With the holiday season in full force, I have found myself engaged in a seemingly endless stream of cocktail-party-conversations on repeat lately. Still relatively new to town, acquaintances ask the predictable list of getting-to-know-you questions, inevitably leading to them asking what I do for a living. With unfailing certainty, the response is always the same, “How do you do that every day without ‘bringing it home’ at night? How do you hear those stories and not just feel horrible all the time?”
To be sure, sometimes I do bring it home. Sometimes I leave work and cry and feel horrible and reel in existential questioning as I drive home and lay awake at night.
But the truth is that on the overwhelming majority of days I do not.
Most days, I leave work feeling empowered, impassioned, and deeply grateful. As a psychologist, I am given the daily gift of people’s trust. I have the privilege of walking alongside brave, beautiful souls as they transform their own narratives from places of challenge to outcomes of success through journeys of hard-earned victories.
I think that most well-intentioned people who ask me that same question time and again are at a distinct disadvantage. When they think about what I do, all they imagine are the worst moments of an individual’s experience. Their understanding of my work stops at what for me is truly the beginning. Their thinking about my work says, “These girls have had horrible experiences.” Full stop. And the reality is that most of the girls and women with whom I work have indeed experienced significant trauma, grief, and loss. But to the layperson, imagining my work, those stories are the girls. Those stories are the entirety of their imagined experience of these girls and women. And that is simply untrue.
The beauty of my work as a therapist is that the impossibly hard stories of experiences no girl or woman should ever endure represent the catalyst for change that I am privileged to observe. As a therapist, I get to see the strength, resilience, and upward rising of girls and women every day. Their lives are not defined by their past experiences. Their lives are daily testament to the very answer I struggle to articulate in casual holiday party conversations: No, I don’t feel horrible all the time. I feel hopeful all the time. I feel the strength of every girl or woman who has ever sat across from me, and it lifts me up to come back again every day.
So I guess, in a way, I do “bring it home with me.” I bring home the hope and strength and beauty and love and power of girls and women, because that is what I get to see every day.
With a heart of gratitude this holiday season, I enter into my New Year with a vow to continue bringing that home every night, and I sincerely thank the girls and young women who have blessed me with their gifts this year.
With all my heart,
Sarah W. Helms, Ph.D.
Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center