Susan is a former Women’s Center who graciously agreed to be interviewed in 2013 by occupational therapist and oral historian, Claudia Bennett, about her participation in our counseling and job coaching programs.
Ordinarily, given the confidential nature of our Integrated Counseling Services, we don’t give out client names, but Susan has given us permission to use her real first name as well as identifying details. You may meet Susan “in person” by watching this 53-second introduction to her Women’s Center experience.
Susan is a 40-something white Ann Arbor resident with a career as a business networking specialist. She describes The Women’s Center as “the Red Cross for women in the community.” Why? Because “I was in crisis. . .this was like I practically couldn’t function without these [counseling] sessions. And because “you may think you won’t need these services but you might. This could happen to anybody.”
Susan’s crisis began when her husband revealed that he had been having an affair and wanted a divorce. “It was like it was a giant collapse. He was also my business partner. We owned a business together, just the two of us. So in one day my whole life changed completely.”
At first she was in shock, numb and disbelieving. “About three or four months later I realized I really needed help because I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned on ever getting divorced. There was so much legally that I needed to know so I started seeking resources in the community to help me.”
Unlike many of our clients who begin with Personal Counseling before choosing other programs in our continuum of integrated support, Susan found her way to counseling through our Financial and Family Law Education Workshops — a women-only four-part series on the legal and financial aspects of ending a relationship. These eight hours of information and discussion are led by experienced financial advisors and attorney
Over the course of 9 months, Susan benefited from 33 hours of personal counseling, 12 hours of group instruction on finances and family law, and 7 hours of individualized Job Coaching.
Susan participated in a total of 12 hours of divorce information and support because, as she explains, “I took both tracks and I think I took Financial twice because there is so much information. And the women that lead the sessions say, ‘There is going to be so much information you’re not going to need it all at one time. You’re going to need it at different times. You’re going to feel overwhelmed.’ They make you feel comfortable.”
“The person who ran the legal workshop was intimate with not only divorce law but with Michigan divorce law and it was almost like having an attorney to start to make you aware of some of the issues in advanced of hiring the attorney. (I also ended up getting an attorney and started the whole legal process. The amazing thing is I actually found my attorney from the Women’s Center as well.)”
“They have a number of printed materials they pass out, and they talk to us about the legal aspects of the divorce. And knowing what things to anticipate when the process gets started. It put me completely in the driver’s seat.”
“Similarly for the financial track. Talking about bankruptcy: When do you have to consider bankruptcy? Talking about how dividing assets will affect you, the selling of your home. Each piece of information had its own issue and if you had no idea what those issues were — it was like going to school. Once I had a lot of the information it was basically like a tool kit to go out and start solving the problems piece by piece.”
“The great thing was there were other women in this group. Group was amazing. It helps for one thing to understand that you’re not alone. There are a lot of other people going through the same exact problems. So it gives you. . .it takes away some of the bad guilty feelings you have about your situation. It makes it feel supportive.”
Susan participated in 33 counseling sessions at an income-indexed scale of $35 per hour with a graduate student intern. As with all Women’s Center interns, Susan’s intern therapist – who was in her second year at U of M med school when she decided to get her social work education — was closely supervised by a volunteer clinician with years of counseling experience.
“I had a really excellent connection with the person I worked with and in the past I hadn’t had that. She was just very good, very professional. Everything presented itself professionally about The Women’s Center. It has a really nice appearance. It’s neat and clean. Everyone is very professional.”
In therapy, Susan focused on prioritizing and problem-solving, skills to cope with stress, managing loss and life transitions, and developing healthy self-care. “I would describe my engagement with The Women’s Center as a life saver,” she says. “You think that you are equipped to be an adult and take care of your life. It’s so easy to get married. It takes no time at all. But getting divorced is totally an upheaval. We have no idea.”
“The trauma in the beginning was just awful. To me I kind of equate it to the experience of someone dying but the bad part of it was that he wasn’t dead. [She laughs.] I think a lot of the support structures you might get when somebody dies I didn’t have.”
“And I came to each session with some new challenge that felt insurmountable — some new challenge, something had happened like he had done this, or I learned about this, or was I going to even have the courage to get up in the morning? Because it really felt like that. I felt like I was just — that I completely did not have a choice. I absolutely had to do this. I did not have a choice. Maybe that’s one thing that some of these other women feel. like they have nowhere else to turn.
