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What is normal? A journey through mental health and self discovery

For the past six months, Gabriella, a UFV student, has documented her counselling journey on The Cascade website through a series of weekly blogs. As the semester comes to an end, she looks back on the experience.



By Katherine Gibson (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: April 9, 2014

 “If students have never gone to counselling and they don’t know anyone who’s gone to counselling, why wouldn’t they think it’s like the movies?”

“If students have never gone to counselling and they don’t know anyone who’s gone to counselling, why wouldn’t they think it’s like the movies?”

For the past six months, Gabriella, a UFV student, has documented her counselling journey on The Cascade website through a series of weekly blogs. As the semester comes to an end, she looks back on the experience.

Gabriella’s experience

When Gabriella walked into The Cascade’s office in early October 2013 to discuss her mental health journey with a journalist, she didn’t know what to expect. Feeling apprehensive but excited, Gabriella came into the experience with an open mind and the desire to share her story with others.

Willing to talk about her life and struggle with anxiety, Gabriella hoped her UFV counselling experience would not only bring insight, but also help other struggling students find the courage to come forward and seek help.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that a staggering 49 per cent of those who suffer from anxiety have never gone to see a doctor, a fact that is caused largely by the stigma that is associated with mental health. Although there have been recent campaigns to lessen this negative perception — there are organizations like To Write Love on Her Arms vocally advocating for mental health awareness — this stigma still remains.

Gabriella is no stranger to these stigmas. In her experience it is the pressure to appear “normal” that pushes people to keep their anxiety hidden behind closed doors.

“Everybody wants to be normal — what is normal? I think we believe really successful people must have their heads on straight, but it’s just what they show to [the world],” Gabriella says. “There’s a whole different presence that you put on when you come out in public — everything you’re feeling is very much hidden behind [closed] doors.

“Selfies, for instance: how many times do you take a billion selfies and then post the good one — the one that makes you look less like you? There’s a huge filtering in how we present ourselves … being unstable or revealing that you have unstable thoughts, it takes away from that façade of being perfect.”

For Gabriella, meeting with UFV’s counsellors broke down some of these barriers. In fact, Gabriella realized very early on that her counselling sessions were not going to be anything like the stuffy therapy sessions depicted in the movies. Gabriella was never once was asked to lie on a leather couch and bare her soul while a counsellor held a clipboard, noting her deepest darkest fears. No, Gabriella came to learn that counselling is a “conversation,” a dialogue between two equal individuals.

“[The counsellor] takes notes … but the clipboard isn’t something that’s scary,” she says. “They weren’t hiding their notes from me. You’re not sitting there wondering, ‘what are [they] writing about me?’ It’s all very open.

“And it’s not like we’re Facebook friends or anything like that, but when I’m in there, [the counsellor’s] present with me. We laugh and she does some of the same [exercises] with me as well — like the breathing. [They] do feel like a counsellor because [they] know more than you, in terms of knowledge and experience — but you just feel like they’re a cool teacher.”

Maintaining an open dialogue, each session progressively focused more of Gabriella’s own commitment to self-discovery. Asked to do everything from breathing exercises to visualizing a painful childhood memory, Gabriella reflects that the process was sometimes frustrating. She had initially expected the counselling staff to simply tell her what was “wrong with her,” but Gabriella now recognizes the importance and power of having been guided to pursue insight somewhat on her own.

“It was a surprise and it was almost frustrating at times: I wanted to say, ‘just tell me what’s wrong with me and what I need to do.’ But when someone tells you something, they might not be able to tell you the same way you would tell yourself,” she says. “The self-discovery [approach] is nice because you feel more accomplished as well — you yourself are discovering things, rather than someone just saying, ‘This is what’s wrong with you.’”

For Gabriella these last six months have been about more than just facing her anxiety — they have been about gaining perspective and finding courage in knowing that her story has the potential to positively impact other students struggling with similar issues.

“When I go through the blogs from the very beginning and read through them, it’s really interesting. For myself, it’s helping me understand things seeing my journey as a whole.

“It’s like studying. I study better when I try to explain things to people, and so I feel like I’ve learned so much more just by trying to explain and decipher my [anxiety]. It’s kind of like [these interviews] have helped me study my brain.

Although opting not to take summer courses, Gabriella will be back and UFV in the fall, eager and ready to not only continue her education, but also go back to her counselling sessions. As Gabriella notes, these sessions have given her the tools to face the situations that cause her to feel anxious — an enhanced self-awareness she believes will continue to help her cope with the stresses of university life.

And while this process has brought with it a change in her perspective, Gabriella still maintains that dealing with her anxiety will be a process she will face for her entire life.

“Just being able to just let things ‘be,’ I think is the main thing, being able to let things take their own course. And that goes back to everything (what grades I get or if something terrible happens to me) — I’ll be able to learn how to move through that,” Gabriella says. “Obviously I still struggle with it, it’s not going to disappear — but I’m much better with that.

