Breaking It Open as a Mental Health Professional in The 21st Century

You’re a fake; You’re just asking for attention; You will amount to nothing; Don’t talk to her, just ignore her; Your daughter has….; Your husband has…; Mom, my friends weren’t nice to me; Just wanted you to know, he/she passed away by suicide; Parul will not pass high school…

I grew up thinking I would become a teacher because I enjoyed the idea of having built-in breaks in your day. Yes, in grade school the concept of having recess every day became the basis of my career aspirations.

I remember vividly being a timid shy girl who stuttered when asked to answer a question in class.

When I finished secondary school, my career interests turned towards Law, as I now wanted to become a lawyer. I was accepted into the University of Ottawa and was ecstatic to be away from my hometown. Three years later, I was asked to leave the University because I did not pass my probationary period. I went back home and entered a local college. I was dedicated to finishing what I had started but I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I graduated with no ambition or career goals, so I became a ‘professional student’ (that is a thing) for a few more years, completing my second undergraduate degree. Now, it really was time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I decided I wanted to be a social worker. I worked at various Child Protective Services in Ontario over the span of twelve and a half years.

In 2002, in the era of online dating, I met my future husband, D. We got married in 2003, and had our first child in 2004. Our family grew again in 2007 when our second child was born.

Many reading this so far may be thinking, This doesn’t sound so bad, we all have troubles in life, so how did she get to know, and speak about, others’ pain if she did not go through it herself?

My answer? Because not all wounds are visible.

Throughout my early years in school, I was bullied by the people I had called friends. I was once told that my elementary teacher informed my parents that I would not pass high school if I continued to be quiet. What no one knew was that I was struggling emotionally and physically. I wanted to be thin and I wanted to stop stuttering.

The three years that I spent during my first attempt at post-secondary education, I was taken advantage of. I witnessed my dearest friend mentally deteriorate. I lost two friends to suicide. To date, I now have lost ten people I care about to suicide. Yet in all that painful time, no one ever asked, Are you okay?

Life went on and I succeeded in my scholarly career. Eventually, I started on my path called Real Life. However, this also did not come easy. From being told I would never understand life in general because I did not grow up on the right side of the tracks, to getting my biggest break into the life of a social worker. Life continued for me, again without hearing the question “Are you okay?

When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, we weren’t ready for that news. We were still newlyweds and hoping to travel the world before starting a family.

About halfway through my pregnancy, I began to have very abnormal symptoms. I was hospitalized right away and our daughter, M, was born at a whopping 2 pounds, 2 ounces via a C-section. She spent the next three months in the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit). While I was happy M was okay, the emotional grind was a daily struggle. I was placed in the maternity ward where I watched all the new parents take their babies home while all I could do was hope mine survived another day. I suffered from postpartum depression, yet no one asked, Are you okay? Life went on.

After three months, it was finally time to take her home! This was no easy task as there were strict instructions for her safety such as, do not go out with her in public after 10 a.m., everyone has to wash their hands before picking her up, no kisses, and if anyone has not received their chicken pox vaccination, they are not to go near her. M’s first year of life is still quite hazy for me.

But I remember clearly that no one asked, Are you okay? Life went on.

We became pregnant again almost three years later. I was continuously sick morning, noon, and night. Around this same time, we found out that my mother-in-law had cancer, so we took many trips back and forth to her home. Fast forward to seven gestational months: I was having contractions which put me in the high-risk pregnancy zone. Within days our second daughter, C, was born at 3 pounds, 1 ounce. She would spend two months in the NICU.

One day C’s paediatrician called and the message went like this: Hi, it is Dr. X, and I wanted to let you that your daughter has fluid on her brain and she will be needing a brain operation to put a shunt in. With all the swear words in the world, I could not describe that moment! You see, I come from a family of physicians, and this message was plain ignorant and very unprofessional. Needless to say, I had a few choice words with the doctor the following day. We agreed that no operation would be done until all her CT Scans were completed. In total four were done, and they showed the fluid was not decreasing. However, it was not increasing so – no operation. The bad news: we would not not know the outcome this could have on her developmental growth. C finally came home. No rules this time, but no one asked if I was okay. And life went on.

At ten months, C was beginning to show signs of stiffness. I did not say anything to her doctor but to my father. Moms have this innate ability to know when something is off; we just know. So I asked my physician father if he thought something was wrong and he confirmed my nonprofessional diagnosis.

At 18 months, C was diagnosed with Hempheligic Cerebral Palsy, semi paralysis of the right side of the body. She would have to wear leg braces, and could possibly experience cognitive delays. Our world changed again that day. Yet, no one asked, Are you okay? Life went on.