“Everything that I experienced at the Women’s Center has given me life tools, this sort of independent spirit that I have now — that I’ve gained self-confidence. “
Susan has recovered from their joint business bankruptcy and is running her own successful small business independent of her ex-husband. She says, “So in that way it’s been kind of a life empowering situation to have been engaged with The Women’s Center that I think will stay with me forever.”
In closing, Susan says, “I’ve got to pay it forward. For me: it saved my life. And if I can help other women get through this, that would be an awesome feeling.”
“The word to get out [about The Women’s Center] is low cost, essential assistance for major life problems. And especially . . . especially if you’re in crisis.”
Amy is a young married professional from Ann Arbor, struggling with depression and anxiety. After the death of her father, Amy found herself suddenly responsible for her mother, who has a disability, and who continues to relate to her in ways that Amy found overwhelming as a child.
As a first generation Asian-American, she is caught between her duty as a Chinese daughter and her desire to set more American-type boundaries around her work, partner-relationships, and responsibility for an aging parent. She is also looking for another job with fewer hours and the ability to work from home, so that she can balance competing priorities.
Over the course of 11 months, Amy benefited from 19 hours of personal counseling and 3 hours of individualized Job Coaching at The Women’s Center.
Amy reports that she is still looking for a job that can better accommodate her caregiving responsibilities and lower the cost of childcare. Her ability to address her depression and anxiety has improved. “My therapist helped me with self-care and to identify and accept my emotions before they spiral out of control.”
She is using many of the skills she practiced in therapy — assertiveness, emotional containment, and mindfulness.
“I am taking a cue from my three-year-old,” Amy says, “who is open and direct about what she wants and what she feels without being shamed for it.”
We talk to friends. We find a therapist. We look for comfort in community.
And we acknowledge that it takes time.
Here’s Carla’s experience of growing stronger by Going Solo.
Carla had lived with verbal intimidation for much of her long marriage. But when berating became battering, she left for safety. During the separation and divorce that followed, Carla used The Women’s Center’s Going Solo group as a source of support for several eight-week sessions. “I felt myself growing stronger by being part of the group and I wanted to continue that feeling,” she recalls.
“The Women’s Center was crucial for me to get through the divorce, especially during the holidays, which were hard,” she says. Despite apprehension when she began, she soon felt heard. “The group leader was so relaxed and comfortable in her own skin, it gave us permission to be ourselves.”
Carla was relieved to discover that other women had similar experiences and to learn that she could trust her intuition. “I felt more compassion for myself, clear about which issues were mine and what was abuse,” she says.
Besides Going Solo, Carla took the financial and legal workshops offered at The Center. “I did them twice. I had some emotional resistance; my brain wouldn’t take it in the first time. I didn’t want to have to learn all that,” she remembers.
“It’s so rare to have a place that focuses on the advancement of women. The Women’s Center is empowering and compassionate, with useful resources and a great staff,” Carla says. “My experience there expanded my capacity for empathy for myself and others.”
Jackie sat across the room from me beaming. Her four-month-old daughter babbled in her lap and she wore a dress for the occasion. Today was “graduation day” from therapy, and Jackie wanted to honor the work she had done and the progress she had made with the counseling, education, and advocacy provided by The Women’s Center.
Counseling // As a former Women’s Center intern-therapist, I had the privilege of working with Jackie for nearly a year. When Jackie began sliding-fee counseling, she was three months pregnant and in a challenging financial situation. Jackie and her husband had met 10 years earlier when he first came to the United States. They’ve always paid taxes and have been as active in their community as time allows. But the political climate has made the route to naturalization uncertain and created an additional layer of stress for the family.
When willpower isn’t enough // Jackie worried that her discouragement and fear were starting to impact her marriage and her two children under the age of three. She hadn’t been to therapy before because she couldn’t afford it. (Her Women’s Center fee was $5 per session.) Further, as she explained, “I thought that if I just tried hard enough, I could choose not to be discouraged or sad. I kept saying to myself, ‘You should just snap out of it.’ I know I don’t have things as bad as my mom.”
