When the Snow-Globe Shatters: A Counselor By Kevin Hull, PhD on 10/9/18 - 4:28 PM

Many clinicians are comfortable and familiar with suffering – the suffering of others, that is. But what happens to us when our personal world is rocked by tragedy? Fulfilling the duty to which we are called is not an easy task when we are hit by the loss of a relationship, financial devastation, or a terminal illness that befalls us or a loved one.

Several years ago, I suffered a heartbreaking tragedy as my first marriage ended after a long separation. The years of separation were filled with marriage counseling and numerous attempts at reconciliation, but in the end, my former wife chose a different path for her life. In the wake of this were two little girls whose worlds got turned upside down. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in the years following I endured a long custody battle that involved years of court and attorneys, as I attempted to be a part of my daughter’s lives. The aftermath of all of it left me devastated financially and emotionally, and I found myself seriously doubting if I could continue on in the profession to which I had dedicated my life.

Did I mention that I’m a therapist who works with kids, teens, and families? I can’t tell you how many kids from divorced and blended families that I have worked with and when this happened, it was like staring into a black abyss of reality that was going to swallow me whole. Suddenly, it was my kids asking why mom and dad didn’t live together and begging us to work it out. It was my kids who cried when it was time to go back to the other parent’s home. I was the one scrambling to defend myself in court and keeping time logs for the attorney and being summoned to depositions over ridiculous accusations. It was me having sleepless nights wondering about the emotional and mental damage my children were having to endure, and worrying about how this would impact their future development and relationships.

Our training and expertise is a gift when it comes to helping others. But when our personal lives start to crumble, all that knowledge can work against us in knowing exactly how to deal with it. What does the clinician do when this happens? How can we endure a personal tragedy but still effectively do our work? Here are a few things that I did that kept me held together while weathering the storms of my personal tragedy.

The first thing I did was seek personal counseling. Thankfully, I found a seasoned non-biased clinician who comforted me where it was needed, but also challenged me when it came to my denial about my abilities and how my personal issues may affect my professional work. Second, I kept the vision that tragedy represents growth opportunities and the goal isn’t just to survive it, but to thrive as a result of going through the process. I took the mindset of a client in regards to addressing the issues going on in my personal world. I set to work on confronting my denial and fears. I journaled daily, addressing my thoughts, emotions, and staying grounded to the moment. Third, I took an honest look at my caseload to see which cases I needed to refer to other practitioners. This was very hard for me, but looking back was very beneficial both to myself and to the clients. I reached out to colleagues and received excellent consultation.

Now, looking back, this period in my life was one of profound suffering but also immense growth. Here are some things I learned and gained from this experience. First, I identified with my clients in a new way. Emotional pain, fear, and the experience of loss struck deep chords within me that were new levels of suffering. I became more connected to my client’s emotional experiences and found new levels of empathy upon hearing their stories. Second, I became grateful for the small things. This sounds very cliché, but the suffering made me notice the tiny kindnesses of others, the wonder of nature, and forced me to look outside of myself. Third, I learned to value relationships in a new way. It is easy in our work to see people as appointments, a simple slot on yet another full calendar of events. My time with my daughters became sacred – the time with those that loved me and the encouragement they provided was like a steady drip of precious water that one craves during a desert experience. I slowed down and took in the moments. Fourth, I came to love our profession even more after realizing that counseling and psychotherapy are effective! I realized from a client viewpoint that my life was drastically improved despite the hardships by intentional focus on different areas of myself and by following the protocol for change upheld by theory, research, and practice.

We will no doubt suffer personal tragedies during the course of our careers. We are not immune simply because we are people-helpers. However, my experience taught me that we need not abandon our work when we encounter personal challenges, and in fact, as I found, working through the challenge may produce a better person, clinician, father, and partner because of the experience.  

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections