Therapy rooms are often different. Some, like the first I hired, can be on the blander side. But they are always eventful regarding what goes on within their walls. There are highs and lows; tears and smiles; fears revealed and courage shown. Entire lives are unpacked and stories are told – which is what I’m going to be doing here. As I share my journey to becoming a counsellor.

Writing this piece is an opportunity to celebrate my achievements – private practice has a place on most therapists’ wishlists. So one hand is patting myself on the back. The other is facing you, the reader. I believe I have something to give. And that’s proof that great stories can start without an ending in mind. And those points in life where one feels they are breaking apart or lost, can in fact be steps in one’s becoming.

My studies took 2.5 years. I completed a Graduate Diploma of Counselling at ACAP (Melbourne). It was a career change at 31 years old. A decision I made during a road trip through the Australian outback in 2018. But the seed was planted even further back – in my early twenties. Which is where we’re going to start.

My dark night of the soul

Freshly heartbroken and struggling to find work after graduating from the marketing degree my parents chose for me, adult life was not what I expected. While these are common experiences, my interpretation was to take it all personally. I believed I was a failure. And this led to my first experience with depression – what I described as the complete loss of colour in my personality and the world I saw.

Getting out of bed was a continuous struggle. But one thing that helped was my love for weightlifting. It was a source of strength in more ways than one. And the lifter’s ethos of embracing challenges led me to approach my problems with the same mentality. I entered the world of self-help and personal growth. This is where I discovered the practice of journaling, and how my healing began.

I didn’t attend therapy at this stage; I knew nothing about it. But I remember a GP suggesting I go on antidepressants – which I refused. It was a solution, but not the one I wanted. Call it stigma or just being young and headstrong, but I wanted to “figure things out for myself”. And the more I was reading and writing, the more capable I started to feel.

As emotions settled and my confusion started to clear, my writing also started to develop a certain voice. Filling my journals was bringing me closer to ‘someone’ within me. A different – or you could say, better side. To quote Albert Camus: “in the midst of Winter, I found that there was within me, an invincible summer.”

As the coldness of my depression subsided, I found myself becoming a source of warmth to others. On the same online forums where I initially sought support, I started providing it. Everything about being a helper felt natural to me. I knew how to listen attentively and empathise – making people feel heard and embodied in their experience. And I could communicate well – providing different interpretations and ideas in language that clicked. Before long, this became more than just my online identity. I became a ‘go-to-person’ amongst my friends and coworkers to talk to about the deeper stuff.

The type of online feedback I’d receive

Boy under the Bridge is born

Three years after opening my first journal, I started a blog. A good friend suggested I share my writing and insights with the world. So I pulled up WordPress and Boy Under the Bridge just rolled off my tongue. It was meant to be. Perhaps divine. But also definitely based on a few things already rolling around in my mind: my love of rhyme, a park under a local bridge where I’d often sit by the river with friends deep in conversation, and my values. These are curiosity, humour, optimism, playfulness, and self-acceptance – which are most strongly displayed when we are children, and sadly fade with age.

The alias of ‘boy’ wasn’t just my commitment to my inner child; it also allowed me to be anonymous. This was at a time when most didn’t know the extent of what I had been through. And there was more of a stigma around ill-mental health. So anonymity served a purpose. Except it turned out I had too much pride in my work. I realised that if I wanted people to feel less alone in their struggles, I had to own mine by showing my face. Which I did…. while going a few steps further showing off my half-naked body dripping in ice-cream. I told ya; humour and playfulness.

My book on shelves

Living in Cream – a Metaphorically Messy Guide to a Sweeter Life was my first book. I initially intended to batch a few blog posts together, but then I decided to aim bigger. A vision formed in my mind and a growing creative force took over as I set out to bring it to life.

My book covered my experience with depression and everything I had learned and applied up to the point where I was writing it – which is another story of its own. I was living and volunteering on the small island of Tonga in the South Pacific. This is a place I knew little about and had no intention of ever visiting. I just had a desire for adventure and more meaningful work. I was open-minded, which means more opportunities.

