When it’s hard to find your heroes

Our final DPSN theme for the year, and November, is “heroes”.  A hero is someone who is noted for courageous acts or a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities or personal qualities.  We asked our bloggers to think about who their heros are – whether it’s someone they don’t know but think of as a role model, through to the personal heroes in their lives. We’d like to hear your thoughts too, so let us know in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page to join the conversation.

A few weeks ago I got asked to give a guest lecture on addiction to a psychology undergraduate class at the University of Auckland.  To be fair, I was asked to fill in for the person who usually gives the lecture, who couldn’t make it. But I still felt just a little bit chuffed to be asked at all, given that I’m still really early in my career.  And nervous of course, giving a lecture to 150 students is no walk in the park when you’re not the biggest fan of public speaking!

However,  I’ve done enough of it at this stage that my nerves tend to be mostly at a normal, manageable level.  You know, rather than debilitating, mind-wiping, forget-everything-I-know-about-the-topic anxiety.

So I showed up and gave the lecture.  Speaking a little too fast because of my nerves.  But I got great feedback, and the class seemed really excited to hear from a psychologist who is still new-ish to what they do.  I even had a few people asking me questions about my role and further study afterwards.

I felt like this was a small milestone for me.  I’ve been working now, as a psychologist specialising in addictions, for the past five years.  But ten years ago my life looked really different.

I struggled with depression in my early 20s, off and on for about five years all up.  Depression can be about a lot of different things for a lot of different people. For me a big part of it was not knowing myself, or what I wanted to do with my life.   

The truth is, I had always wanted to study psychology.  I remember talking about it in high school. But I went to university to study science, because I got good grades in my science classes and was told that it was a good thing to study with lots of jobs available.  Then I found it really boring and dry, so I moved over to archaeology – which had the people component I craved to learn more about, but no sustainable employment available by the time I graduated (which happened to be in the middle of a recession).

In an effort to try and figure things out, I left New Zealand for a job teaching English in Japan.  Unfortunately, although travelling the country while I was there was amazing, I also ended up totally isolated, in a really horrible job situation, and more depressed than ever before.

After an awful lot of soul searching and talking to a really, really good psychologist at the New Zealand embassy over the phone, I decided to quit my job early and return to New Zealand to start studying psychology.

I had to start from scratch and take undergraduate papers part-time for two years.  Then I had to survive the clinical application process and interviews. After that, undertake an honours year, write a Master’s thesis, survive a year-long, full-time unpaid internship while sitting oral exams and working 20 hours a week to pay rent and bills.  Finally, I had to find a job as a new graduate (which seems to be super difficult, no matter what field you work in).

It was a total and complete marathon.  And you might be surprised to know, almost everyone in my life told me not to do it.  They had good reasons of course – it probably seemed like a huge risk at the time. For starters, I might not get into a clinical programme (they only take eight to ten people per year).  I might not enjoy, or be suited to the work. I had already trained in a completely different career, why go back to uni for another five years? My student debt was astronomical. Did I really want to spend all of my 20s studying instead of earning money or working on a career?

They were all good, rational reasons why I might not choose to go back to uni, but they were also things that were keeping me from doing the thing I really wanted to do, and ultimately contributing to keeping me depressed.

So I went back, not knowing if I would make it into a clinical psychology programme.  Not knowing if I would enjoy working as a therapist, or if I would be any good at it. Knowing I’d likely be saddled with debt for the rest of my working career.  Knowing how incredibly difficult it would be, and how hard it would be to balance work and study as an adult living independently.

And it was the best thing I ever did – both for my career and for my own mental health.  It not only led to a career and work that I love and find hugely meaningful, but ultimately it helped me to better understand myself and the way that I needed to live to feel more balanced in life.

So who are my heroes?  My heroes are the people who decide to do things, despite everyone else doubting them.  My heroes are the people who are not afraid to try, without knowing if they will succeed.  My heroes are every single person who has, is or ever will, experience mental health difficulties and keep going even when something as simple as getting out of bed is difficult.  My heroes are the people who do everything they can to help others, in whatever small way they can manage.

There are heroes around us, every single day, with seemingly ordinary stories that are in reality, exceptional.  We are all heroic in a way, so what kind of hero are you?

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