Making a difference to unborn grandchildren // Jackie’s childhood had been difficult. Growing up in poverty with an absentee father and a mother who struggled with bi-polar disorder caused Jackie to have doubts about her own ability to parent. She describes her Mom as “consistently inconsistent. She could be alternately fun and scary. I never knew which version I was going to get.”
One of Jackie’s goals is to be the kind of parent (and grandparent) she never had. She also wants better communication with her spouse and a way to deal with what she describes as “the trauma of racism.”
Partners in progress // My primary job as Jackie’s therapist was to establish a safe and trusting connection. If she could feel safe with me, then she could use that secure foundation as a springboard for healing and growth. Jackie and I met in the evening, the only time that she had childcare. We talked about whatever she wanted to talk about, which changed from week to week.
Triumph over trauma // Without going into too much detail about her situation – although I do have permission to share her story – Jackie addressed some traumatic events in her past. She shared concerns about her children, and that she had essentially become a parent to her siblings and her own mother at a very young age. She gained greater awareness of her reactions to injustice and in what ways she could advocate for her family. And we practiced skills for communication, emotional grounding, and self-regulation.
Education about resources // When I talked with her about other resources, Jackie expressed an interest in parenting classes and in finding out what health insurance, in addition to MiChild, her family might qualify for.
A new beginning for both of us // Jackie’s “graduation” preceded my own graduation by one month. During my 16 months as a graduate student I learned as much from my 12 Women’s Center clients as they did from me. I also learned a lot from weekly consultation hours with 9 experienced clinical supervisors who have been engaged in therapy and social justice for years. They believe, as I do, that most people have the answers within them. They just need safety and support.
— Samantha, former intern-therapist and current volunteer
“I started receiving counseling three-quarters of the way into my ‘year from hell.’ December 2014, my husband left our family; January 2015 I lost my job; March 2015 foreclosure process began on our home and April 2015, our youngest was facing legal issues. Did I mention I was at a point where I couldn’t get/afford health insurance?)
The Women’s Center helped me sort through all of these issues and prioritize what was most important to work on first. Talking with a counselor on a weekly basis helped me identify my priorities and cope more effectively with the stress and depression. As of today, I am divorced, have a good-paying full-time permanent position at University of Michigan, have full benefits covering both the kids and me, and we now have a new home!”
Originally from San Diego and with an adventurous spirit to explore the unknown, Kavitha has lived in various parts of the country. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University with a double major in psychology and government in 2016. As a curious thinker with a thirst for depth, Kavitha has immersed herself in a variety of endeavors. Once she learned that the full definition of social work was centered around meeting people where they’re at and moving with them through the process of pain and healing, she knew she had found the profession that so strongly matched her personal values.
Kavitha went on to receive her Master of Social Work degree with a concentration in mental health with adults from the University of Michigan in December 2018. She feels incredibly fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to develop her clinical training and orientation at The Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan last year. She is beyond grateful for the support and guidance she received from the entire agency. Kavitha is currently refining her clinical practice as a Post-Graduate Clinical Social Work Fellow at Michigan Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, working in the Perinatal Clinic with mothers as they transition to parenthood during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Kavitha told the following story at the Women’s Center 19th anniversary celebration Swing into spring
I want to start off with a quote that succinctly summarizes what drew me into the field of social work. It goes, “The loneliest people are the kindest. The saddest people smile the brightest. The most damaged people are the wisest. All because they do not wish to see anyone else suffer the way they do.”
There is no known credit for this quote, but I know its message to be true based on my own lived experiences and those of the therapists I was honored to work alongside at The Women’s Center. I spent my last year completing my social work field placement for my Master of Social Work degree at The Women’s Center. And while I predicted that this internship would be replete with learning opportunities and practical experience to get my feet wet in psychotherapeutic practice, I never would have imagined the profound, transformative, and lasting mark it not only left on me as a clinician, but additionally on every single client I was privileged to work with that year.
I can still recall the first time I ever experienced the space, when I had interviewed the previous Fall. I remember how warm and inviting it felt, and how welcoming the staff and other interns were. In fact, Andrea, one of the student speakers from last year, took the time out of her schedule and gave me a tour of the whole center just upon meeting me and I felt so embraced by this gesture which really allowed me to feel comfortable and authentic during my interview. And while I could easily speak at length about the exponentially positive growth that occurred in both my clinical practice and personal development this past year at The Women’s Center, I think the most profound exemplar of impact can be shown in the progress I witnessed in the clients I feel so grateful to have worked with.
