As an artist, making paintings as gifts is one of the most genuine methods to express my gratitude/love/appreciation. Since graduation is fast approaching, I find myself planning the pieces I will make for the people who have influenced me most.
I am filled with gratitude when I think of my academic advisor/mentor, the chair of my department, my professors, my current supervisors, my clients (especially my clients, who I have deeply admired for trusting me enough to be vulnerable and guide me through their darkest rooms, their secret struggles; who have had the bravery to step forward, heal, and grow), the behavioral aids, my student peers, and all of the wonderful human beings who have helped me develop into the counselor I am today.
This piece is for my supervisor, Theresa, who has guided me through my internship at South Central Alabama Mental Health. She has taught me the realities of the counseling profession (I will never forget my first day, when she insisted I immediately forget anything I had ever read in school because I’d never use it), eased me into working with clients who suffer from severe mental illness (helped me through my own moments of defeat; witnessed my tears when I thought I had made irreparable damage), enlightened me to parts of myself that keep me back (“You remind me of myself when I was new. You are too hard on yourself.”), while empowering me to push forward (trusting me to hold down the clinic while she is not there; trusting me to handle multiple crises on my own; and trusting me with challenging tasks she believed I could figure out without her). She has remained patient when I make mistakes (and I have learned not to take her snappy tone too seriously). She has never lost faith in my ability to succeed (and she has never once turned down the opportunity to write me letters of recommendation for PhD applications).
The other day, I told Theresa I would make her a drawing/painting as a goodbye present. I asked her what she would like it to be. Theresa hardly missed a beat: “A frog! The colorful kind…” I asked, “Like a poison frog? The kind you find in Costa Rica?” She said “Yes.” I couldn’t help but think “How strange that she would want a poison frog. I never would imagine a poison frog to match a person who helps others heal for a living.”
So, I investigated my options and discovered this beautiful, granular poison arrow frog (Oophaga granulifera). It is native to Panama and Costa Rica, enjoying the last of the fast disappearing tropical lowland forests. Since they are located in a specific, small area that is heavily impacted by logging and expansion of human settlement, these colorful amphibians are declining. They have character, as the males incessantly call to ward off competition and establish territory. while refusing to leave their protective posts until all babies have hatched. Once they do, mama frogs come in to carefully pick up baby tadpoles and gently place them in pools of water that have, over the course of the rainy season, collected in tree hallows and leaf stems.
Poisonous? Absolutely. Yet, they don’t use their poison unless defending themselves against predators. This is, perhaps, the lesson symbolized in this painting for Theresa: When entering the therapeutic space, the counselor must have a frame of mind that lacks bias, judgment, and ego; while filled with the ability to love, appreciate, and travel alongside the mentally unstable. In this sense, the counselor must keep their own “poison” (personal troubles, selfish needs, personal ideas and beliefs) at bay.
Every day is a new journey and I am able to witness the incredible strength of my clients as they pull themselves through the chaotic, tumultuous illnesses of their minds. However, without the ability to know when and how to set boundaries, the improvements I see would not be possible. Healing starts with the helper-client relationship. A healthy relationship must have boundaries. Sometimes, when establishing boundaries one must use difficult words like “No,” “I won’t,” “I can’t,” “I would but…,” which can be hard to do when one truly cares. To tell a client “No” can be difficult for the new counselor, especially since the counselor’s heart may bleed so easily. Also, it is difficult to use these words with friends or family after a long, emotionally charged day when all I have energy to do is sit down and make a painting in the peace and quiet of my home.
The counselor must be a granular poison arrow frog, and this has been Theresa’s lesson: To protect clients, I must protect myself. I have to have poison to be good at my craft, yet I must also know when to use it. I never have to apologize for my mistakes. It is alright if others become angry at my decisions. I must have tough skin — poisonous and protective. I must keep my clients in their nest until they begin to hatch, constantly call to keep them protected, and carefully find healthy environments where they can continue to grow.
I want to thank you, Theresa, for being a granular poison arrow frog. I especially want to thank you for helping me become one too.