Saturday, November 10, 2012

Heroic Students

Few things in my professional life have been more rewarding than to witness college students overcoming tremendous obstacles to their success and happiness.  For most of those around them, professors and administrators, friends and sometimes even family, their struggles were invisible and silent.  Working with them in the privacy and safety of therapy, college mental health professionals are privileged to nurture their strength, shore up battered psyches, and nudge them in the directions they need to travel.

I wish I had the memory banks to tell each of their stories.  Everyone can benefit from seeing how a young adult bravely confronts horrendous conditions and accomplish things that many of us never have or will.  Here are some examples, disguised and condensed for the sake of confidentiality.
  • Tyrell, 21, came from extreme poverty and at one point lived in his car on the edge of campus.  He was the first in his family to attend college, and he was determined to graduate and make something of himself.  It took unrelenting energy and conviction to rise each morning, stay awake in class, and disregard the doubts from within and without, but he got his diploma.
  • Janie, 19, saddled with a history of physical, sexual and emotional trauma at the hands of adults who were supposed to be her caretakers.  Her days were filled with intense fear and phobic anxiety; just sitting in class around other students, thinking they were judging her, took gargantuan effort.  She battled impulses to harm herself and exit her life altogether, but deep inside there was a constant, though sometimes faint, voice which told her there were other possibilities in her life.  Class attendance and grades were far from perfect, but she did not give up or quit.  She registered each semester, and worked on her goals persistently, not with great force, but like ocean waves on the shore.
  • Will, 23, lost and roaming in the grip of various addictions he brought to college with him.  He encountered many entanglements with friends, family, the legal system.  He had to face academic probation more than once.  Will sought treatment several times, each with the same outcome: relapse.  With enough support and encouragement he entered treatment one more time, and began a 12-step program.  There were ups and downs even then, but he did better in school and eventually graduated.
  • Beatrice, 18, in great distress over her gender and sexual identity.  She encountered frequent harassment and bullying from middle school forward.  Those who professed love for her rejected her emotionally, and also communicated not-so-vague threats of disowning her altogether.  The simple act of walking across campus took immense fortitude and exhausted her at times.  Through therapy, she found supportive others and got engaged in activism and justice for all students.  This empowered her and gave her confidence to be herself and interact with others respectfully and assertively.
There are so many more stories to tell.  In each case, the student clung tightly to something dim but abiding in their core: a genuine, healthier self which sought expression and release.  So many have lost this fight.  We have all known them in our lives, and we would all do well to use our powers to "see" the whole person in front of us, imagining a great struggle in which they are engaged, and facilitating their journey into being who they really are, which is always the path to emotional health.