Since deciding on a career of mental health counseling, I have been thinking on a specific segment of the population in which to focus. When I initially entered the educational phase, I was still active duty in the U.S. Navy. What I witnessed at the time was that my fellow service members returning from combat duty were in serious need of mental health services. I was determined to focus my career on working with Veterans.
When I retired from active duty, I treated myself to a hike along the Appalachian Trail as a self-gift – a reward to myself for actually making it twenty years (without getting into trouble, a MAJOR accomplishment considering my misspent youth). Since my wife agreed and was fully supportive of my hiking plans, then I also consider this a retirement gift from her. While hiking, I met up with several Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans who recently returned from combat and decided to depart the service at the end of their service contract rather than re-enlist. Listening to their stories and spending great amounts of time with these young men reinforced my desire to work specifically with Veterans.
And then a funny thing happened. The more I talked about working with Veterans; the more research I did on working with Veterans; and the visits I made to Vet Centers in my local area revealed something startling to me: I have within me, the potential for a great deal of countertransference with a Veteran client.
While I think it is a sign of my training that at this early stage in my career I am able to detect countertransference, it is also sends alarm bells ringing. How can I be an effective counselor with a Veteran when the issues discussed in session are my own? Short answer, I can’t.
Luckily I am at an age where I know myself pretty well. I know my strengths and also have the ability to acknowledge my weaknesses, rather than ignore them. In general, I have a pretty good idea of what my level of competence is. With this in mind, I think there are other areas of the population I can work with and be effective and feel fulfilled.
The problem was telling some of my extended family members about my change in focus. The disappointment on their faces was evident. “So you won’t be working with Veterans?” they queried in a disapproving tone. They may not understand my reasoning, but I do and fortunately so does my wife so I have a system of support.
Now that my decision on that matter has been made, I find I can look more objectively at the situation. Part of my desire was my environmental surroundings. By the time I determined I wanted to pursue counseling as a second career, I had already served 15 years of active duty. That’s fifteen years of environmental influence before I even started. Considering about half of my life was spent serving in the military, it is no wonder this population was so attractive. I already had a good idea of what to expect. I was familiar with the terminology, the strain of deployments on families, and legal troubles encountered. It was a safe and comfortable choice.
Veteran’s issues are still very important to me and will continue to be. Even though at this time in my life I have decided not to pursue working solely with Veterans, their issues remain and social justice on behalf of Veterans will continue to be a cornerstone of my advocacy activities. In time I will more than likely seek my own counselor to discuss my issues with – an important part of a self-care regimen. Afterward, I will revisit this decision in order to leave open the possibility of future work.