As a counsellor with a disability, the sessions I take heal me

A person with a bindi on their forehead and a sheet of paper and laptop in front of them sits at a table. They are looking at the person beside them, who sits on a wheelchair and wears their black hair in a plait. A vase of red flowers is on the table between them and the walls are painted lavender.

How could I tell them to express their sexuality without uneasiness when I myself was conscious about my body image? How could I assure them of accessibility and inclusion when I myself was the victim of the same system?

In my late twenties and early thirties, I began to feel a certain kind of void. There were many times when I wanted to talk about my psychological and emotional issues. I needed someone who was willing to receive me unconditionally – someone who was ready to accept and respect my feelings and emotions without any judgement or evaluation. Unfortunately I could not find anyone like this.

Though my parents had been quite supportive throughout my life, I needed something more. I live with a physical disability, and this life has its own challenges. I have experienced loneliness, isolation, unwelcome advice, cold and curious stares, extra doses of sympathy and the preconceived notions that abled people have about me. Many times, it becomes difficult to cope with the weight of all of these issues.

My need for support and psychological counselling drove me to get a professional degree on the subject. And I learned a lot – I understood many things, and I even successfully applied this knowledge on myself.

As I finished the degree I realised that there were so many people with disabilities who needed support. And this led to my decision to offer counselling services, both online and offline, to people with disabilities.

When people started approaching me for support and guidance, I was very glad.

It’s not that my clients can’t find a counsellor. But I believe that it is because I am a counsellor with a disability that my clients who also live with disabilities have found the confidence to connect with me. I have been and continue to be a witness to people’s formulations – both positive and negative – about themselves, their experiences and how these have impacted their lives.

From career guidance to dating advice, from concerns about sexuality and body image to anxiety and depression, they often try to reach out to me when they do not know how to proceed as they confront these diverse issues in their lives.

There is no denying the fact that we all exist in a culture that disenfranchises persons with disabilities. As far as I know, most people with disabilities don’t have enough self-advocacy skills that could really help us. We are left all alone to figure out how to make the best of our struggles and to develop the expertise to move past them. This is the space from where the need arises for someone who could form a caring connection with us and empower us in certain ways.

My position as a counsellor and a person with a disability gives me the ability to understand my clients’ situations. I know that a large number of them are not given exposure, training or information about the barriers that they have to face.

The counsellor is expected to be trustworthy and provide a safe space. I have done my utmost to ensure that my clients easily connect with me and feel able to pour their hearts out to me without any hesitation or apprehension.

I believe that my being a counselling psychologist and also being able talk openly about my own disability has given my clients a positive role model for setting up attainable goals for themselves.

Though theory and techniques are important, an authentic human connection, which goes way beyond these, can work wonders. The slogan ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ seems quite relevant here too!

Before sessions, I practice deep breathing and visualisation techniques that help me feel prepared to be with my clients, to empathise with them while they’re there with me. I don’t allow the emotional experiences to cling to me and perplex me. All this makes offering therapy much healthier for me, which in turn makes me a better counsellor.

But this is not a one way process – the impact of these sessions on my own life has been considerable. It has not only been educational, but has proved therapeutic for me to have this experience. If my clients have received support from me, I too have learned so much from them – about everything from coping with painful emotions to building healthy relationships. Even in-session, sometimes they give me cues on how to best conduct the process. I think they feel good when I’m able to put all my theoretical knowledge aside, pay attention to how they actually feel, and just be with them in their sadness and pain. And as a result, I have started growing, not only as a therapist, but as a human being.

Description: In the centre of the image, a person, painted in black, sits with their legs folded and arms wrapped around them. White lines radiate around the figure and the background is yellow-green.

Credit: jen collins via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Honestly speaking, in the initial years I used to have mixed feelings about my own ability to connect with my clients. What if the similarities of our experiences would prove to be too overwhelming? Things were difficult. My clients had hope, expectations and trust in me. I could feel their suffering, and I knew how very human I was and possibly how little I could offer.

How could I tell them to express their sexuality without uneasiness when I myself was conscious about my body image? How could I assure them of accessibility and inclusion when I myself was the victim of the same system? I was helpless before age-old societal perceptions related to disability and the systemic challenges facing us.

But with the passing of time, each session provided me with an opportunity to view life, the world and the human experience from somebody else’s eyes. Often my clients were deeply wounded, and had been rejected by parents, siblings, or spouses, yet they showed open-heartedness in their willingness to forgive. They wanted to be loved and accepted. Their resilience, humanity and courage helped me to handle my own emotional grievances with rationality, and to move towards love and forgiveness.

By following the tips and tools that I give them, they have taught me that with sheer will and determination, we can bounce back from destructive disappointment to liveliness.

Listening to them, I have realised it takes great courage and strength to ask for help. That it is OK to be vulnerable. That is it only the brave who are capable of honesty and open to self-discovery.

Before getting into this profession I used to have many unknown fears about my future, my relationships and my career. My counselling sessions gave me an opportunity to introspect on my hidden fears. I saw that fear paralyses people and makes them believe they don’t deserve love and joy.  The most significant thing that I witnessed as a counsellor is seeing the evidence that fear can be conquered and joy can be experienced if someone is willing to re-wire negative thought processes.

I am now convinced about the power of optimism, kindness and support. When people coming out of great emotional pain tell me that they are feeling better and more confident, the beauty of the human spirit uplifts me and tells me that everything is not lost.  When I find them ready to become torch bearers, willing to reach out others in similar situations, I gain more confidence myself.

No one can doubt the pain and suffering that my clients have undergone. It is difficult for anyone to face so much heartbreak and have hope at the same time. But these are the people who are still able to laugh and go on with the routines of daily life. They have suffered longer than anyone would deem tolerable and still I have seen them with the energy and courage to face another day. All this definitely puts the hurdles in my life in perspective and gives me the right direction for the work I do.

I’ve learned that when patterns of thinking are reshaped, the whole world opens up. This offers endless possibilities for joy and happiness.

Thanks to my clients, I can say with certainty that human beings are amazing and that there is always much to be grateful for.

Abha Khetarpal is a writer, counsellor, teacher, social worker, motivational speaker and activist. She is a National Awardee, one of the 100 Women Achievers in India, and has been honoured with a Woman of Substance Award. Being a woman with disability, her major focus remains on women with disabilities, for whom she has authored manuals on health and hygiene.


Featured image credit: Alia Sinha