We moved back to Ottawa. My mother in law passed away from cancer. After twelve and a half intense and stressful years working as a frontline social worker, I took a stress leave first and then eventually retired my Child Protective Services hat, as the daily therapy appointments for C demanded much of my time. I entered into Network Marketing for a while as it gave me the ability to work from home. School challenges began for C. After Kindergarten, it was determined that she should have a psychological-educational assessment. The result of this assessment? C was cognitively two years behind her peers and that as she grows and matures, the gap could become larger. I began my fight to get the educational support and help she needed. It only took me nineteen months (!) to get her into a specialized program that delivered occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and speech therapy. Two out of three were implemented, but speech came much, much later even though she desperately needed it. You can probably guess what no one asked me. And life went on.

Fast forward to 2014 — the year that changed me, my husband, and my daughters. My husband is a fourth-generation police officer. In August of that year, my father-in-law passed away from cancer. His funeral was a full-on police send off in the small town of St. Thomas, Ontario. I can still see my husband’s tears and the sad eyes of our very young children who had just lost their Papa.

Two weeks passed, and it hit my husband that he was now an orphan. He was devastated. No mother or father to speak to anymore. No father to talk cop shop with. As he started to try to understand his grief, his mental health started to deteriorate. Soon, he was off work on short term disability which was extended to a long-term disability leave for the next fourteen and a half months as he dealt with Post Traumatic Stress, anxiety, and depression over the loss of his father and mother.

I now had to emotionally carry our family.

In April 2015, three days before Easter I received a written message from C’s teacher: “C and M [friend] went to the office to deal with their “problem.” This was news to me! I asked C about the note. There was silence and then there was unstoppable cries and tears. C finally said, “I was told if I told my parents about what was happening, they will hurt me more and tease me more!” This is when I found out that my daughter had been bullied (extremely bullied) for almost the whole school year. C was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress and Anxiety. Her educational-social life changed forever for and I continued to be her number one advocate. No one asked me if I was okay. Life went on.

Now I was working at a local mental health centre practicing psychotherapy. In November 2015, I found out a dear friend of mine for the past twenty-two years had been lying to me. I became so angry and obsessed about why. It occupied all my thoughts. I was not fully at work, not fully at home, not fully with my friends or family. I was only functioning at about 50% for everything. I would make mistakes, I would forget things. I became hazy. Yet not one of my friends or work mates asked, Are you okay? Instead, I was gossiped about and others were told not to speak to me about what was happening, but to move forward. So life went on, one hazy moment at a time.

January 2016: after being told how to run my life, being demoted, getting accused of false allegations from a boss/friend, friends no longer talking to me, I shut all of my doors. I became the butt every public joke on social media by people I thought were my friends. But, I was able to still move forward because THIS TIME someone finally reached out and asked if I was okay. I am grateful for this person whom I now get to call a dear friend.

Yes, it was that one person who opened that very door to where I was meant to be: a professional advocate in the field of mental health.

So my journey to create something that was unique and different from what Ottawa was offering in the mental health industry: HOPE, COMPASSION, HEALING. Embracing Empowerment Counselling Services was born unofficially in February 2016 and officially in April 2016.

In August 2016, my husband returned to work. He was mentally ready and understood his triggers. He was managing and it was good to see him physically up and about again.

Many have asked how I got through all of this and I answer with utmost sincerity: “I believe in the power of therapy no matter who you are, what you do, what status you uphold. There is something emotionally magical about therapy.”

Healing is not linear, and if I am having a bad moment, a bad day, a bad week – it is truly okay!!!

Even as an entrepreneur, or an advocate, or a psychotherapist: it is okay to not be okay! Healing is not linear, and we are not robots, we are human! We feel all the feels, sometimes all at once.

We need to get rid of the idealistic view of a professional (no matter what career you have chosen) being ‘together’ all the time. It is unrealistic! We need to see professionals in the mental health industry as people we can relate to. I often say to clients, “I may not be in the exact same spot as you are, but I understand pain.” I truly do! I believe sharing part of who we are, or our struggles that we’ve overcome, brings in more compassion towards another human being because that is how humans connect – through the stories we share.

As I embark upon my third year of private practice, I embrace every flaw, every struggle, every challenge, every heart break and heart ache with this very message: share your story, listen to a story by just being there, and share your compassionate heart as it can help you heal and show others that THEY ARE NOT ALONE ! #GetLouderOnMentalHealth #Unsinkable

Parul Shah MSP, RSW.

Founder and Psychotherapist of Embracing Empowerment Counselling Services