Some of our clients are here tonight. I want to assure everyone that we are careful about client confidentiality and do not share identifiable information with anyone. I worked with 10 clients over the course of my year, and I still remember my very first session, being nervous about how it would go and then being pleasantly at ease when the 90-minute session flowed smoothly in conversation. I went on to work with women ranging in age from their early twenties to their seventies, women seeking counseling for the first time as well as women who have been coming to The Women’s Center for years and of whom I was their 3rd or 4th intern, women who have left domestic violence situations, who have been struggling with housing insecurity and who wondered where they were going to live the following month, women who have left abusive families and didn’t have stable social support, women who were severely physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abused, and women who had lived their entire lives without a steady income.
I worked with a client who fell into many of these categories, someone who had experienced the worst sexual, physical, and emotional abuse I have ever heard of firsthand. The first session we had scheduled felt like a disaster. She couldn’t find the center, she called the front desk yelling at our volunteer, and came in angry at me saying that I had messed up the GPS. Through my training at The Women’s Center, through weekly supervisions with the seasoned volunteer supervisors who dedicate hours to teach and grow the interns, I had learned that severe traumatic experiences, like that of this clients’, instinctually teaches the survivor to be wary of who they trust as a means of preventing further abuse. With this knowledge, I was able to hold space for my clients’ pent-up anger, which was really just her defense against the immense pain and sadness she had been carrying. It took her nearly 2 months to begin to trust me, each week having some new conflict with scheduling or criticism of something I had said or done.
In fact, one of the most pivotal moments in our work together was when I ran into her in public and in my mind, I made nothing of the interaction, so much so that I forgot to even bring it up to my supervisor the next week. When I later brought it up to my client, I learned that she had assumed from our brief interaction that I was laughing at her, a story that fit into the lens through which she understands her world, despite the inaccuracy of this perspective.
I would go on to work with her for the entire year and witness the remarkable and slow-moving growth she made from being distrustful and skeptical of me to letting herself be seen by someone and feel safe to be vulnerable. In our relationship, I helped her challenge the negative self-talk she had about herself, which was a result of her trauma.
Our therapeutic ending last December was filled with a mixture of emotions, sadness that our work together was ending but gratitude for the personal growth she had developed this past year and the newfound sense of trust and hope in the process of healing. My work with her was eye-opening, a visceral teaching that continues to remind me that the process of working through trauma is both life-long and non-linear.
As I was approaching the end of my Master’s in Social Work last year and on the job search for clinical social work positions in the area, I figured I would throw my hat in for one of the prestigious fellowships at the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, one of few social work fellowship opportunities in the entire country. I was sad that I would be leaving The Women’s Center and to be quite honest would have loved to stay at the agency and do someday hope to return. Eventually I would love to start my own practice in my hometown, using the Women’s Center personalized approach. Today I can admit that part of my regret in having to leave The Women’s Center wasn’t just in leaving the warm and welcoming atmosphere, or the thought-provoking conversations spurred amongst the interns and supervisors in our weekly group supervisions, but more the thought that I would likely have to move to a work place that treats clients more as objects on a conveyor belt in need of short-term treatment that might temporarily fix the symptoms bringing them into therapy but that would not resolve the underlying issues that laid the foundation for such problems to arise in the first place.
I also must admit that in the hopes of getting this Fellowship, I felt pressured to sell out in order to present myself and my clinical orientation in a way that I thought that Michigan Medicine was seeking in its new trainees – that is someone who subscribes to the belief that mental illness can be fixed in the same way that physical illnesses are. To my surprise and gratitude, when I interviewed, I found that the social workers in UM’s Department of Psychiatry were actually interested in knowing how my experience at The Women’s Center, where I understood clients within the frameworks of the systems in their lives, had informed my understanding of mental health and psychotherapy. They were interested in how people’s circumstances – their income; their housing; their social support; their social identities like their race, age, gender and abilities – influence their symptoms and recovery. I received the offer for the position a few weeks later.
