It was a chilly morning in March when I first stepped into the social worker’s office. We sat down on opposite comfortable chairs, and she pulled a side table a little closer to me so I could put my coffee down if I wanted to.
Not that I wanted to.
Coffee is my comfort drink. She seemed to sense that immediately – likely because I was clutching it in my hands for dear life like an eagle holds a rabbit. I pick up a coffee to take with me whenever I’m anxious; It’s a habit I have yet to grow out of. And that day, I was certainly anxious.
“I’m here to talk about what’s going on in my family,” I said. And slowly, like a timidly blooming flower, I began to reveal what was going on inside me. “So, here's the thing: Our child came out as transgender a few days ago. I’m trying to be supportive and to understand what h—sorry, she’s—going through. I'm still getting used to the pronouns. And everything else."
"It's okay," she said. "I'm sure it takes time."
"Yeah, but I want to get it right all the time, you know? For her. I have to put on a brave face 24/7, and do and say the right things, and I’m going to have to talk to the school and our family and our neighbours and everyone else. I have to be a mama bear. But inside, I’m falling apart.”
As the story unraveled, the tears began to flow. I don’t think I put my coffee down on the table even once; I held it tightly and took small sips to soothe the lump in my throat. The social worker listened patiently and attentively, quietly passing the tissue box when I needed it.
This was the beginning of a working relationship that would span several months. Every week or so, I would find myself in her office, holding a warm coffee cup, and let loose. It was my safe spot where I could just be Amanda. Not Amanda the mom. Not Amanda the wife. Not Amanda the unprepared advocate. Just Amanda.
And in that space, Amanda could feel all her feels. She could drink her coffee or just hold it until it got too cold and gross to drink. (It still served its purpose in my talon-hands, though, trust me.) She could say what she wanted without worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings. She could just be.
Truthfully, it became the most important hour of my week. It made me a better parent to a child who really needed me at my best.
This isn’t the first time therapy has improved my situation even more than clutching a coffee cup does. So, when the Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) asked me to write about my personal experiences for Social Work Week, I was all over it. I don’t normally do these kinds of plugs, because I'm careful about what I put on my site. But this fits perfectly. It's a cause I can get behind.
Mental health is often discussed in hushed tones. We’ll lower our voices whenever we talk about it. A look around the room. A pause. And then a near-whisper, like an admittance of guilt: “So…" *shifty eyes* "I met with someone today about my anxiety…”
I don’t know why we do this. Why are we so ashamed? We’re not kicking puppies, we’re taking care of ourselves. The fact many of us do feel ashamed speaks volumes (pun intended) to the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
Let's contrast this with another good thing we do for ourselves: When is the last time you whispered about going to the gym? I’m guessing never. (And if you’re like me, you might actually raise your voice when bringing up your current squat weight in a crowded room. Yes, I'm that obnoxious.)
It’s almost like we believe taking care of our bodies is something strong people do, while taking care of our minds is something weak people have to do.
Well, if that’s true, you’re reading something by a glorious walking (and *ahem* squatting) contradiction. I prioritize my emotional health alongside my physical health. My mind, like my body, needs to be maintained. Sometimes that maintenance requires therapy, and I don’t think that makes me weak in the slightest.
But I owe a great deal to social workers, specifically. When I was 16 and homeless, it was a social worker who helped me manage the intense stress I was under, and connected me with the resources I needed to get off the street. Today, in large part thanks to that help, I’m a homeowner, engaged community member, and in a position to advocate for other struggling youth by doing a job I love.
Years later, it would be a social worker, one passionate about LGBTQ issues, who would explain gender identity to me in a way I could understand. And yet another social worker would connect me with a support group for parents of trans kids, where I would meet other families like mine on what can otherwise be a lonely journey.
It's so easy to feel alone in our struggles, and yet we never have to be.
This week, March 6-12, 2017, the OASW will be addressing the many issues facing people today. They'll have a theme on their Facebook page each day, and invite people to ask questions. Here's a list of this week's themes:
Monday, March 6: Addictions and Mental Health
Tuesday, March 7: Bullying
Wednesday, March 8: Relationship Problems
Thursday, March 9: Stress Management
Friday, March 10: Caregiving and the "Sandwich Generation."
And, my guess is you can ask about LGBTQ-specific issues any day of the week. I know the OASW stands behind trans issues, because they presented me with an award in 2014 for a piece I wrote on raising trans kids. A progressive move on their part, believe me. Their compassion for trans youth is a big reason why I was happy to take part in this campaign.
Three years after that first tear-filled appointment, I'm still clutching a cup of coffee in my hands anytime I'm anxious. But life has become less anxiety-producing with the right supports. Progress, not perfection.
No shame for this girl - ever. I'll keep embracing my squat weight and my mental health. And if you're struggling with your own shame in asking for help, I hope you'll learn to do the same. Let's stop stigmatizing what can help make our lives better.
Disclaimer: While I was compensated for this post, all views remain my own. My integrity towards any subject is always my top priority.