by Kelly Wester
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” – Mary Anne Radmacher
Every now and then, I cling onto quotes, and this seems to be the most recent one that speaks to me. Typically when I hear people speak of courage, they are talking about the person in school who stood up to a bully verbally or physically, the person standing on the stage performing in front of a large audience, or even the hero who charged into a traumatic situation to save another. What is less frequently spoken about or acknowledged is the person who fights, quietly, every day. If we consider the definition of courage—“The ability to do something that frightens one”—the person who fights every day is truly a brave individual.
I am not someone who has self-injured, nor have I been suicidal, but I am someone with the privilege of hearing from others who are or have been there. I have had the ability to work for over a decade as a counsellor and researcher of adolescents and young adults who are engaging in self-injurious behaviours, are experiencing suicidal ideations, or have attempted suicide. When working with these adolescents and young adults, I hear accounts of hurt, pain, hopelessness, fear, and devastation. I gain metaphorical pictures of blackness, bottomless pits, isolation, and fiery disasters. These tend to be the words, pictures, and descriptions my clients have provided. While I sit there with them in their pain and despair, listening to their stories, there is something else I hear beyond the reality of their experience. With each person I have counselled and had the honour of listening to, there is a story of strength, resilience, hope, and courage. Typically these are not the words my clients would use to describe it, but this is what I hear.
I realise now that I have been privileged to work with some of the most courageous individuals—individuals who must fight to survive another day, to see even a glimmer of their dreams. Individuals who battle to find someone to listen, to understand, to care, even when he or she struggle to communicate or reach out for support. These brave warriors are often isolated by family members or bullied by peers who say cruel and horrible things. They are usually survivors of abuse or trauma, waging their own internal wars. They may not feel courageous or resilient at times (or even most of the time); they tend to feel beaten down, ignored, and alone. But I am in awe of the strength each of these individuals possesses.
As a counsellor, I am in no way perfect; I do not always have the ability to fully help every client who comes to my office. (This is why I tell anyone I first meet to “shop around” and find a counsellor or professional who is a good fit.) But my goal as a mental health counsellor is solely to provide a safe space, to hear the fear and anguish someone has felt. In the process, I hope to reflect even a portion of the strength I see in them.
As you can tell, I’ve learned a lot from my clients. Here are just a few of the most important lessons:
- Just listen. Be an open ear, with an open heart, and hear their story. Hear what is being said verbally, but also what is not spoken, what might lie underneath or unshared.
- Create a safe space. The adolescents and young adults I work with are judged in multiple contexts of their lives or silenced in various arenas. Therefore, to have one space, even if only for a moment each week, where they are able to be themselves and not feel judged is a victory.
- Highlight the small successes. It is daunting for someone to see or imagine walking in the sunshine when they feel like they are alone in a bottomless pit. Helping individuals recognise how to take small steps, one foot at a time, feels more feasible than focusing on the final, overarching goal.
- Recognise our humanity. Be aware of the emotions, the experiences, the mistakes, and the triumphs. Hear, see, and acknowledge all of these things, as they are the essence of life, and they bind us together.