In recounting this experience to one of my social work professors, she highlighted that the panel wanted to hear about my practice at The Women’s Center because they value psychotherapists who understand people within the context of the multiplicity of systems and layers that they deal with every day. After now working on Michigan Medicine’s Perinatal Psychiatry team for nearly 4 months, I am beyond grateful to have had my first psychotherapy practice at The Women’s Center. The Women’s Center holds such a special place in my heart and is truly an exemplar in providing personalized care to the population it serves. And I want to thank you all for listening to how meaningfully The Women’s Center has impacted my clients, myself, and my career as an emerging social worker.
“I was afraid to leave the house! I thought that I was protecting my baby from all the germs in the outside world.” Ling is a first-time mom who faced a tough transition after her baby girl was born. She felt overwhelmed by the changes that motherhood brought and was isolated, spending nearly all her time indoors with her infant. There was no family close by to help.
When her daughter was eight weeks old, Ling discovered the MomShare group at The Women’s Center. “I was unsure about joining a group of other mothers,” Ling shared. “I was afraid of judgment and how I would compare to other moms. I thought I was the only mother in the world who felt incapable and inadequate.”
Ling gathered her courage to attend MomShare, her first outing with her newborn except for doctor’s appointments. She was surprised and relieved to find that the group leader and other moms were supportive and nonjudgmental. After the first meeting, Ling felt a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She got encouragement from other mothers that she was doing her best. That alone made her a great mom. She let go of the “shoulds” of motherhood and started to think about what was best for her and her baby.
Ling learned that “a happy mom makes a happy baby. If a mom is taking care of herself, she is better prepared to take care of her child.” Through MomShare, Ling found her very own “village” and women who support each other.
Many years ago when I was a college student in my early 20’s, I was walking through campus on a day much like the one we are having today. It was spring and I was heading home from class. From a distance, I saw one of my professors walking through campus enjoying the lunch hour with his spouse. I noticed right away, they were so happy together. I realized, that somehow, that picture of true joy and peace had become foreign to me. And it was also the moment I knew that something in my life had to change.
A few years before that day, when I was 18 years old, I got involved with the wrong person and didn’t know how to get out. I was abused in every way imaginable for 6 years; abused or raped, almost every day during those years. And so many times I’ve lost count. I became so accustomed to pain, emotionally and physically. I prayed so hard, countless nights, and usually for almost 3 hours straight. Prayer was the ONLY thing that kept me alive and gave me strength to live another day.
I knew it was a matter of time before he would kill me. Part of me wanted to die, and several times, I almost did. And in every instance, at the very last second, before I was about to give up, God said to me, if you die, it will also kill your mother. She would die shortly after you, through devastation and a broken heart. That one single thought kept me alive. Nothing else kept me from giving up but that. In short, I became determined to get out. If not for myself, but for the one who I loved most. Somehow I woke with the strength of 10,000 women, I fought back, won, and I got out.
But of course, that was not the end of life’s challenges. Several years later, I was laid off due to a corporate strategic alliance, and at the same time, was going through a divorce. I went through a traumatic experience of losing my home due to the divorce and financial hardships. I didn’t know where I was going to live. I had no family in Michigan, or anywhere nearby, and didn’t want to be a burden to my friends. I kept the struggles to myself and made due, with what I had. It was my situation, and I was going to get myself through it.
I purchased a very modest foreclosed home for $12,000, in a not so great neighborhood. The house needed work, but it was better than being homeless. Shortly after I moved in, it was broken into. I was robbed of about $5000-$6000 worth of possessions and had damages. Unfortunately, I did not have home owners insurance at the time, because the insurance company wouldn’t approve the home until I replaced the roof, which I didn’t have money for.
There were times when I had to choose between spending money on gas for the car, or food. I chose gas, and drove to the Women’s Center where I was able to get free canned food from their pantry, and attend counseling sessions at a very low cost.
There were so many challenges I haven’t spoken of yet, but I want to give you a glimpse of just a few, because that was but a fraction of what I was carrying, when I first walked into The Women’s Center of Southeast Michigan. Before the Women’s Center, I never had the opportunity to express any of this, nor receive counseling, share what has happened to me, or feel like I could talk to anyone. I’m so grateful, for the counselors, the many staff and volunteers who’ve blessed me with their time, talent, and compassion.
