The wounded healer interview series features people who’ve dealt with significant mental health challenges, and who also work in a helping role to support the mental health of others.
This interview is with Kacha of Food.for.Thoughts.
Wounded Healer, Who Is Looking in the Mirror
Tell us a bit about you, the helping field you’re in (or started off in), and the mental health challenges you’ve faced.
I started studying psychology because I wanted to know more about people, especially families and how they operate. I enjoy listening to people’s stories and because of that passion I almost became a director but changed my mind. After graduating I wanted to work in psychiatry, which I did for 13 years both as a psychologist and as a nurse’s aide (?). I’ve worked on several different wards going from the acute ones to the chronic field. I worked in rehabilitation as in the long-stay facilities. I have also experience in the field of addiction and worked on the mother-baby unit. I’ve always worked with all different mental health diagnoses where psychosis and people with limited mental capacities were my favorites. (I know that it may be bad to admit that I have a favorite ‘diagnosis’ to work with but I tell it like it is). I enjoyed working with elderly people a lot too, they are just so fun and they have many stories to tell.
My own journey started very early on as I was a ‘surprise’ to my parents who didn’t stay together from my birth on. Not knowing my father and a change of country when I was 7, made me lose contact with the rest of my family due to political reasons. I ended up with my mum in a strange country. My mom and I weren’t friends, we just didn’t get along. I was raised very strict and endured some abuse. Because of the loneliness there was no one to put an end to it. I’ve struggled for a long time and when I was 16 this became very apparent. First hesitantly diagnosed with depression, I resisted. I overcame difficult times with slumbering depression during my 20ties. Suicidal ideation was never far away. Anxiety grew due to the suffocation of my mom and I couldn’t take it anymore. I was 24 and wanted to die. I cut off contact and went to therapy. 15 years later, while working in psychiatry, I crashed due to burnout. The burnout became a depression and I started my blog. I’m still recovering and putting the puzzle together.
Did being a helping professional influence your ability to recognize your own mental health condition as it was developing?
Looking back I think I could recognize some of the struggles people went through in a more open way as compared to my colleagues. I was always an empath, so first I thought it was that part of me that was leaning in. I did recognize some lifestyle changes in people struggling with mental illness. I understood very well that people needed to rest for example and that ‘getting up and taking a shower’ could be a real difficult step. My colleagues told me that I could really ‘feel’ and ‘understand’ the troubles people went through. I didn’t see my own condition clear at the time but a lot of things did resonate with me. I guess I know a bigger part of the ‘why’ now.
The thing that I loved the most about my job is meeting brave people. People who are able to live a fun life despite all the struggles they face. They still get up in the morning (or at noon) and they manage their lives. You just need to have a deep look sometimes to notice that. I’ve met some of the bravest people I know and they are an example to me to this day. I guess this sets me apart from my colleagues and was my driving motivation, to help the clients and myself to keep that good deep look into life with all its hurdles, chances, troubles and opportunities.
In short, for me it was the other way around, my mental struggles opened my view into the world of others. Being too focused on the job made it easier to tuck my own struggles away.
Did being a helping professional impact your willingness to reach out for help, or the timing of accessing help?
Because I was familiar with the mental health field I was not in some sort of opposition. Once I accepted the initial diagnosis of burnout I went to a psychologist which didn’t help me that much. Eight months later I was referred to a psychiatrist for insurance reasons. People in my life weren’t keen on the idea but I was. I’ve worked with great pleasure with psychiatrists and I wanted to see one from another perspective. I was scared though that I wouldn’t be ‘ill’ enough, I was relieved to see ‘relapse in depression’ on the insurance form. I’ve been to four therapists in total, of which one was dreadful, one was ‘meh’ and two are good ones for me. Knowing what therapy is all about made my choice easier. I knew what kind of therapy I needed and it made me also pose some questions to my psychiatrist. I think I can analyze my process a bit easier and I’m not that easily fooled by woo-woo therapies that promise you a rose garden. But when ill, you can be the smartest person with a whole lot of experience, it will be difficult to explain your condition and to question the treatment you’re getting. Sometimes there is just not enough mental space to navigate yourself through that process and to keep an eye out on the professional. As an example I can tell that the differential diagnosis between burnout and depression was made based upon one question. (‘Do you feel better in the morning or is there no difference during the day?) I was hopeful and answered ‘yes, I do feel better in the morning’ but now I would say that there are different forms of depression, and that they all vary.
If you returned to work after becoming mentally unwell, what was that transition like? And if you were unable to return to work, what was it like to wrap your head around that?
It gave me heartache but reality was there. For now I can’t work in such a stressful environment. I needed to visit work quite a bit before they let me go. Every time I saw the building I felt in my gut that it wasn’t the place for me anymore. I do have my core values and I can’t work there and be truthful to myself. The signals of my mind and body are way stronger than my wanting, so there is no question that I can go back. It would cost me too much.
When that realization came I did grief for a while. I miss the patients and I think about them. I plan to visit one day and I still write with one lady.
Has your training or experience in your helping field changed how you approach your own illness or mental health challenges?
Yes, both my studies as a psychologist and my experience did help me to understand what is happening to me. I write this all down in my blog, as I discover new things every day. I learned about the depressed brain, neurotransmitters and the cognitive approach to depression. I read and explore whatever I can get my hands on. In my experience I have seen people with mental health struggles living a very successful life and that gives me a lot of courage not to give up.
What advice would you give to someone who was working in your current/former field and started noticing signs of mental illness in themselves?
Take care of yourself. Seek help when you need it and maybe even a little bit sooner. Choose yourself first. Nothing is more important than your own wellbeing and happiness. You will be able to help people either way, that will work itself out. When something is not good for you, let it go. The words ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ are very true.
Visit Kacha on her blog Food.for.Thoughts.