When I tell people what I do for a living, I often get responses along the lines of: “I don’t know how you do the work you do”, “wow, that must be so hard”, and “good for you, I would never be able to do that kind of work”.
Like anyone, I sometimes get lost in confusion. And ,of course, the stories that I hear from some of my clients are beyond heartbreaking. The thing is, contrarily to what some people might think, my job isn’t to disconnect from the difficult emotions that some of the stories I hear may trigger. My job entails connecting with and hearing the resiliency that lies behind those stories, and to allow myself to fully experience that connection in a supportive and caring way – to go beyond the heartbreak that I may interpret and relate to and draw out the strengths I see.
Bobby is an 18 year old who immigrated to Canada from South America. I worked with him after he was discharged from the hospital following a cocaine overdose. His father was murdered when he was 5. By that age, he had already witnessed extreme domestic abuse. His family fled his native country two years ago because his step-father was wanted through messy drug-related debt.
Janessa is 14. She has scarred her body beyond repair. With two parents sentenced to a life of mental illness and drug addiction, she is being assessed for mental illness herself. Suicide attempts, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, confusing religious messages, bulimia, bisexuality, abandonment, and self-hatred are the dominant themes in her story.
Kerry is 16 and doesn’t know where she is from. She only knows she came to Canada from South Africa when she was 5. She has lost every family member except her father and brother and she has a sense of humour that can turn a whole room into smiles. She learned to be good at making jokes quickly after blocking out the tragedies she wishes to not speak of.
Whenever I feel disconnected, I turn to the mountains for the power and wisdom that they carry. Being immersed in the immensity and beauty of high peaks and deep valleys reminds me of the following:
I have never experienced war, genocide, or any kind of traumatic tragedy.
I have not been a witness to murder, suicide, or torture.
I have not experienced the fate of violence against women, genital mutilation, racism, extreme poverty, hunger, or disease.
I have not been beaten or abused by the people who are meant to care for me.
Some of my close ancestors have experienced the above and fortunately, by the time life got to me,
I am loved.
I am educated.
I am healthy.
…and I have more opportunities than many of the people who live beyond the mountains that I climb could ever possibly imagine.
As mental health professionals, we are privileged to stories of resiliency that are a gift to hold.
I only wish I could take some of the youth I work with up into the high landscapes and have them connect with themselves in a way that talk therapy could never provide.