Not-for-profit = not-what-I-expected

I knew going to Tonga would also open doors for my career – specifically into the not-for-profit sector. I had been working in marketing up to this point and wasn’t after a complete career change yet; I just wanted to get out of the corporate world. I wanted purpose behind my work rather than the goal of perusing profits. Mental health was a clear personal interest, and with my blog and book, I was able to leverage my way into the sector working for two of Australia’s biggest organisations. It was a big win; but I had no idea that I would again, see my life breaking apart.

Things just weren’t the right fit. Even though I appreciated what these organisations stood for and appreciated my co-workers, I still felt ‘stuck’ behind a computer screen, sitting painfully still under those overly bright office lights. This kind of environment had never worked for me previously, and a later ADHD diagnosis near my 30th birthday explained why. Shocked while also not surprised, it was a period of mixed feelings. I found myself looking at both my past and future very differently.

Again, I set off on a journey to learn everything I could in order to help myself: I visited forums, read books and blogs, and reached out to people who I personally knew. The best advice I received was that “it’s only a disorder in an excessively ordered world.” This helped me to challenge the idea that there was something wrong with me; there was just something different. And in the right circumstances, it could be used to my advantage as something right.

This is where my deliberation in the desert took place – in the company of a friend who was full of passion for her career as a teacher. It honestly seemed like she was born to be a teacher. And our conversations encouraged me to look at what came naturally to me. Given everything I had been doing with Boy Under the Bridge as well as my life previously, the answer seemed clear. I decided to study counselling.

Back to the books

As soon as I started my course, I noticed a difference in my drive. My first degree felt like something I had to do; this time I wanted to be studying. And I wanted to do well. This was why I was willing to make many sacrifices – from morning gym sessions to socialising on the weekend – to ensure I could fit in enough study time while working 4 days a week. Life was busy, but I felt a greater sense of purpose. I was now heading towards something.

I didn’t mind doing 6hrs of classes in one day – which to my surprise, I was standing out in. Not just as a class clown, but also as someone who could meaningfully contribute. And my marks – such as getting the top result for one assignment – confirmed my capability. My fellow students also provided me with feedback – both regarding my work in class as well what I had done in my personal life. I really enjoyed meeting so many people from different walks of life. Some were in their early stages, but most were mature-aged students like myself. As opposed to feeling like I was ‘starting again’, I recognised that counselling is a profession often found later in life. This gave me assurance in the path I had taken to get here and where I was heading.

I had a great first year of study. But sadly, 2020 was full of hiccups… and coughs. Nothing was safe from the Pandemic, including education. Online classes lacked the same kind of engagement, and the stress about being made redundant from my job also was getting to me. I opted for doing what I could and focused on the finish line that was coming up. This meant getting placement out of the way while I could. I decided a high school would be fitting.

Placement wasn’t the smoothest run operation, but I made the most of it. I learned that young people come with a unique set of challenges – both from their willingness to engage to limits in what you can do to help them when it’s their family lives that are problematic. Nonetheless, it enabled me to get over my fears of working with ‘real clients’. I’ll never forget the day one client told me that I’m “so much better” than his previous psychologist when I’m “not even a real counsellor.” Bless. Trust teenagers to tell it like it is.

Feedback from my ACAP classmates

Going at it myself

The Pandemic also shook up my plans post-graduation. I intended to get a counselling role upon finishing but instead decided to stay in the government job I had acquired while completing my last subject. With so much uncertainty around lockdowns, it seemed like a safe move to stay with such a secure job. I was also concerned about doing a full-time counselling role while I wasn’t in the best of spirits myself. Burnout is widely common in such emotionally demanding work.

