I Was Stuck in the Past. Counseling Couldn’t Help Me.

by Elizabeth

Re-entry is messy. So messy, in fact, that much of what transpired in my life in the last year did not end up here on the blog. I was in emotional and situational chaos, and I had absolutely zero mental margin to publish – or even process – what was happening to me.

I think that’s as it should be. Not every difficult thing that happened in Cambodia was meant for public consumption either. And I’m not sure the value of platforming topics when they’re as raw as they were this last year and a half.

But I can tell you that in the middle of this mess of mine, I was meeting with a counselor. I’ve been raving about the benefits of counseling ever since 2006 when I first met with a Christian counselor. Over the years I’ve met with counselors off and on, whenever issues in my life popped up and kept me from functioning (the most recent being in early 2019 when my life was so rudely interrupted by anxiety and OCD). So, over the past year during our tumultuous repatriation, I thought I was doing the right thing by talking to a counselor.

Except I wasn’t getting anywhere.

On some level, I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere. Processing the past wasn’t helping me to accept my present circumstances the way it had helped me before, and it wasn’t helping me to move forward in life either. It seemed like nothing was helping. But the only construct I had for getting better (or “bettering,” as my friend Amy Young likes to call it) was Christian counseling, so I kept at it.

In February, fueled by a historic midwestern snow and ice storm, my spirits hit an all-time low. I knew I needed more help than I was currently getting, so I reached out to someone for debriefing. She’d been highly recommended to me by others. Meeting with her was helpful, and after a few sessions, I thought I was stable enough to make it to our formal week-long debrief in August.

I was much more forward-facing by that time, and even my debriefer noticed it. I still had questions about how in the world I was going to thrive in America, but she assured me that the week-long debriefing would help me move forward – and that if I still needed help figuring out the future after the big debrief, I should come and see her again. (I’ve been told that one of the purposes of “debriefing” is to move the past into the past so that you can walk forward into the future.)

Soon after I debriefed with her, my agency suggested Christian coaching as a way to get “unstuck” and move forward in life. It sounded intriguing. I’d never done coaching before, and in fact, I’d never been drawn to the idea. I’d always figured that when my emotions were a mess, I needed a treatment that addressed the emotions. But since counseling wasn’t currently working, I thought I could at least try the coaching.

I’m glad I did. Coaching is the reason I started writing again (I have several more blog posts in the works). It’s the reason I finally created a webpage for my freelance editing. It’s the reason I started working on a few other background projects. It’s the reason I started dreaming about the future again and the reason I’m living in the present instead of the past. I just didn’t have enough motivation for any of these things before coaching.

During the sessions my coach asks a lot of targeted questions, and I really have to think through my problems and the possible solutions to those problems. It’s hard work, and it’s practical (though come to think of it, the last time I sought counseling in Cambodia, my sessions were highly practical, immediately applicable, and pulled me out of my head, where I’d been stuck for the previous six months).

It’s also comforting not to have to figure out the past, at least for now. Perhaps I was trying too hard to process my past. Perhaps I needed to stop looking in the rearview mirror. Perhaps I needed to, along with Paul, forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a huge proponent of counseling. It’s helped me so much in the past. It’s just that in my particular circumstances this year, I’m beginning to think I needed something else.

I’m not done with the coaching process, so I’m sure I have a lot more learning and growing to do. For instance, I’m still figuring out how to live in the tension of unsolved problems. I can, however, attest to its efficacy in moving me out of a very stuck place. I’m curious if any of you have ever been helped by either coaching or counseling — or some other avenue — and which life circumstances were particularly suited for the varying helping professions.