Today, I’m a graduate of 4 college degrees, holding 4 professional roles. I’m a certified Business Counselor with the SBDC, launching start-ups and building businesses throughout Michigan; a part-time Professor of Business at Washtenaw Community College, Consultant at the University of Michigan WDI in Entrepreneurship Coaching, and Founder of A2 LEAP, offering executive development. Despite my circumstances, I am determined to be unstoppable and now, I know, I don’t have to do it alone.
My mission is best described by a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Supreme Court Justice in the late 1800s who said, “The greatest tragedy in America is not the great waste of natural resources although that is tragic. The greatest tragedy is the waste of human resources where the average man goes to his grave with his music still in him.” My music is to create the greatest impact I possibly can, and to equip others to live their vision, and ignite the fervor in you to live YOUR music despite setbacks and tribulations, and to believe in yourself. Because transformation begins when you know your worth.
In closing, I want to tell you about my Jar of Happiness. This jar was a gift given to me on the last session with my counselor at the Women’s Center years ago. She wrote phrases on slips of paper and told me to open this jar whenever I needed a reminder. One of these says, “Resilient. When I think of you this is the word that comes to mind. You have come far and will continue to go far. Never forget how strong you are.”
It’s amazing, how words or a simple gift from the heart, will impact your life for years to come, and even a lifetime. This jar of happiness, is still displayed in my home today. The Women’s Center of Southeast Michigan is an incredible resource and support system. My story is not necessarily a unique one. Many women who have walked through the doors of the Women’s Center has endured what I have, if not more. The staff, volunteers, supporters, and all of you here are heroes.
Years ago, I told myself I would find a way to repay what the Women’s Center has done for me, and I am honored to be able to speak here today and look forward to the opportunity to do more. Shakespeare said, “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you
have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” They were not only a resource, but a much needed friend and incredible support system. I consider The Women’s Center of SEMI, my friends for life.
Rose is an intern-therapist at The Women’s Center, as well as a tutor. She has worked with at-risk youth—and especially LGBT* populations—for the past decade. Rose was herself an at-risk youth and knows firsthand the difference a good social worker can make. She has turned her own transgender and human journey into a fertile soil of service; she plans to continue working as a gender therapist and community activist until they drag her away.
Life is full of transitions, some more obvious than others.
But the process is the same—in a series of adjustments great and small, we painstakingly blossom into who we are. We are best guesses, closest approximations of our better selves, and each transition, hopefully, moves us one step closer to our genuine self.
When I first came to The Women’s Center, I was in the midst of several transitions. I was becoming the woman I’d always been, but I was also becoming the woman I’d always been—which is to say, a fairly disempowered one. I struggled with self-esteem, body issues, panic attacks—as my therapist told me, “Welcome to womanhood!”
I wondered, especially, if I was an authentic enough woman to work at The Women’s Center.
Didn’t they know what a beginner I was?
Didn’t they know I used to be one of them? (Sorry, guys!)
The short answer is, yes, and they didn’t care.
The slightly longer answer is that being the extraordinary place it is, The Women’s Center transformed me.
Social service, I am learning, is a reciprocal art. We are moved as we move others.
The Women’s Center is many things—a safe harbor on a troubled sea, a lantern in the night—and it is also a house of transformation. It transmutes dis-empowerment to possibility; helplessness to hope. And as it does so, it transforms staff and stakeholder alike. The arc of treatment is mutual.
To pick an anecdote of this type is to simply walk through my day:
There is “J,” the young trans/man, who has turned his social anxiety into an inspiring ability to accept and be a part of stillness and whose wonderfully dark humor keeps me on my toes.
There is “A,” the mother who has lost so much and yet loves so much more.
There is “L,” the trans/woman of color, whose powerful, unashamed resilience has reminded me to wear my truth proudly.
There is the author who brings me into the process of creation.
And there is the single-mother who made my career by telling me she sought me out because she thought a trans/therapist would be a good guide for an authentic life, something I had never considered.
Every day we are blessed with real people showing us what it means to be human; we are lucky enough to witness the wisdom and capacity to love that comes from the soil of honest suffering. And in walking through the forest together we know it better ourselves.
