“What do you do?”
“I’m getting my doctorate in clinical psychology.”
“Oh, you work with crazy people?”
That is what I hear most of the time when I tell others about my career choice.
I used to become very upset when people would call the individuals I work with “crazy.” What does crazy even mean?
Merriam-Webster defines it as (a) full of cracks or flaws; (b) crooked, askew; (c) not mentally sound, marked by thought or action that lacks reason, insane.
So am I considered crazy? Am I full of cracks, flaws, and everything else associated with being crazy? If according to how loosely the term “crazy” is used with those that have mental health issues, then I guess I must be, right? Let me stop you right there!
Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Dimple Patel and I am a 30-year-old Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology, just one year away from obtaining my degree. I concomitantly have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
[Read Related: The One-Year Anniversary of ‘Haneri’: A Punjabi-Canadian Short Film on Mental Health]
I experienced my first panic attack when I returned to college after taking 11 weeks off to recover from a car accident that had resulted in a fractured pelvis. A few weeks after returning to school, it hit me out of nowhere – unlike anything I had ever experienced and I could not pin-point what triggered these emotions. I was constantly worried and felt anxious about the most minute things. I could not find an appropriate mechanism to set aside or let go of these worries. I had a difficult time handling uncertainty and kept overthinking everything. Hundreds of questions ran through my mind: did I want to go to medical school, what others were thinking about me, what to eat, and even what to do during the day. I struggled to relax and always felt restless.
Another added stressor was figuring out what I wanted to do in life since I was a junior in college and 1.5 years away from graduating. I realized medical school was not for me, but I was also so afraid of figuring out the next step. Being Indian, I felt like it was predetermined for me; I was supposed to be a doctor. Deep down, I knew it was not what I wanted to do and it became an internal struggle.
I knew something was not right when I started to experience the following symptoms: fatigue, trouble sleeping, nervousness, nausea, and irritability. I noticed I felt anxious even when there was no reason for me to be. As a result, I found myself trying to control everything, but it only made things worse. At the time, my go-to technique to manage my anxiety was avoidance. In reality, the more you avoid and fear anxiety attacks, the more likely they are to occur. This is attributed to the continuous state of worrying. I just could not figure out what was wrong with me. At the time, my mom was like, “you’re fine,” but I was not.
The day my life changed was when I walked into the counseling center at DePaul University. I knew nothing about their therapeutic process, but I knew I needed help. The moment I felt anxious, I ran there. I did anything to avoid being alone because that’s when the anxiety was more prevalent. I left my apartment in the morning and did not return until night time when I knew my roommates would be home. I called my mom every time I had a break in between classes, took naps at my friends’ places, and sat in public areas to avoid being alone.
I remember being asked by the counseling center if I wanted a South Asian therapist, to which I replied, “No thanks.”
“Why would I? She would judge me more,” I thought to myself.
However, I agreed to try it out and learned that it was the best decision I ever made. It was easy for me to connect with her. I did not feel judged and was able, for the first time in my life, to open up and be honest about how I felt. I was asked about my feelings and what I wanted – something I had never been asked before! More so, it was a safe spot for me to express myself and learn about myself at the same time. Until then, it felt like I was the person my parents always told me to be, and I was defined by the typical South Asian cultural norms. With this, I fell in love with psychology and wanted to learn more. I decided to change my major to psychology and applied to a master’s program during my senior year. The rest was history! Ah, not even close.
Fast forward nine years, I am almost graduating with my doctorate! This journey was not easy. I lost a lot of family along the way: my mom and grandmother within a month of each other in 2011, in 2012 an aunt and uncle, in 2013 my grandfather, and 2014 my mom’s cousin to suicide in India. It was a lot to deal with, especially while in grad school.
My counseling sessions at DePaul University ended when I graduated. Looking back, I should have resumed therapy after my mom’s death. If I had consistently attended my weekly therapy sessions, I may not have broken down and burnt out in 2013. But in 2014, I finally decided to return to therapy.
As a clinician, it is recommended and encouraged to go to therapy. Two of my biggest motivators for resuming therapy were my anxiety and my mother’s suicide. For many years, I did not speak of my mother’s suicide. I kept that door closed because I was afraid that, if I accepted it, it would lead to saying goodbye, and I was not ready for that.
Therefore, I knew I needed to address issues surrounding suicide and figure how I wanted to tackle these matters. It has impacted my life in so many ways and is a subject I know I cannot avoid. Throughout all of this, an important lesson I learned was to stick with therapy even when things were going well because continuing it would help me, especially when things got rough. Therapy has helped me learn how to use a variety of positive coping skills that I still practice today.
When clients tell me:
“You don’t understand what I’m going through. Your life must be perfect. What worries do you have? You don’t get it.”
I want to tell them:
“Actually, I do understand. I have been in your shoes many times. Our experiences may not be the same, but I can empathize because I was there at one point in my life.”
As a clinician, it is my responsibility to maintain an appropriate level of self-disclosure, as the session is not about me. That is what my own therapy sessions are for.
I love what I do. I have learned so much about myself and I continue to learn new things. One the biggest things I struggled with was believing in myself. I used to state that my stressors were holding me back. I had to learn how to replace my irrational thoughts with more rational statements. I kept doubting my skills. I always wanted to be the perfect student, practicing clinician, and future psychologist. Many don’t view clinicians as people; they are held to a higher standard that generally dismisses their own issues relating to their mental health. In some way, there appears to be a stigma that if we have our own mental health issues, then we cannot be functioning clinicians. I disagree with that completely. The experiences I have gone through have only made me a better clinician. I am more attentive, present, empathic towards my clients.
So please do not forget: We all are people who, in our own way, are dealing with our own issues each day.
For more information on mental health in the South Asian community, check out MannMukti—ending the mental health stigma, one story at a time.
Dimple Patel is a fourth-year doctoral student, in a clinical psychology program. She is an active committee member and team captain for Team Patel for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk. Dimple is passionate about bringing awareness to South Asian mental issues that are often stigmatized and ignored. She believes providing education, support, recourses, and normalizing mental health issues. Therefore, Dimple has taken the initiative to be proactive by sharing her own experiences with mental health, which has encouraged others to do the same.