The turning point came when a counselling role was advertised within the council I was working for. I contacted the recruiting officer and we had a conversation. It changed everything. He told me that while I didn’t have the experience the role required, I had experience that many don’t. He was talking about everything I had done with Boy Under the Bridge. And he encouraged me to run with it. To step into the world and start my own show.

Private practice was always a goal – but one at the back of my mind. He had faith in me that I just didn’t have in myself, so I didn’t take the steps we spoke about. I did, however, proceed to work through what was stopping me. Which I identified as a fear of failure. Of specifically putting myself out there and… well… nothing happening.

When I took the time to really sit with the feeling, I recognised it as familiar. I was no stranger to taking risks. In fact, from going to Tonga and moving states twice, my courage was something others admired me for. I also took note of everything I had experienced up to this point, writing in a blog titled, A Way of Being:

“I’m undeniably a natural counsellor. I just need to own it. I’m also human. So doubt and imposter syndrome will have a presence in my life too. But I’ll own them too; dealing with them the same way I always have: by stepping forward, showing up, and taking a shot. Oh, and adjusting my course if necessary. As my story shows, even if the next thing isn’t “it” – what you ultimately want (like Sydney) – it’s likely nevertheless a required step along the way. And I’m ready to take my next one.”

With my fear of starting, starting to fade, a message on Instagram was the last push I needed. The honest truth is I would probably still be sitting still if I didn’t receive this message. It showed the value of my work and even more so the power of words; how a single sentence can forever change the shape of how someone’s life unfolds. I can only hope to have the same impact on my clients.

The message that got me started

In the arena

Stepping from the proverbial ‘edge’ couldn’t have gone any better. Where I’ve been told it takes up to 90 days to get a first client, I had an enquiry within 9 minutes. My new venture took flight right away. And I owe it all to everything I had been doing over the last 9 years with Boy Under the Bridge and the encouragement I received. I didn’t open my first journal thinking I’d open a blog, or open a blog thinking I’d be opening a private practice. Life, huh. What a ride.

Of course, it’s still early days yet. There’s a huge hill ahead of me – establishing business systems, marketing and networking will take up as much time as counselling at this stage – but I’m excited about what’s at the top. I’ve always had a streak of entrepreneurship – which is why my parents put me forward to study marketing. And now I get to use my natural talent and experience for a job that I couldn’t possibly feel more connected to.

In fact, ‘job’ doesn’t even feel like the right word. In The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna introduced me to the difference between jobs, careers and callings. A calling is where the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; when who we are and what we do are one of the same. It goes without saying, I am Boy Under the Bridge. During a private practice preparation course, the teacher congratulated me on my personal branding. My response was a bit of a downplay: “it’s just me, being me.

I have a handful of clients and my plan is to slowly scale up from here. What I’m doing is by all means just a side hustle – and I’m okay with that. It gives me time to take care of my well-being and maintain my ongoing learning. One key thing I have learned from Louis Cozolino, author of The Making of a Therapist, is that a therapist’s work is unique in the way one’s personal and professional growth are intertwined.

It’s all equal parts exciting and terrifying. My desire to find ‘my place’ led me here; I truly believe this is it. But I’m also worried about things not working out in the long run. Again, this is that fear of failure rearing its head. Which I’m reminding myself isn’t the worst thing; that would be never trying at all. I don’t know what’s going to come out of this. But I know what’s going in: my whole heart. And that’s enough of a reason to hold my head high. As per the title of Brené Brown’s book, I am Daring Greatly. Which was titled after a quote by Theodore Roosevelt. Here’s a snippet of the end:

..who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

A vision

In Living in Cream I wrote about the power of using one’s imagination. And how twice – I’ve experienced what I’m confident describing as “my future flashing before my eyes” while under waves of excitement.

I was the skinny kid in high school, but when I picked up my first dumbbell, I knew that was going to completely change. I saw myself as someone who was confident to be shirtless – turning heads and inspiring others with how hard I worked. Though I dedicated too much to this vain pursuit in my early adult life, I did achieve that goal. Then there was learning to dance. I initially feared it so much that I skipped my high school formal. But while watching some performers in Bangkok, I saw myself doing the same. And eventually, I was – popping and locking on the streets like a scene out of Step Up.

