End of an Era

Jills compact

Jill’s compact on top of the gift box

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ve been in some form of counseling since June 2009. Since it was summer and I was not enrolled in classes, I was not eligible to use UNF’s (University of North Florida’s) counseling center. I was referred to the Women’s Center of Jacksonville (WCJ). Fortunately I was considered to be low income, and I was able to receive counseling services for free. There I was introduced to my counselor, Pat Moore, who now has a private practice (Mandarin Cove Counseling). Between WCJ and UNF (where she also provided counseling services) I saw Pat almost every week from June 2009 through July 2010. Leaving her care when I moved to Tampa was bittersweet, but before I left she recommended I try group counseling. I attended a few sessions at UNF, but it was a bit unorganized and there were very few members.

Upon arriving in Tampa and at USF, I continued taking her advice about group counseling. I filled out some paperwork online to apply to attend a women’s counseling group. I didn’t hear back for quite some time. Finally I heard back from Dr. Jill Langer. She was interested in having me join the women’s group, and we scheduled an appointment to meet. During that meeting I learned the general rules of the group: no outside fraternization and confidentiality even though it wasn’t legally imposed upon group members.

I remember getting a little peeved, because I didn’t hear back very quickly after that meeting. It was a few weeks before I received another call inviting me to join the group. I experienced my first group meeting on October 26, 2010. From my journal, I was optimistic about my future group experiences:

“I had my first group counseling session @ USF today. It’s much bigger than the one at UNF. Everyone seems nice though, and I think it will be a good experience.”

Such simple words considering how much Group has come to mean to me. Almost every Tuesday from 3:00-4:30 since October 26, 2010, I’ve attended Group. And almost every time I’ve been there, Jill has been there as a Group facilitator. (The almosts are accommodating for illness, traveling, etc…)

Group counseling is interesting. The group members act almost as much as counselors as the facilitators do. Members bring forth issues in which they’d like support, empathy, challenge, etc… and then the other members contribute their experiences, emotions, and thoughts. The facilitators, Jill and a doctoral intern who changes each year, well … honestly, I find it hard to put into words what they do. Certainly they help members go deeper into issues, and that’s probably the main role that has made me value Jill as much as I do.

For example, about nine months after I started group I had a really intense Group experience. I don’t remember what the other group member said that started things, but I replied with “That’s life.” Jill asked me to say what I was feeling that caused me to say that. I didn’t know. I just said it. Not to be callous, but just because sometimes things are hard. I didn’t have a good answer, and I felt very judged by Jill. I was already battling feeling I was saying the wrong thing. I wanted to be able to express my emotions about things more clearly, but on this certain day it seemed like everything I said was the wrong thing.

As the group session progressed, I became more and more frustrated. (I don’t really remember the content of the session, just the feeling.) I was angry and feeling judged. Finally I asked that we talk about something else, but everyone kept talking about the issue at hand. I ultimately stopped talking. I stubbornly sat there with my arms crossed in front of me, crying, for nearly 45 minutes while Group continued on around me. The group members talked about how they’ve felt frustrated in group too, and how they’ve wanted to just shut down. I fought the intense urge to walk out the door halfway through. All I wanted them to do was to respect my wishes and talk about anything else!

I stuck it out. I didn’t leave, and I made it to check-out (the last 15 minutes of Group where everyone talks about their impressions of that session). During check-out I expressed my anger and frustration, and that I didn’t feel good about that session. I told everyone that I had wanted to walk out the door during group. I left in tears. I was surprised to receive a call from Jill that Wednesday or Thursday. We set up an appointment to meet on Friday.

I’m tearing up writing about this. The intensity of that group session doesn’t phase me so much, but remembering that Jill called to check on me does. She wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just going to drop out of group. I was incredibly upset that Tuesday, and she wanted to make sure I was Ok. I can’t remember too many times or too many people who had done that previously in my life. Normally my “bad behavior” (e.g. temper, anger) was either punished, or after I had an outburst everyone just moved on with their lives… That someone not only cared enough to check in with me, but also validated my feelings during that group was incredibly important.

By Friday I’d had a chance to figure some things out. I was able to express them more productively, and she also expressed some things to me that I was better able to understand. She recommended that I watch Brené Brown’s TED talk on the topic of vulnerability. I did (and I highly recommend it to everyone), and I embraced it. I showed up to Group the next Tuesday, and I was better able to explain what had been going on for me the previous group…

I look back, and I know that event was a turning point for me living and communicating healthier. It felt absolutely terrible at the time. I felt Jill was insinuating that every word coming out of my mouth was the wrong one. She wasn’t. She was challenging me to assess what I was feeling. For years I had been a big ball of anger, resentment, and hurt. Prior to starting counseling, I hadn’t really thought about why I felt that way. Every now and again I would have an angry outburst, all would be quiet and seemingly happy for awhile, and then it would happen again. Except I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t have told anyone why.

Jill, and Group, helped me to develop a vocabulary that would allow me to express my frustrations in a productive way. When I would get stuck in Group, Jill would lead me and help me go deeper into whatever it was I was working on. Sometimes it would take time to get there, and those moments would feel incredibly awkward and sometimes painful. Even when that would happen, Jill would ultimately lead me and the Group back to a place that felt safe and supporting.

Though all members of the group are important, Jill has been the tie that binds. Members come and go, and some leave more of an impression than others. There is no doubt that Jill has left a big impression on my women’s group.

You see, today is her last Group at USF. Those who remain are all going to miss her terribly. We have a new facilitator, and the co-facilitator will persist, so group will go on. But Jill has been running this group for 10-years, and her presence will be missed so much.

When I grieve I also need to create. Early in my Group experience, one of the other members had an idea about a multi-media art project. This project would have mirrors that would represent how we reflect the things the other members don’t see. Some members come to group thinking they are weak, yet the Group tells them of the strength we see. Some group members come thinking they are ugly, yet the Group tells them of the beauty we see. Etc…

I’ve had that project in the back of my mind since 2011, and with Jill leaving it sprang to the front of my mind. While my interpretation of the project is likely vastly different from the person who first thought of it, I made a compact. The center heart is a bead I found on the ground a long time ago and kept for no obvious reason. It seemed the perfect thing for this project. I used Crystal Clay and an assortment of rhinestones I got on Etsy. I guess the symbolism may be obvious, but each rhinestone or sparkle represents someone Jill helped to see their own strength and beauty. Jill is the heart that group members have gravitated around for these past 10-years. When she opens the compact, she’ll see her beautiful face reflecting back at her.

I like this project, not only for what the various components of the piece represent but also the bigger picture. There is a connection between group members. Though the member who originally had the idea left in 2011, her wisdom and idea stuck with me. I get to pass it on in a physical form to Jill, who will be reminded all of the connections she has helped forge in her 10-years as Group facilitator.

I will miss her dearly, but I wish her well in her next great adventure in private practice.

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