Mental health issues are everybody’s problem: they impact our communities and our relationships with each other. Periodically throughout my life, I have experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety, as did my parents. My father died in 1994, when I was studying to become a counsellor. When I learned about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, my experiences as a child, my mother’s stories, and my father’s inexplicable moods and behaviours suddenly all made sense. His symptoms were characteristic of PTSD. Dad was a sensitive child in an era when boys were expected to toughen up. He enlisted with the RAN during the Second world War, at the age of 21, and served in New Guinea. He never spoke of this time. Fifty years later, I asked him about it once. All he would say was that ‘some things are best forgotten’. My mother told me that he frequently woke from terrible nightmares, sweating and shouting. He often seemed sad and distant, and trivial disturbances (such as the shrill voices of children squealing and laughing) made him irritable, sometimes triggering frightening fits of explosive rage. My mother would comfort us, whispering, ‘Dad loves us, really’. And he did. But his traumatic experiences and depressive episodes affected the whole family. Dad would shout, and Mum would cry and retreat. At times she was despondent and hopeless, not knowing how to deal with Dad’s unpredictable moods, or how to help him. I became hypervigilant around Dad, because I was never sure which father I would encounter: the creative, gentle man who loved to play and teach me things, or the angry one who shouted and threatened.
Dad placed great emphasis on being thorough, careful, and orderly. These are great qualities in a bank manager, and also in a husband and father—some of the time. I now suspect that this methodical nature was, at least in part, a survival strategy that enabled my father to manage his emotions, his daily life, his relationships and responsibilities. As a young child, I was a bit wild and creative. When Mum complained to her mother that I was ‘naughty’, my Nana famously replied ‘Well, you wouldn’t want a namby-pamby child, would you?’ (for this alone, I love her forever). But spontaneity, messiness and random acts of self-expression were not encouraged in my family, for fear of upsetting my father. Rhea Shapiro (2001) writes of her upbringing that ‘family and school were both autocracies where freedom of expression and independent thinking were not encouraged.’ And by the time I started school I excelled at being a ‘good girl’—a model student who was quiet, obedient and well-behaved. Being wild, acting silly, showing off, and laughing too loudly were childish behaviours that I put away, like the scary animals from my nightmares, waiting to spring out and devour me.
Later, in my 20s, the rebel emerged, but I also began to suffer bouts of mild depression and anxiety, sometimes mere melancholy but sometimes real hopelessness about and fear of the future. My dreams were so much bigger than my reality, and this incongruence made me feel as if I did not belong and did not deserve the love, success and happiness for which I yearned. At that time, I did not have the awareness or skills to work with that mythic edge, oscillating instead between its polarities of creative exuberance and black despondency. Rhea Shapiro (2001) describes her ‘inability to access the dreaming reality’ resulting in ‘mild chronic depression’. Such depression, as she learned from Arny Mindell, ‘can result when personal history cuts a person off from the magic of non-ordinary reality’. In my 30s I studied colour and design, began to paint, and realised that regular creative expression was, for me, a way to stay in touch with that magic, and to keep depression at bay.
In my 40s I began to study counselling. My decision seemed to come out of the blue. I was working in a library at the time and had enrolled in a postgraduate course in that field. When I received the offer, and imagined my future as a librarian, I was filled with horror—it felt like I was being condemned to play the ‘good girl’ for the rest of my life. I quickly scanned the lists to find an alternative course, and pounced on a postgraduate counselling course that offered electives in Transpersonal Counselling. At around the same time, I began studying Shamanic Practice and Process Work. I realised that it was my lifework to bring the disconnected parts of myself together, to find the structures that would allow me to express and share my rich inner life for the benefit of others as well for myself.
So I came to counselling and psychotherapy by way of my own personal development; the need to express my creative gifts and understand my own psyche led me to the desire to guide and empower my clients and students to express and follow their true natures. Any and all life experiences can be helpful to therapists, although we may not have, or need to have, the same kinds of experiences as our clients. For me, following my inquisitive nature on lifelong pathways of creative and personal growth, including the study of Process Work and shamanic practice, has reduced the impact of depression, allowing me to stand up against the vicious inner critic who demands conformity and perfection, to be more aware of all parts of myself, and to treat them gently, with kindness and compassion. Facing my challenges and working through them makes me more compassionate and patient with others, more able to shift perspectives and to hold the space for people to feel and to grow into their own lives.
(c) 2019 Michele McCrea
Shapiro, Rhea (2001), ‘Noticing the Spirits in Everyday Life: Process Work as Spiritual Practice and Antidote for Mild Chronic Depression’, Journal of Process Oriented Psychology 8 (Winter 2001): 75-83.