For now, the blogs and counselling sessions will stop as Gabriella takes time to refresh and get ready for the fall semester. However, the process of not only going to UFV’s counsellors, but also sharing her experience with the entire student population is one she will not soon forget.

“You interviewed me, but that was my choice,” Gabriella concludes. “For other people, they can choose not to share; you can choose to do with the process what you want.  [For me] it’s been nice just to have someone to listen to me … It’s been cool to talk and have someone care enough to write my thoughts down.”

The counsellor’s experience

For the main counsellor interviewing Gabriella, this experience has allowed her to see beyond their counselling sessions.

“We have unfinished stories — the person leaves and we don’t know how it ends. You have to be okay with not knowing. You can be really curious … but you don’t ask because it’s their journey; they get to decide how much they’re going to tell you.  Here [with the blogs] I get to see a partial ending to that story … it’s highly unusual for me.”

The counsellor also notes that the experience of having her counselling techniques blogged online came with a bit of initial uncertainty. However, looking back of the experience, she sees a benefit to knowing, in detail, the student’s honest perception of their sessions.

“Each time I click [the blog] there’s a bit of nervousness because there’s a risk — I’m exposed,” she says. “I liked it very much. It was almost like a report card every time.”

Although the blogging experience has been different than what they imagined, the counsellor says that there was never any frame of reference to judge it in.

“I didn’t really know how it was going to unfold … everything was wide, wide open,” she says. “So yes, it’s different than I imagined, but I didn’t have a frame of reference, so I was really open to the process and following [the blogs].”

Gabriella’s story has opened up the UFV counselling experience for students, breaking down the myths surrounding the profession and the experience. For this, the counsellor is grateful, noting that without stories like Gabriella’s, students are left to rely on the media and mainstream stigmas when defining counselling.

“If students have never gone to counselling and they don’t know anyone who’s gone to counselling, why wouldn’t they think it’s like the movies — that’s their frame of reference,” she says. “[The blogs] demystify counselling. I think that we have come a long way, but still it’s the case of, ‘I can’t go see a counsellor because then I’ll be crazy,’ or, ‘What will people think of me?’ and really it’s just the everyday person who has anxiety.”

For the counsellor, concretely knowing that other students are taking something away from Gabriella’s blogs is a new but enriching experience.

“Even though I know it intellectually, I never really know how that client touches people’s lives. It’s satisfying and it’s an honour for me to have people develop their personal awareness,” she concludes. “It’s also an honour to read about her journey, and … to hear how it has affected [students] too.”

My experience

Like Gabriella, I had no idea what to expect when I agreed to follow a student through her mental health journey. The idea of pushing back against mental health stigmas and amplifying a student’s voice was a prospect that excited me, but I was still nervous. I kept questioning, ‘What if I ask the wrong questions or hurt the person by asking about their mental journey at all?’

The first time I met with Gabriella, I was anxious. I wanted to ensure that she knew I would not judge her, but I also didn’t want to come across as overly sympathetic or insincere. I was genuinely interested in following her journey and wanted to make sure that she was comfortable with that.

I believed going into this experience that I was simply going to be a journalist observing a situation and recording it for others to learn.

But I was wrong.

From the first session, it was clear that remaining completely objective and uninvolved was going to be hard to maintain.

Every week that I interviewed Gabriella, I got to know her better. Because I was reporting on such a personal part of her life, I was made privy to intimate feelings and aspects of who she was and who she is today. I was invited to observe her struggles with anxiety, learn about her family history, and watch her grow. Over these past six months, I have built a unique relationship with Gabriella, a mix somewhere between journalist and simply a friend.

Here’s a snapshot of what I learned.

Gabriella is nothing like the media depiction of how people live with anxiety: she is not neurotic or a sitcom caricature, but rather is filled with light-hearted humour and possess an insightful eye, both in life and in her photography.

Gabriella is a person, a person with unique experiences and problems just like everyone else — just like me. Speaking with Gabriella has revealed, firsthand, that every person’s struggle with anxiety is different. There is no blanket label that can be put on all people facing this issue and now, after having spoken with Gabriella, I will never try to find one.

Gabriella’s courage has given me, and the rest of the student body, the opportunity to see firsthand what it means to live with anxiety on a day to day basis — and I will always be grateful for that.

I have received emails from students expressing how this blog has helped them cope with their own anxiety. I even had one student stop me in the hallway to show me printed versions of the blogs they carry in their purse for inspiration.

When I reflect on these stories and the people who have found their own bravery in Gabriella’s words, I am reminded of the importance of sharing. Often we, as students, get so caught up in the rigour of academic life that we forget that we are built to tell our own stories too — we can find courage and lend courage by sharing the experiences that shape us with others.

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