No one’s life is perfect. We all go through our own storms and have our own troubles. Sometimes the storms we face are more than we can handle on our own. Some of us have great support systems and some of us do not. Even those of us with great family and friends don’t want to burden them with our problems, or maybe we don’t want them to worry about us. So, then what do we do when we are facing a mega-storm and feel completely alone? Seek help, professionally.
Over the years, I have had many friends who would talk about how alone they felt or how they couldn’t move past the fact they lost someone important. My response is the same every time: seek help, talk to a counselor. I’m not just talking here folks; I went to counseling myself. I was just as apprehensive about the experience as you are. I didn’t want someone analyzing my every thought. I couldn’t see myself sitting there spilling my every thought to a stranger who talks to me like they actually know me. I had seen enough television medical shows to know what to expect. And then 9/11 happened, just 25 days after my husband died.
I just knew this had to be the end. I had lost my past, present, and future and now New York was erupting in fire, people were jumping from buildings, and the streets covered in dust and debris. It’s nearly identical to how I had pictured ‘the end’. Nothing was making sense, it all was a blur. One day, in a relative moment of clarity, I noticed I was sitting on my bed, watching people jump from a building in the endless news coverage of 9/11, rocking and shaking. For a moment, I thought I might have finally gone crazy. But, then it hit me, this was bigger than me. This was more than I could handle and for my sanity and the future of my kids, I had to get help.
Mind you, I didn’t jump up off the bed and dial the phone. It was very overwhelming. It took me awhile to do what I knew I needed to do. I couldn’t shake the TV image of counseling. I just dreaded making the call. I didn’t know where to start anyway. It was too complicated. Those were all the excuses I fed myself. As I laid on the couch one day, trying to talk my 8 month old baby into taking a nap, again, so I didn’t have to get up and do anything, I realized that wasn’t fair to her and I really did have to do something.
I found my husband’s employee handbook from Illinois Power. I was only 25 and ignorant to the ways of the world, but I did remember looking at the book with him and I remembered there was an Employee Assistant Program (EAP) that offered counseling. I didn’t know anything EAPs. I took a deep breath and dialed the phone. The person on the other side was very nice, and knowledgable. It was a man, his name was Jeff.
We found a place that was close. He told me if I didn’t like that place, we would try again. I took the number, thanked him for his time, and hung up. Now came the really hard part–I had to call and make the appointment. Every part of me was screaming at me to put it off, but I knew if I did, I might never follow through. I knew I had to follow through.
Again, the woman on the other end was fairly nice, although I could tell they were busy. I made the appointment. I made it for just a few days later. I asked my grandma to babysit the baby so I could go alone the first time. I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted. And, I wasn’t sure how this worked, but I knew it wouldn’t work if I didn’t like the person. I wanted to be able to talk without the disruption of the kids.
Appointment day came fast. I cried all morning. I did not want to do this. I just didn’t. I tried to think of a way to get out of it, but I had already told Grandma why I needed her. There was no way she was going to let me out of this, at least not easily. It probably would be easier to go to the appointment. I tried to look decent, like I hadn’t been crying for a month. When Grandma showed up, I headed out. The one upside is I knew even though my house was clean, it would be better when I got back. Chances are, supper would even be done. Grandma could not resist cooking and cleaning. My standards were never as high as hers, so if nothing else, I wouldn’t have to clean or cook for the rest of the day. I figured that alone, made it worth it.
I cried all the way to the appointment, in between deep breathing to calm myself. I walked through the door to see a rather long, nearly empty waiting room. The office had several therapists/counselors in it. The only thing I knew about my counselor was her name: Tamra. After what seemed like an eternity of completing paperwork, I turned it all in. Just a few short minutes later there was a woman at the door calling my name.
She was a heavier woman, dressed very nicely. She was pretty. Her hair and make up nearly perfect. We took a short walk to her office. She sat in a chair off to the side of her desk and I sat in the nice comfy chair in front of her. She introduced herself and shook my hand. “What brings you in today?” She asked. I knew she had read the paperwork.
“Well,” I started, not exactly sure what to say, “I guess you know my husband died.”
She nodded. “I did see that.”
I could feel my lip trembling. I was trying so hard not to cry. Instead, I rambled “So, that’s why I’m here. I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure what its like. I’m not even sure I can do this. I called the EAP because I think I need to be here. The one thing, the only thing I know is I have to be comfortable, and no offense, I have to like you, or this won’t work. Please don’t be offended if I move on and find someone else. I might like you, I hope I do, but I just want to be upfront about this.” I stopped when I ran out of things to say.
“I completely understand,” She said so sincerely, “the most important thing is that you are comfortable and if you aren’t with me, I want you to find someone you are comfortable with.” She explained her credentials, what she does, and how it all worked.
Whew. I was so glad all of that uncomfortable talk was over. It was such a relief, I almost smiled.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened to your husband?”