Having a bogie and getting buff aren’t the most amazing achievements. My point is that they were things I deeply desired behind even more deeply ingrained limiting beliefs. They were things that spoke to my soul; that excited every bit of my being. And I went after them despite how improbable they seemed. Both took a lot of hard work and sweat – literally. But I celebrated and found purpose in every step of progress. And now I’m doing the same with my counselling journey.

My sights are set on who I want to be and the life I’m after… with a twist. I’m also leaning into my fears – what I don’t want. That’s the day-to-day grind of commuting to the office, shirts and ties, and feeling contained to my desk. It’s unnecessary meetings, office politics and not having the opportunity to speak up out of fear of ‘rocking the boat’. It’s what my good friend Naaz (who I met in Sydney) refers to as “ being trapped in the system”. Where the pressures and demands of the world lead one to play it safe while something in them silently screams for more.

I mean this with absolutely no judgement on anyone’s decisions around what they do with their life. I’m just stating what I know to be true. Everyone is motivated by different things, and some of us simply need to be doing our own thing. We’re alive with the wind in our hair, and uncertainty under our feet in pursuit of the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where self-actualisation sits.

One of the emails Naaz sent me.

Thanks for reading

This piece ends where it started – with me as a happy wide-eyed kid who had his pristine view of the world shattered. While I’ve come so far in accepting myself, there are things about the world I’m still struggling with (and seeking therapy for). Like, that its incredibly dark corners that aren’t limited to just corners.

I know that with every smiling selfie, there’s someone suffering in silence. That, as much as I want to believe in goodness; it’s not the default setting. In Living in Cream, I wrote how “I saw the world in a new light; as one without light”. This is where my depression started, and where it continues to linger. It seems the more I’ve learned with age, the harder-hitting reality has become. But I’ve also become more capable in what I can endure and do. For example, one of the other jobs I have is as a Therapeutic Youth Worker working with young people in out-of-home care. This is something I never thought I could do.

Carl Jung said: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” And as I sit with this as a “wounded healer”, I can trace its truth back to my earliest memories. Before I knew anything about writing or mental health, I was a kid who found purpose in making my classmates laugh. Comedy was my way of first kindling a light in the world, then I was sticking up snippets of uplifting street poetry during the Pandemic, and counselling is how I’ll continue.

With this, I’ll also assert that we’re all able to do our bit – and every bit counts. We can be there for those closest to us and even strangers through small acts of kindness and consideration. We can use our skills in not-for-profit initiatives and we can donate what we have in surplus. Counselling and caring roles aren’t suited for everyone, and that’s ok.

For those who feel it is their path, I hope my story has served as a source of inspiration. I still have a long way to go, but I’m proud to have made it here – from depression; from opening a journal; from opening a blog and making that decision to return to study.

I’m also thankful to everyone who has supported me along the way, giving me assurance when I didn’t have it in myself. And I’m especially thankful to my clients for their trust. I wouldn’t be at this stage of my journey if they didn’t trust me with theirs. I wholeheartedly mean it when I say, our clients give back in their own way.

…Not only does our work provide us the opportunity to transcend ourselves, to evolve and to grow, and to be blessed by a clarity of vision into the true and tragic knowledge of the human condition, but we are offered even more….

We watch our patients let go of old self-defeating patterns, detach from ancient grievances, develop zest for living, learn to love us, and through that act, turn lovingly to others. It is a joy to see others open the taps to their own founts of wisdom. Sometimes I feel like a guide escorting patients through the rooms of their own house. What a treat it is to watch them open doors to rooms never before entered, discover new wings of their house containing parts in exile – wise, beautiful, and creative pieces of identity… – Irvin D. Yalom

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