Why I Love Being a Rural Counselor

When I first moved here to the San Juan Islands, I was struggling with debilitating headaches accompanied by severe nausea. The sharp drops in barometric pressure that come with the weather on an island did not help matters any further. I wasn’t thinking about returning to counseling and had given up on that plan a long time ago. In fact, I wasn’t thinking about anything but surviving from one day to the next at the time. Faced with burnout from grad school, selling my house during the Great Recession, a surprise move to California, then burnout from homeschooling a child with a learning disorder while trying to keep her safe from gangsters in Southern California, I was exhausted and stressed out. I had absolutely no plans to go back into counseling, which had only brought me tears and heartache in grad school. However, God had other plans for me.

The headaches eased up just enough for me to be able to consider going back to work. I was still resistant to counseling, but decided to call the Washington Department of Health and they said I could be reinstated since all the rules had changed from long ago when anyone could hang up a sign and call themselves a counselor. I thought maybe enough time had passed to be able to try again, in a new location, where maybe things would be better than what I had experienced in grad school as an unpaid intern.

Working on an island was not easy. The only place to earn hours was a community mental health center which did little to help and did much to hurt our island community. I walked away from that place twice, and am still amazed that I survived to tell the tale. I often attribute my survival to the grace of God and a strong sense of ethics instilled in me by my Catholic education of long ago. I also found myself blacklisted by the social work community due to my Christian faith. When I quit my last job, it was in the middle of COVID pandemic, spring of 2020. I had become so severely sick that had I not quit, I most likely would have died. What had started out with a dust allergy from a coworker moving around furniture that probably hadn’t been moved in 20 years morphed into a cough which developed into severe asthmatic attacks and extreme bronchitis. By the end of it, I was coughing up blood and could barely breathe other than short, shallow breaths that caused great pain to my lungs. I tried to get tested for COVID in several places, but was denied testing due to my age. I could not receive regular medical treatment in person because it was the middle of the pandemic, and therefore could not receive testing to see what was wrong with my lungs, throat, etc. Three different virtual doctors told me that they didn’t believe it was COVID, but was in fact caused by workplace stress from the toxic work conditions I was in. I had seen so many ethical abuses in my workplace, tried my best to address them, only to be harassed by my coworkers and boss, who became increasingly more abusive towards me. So I walked away, believing that my career was most likely over with nowhere to gain hours for licensure and not even knowing if I would be alive within the next few days or months.

It took me a few months to recover. I saw a counselor who gave me permission to cry it out. Tears were the best medicine, and that’s how I really began to heal. The headaches, which had become a daily problem at my last workplace continued.

At this point, I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I didn’t have to work since my husband was already employed. However, I knew that I only had so many times I could renew my associate license before I would lose the possibility of ever becoming fully licensed in my state. A friend recommended I apply to a place. I heard back right away and began contract work with them. I worked out of my house in a spare office, providing telehealth to mainlanders. This was in the middle of one of the most severe lockdowns our state has ever experienced, a very contentious presidential election, and race riots. I saw and heard it all. People were suffering greatly, and it was almost impossible to find a counselor, since we were all going through one of the greatest mental health crises the state of Washington has ever known. I was really glad at the time to be able to help out and often felt like a medic on a battle field, sometimes just doing triage to see who needed help the most and attending to as many people as I possibly could. My clients came from all political parties, social classes, races, religions, etc. I love working with diversity, especially at a time where there was so much division. At the end of my contract with the mainland agency, I said goodbye as I was now fully licensed and confident that I could practice on my own.

To this day, it is still hard to earn the trust of locals, but I have been honored by the clients who take that first brave step to seek help. Despite being blacklisted by the social work community for my religion, I have found that there are many local clients who truly respect diversity and enjoy working with me. I am open about my background and that allows clients to feel comfortable talking about their own life history and values. I do work with many people from the mainland as well via telehealth and I enjoy hearing about mainland life and stories as well.

I really enjoy the long-term aspects of rural counseling. I get to see not just individuals, but also families. I see children, adolescents, and adults. I get to see the complete picture of what is going on with an individual by also getting to know their family. I know that when I help an individual, I build up the family, and in turn, the community. I get to see the long-term benefits of counseling in a way that most mainland counselors never get to see. It always makes me happy when a former client stops me somewhere and thanks me for all the ways I helped him or her. Or sometimes I see a client doing something that used to be difficult, but is now easy now that they have overcome their anxiety. Most mainland counselors don’t get to see the after story.

I don’t really mind bumping into clients at the grocery store, at church, school, sports games, at local events, on the ferry, and sometimes even out on the trail. Sometimes I see them at baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, and other important events of their lives. Clients get to see me for who I really am and I strive to be authentic with them. They know that I am a parent, a fellow Christian, and just another islander with hopes and dreams like anyone else. I get to donate to local causes and I have a soft-heart for lemonade stands and other entrepreneurial adventures of local kids, because it reminds me of my own early attempts at entrepreneurship.

The headaches have since disappeared from my life, and are replaced by a newfound peace in the small moments of rural life. I experience a lot less stress as a rural counselor. My office is within walking distance of my condo. I can take my time and the commute is minimal. Here on the island, there is no need to rush. If a client cancels, it means I have more time to take a walk, chat with someone, or grab a cup of tea. If I have to take a little longer to talk to a parent about a child, that’s okay because no one is in a rush here.

Self-care is a lot easier to do on island, because obligations are minimal. I take walks at local parks and all my stress and emotions melt away into the beauty of nature. I take time to chat with friends and neighbors wherever I am. On weekends, I go jogging or hiking. A hot bath after a long day at work does wonders. So does time with my husband and daughter. Or going out for a coffee with a friend.

I chose the motto “Siempre Adelante” for my business because it represents what I have had to do in order to survive a tough, rural experience here. I have managed to move forward in spite of health problems, illness, bigotry, and a harsh work environment. I hope that I can inspire my clients to move forward with whatever challenges they might be facing at the time. And maybe somewhere along the way, I might find that ranch that I call home.