Eight years ago I started a master’s program to become a counselor. I was 26. I remember being so happy in the program. I felt like all the pieces of my life were coming together.
I had been diagnosed at 20 with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, and diagnosed at 25 with dissociative identity disorder.
My life had been very difficult between juggling all of my mental illnesses, being mistreated by people in the mental health system, and then helped by people in the mental health system.
I had worked very hard to recover. I thought I had gotten there.
Overall, the master’s program felt great. For the first time in my life, I felt surrounded by other people like me. I felt at home.
I devoured all of our reading material and enjoyed our class discussions. I was excited that I would finally be able to use my experience of mental illness to help others.
Our professors encouraged us to share our life experiences and feelings in class. So gradually I started sharing with my professors, and several classmates, about having mental illnesses.
Everyone was supportive and told me they found my story inspiring. I even tried to put together an enormous group of poems chronicling my journey to health. I shared the manuscript with a few classmates and a professor and they told me it was beautiful.
Everything seemed to be going great. Except it wasn’t quite. I was working nights and taking classes during the day, and fitting sleep in somewhere in between. My psychiatrist was warning me that it’s not good for people with bipolar to sleep during the day; it can throw off our cycle. But I didn’t listen.
As the spring semester went through, it became more and more clear to me that I needed a better job and a cheaper place to live.
So I took a year off. I found a new job, living situation, and a counselor. I reapplied to the university, which I was told was just a formality.
But my application was rejected.
Shocked, I contacted my advisor, the department chair, and she arranged to meet me at the university one night.
When I got there, I was ushered into the conference room with three professors: the department chair and two others. One of the others was the professor I considered a friend.
I sat there, stunned, at the long conference table, while the department chair and the other professor rained insults on me. I tried to catch the eye of the professor I considered a friend, but she stayed silent and looking away, refusing to catch my eye.
Essentially they told me that I was too emotionally unstable to be a counselor. They said that although I had done well in my practicum, I wouldn’t do well with clients who had more severe illnesses.
They explained that I would over-identify with clients that were “more acute.” They explained that I was a liability to the university based on my history of mental illness, and they couldn’t take that risk.
I was speechless. Throughout my time in the program, everyone had been supportive. I had no idea there were doubts about me. Tears filled my eyes. But they kept talking.
They told me there were signs of my mental illness by the way I acted in the program. They said that a few classmates had complained about me. I was shocked. I had thought I had acted normal.
The department chair told me that I was too unstable to be a counselor, but I was a good student. She suggested I should pick one of my other interests and become a professor. Suddenly all three professors smiled and starting talking about how I would be a great professor.
Thankfully, my story doesn’t end there.
In the next few years, I found a better job, a better living situation, a counselor and psychiatrist I liked, and a man who became my husband.
Four years after that meeting, I bravely applied for a counseling program at another university and was quickly accepted. I am now in the third year of that program. I have been excelling.
In the fall and spring I was working in the student counseling center at my university, counseling undergraduates.
Things haven’t been easy for me while in the program. I am still struggling with my mental illnesses, and had two mental breakdowns two years ago. But I am managing to do well in school and work, and handle my life, through everything.
The whole time I have been in my new program, I’ve feared a repeat of my experience at the other school.
I’ve feared that someone would “find out” about my mental illnesses and I would be kicked out of another program. But it hasn’t happened.
In the fall, I confessed to my practicum instructor that I have mental illnesses. She was a bit startled, but then supportive and affirming. She thanked me for sharing with her and encouraged me that I am doing well as a counselor.
Sharing my secret with her, and having her respond positively, was incredibly affirming. I felt like I had been carrying this incredible burden, the burden of having secret mental illnesses, and finally I was able to let go of the burden and start to move on.
In December, I said to my instructor, “My greatest fear with counseling is that I will be perceived by someone as unstable. Do you have any concerns about me?”
She thought for a minute. She said, “Honestly, I don’t have any concerns. Lots of people come into practicum with personal problems. The problem doesn’t matter, it’s how you handle it. You have good coping skills, you seem to have a good work-life balance, you are good about self-care, and you are very self-aware.”
I was stunned and overwhelmed with joy.
Finally I felt liberated from my past. Now I can achieve my dream of being a counselor. It’s all coming together for me.