Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The University of Alberta has a herbarium that houses pressed specimens of over 800 plants that grow in Alberta. It also contains collections made by an untold number of scientists over the years. Tucked away as it is in the botany wing of the Bio Sciences Building, a building so perplexing in design as to render it barely navigable without compass and cell phone, I had neither heard of it nor noticed it. Now that I do know about it, the fact that we have a herbarium inspires me. I like to know we have it. I like to think of all the work that went into assembling it, the vision that created it, the painstaking detail of plant collection and identification. We need plant cataloguers in this world. Without their work, how would we know what we have, what we have gained, what we have lost?
I learned about the herbarium in a counselling session, happened upon it by chance while doing the work I so often do, trying to get depressed people to think of the world as a fascinating place full of possibilities. Like any other daily work, talking to depressed people gets tedious at times, tedious and repetitive. On the worst days it can be downright mind-numbing. People with depression expect to talk about bad things. That’s what they came for, isn’t it? And that’s what we counsellors get paid to deal with, isn’t it? The bad stuff, the rotten stuff, the tragic stuff, the garbage. What do people bring to counselling? They bring all the stuff they want to get rid of, the feelings they need to dump. It can be too much at times. There are days when my office gets too small to hold me plus all the nasty feelings people dump there.
Depression is a nasty thing. Not only does it take away the fun, but it also takes a lot of other desirable things. Get yourself a stiff bout of depression, keep it around for a few years and you’ll find that there’s no joy either, no satisfaction, no pleasure, no pride. The picture of the world loses its potential for wonder, for diversity, for detail, for the richness of perspective.
It’s an occupational hazard all counsellors have to face, the over-abundance of bad feelings, the scarcity of good ones. Various solutions are suggested in the literature, getting counselling yourself, keeping up your professional development, finding pleasure outside you work. We all find it helpful to take a break, to leave, to be somewhere else for a while, to hope that like unpleasant odours, some of the feelings will dissipate while you’re out of the room.
Self-serving as it may sound, I like to fight the negative feelings by doing everything I can to make sure that my work is fun. I sometimes wish we had more respect for fun. Oh, all of us like it. Most of us seek it. And yet, so often a little cloud seems to hang over it. Now that we’ve had our fun, let’s get on with the real work. Let’s get a consultant in to plan half a day of fun for the staff—if we can find the time between meetings. In a perfect world, the world I want to work in, work would start with fun, continue with fun. Nobody would ever say we had to get back to work because we were having too much fun. That is how I came to learn about the herbarium in a counselling session. The moment the word was mentioned, I could sense that I was about to have some fun.
Even for us fun-lovers it’s not easy to have fun working with people who are depressed. This is what depression does. It takes a picture of the world using a special lens that shows you the world with the fun filtered out. Stand beside depressed people, see the world through their eyes and there’s simply no fun there at all. If, like me, you are the kind of person who wants fun, you’ve got to find ways to have it, ways that make sense in the context of the work you are doing, ways that can be defended from a professional perspective. Paying attention to what the clients are saying is a simple strategy any professional can support. So when the word herbarium was mentioned, I was on it like a fly after honey.
I like the word herbarium. It has a rhythmic quality to it. It’s a little bit exotic. What’s more, it refers to plants, always a passion of mine. Once the word had been mentioned I couldn’t let it go. Here was a chance for discovery, for inspiration. Here was the possibility of having fun. If you show a high level of interest, a person who has worked in a herbarium can tell you many things, what it holds, how it works. Other counsellors might say it was time wasted, focus misappropriated, attention diverted from the real issues and presenting problems. Generous academics and experts in compassion fatigue might label it self-care. I call it fun, plain old fun.
Because depression is so troubling to all the parties it touches, we counsellors are ever on the look-out for effective ways to deal with its devastating effects. It’s a skill set we all need. Recognizing my need for fun alongside deficiencies of skill, I used to hope my sense of humour would help me find the fun in counselling depressed people. I tried to write a Master’s thesis on the topic. Years later I am aware that sense of humour has helped, and I am also somewhat surprised to see that curiosity and interest in the world have played an important role in supporting my mental well-being, maybe even more important than sense of humour. Sense of humour has its limits. Curiosity, so far as I can tell, has none. Powered by abiding interest and a desire to learn, you can take counselling to places you never expected it to go. You can enter the daily lives of your clients, visit the places they visit. Though they may be suspicious and reticent when you begin, they sense your genuine interest. They too become interested, interested in things that seemed humdrum and tedious only moments ago, insignificant through the filter of depression. Before they know it they have become your tour guides, showing you their world, answering your questions, elucidating points of special significance. Depression has a hard time standing up in the face of such activity. Temporarily derailed, it gives over to fun, to inspiration, fun and inspiration shared by both parties.
From an insider’s perspective, depression makes the world seem dull. From a counsellor’s perspective on a weary day, depressions tend to look the same. If you’ve seen a thousand of them, it’s hard to distinguish one from another. Today I look around my office, this emotional dumping ground, this crowded space where so much sadness, anger and disappointment has been shed. How much of the grim story detail do I remember? Mercifully, not much. The detail has dissipated into the air.
What I do recall in greater detail are the new learnings. Engaging and captivating, they stand out clear, bold and inspiring. Not only are they a support to my mental health, my discoveries have done double duty. They have made a contribution to the emotional well-being of others. Somewhere in Bio Sci there’s a herbarium. It’s been there for a while, but I just discovered it. Now that’s something to celebrate!

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