On Being A Therapist
Originally Posted on Facebook, 20 January, 2016 at 22:50
Hello and welcome to the very first entry on my new blog. People often tell me they couldn't do my job. The truth is, I can't imagine anything I'd rather do for a living. I thought I'd reflect a little on my life's journey to date in terms of some of the reasons the role of "counsellor" is such a good fit for me. My name is Anne Massar, and I have been a counsellor for over 20 years. I work with individuals, couples, families and groups. Sometimes people ask me....."Why would you want to listen to people's problems all day?" The answer is contained in my story.
I am from Southwestern Ontario, born and raised on a farm near Stratford. My parents were practical, hardworking, devout Christians of English descent. I am the youngest of 5 children. Our parents provided well for us in terms of having a comfortable home to live in, food always on the table, and taught us to go beyond ourselves and think of the wellbeing of those less fortunate. As the youngest, I suspect my siblings viewed me as being "spoiled", but compared to today's standards, I definitely don't agree with that assessment. It is true, that as the youngest I received more attention from my parents, particularly my Dad, but I believe that had more to do with him becoming seriously ill when I was 8 years old. He was diagnosed with cancer in his early 50's......around the same age that I am now. As a farmer, it meant that he couldn't work in the fields or do heavy barn chores anymore, leaving him with more time to be around me. I spent many afternoons barreling across the countryside with him in the truck, going to pick up parts for machinery, or a new load of pigs or going to the bank. I remember it being kinda fun and liked having his attention......particularly when he bought us an ice cream cone as the afternoon wore on.
As a child, I was frequently labeled "too sensitive", mostly by my siblings. The "sensitive" part is and was true - the "too", I take exception to. That's just the way I am......a highly sensitive person. In those days, you had to be 12 years old to visit someone in their hospital room. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the hospital where my Dad had been rushed for emergency surgery a day or two earlier. My Mom came into the waiting room with her arm around my Dad, supporting him so he could come out and see me. That was the first time I ever saw her touch him.....and I was terrified! It was uncomfortable to openly express affection in my family. My "sensitive" or emotional nature was met with disapproval and my own feelings of shame. There were many, many visits to the Cancer Clinic and the hospital over the years. I was always allowed to miss school on those days.....I suppose that might have been their way of including me in something that was extremely important without having to talk about it.
My life changed at that point and I became an "emotional" caregiver for my Dad. I could see at a young age, that someone needed to provide this for him, and I stepped up to the plate. From the ages of 8 until 17 (when he died at the age of 60), I distinctly remember getting up in the morning making sure to ask him "how are you feeling today?" I didn't see anyone else being concerned about his emotional wellbeing - and if they were, they couldn't rise above the unspoken family rule about not being "too emotional". A couple of months before he died was the first time a family member ever spoke aloud about him "dying". I remember feeling shocked, regardless of having lived with his illness for almost 9 years. Two hours before he died at home on the farm, for the first time in my life.....and likely his too, I told him "I love you". He said "I do too". That saved me.
My sister told me that my Mom and Dad never discussed his impending death.....it seems unconscionable to me.....so much suffering for both of them.....all alone. That year I was in grade 12 and it was a difficult time. I remember feeling depressed and unable to talk to anyone for fear of upsetting them. I made a doctor's appointment (on the sly), and went to see our family doctor. He was very kind and made arrangements for me to see a psychologist. At the second session with the psychologist (again on the sly), he said to me "there's nothing wrong with you.....you're not even crying". That's what I remember hearing......who knows what he really said. That was the last time I saw the psychologist as I felt too ashamed to return, thinking I was being "too emotional" and wasting his time. That experience kept me quiet about my grief for a good 5 years. Those were difficult years as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Thinking I wasn't smart enough to go to university, I left high school after grade 12 and tried a couple of courses which weren't a good fit for me, including a secretarial course at a community college and a few months at hairdressing school. Eventually, I started University at 21, as a mature student.
A year later, I married, and proceeded to have 3 wonderful kids (who are all grown up now). Unfortunately, I was so depressed much of the time, I had to get help looking after them at times. This was further evidence, in my mind, that I should feel ashamed. I allowed people to have power over me and didn't stand up for myself when I should have.....I didn't know how and thought it was selfish to speak up. When my kids were 4, 6 and 8 years old, the depression was the worst it had ever been. I remember lying on the couch with our little dog, unable to work or to look after the kids. I was seeing a psychiatrist for a few years at that time, and in hindsight, he was a fatherly figure. Something shifted while we worked together, and one day, I said out loud to him what I had been thinking for some time.....that I didn't want to be married any longer. The shame I experienced was beyond measure. When I did finally separate from my husband, it was the single most difficult thing I've ever done. He was and is a good person and a wonderful father to our children.....but I felt like I would die if I didn't leave. For almost 2 years, I avoided speaking with my siblings because of the feelings of shame. Thank goodness for my Mom who was there for me regardless of how she felt about the situation. In hindsight, I believe my siblings would have been there for me too, but I was too full of shame to reach out.
By that stage in my life, I had completed an undergraduate degree and was able to secure a full-time job working in a nursing home. I spent the next 3 years working with isolated, older adults and loved it. I wanted more, though, so I pursued a Master's degree in Counselling, for which I drove back and forth for over an hour each way to school on weekends and one night each week. I was determined to become a professional counsellor and although the training was expensive and time consuming, I knew I was finally in the right place.
There are other pieces to the "why I became a counsellor" question, but I think that is more than enough for now. In conclusion, I just want to say that the experience with my Dad convinced me that suppressing emotion and keeping a 'stiff upper lip' is definitely not the way to negotiate such a painful experience......so when I'm asked "why would you want to listen to people's problems all day?", I think about that sensitive little girl who was full of emotions, and re-commit to providing a safe, non-judgmental place for anyone who needs to share their fears, grief and painful emotions with another human being. It is a privilege......and not something to feel shame about. I welcome you to contact me so I can hear your story and help you make sense of it.