C is for Counseling, or How I Got into this New Gig

 

CTurns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).

I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.

Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.

There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.rumi

After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.

I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.

I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?

I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.

franklquoteI spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.

The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.

I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.

*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog

Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Reposting, again. It’s been two years since I last posted this and many years since I wrote it. It’s still relevant.

Pamela Helberg

Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.

My initial response to her was yes, MLK day…

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A Christmas Blog, Re-gifted

I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up. 

Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me.  For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses.  While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be.  As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.

That's me on the right, checking out my cousins' presents
That’s me on the right, checking to see if my cousins, Jimmy, TJ, and Billy, got better presents than I did.

As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys.  They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement.   Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.

A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak:  fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.

So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994.  Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me.  I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters.  I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old.  They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom.  I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves.  I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me.  We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children.  I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie.  We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.

Christmas 1997
Anna and Taylor, Christmas 1997

We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in.  The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition:  cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter.  Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered.  My mother came to coo over her granddaughters.  We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.

“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great.  I love your dress Pam.”

“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling.  “I love it!”

“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand.  “Merry Christmas!”  He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek.  “How are the girls?”

“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great.  Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”

I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors.  They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny.  Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it.  Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.

“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”

“She’s so dark!”

“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained.  “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”

“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”

“Anna!  How do you like being a big sister?”

Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.

“She’s still adjusting,” I say.

“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”

“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.

Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt.  “Pamalamala?” She laughs.  “That’s funny Mommy!”

“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain.  “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”

Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears.  I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety.  Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove.  I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol.  I don’t mind.

Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells.  The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa.  I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.

“HO! HO! HO!”  Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder.  “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!

“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree.  Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year.  Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash.  The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same.  I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.

Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie.  We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats.  After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.

We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences.  No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm:  being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance.  Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace.  We drove a Volvo.  I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms.  I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.

I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself.  It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.

Mother’s Day 1996–Thank You Birthmothers

I recently came across this piece I wrote some 17 years ago. I didn’t have any way of publishing this then, there were no blogs in 1996, but I strongly believe it is still relevant today. I don’t think adoption has changed much in the past two decades for birth mothers. I am pretty sure making the choice to place a child for adoption is not any easier now than it was then.  I know that adoptees still cannot access their records if they were adopted before open adoption became commonplace. I know gays and lesbians still cannot adopt children in many states. I appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to adopt my daughters in the early 1990s.

I am no longer in a relationship with my partner and co-parent–we split up in late 1996, just a few months after I wrote this. 

Mother’s Day 1996
As we celebrate Mother’s Day at our house, we also celebrate our youngest daughter’s second birthday. The irony is, that two years ago on Mother’s Day, we didn’t yet know that she would even be a part of our lives. Two years ago, her birthmother was in the hospital alone, making a decision to place her fourth child for adoption.
As I look forward to celebrating my sixth year as a mother, I cannot help but think of several mothers who have made such an impact on my mothering.  I would not be a mother at all were it not for Deidre and Cheryl. I would not be a sister except for a woman who made an unselfish choice nearly thirty years ago. Much in my life would be different if it were not for a woman whose last name is Wilmuth who chose not to parent her daughter, my mother. I may not be a good mother or a mother in such fortunate circumstances had it not been for my biological grandmother.
In essence, much of my life is the culmination of the decisions of several mothers whom I do not know, women who gave life and gave life away, trusting more than I know I could, in the kindness of strangers to do what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not do at the time. While I know the circumstances and a bit about the women who gave birth to my daughters, I know very little about the women who bore my brother and my mother. And if I as a daughter and a sister feel this void on Mother’s Day, what must my mother and my brother live with every day? What will my children grow to feel and believe about their birth mothers? And what can I do to facilitate their questioning and understanding of their adoptions and families of origin?
This year these questions seem particularly poignant as Mother’s Day comes on the heels of major adoption law reforms: tax credits for families who adopt, removal of racial barriers in adoption. These laws, like so much about adoption, fall short of doing justice for those who really make adoption possible—the birth mothers. As so often happens, the lawmakers are approaching the issue sideways, at an awkward angle, seemingly unconcerned about the birth mothers and where they will go and what they will do after placing their children for adoption. With the noble intention of placing as many kids as possible in permanent families out of the chaos that is foster care, our leaders have inadvertently promoted adoptive parents as saviors worthy of reward and blatantly disregarded birthparents, especially in cases of transracial adoptions. I often hear from people how lucky my kids are to have us as parents, read these kids are so much better off with us than they would be with someone whom they could only imagine as an impoverished, unemployed, welfare-scamming, drug abusing, teenaged illiterates.
Well, maybe and maybe not. We cannot place a value on knowing our families of origin, of knowing where we came from, where we got our eyes, our funny feet, and our predilection for taking risk in whatever form it comes.
I rarely pause to consider my mannerisms and preferences because I know exactly from which parent I acquired each personality quirk and physical characteristic.  From my mother and my father both a love of reading, from my mother my brown eyes and auburn hair, thin wrists, and a tendency to sometimes overreact.  From my father a disdain for the mundane, my spelling and writing abilities, a preternatural aversion to authority in all forms, and naturally curly hair.  Sure, my kids may learn to love to read because I do, and they may become avid gardeners because my partner is, but in the battle for control of the self, nature wins out over nurture 70% of the time. Where will my kids turn for answers when they excel in science or develop a completely un-nurtured talent for music, or a dangerous attraction to alcohol?
How will my kids cope, not just with unanswered medical history questions, but with the color of their skin, the kinks in their hair, the rich and painful history of their (unknown) ancestors? The partial understanding of their backgrounds, maybe the knowledge that their birthfathers abandoned them, their birthmothers kept some of their siblings but not them? I hope that an open adoption and an ongoing communication with my children’s birthmothers will facilitate an increased understanding for each of my kids of where they came from, from whom they got their talents.  
But who is going to make sure that the birth mothers survive, grow up, get their lives together? If we are going to reform adoption law, we had better start with nurturing the connections between birth mother and adoptee, we had better start honoring the difficult, no wrenching, decisions birth parents make when they plan an adoption for their child.  We had better put out a safety net for those who can’t pull themselves up and carry on.  We had better think about offering something to the women who can’t afford to keep their children rather than to adoptive parents who have the wherewithal and resources to negotiate the adoption process and to afford agency and lawyer fees.
Just yesterday we received our first ever communication from our two-year old’s birth mother. For two years we have been sending letters and pictures off into space, an act of faith that imbues the postal service with godlike qualities. Yesterday came the confirmation that our faith was well placed. Yesterday too came a whole new conundrum and set of questions when we received two letters: one was very sweet, telling us how much she enjoyed the pictures we have been sending, how she is still glad she chose us to raise her baby, that she and our daughter will talk one day, that she is a good mother. The other letter asked for money so she wouldn’t lose her house.

