Friday, September 28, 2012

"Life is the only real counselor..." *

With a soft, southern drawl harking back to his Arkansas roots, Kevin Thompson’s voice invites you to sit back and be comfortable, open up, talk about yourself, and discuss the heavy things of life or laugh at the craziness of it all. That’s a good thing because Kevin is a counselor at the local mental health center. Getting people to open up can be a difficult thing when they are dealing with bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, or any number of other mental illnesses. But Kevin has a voice, and a knack, for letting people feel they can safely do just that. It also helps that Kevin knows quite a lot about what you are going through; he himself has bipolar disorder.

“I know the depths of the pits, the highest peaks of the tallest mountains, and everything in between.”

And indeed he does.

After leaving college in his early twenties (he freely admits to being there for “nothing but fun”), Kevin joined the Air Force as a firefighter. He was active duty for three years and twenty days. Before he left, however, he was hospitalized for what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Mania. Depression. It was all there and it came to a point where being inpatient was required.

It was not a positive experience.

“They didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” he says of the hospital staff. “They were babysitting me…thinking I was just faking for a medical discharge.”

He wasn’t faking, and he did get medically discharged.

That time spent in the hospital became his inspiration to become a counselor.
Armed with his experiences in the military’s psychiatric hospital and an understanding of what it was to be bipolar, he returned to school to pursue a degree in psychology.

In spite of dealing with his own illness, Kevin graduated with his Bachelor’s degree at 25 years of age and his Master’s at 27. During that time, he worked at the mental health clinic as a peer counselor. Now a licensed counselor, he has two peer counselors working under him. (A peer counselor is a person who has similar issues as the people he or she is helping and is successfully dealing with them.) The program Kevin leads helps about twenty clients in various group and individual sessions.
When his clients find out that Kevin is “one of them”, their first reaction is often surprise.

“Oh, really?” they ask him. “Can you do that?”

He points to all the certificates and licenses on his wall and assures them that yes, he can do this.

Not that everyone thought he could. The vocational rehabilitation counselor at the VA hospital told him that he couldn’t become a counselor.

Kevin’s response to that was, “Are you sure about that?”

“I was going to do it whether or not he thought I could,” Kevin says emphatically.
And he is doing it.

That isn’t to say it’s easy all the time. “I feel less effective when my meds wear off in the morning,” he admits. “I still do (all my work); it’s just harder.”

Still, one of the best things about his job, he says, is when the clients look at him and say, “You know what you’re talking about.”

Asked about his motto for his counseling career or his life with bipolar, Kevin is quick to answer: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He quotes not Freud or Jung, but Saint Paul.

He has Christ, and he has his family. Kevin’s biggest fan club is comprised of three matriarchs in his family: “Momma, Memaw, and Auntie.” Asked how they encourage him, he says with a childlike grin, “They tell me how wonderful I am.” His father, too, is a big supporter. When Kevin took home pamphlets on bipolar disorder, his father not only read them, but took them to work to share with others. His bipolar is not a secret or a shame in his family. Kevin is just Kevin.

In spite of all the difficulties having bipolar can bring, Kevin still counts it a blessing in his life, especially as it pertains to his counseling.

“It’s helped me understand the extremes of human emotion,” he says, “and to be able to talk people away from the edge.”

* Edith Wharton

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