I took a big risk this week. I decided to tell my new counseling practicum supervisor that I have bipolar disorder and a dissociative disorder.
Last week, my psychologist asked me, “Why take a risk you don’t have to take? You are stable, you are doing well counseling clients in your university counseling center… Why introduce a problem when there is no problem?”
He made a good point. I am doing well. But at the same time, I want as much feedback from my supervisor as possible. I want to increase my self-awareness. I would like advice about navigating life as a counselor with concealed mental illnesses. More than that, I yearn to be authentic and transparent.
I confided in my supervisor last semester. She was the first instructor who knew I have mental illnesses. She was very affirming and encouraging of my potential. She told me that my current supervisor is “safe,” should I decide to confide in him.
So last week, after my new supervisor gave me a very positive midterm evaluation, I quietly told him that I would like to share something. He nodded.
I then explained carefully, “I have bipolar disorder: bipolar 1, rapid cycling, and a disorder similar to DID (dissociative identity disorder). I’m doing well… I have good coping skills and I am stable. I am able to control mania so it’s not a problem anymore. I am co-conscious with the other personalities and can usually stay dominant. It hasn’t affected my counseling. But I wanted to share with you because I thought it would be helpful for you to know, and I wanted your insight and advice.”
He immediately asked me questions about my experience of bipolar and dissociation. He even asked me what the personalities are like and whether I have a history of trauma. He asked questions from a gentle curiosity, like he simply wanted to understand me better. I gave brief, vague answers since I was hesitant to share that much with a supervisor.
Then I confessed something else. I told him what had happened about my previous university. I took a year off to get a better job and living situation. When I reapplied (which I was told was just a formality), they rejected my application, essentially telling me that due to my mental illnesses I was a liability to the university and they didn’t want me representing them in the community for an internship. Even though I had excelled in my classes and practicum.
My supervisor interrupted me: “Liability! People with mental illness are not a liability! Others are a liability to them! I never worry about people with mental illness as counselors. Everyone has their struggles. I do worry about future counselors who lack compassion and empathy.”
Relief flooded my face. “Yes,” I stammered, “but I do worry that I might get triggered and flip to another personality. I want to prepare for that.” He nodded. “Yes, that is something to think about.”
He said, “I do notice sometimes you get excited and talk very quickly. At the time I didn’t think that much about it. But now that you say that you rapid cycle, that makes sense.” I nodded.
He paused, then stated, “I haven’t seen you dissociate.”
I answered, “I haven’t dissociated in front of you. When I dissociate it’s subtle and I can flip back. I’m usually somewhat me. I dissociated in front of my former supervisor and she said she couldn’t really tell.”
He paused again, then continued, “Your experiences will help you as a counselor. Your experience of bipolar disorder will be helpful as you counsel clients with different mental illnesses. And although dissociation is rare, you can help clients understand the concepts of having different sides. Actually your clients this semester have been talking about having different sides to themselves.”
As we talked, I felt stunned and flooded with happiness.
The whole time I have been in my counseling program, I have been afraid of being “found out” as having severe mental illnesses, being deemed unstable, and kicked out of the program.
I faced my fear by sharing with my supervisor last semester, and now this new supervisor.
Maybe telling my new supervisor was a risk I didn’t have to take. But I am immeasurably glad that I took that risk. My sharing didn’t seem to affect his view of my competence at all.
Now I feel completely safe for the first time in my program. I feel acceptable, and that even someone like me with severe mental illnesses can still contribute to society by working in the counseling profession.
I’ve written articles about how learning how to manage mental illness has given me skills to apply as a future counselor. But part of me always feels inadequate, like I can’t do things since I have these weaknesses.
Finally I am gaining real confidence.
Believe me, I know the risks of being a counselor with mental illness. I know it won’t be easy. But I am dedicated to pursuing this career while keeping myself stable.
After talking to my supervisor, for the first time I feel like it is really possible for me. My supervisor has been a counselor for 30 years and manages the outpatient program at a large community mental health system.
If he has such faith in me, I can start to have faith in myself as well.