A Pivotal Moment

Twenty years ago I spent a long weekend at a workshop/retreat that fundamentally changed my life, or at least served as a pivot point in my journey. I had one incredibly emotional moment that weekend—a moment that has stayed with me all these years, through tremendous changes and ups and downs in my life.
One of my favorite parts of this retreat was that it was silent, a fact the participants did not know going in.  We could talk only during the workshop sessions, and not with each other, but to the group as a whole. The food was intentionally less than optimal for those few days as well. And every morning we had to run a mile. 
But, I digress.  One evening, as the retreat facilitator led us through some guided imagery, we were to be constructing our future home.  What would it look like? Where would it be? Who would be there?
And here’s the part where I burst into tears:  My future home was warm, with dark wood and candles, and inviting, comfortable furniture, and it was full of many, many children, children that looked like my children. The children flowed into my home in my vision.
At this point, the imagery had taken over and I was just a recipient.  I wept for probably a good fifteen minutes, maybe more (it’s been twenty years—details are fuzzy), but I know for sure that tears and snot rolled down my face uncontrollably.
I did not understand then why I was witnessing nor why I reacted so emotionally. The tears were neither sad nor joyous, just bursting with raw and uncontrollable feeling. Looking back now, I understand I was weeping because my vision was so radically, radically different from my reality.  I wept for the pains and joys I had yet to experience to truly get home.
Writing my memoir these past 18 months has prompted all manner of self-reflection (the cynics among us might say navel-gazing—there’s a whole other blog), and I’m finding much of that reflecting to be awkward, if not downright painful. So, I was sort of happy when recent events coincided to prompt me to remember this pleasant image.
My youngest daughter’s biological brother (both of my kids are adopted) recently moved to our home state and last weekend came to have dinner with us—he and his wife and their four children.  This was the first time I’d met her brother, though she had spent time with her biological family (including her birth parents) over the past few years.
As the day of their visit drew closer, I grew calmer—which is not really my MO. Usually I ramp up into a bit of a frenzy before such events. There were going to be ten of us, including four children, going out to dinner. I remained calm, grounded even. Even as the day grew closer and we had to redo the plans, I rolled with it, strangely confident that dinner would be what it needed to be.
And it was. I was home, surrounded by children that looked just like my daughters, surrounded by family new and old and new again.

Dash of Dysfunction. Pinch of Crazy

I’ve started working on my proposal for my memoir, and one of the features of said proposal is a list of competitive titles. You know, books that might be similar to mine, books that might share a theme with mine. Books that might share shelf space with mine—when and if . . . I came up with this short list off the top of my head:
The Commitment by Dan Savage (Gay marriage)
The Kid, by Dan Savage (Gay parenting)
Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman (quintessential acrimonious custody battle)
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott (unexpected parenting)
Why be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (adoption, religion, lesbianism)
Jesus Landby Julie Scheeres (religion, cross-cultural adoption)
In each of these books, I can find one thread of my story, but I couldn’t think of a single book in which two white lesbians adopt two racially diverse children, split up when one mother decides she can no longer send her daughters to daycare and so quits her job, a move that gets her kicked out of the house, and forces her to spend the next 16 years and tons of money on therapy trying to remain relevant in her daughters’ lives.
I think I may have found a niche in the market, Dear Reader. Throw in some subtext about fundamentalist Christianity, add a dash of dysfunction and a pinch of crazy. I think I just might have a winner.
The thing about writing a proposal . . . the proposal goes out to agents with the intent of wowing an agent who will then sell the book to a publisher. Selling the book to the publisher means the story will be, uhm, published. For the entire world to read. For family and friends to read.
What if family and friends find the book distasteful? Objectionable? Disastrous, even? Then what? What if our words change the way people see us? What if our words reveal our deepest truths and our families and friends and co-workers reject our truth? Unfriend us? Treat us differently? What then, Dear Reader?
Experience tells me that some will be upset when I speak my truth and that some will find me brave. Some will admire me and others will turn away. But I will be able to face myself, and that, I think, matters the most.