November 25, 2011

Life Among the Merchants-in-Training

Filed under: Grad School: Building a Therapist — Ann @ 9:57 am

It's All Good

Since getting accepted into the MA in Counseling program at Sonoma State, the first question I’m usually asked by friends is, “How’s grad school?” and I never know how to answer. I’m tempted to go with an old cliché (variously attributed to war, law and science) and respond, “Grad school consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” but that doesn’t quite capture it. The experience of sitting through a 3 hour and 40 minute lecture is not truly boring, because all of the subjects are close to my heart and are training me for my chosen profession. But it does tax the brain to listen and take notes for so long, especially on days with back-to-back classes. So chalk up one accurate adjective: Graduate school is challenging.

But how else to describe it? Shall I talk about the countless hours of meaningful but wearying reading, writing, test preparation and vignette analyzing, or the practice counseling sessions and triad experiences? Should I mention the dread I felt when I learned that some advanced students have all-day classes in Carson 30, requiring them to sit in those hard plastic torture devices called “desks” until 7 o’clock at night, knowing that is my destiny as well?

Or should I skip the negatives, focusing solely on the rich rewards? And there are so many. I’m being trained by some of the best and brightest professors on campus. I’m reading materials by brilliant psychologists who are becoming my new BFFs, people like Irvin Yalom and Eliana Gil. I’m absorbing information, skills, and techniques at an exhilarating rate, moving rapidly in the direction of my dreams.

And then there is the unexpected blessing of this community, consisting of all of the professors, staff, and students that make up the Counseling Department. In my life thus far I’ve been a part of many circles – the legal world, various performing arts groups, and the freakishly delightful subculture of Renaissance Faire workers. But this program has introduced me to a community I find the most extraordinary of all because of the kindness and caring which are evident in countless ways. There are the little things – taking notes for each other, sharing helpful and/or inspiring articles or websites – and then there are the more meaningful selfless acts: A group of women helping a student with child care by taking turns watching over her infant during class while the mom, in turn, takes notes for her sitters. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed the kindness phenom: I’ve discussed this with several classmates and they share my delight in being immersed in this new world of heart-centered souls who want to make a positive difference in the lives of others, to be — as characterized by Professor Doolittle in class one day — “merchants of hope and empathy.”

Psychologist/philosopher William James wrote that “the aim of a college education is to teach you to know a good man when you see one.” Perhaps the next time someone asks me how graduate school is going, I’ll reply simply and honestly, “Every day I’m surrounded by good people with whom I share common dreams and goals. What could be better ?” That really does say it all.

Written for and published in the Fall 2011 edition of ‘Semester Spotlight,’ the newsletter of Sonoma State University’s Counseling Department.

October 1, 2011

“Excuse me; I need to shudder.”

Filed under: Grad School: Building a Therapist — Ann @ 10:56 am


If there is one quality a therapist must bring to the counseling session above all, it’s attention. Even if this weren’t being drummed into us on a near-daily basis — in professors’ lectures, in video demonstrations, and in our textbook readings — it’s pretty obvious that a therapist needs to offer “presence” to a client. How would you like to bring your most pressing concerns to a mental health professional who glanced out the window, gazed at her fingernails, or picked up a book mid-session? Not so much.

Until a practice counseling session I had last week, I didn’t figure this would ever be a problem for me: I seriously enjoy the eye contact I make with clients; I want to give that person my full attention. For one thing, that attention will help me to notice ever-important nonverbal cues. But during our triad session on Thursday — I was the counselor, another student was my client, and yet another was our observer — during one of the most intensely emotional segments of our time together, I felt something crawling on my right arm. Instinctively I glanced down for a second (aware that I was pulling attention away from my client and incredibly anxious as a result), and saw a spider making its way up my forearm.

Now, had I not been in a therapy session, I would have jumped up, perhaps knocking over my chair in the process, slapping my arm repeatedly saying things like “ick ick ick” for good measure. In this moment, none of those things was an option. Even brushing the spider away would have caused my client to wonder what was going on and destroyed the attention. And my usual method of dispensing with spiders — getting a container, scooping them up, and depositing them outside — was clearly out of the question. So, eyes back on my client, I smoothly placed my left hand on my right arm and squished the spider dead.

After our session as we walked to the elevator I confessed to her what had happened, primarily concerned that she had seen my attention break in the moment that I glanced down and saw my little intruder. We are there, after all, to learn, and I wanted to check in with her to see how much she had noticed. To my relief, she hadn’t seen me look down and then, to my great surprise, she was hugely impressed by my sacrifice: “YOU smashed a spider on your arm for ME?!” When I nodded my head like, “Yeah, what else?” she seemed genuinely touched and then told me in no uncertain terms: “You should put that on your resume.”

And you know what? I just might.

August 29, 2011

Walk With Me

Filed under: Grad School: Building a Therapist — Ann @ 1:50 pm

I'll Take You There

I had an appointment to meet with my MFT program adviser on campus this morning at 10 a.m. My destination took me through a small landscaped quad area which, because classes were in session, was deserted except for one young student, sitting on a bench, talking on her cellphone — and sobbing. (Quick aside: I confess that for one fraction of a split second I wondered whether this was some sort of test, a counseling student’s experiential vignette — had she been placed here to see how I would react?) I needed to use the restroom, but decided that if she was off the phone when I came back out, I’d approach her. Sure enough, when I walked out she was standing there, fragile and lost and terribly, terribly sad. I looked her in the eye. “Are you okay?” Instead of answering directly she asked me where Admissions and Records was located because she wanted to drop out immediately and go back home.

Without pushing, I said gently, “You know, we have counselors here; would you be willing to talk to someone there first?” To my great joy and relief, she nodded assent. That’s when I realized I had no idea where psychological services was located on campus. I told her honestly that I was new to the MFT program, was on my way to that department, and invited her to walk with me so we could find Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) together. As we walked, I asked her some questions, found out where the “home” was that she wanted to go back to, determined what her primary concern was, and who she had been talking to on her phone. I wanted to keep her engaged — and with me until I could get her some assistance.

In the department, I recruited someone to take the student over to CAPS while I went into my meeting. Naturally, I told my adviser what had happened and we talked about it. Afterwards, not only did I go in search of CAPS but, once there, I walked around the outside of the building to get a sense of where it’s located with respect to other campus facilities. After all, this is what I’m in school to learn: how to guide someone to mental wellness. In perfect metaphor for my learning process, today I was only able to take that person part of the way. Before too long, I’ll be taking clients the distance. Meanwhile, thanks to the on-campus presence of trained counselors, this morning a lost soul was given some direction. I’m sending her blessings for a positive outcome, because I don’t think I’ll ever forget her. In a way, she was my very first client.

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