to figure out how to get through it. Our Troops NEED more counselors and therapists. Not later, NOW. They need counselors both in the field and on deployments as well as once they are back home on military installations and in their homes with their families. I had no idea how badly Troops need all this until I was in a combat zone myself.
To help just ONE member of the military to realize their nightmares do not make them “crazy;” to help just ONE member of the military to realize they don’t have to carry guilt around forever because they made the choice to kill another human out of fear and preservation of his own life; to help just ONE member of the military to break a pattern of domestic abuse exacerbated by pain of experiences of war; to help just ONE member of the military to learn how to better communicate with his family about what he experienced so they can grow closer….it’s worth giving a full hour a week for a while. It’s worth the tens of thousands of dollars some of us have spent on our education. It’s worth giving up a few free hours to those who can’t afford our regularly-priced ones. It’s worth missing countless hours of sleep during our graduate programs. It’s worth hours and money spent at conferences to gain knowledge and tools to grow professionally. Right? I say definitely.
What an amazing “job” to have in life. What an opportunity our profession provides in connecting with and empowering others. And what an honor it is to do so.
Natosha Monroe is an Army Reserve Mental Health Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. She is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.