Nick Charney, on the value of counseling and Employee Assistance Programs.
Everything seemed to be on track this year. My wife just finished her Master’s of Education, our family’s finances were starting to iron themselves out, and our children were adjusting well after switching schools. Then, as if out of a bad Hollywood movie, I returned after a business trip and everything changed. I came back to find that my parents’ relationship—some thirty plus years of marriage—had completely imploded.
Communication was never my parents strong suit. I don’t ever remember them having a tough conversation with each other when I was growing up, but I only realized they were chronically poor communicators when I became an adult. They told me they were moving after they had already taken possession of their new house, told me that my father quit working a year after going on disability, and let me know that my father had prostate cancer a week before he was scheduled have it removed. It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I would only learn that their relationship was failing as I was moving my mother out of their matrimonial home and into my own.
Looking back, the whole thing was a blur. I took six weeks off of work to deal with the complicated logistics of moving my mother, caring for my father who just had back surgery, and maintaining my relationship with my wife while trying to safeguard my physical and mental health. I managed to juggle my family’s immediate needs thanks to a tremendous amount of support from my wife but eventually the stress overwhelmed me. I was driving two hundred kilometres a day, hauling things from one home to another, while trying to be a primary caregiver to my father as he recovered from his procedure. At the urging of my wife, I opted to seek counseling through the Employee Assistance Program offered by my employer.
My first appointment was in a nondescript three story brownstone walk up with a lovely French-Canadian woman who was old enough to be my grandmother. I was deeply skeptical but my skepticism was tempered with the desperation that flows from exhaustion. The last time I had gone to see a psychologist—when I was battling depression early in my career—I had a hard time connecting with the counsellor and as a result didn’t really get that much out of it. Back then, I balked after a cursory exploration of underlying issues and decided I could manage the rest myself. This time I knew better, I knew that when it comes to counseling you only get out what you put in and that trust takes time to establish but pays dividends and is thus worth the investment. I also knew that this time around, I had nothing else to lose. When I finally walked into the office, I spent ten minutes completing the compulsory paperwork and the next fifty confiding in a complete and utter stranger, fighting tears, and eventually succumbing to them.
Michelle, the counselor, was tender, validating, guiding and most importantly impartial. She knew nothing of me, my interpersonal relationships, or my history save what I told her and as a result she gave me something I so desperately needed: a small modicum of control over my life in a time where I felt I was spinning completely out of control. As time passed we met more often and worked on a number of things together. We mapped the complexity of my relationships with others to help me situate myself in the grander narrative. We identified that I—the only child to a pair of co-dependent parents—was being drawn into the middle of their relationship by both parties using different means. We concluded that my predisposition towards problem-solving (and my academic background in conflict studies and mediation) was being unintentionally exploited by my parents who were inadvertently drawing me into the middle of their conflict. A conflict they had to own, not me. We eventually came to realize that when my mediation training proved to be of little consequence (likely due to my inability to remain truly neutral) my approach shifted to one of an angry parent who had had enough. It wasn’t something I was doing consciously but it nonetheless was ultimately to their detriment and to the detriment of our interpersonal relationships. When Michelle said, “You don’t want to come back here to see me in two years trying to fix your marriage and your relationship with your children because you spent the those years parenting your parents instead of your children do you?” it all started to click.
The impartial perspective of a professional during a time of crisis is absolutely invaluable and it’s precisely why, when Michelle later suggested that I bring my wife to counselling with me, I did so without hesitation. Together, the three of us worked on things that were of equal importance to my wife and I: ensuring we maintained a robust household, that we upheld the pre-existing structures for our children, that we maintained the intimacy and proactive communication that defined our relationship, and tried to provide a framework that my mother could queue off of in determining her own role in the household while still giving her the space she needed to start healing. Counseling was incredibly valuable in that it allowed us to focus on some of the tangibles. It also provided the validation I think we needed given the circumstances; sometimes you just need someone to tell you that you are doing a good job or the right thing. Sadly, there is still a stigma against seeking mental health services which means the decision to see a counselor is never an easy one. But seeking support isn’t a sign a of weakness it’s a sign of strength. It shows that you care enough to invest in yourself and in your relationship with those around you.
If you or someone you know is facing a difficult familial situation, battling addiction or depression, or otherwise having difficulty at work and the employer has an Employee Assistance Program, I would strongly encourage you to seek the support you need. In many cases these programs are free, confidential, and only a phone call away.
Photo: ThX0477 / flickr