I did just that. I spilled my entire story about Randy from start to finish. She listened patiently, asked only questions to clarify. She showed intense, sincere concern. Every once in a while she would hand me a tissue. It took awhile to get through it all, sobbing makes everything take longer, but I did make it to the end. She looked at me and said two words. With teary eyes she said, “I’m sorry.”
She meant it. I could feel she meant it. The only thing I could say back was, “Me, too.”
“Sara, I don’t usually share anything personal, but I want you to know that I have been through some of this in my personal life. My sister’s husband was also killed by a drunk driver. She was alone with children, too. I helped her through some of her hardest times, as a sister, not a counselor. I really do understand. I really think I can help you and together I think we can get through this.”
Instantly, I felt at ease. I knew she was the one. I had a million and one questions about her sister, but I refrained.
“I wish we could go on, but our hour is up. Do you think you want to make another appointment?”
I nodded. “Thanks. I know this might be a strange way to do things, but I want my kids to have the same benefit I do. Is there anyway I can bring them with me sometimes, or every time if they want to?”
“Absolutely, Sara. I think that is a great idea. I know it’s hard, but it really sounds like you have a natural way to deal with stuff like this. I really like the things you have said to your kids and the way you are handling this. Bringing the kids if they need to is an example of that.”
Wow. That almost made me feel human and gave me an air of hope. Made me feel like we might make it out of this as whole people.
We walked out of the office together. She went into the back and I walked to the front window to make another appointment. The goal was to go 2-3 times a week for a three weeks. And, then step down to 1-2 times a week.
Before every appoint, I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and searching for a way out. There were a couple of appointments I succeeded. When I missed an appointment, she called me. I didn’t miss many, but when I did she worried. She knew how complicated and sad my life was at that point. She genuinely cared.
Every appointment started with “So, Sara, how is everything going?” And, every appointment, I told her my struggles and my accomplishments. Sometimes my accomplishments were as simple as taking a shower every day, falling asleep with the TV off, and getting all the kids homework done for the week. She was so proud of me when she learned I was volunteering and working out. Those were huge steps. She even helped me identify and end my panic attacks. She listened to Kayla. She played with Brendan and Emily. Sometimes, if it was a particularly bad week for me, or if I wanted to talk about something I didn’t want to burden the kids with, I left them with my Grandma or made the appointment for when the older ones were in school.
Those appointments had a lot of emotion and a lot of tears, especially the first six months or so of counseling. It felt like the tears washed away the anxiety and the fear. I didn’t see many people then, except family. Seeing her face really made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I could tell her anything, literally. After I spilled my thoughts, we would talk about them. We would talk about how that was helpful or how far I had come. We would look at some of the things I had struggled with that week and try to find tips or solutions to make it easier next time. We glanced ahead to see if she could help me gain some confidence or give advice to make the coming days easier until we could meet again.
It always felt like I was lighter when I left the office. I felt like I had handed off some of the weeks problems to someone else and like I had a step up on the days ahead. Gradually, I spent less and less time crying, I could focus better and for longer periods of time. I remember the first time I genuinely smiled. I remember the first day I didn’t cry.
The EAP paid 100% at first, then it went down, and down, until they paid nothing. Your EAP, or your husband’s, might be different. I saw her for over a year. She helped me enter the dating world and navigate my way through it. She helped the kids through it too.
When it was time to say goodbye, it was as hard as meeting her for the first time. If someone would have told me that in the beginning, I never would have believe them! I actually cried leaving. Part of that was her. I knew I would miss her. Part of it was knowing that I was on my own now. She had given me the tools, confidence, and knowledge, but now I had to put it into play, everyday. Oh, that was scary!
I did it though. I did it and I did it well. Looking back, I don’t know if I could have gone through that without her. If I would have been able to make it without her, it would have been much harder and taken much longer.
I am constantly telling people, “Get help.” I tell them I did it and that it was hard, but I have never explained what you can expect when you see a counselor. Not every counselor is the same. That is great news! It’s great because we all are different too. None of our experiences are the same and we don’t react to experiences the same. I wanted to take some time and explain how I started seeing a counselor and what I experienced, in better detail.
I should mention, not only did Tamra influence my re-build after the storm, but she also shaped my career. She told me she was a social worker and explained what they did. She asked me if I had ever considered social work (I had no college education at this point) because I seemed to have natural instincts that would help me with social work. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but I started researching. Within months of ending our time together, I was enrolled full-time in college. I also got an entry-level social work job working with at-risk youth who were lockouts or runaways. My goal for my degree was social work. I completed my degree 4 years later. It turns out, many of my professors and my boss agreed with Tamra. Social Work doesn’t come easy to everyone, some have to work at it. Apparently, I am a natural. That education, combined with my experiences and my personality lead me to follow my passion for helping widows.
Counseling really did help me, in more ways than one might imagine. Now that you know how counseling works, hopefully you will give it a shot. Your sanity and future are worth it. You are worth it.