Life is full of transitions, some more obvious than others.
I was insecure and withdrawn. I was full of self-doubt. Being a woman involves more than hormones. I was seeking a deeper transformation, something from within. And I found my circle, my people, my chosen family. Because that’s the kind of place The Women’s Center is.
If you are lost, it’s a map; if you are thirsty, it’s a well. If you are an awkward trans-girl, it will help you find your voice. Because The Women’s Center accepts who you are and encourages who you want to be, it is home.
Because it practices collaboration instead of competition, it is safe. Because it’s a place where your humanity is the most important identity, it is family.
At best, I forget I am transgender. And that’s how it is at The Women’s Center—I am Rose the person, first. And in the same way, our clients are treated with the dignity they deserve. In making the changes ourselves, we help make them in others.
Life is full of transitions, some more obvious than others. Every client and therapist The Women’s Center transforms, becomes a transformative agent themselves. The Women’s Center has helped me realize it’s possible to be strong, empowered and feminine. It has taught me that I have things to say and that they matter. It has shown me that how we treat each other is as important as how we treat ourselves.
And in those lessons has been a common theme: We must be the change we seek
When we see injustice, we must seek to be fair.
When we see fear, we must seek to be brave.
When we see inequity, we must seek to be of service.
The Women’s Center is where the real world meets the ideal, and we like to think that it’s at least an even fight. From the Board to the staff to the volunteers, there is a spirit that permeates, and it heals all who come into contact with it. That spirit is how I found my voice. That spirit is what calls to my humanity.
And that spirit is what brings us together for social justice, for you are such an important part of it. If someone is hurt, we will try to mend it. If someone is worried we will try to soothe it—and always we try to hear and understand it.
Life is full of transitions, some more obvious than others. If perhaps I didn’t first discover my gender identity at The Women’s Center, I was finally nurtured to life there. If I already had a rough draft, The Women’s Center added that uplifting chapter. The Women’s Center taught me how to be an empowered woman, just as it teaches countless others.
Ten years ago, I was a new graduate, who went to a university through my own means, in a country which was both conservative and secular, caught in the middle of Europe and Asia. I made a brave choice, considering the situation in Turkey, and planned an academic career for my life, where I started to climb the steps to professorship one by one.
My sexual orientation was confidential during this process, until I met Sarah with the Fullbright program from America, who was assigned as a lecturer to the university where I was working. Sarah was one of the most hardworking persons I had ever known, and she won over everyone around the university, especially me.
Our friendship turned to a relationship within five or six months, and she started to carry the burden with me of the intolerant perspective of Turkey against LGBTQ individuals. This made our relationship stronger, but it also made our small city unbearable for us.
While thinking about these problems, her PhD acceptance letter from U of M was sent to her family in Boston. We were on the verge of critical decisions. We had many moral and material obstacles in front of us: visa, money, taking a leave.
And what was I supposed to say to my family, who had no idea about my sexual orientation? I felt extremely trapped and desperate. Sarah had to make a decision about going to U of M, and we were running out of time. No matter how much she loves Turkey, Sarah wanted us to live in America, where we can have more freedom and better standards of life.
I listened to my heart and decided to create a new life with her in America no matter what happens. I applied for a tourist visa, which was approved. I came to America in September 2011 with a radical decision, leaving the country where I was born and all my ideals behind. I was in a complete cultural shock. My English was not that good and that made me feel more unqualified with each passing day.
It would be impossible for me to be a part of this country without the support of Sarah. I shuttled back and forth between Turkey and USA for 3 years with regular intervals in order not to be classified as an illegal immigrant. Even today, I still feel the effects of anxiety disorder because of the judgmental looks of customs officials, as they interrogate me on everything up to the passwords of my personal social media accounts.
Once I felt confident about myself with English, financial affairs and emotional matters, I applied for a master’s program at Eastern Michigan. After I was accepted to the master’s program, Sarah was not with me anymore. I was legally a student and did not have to shuttle back and forth between two countries. However, I had already started to live a survivor life.
To keep my self-esteem, I have to stay here and finish the school no matter how. I do not feel sorry for any decisions I’ve made to date. I feel I belong neither to Turkey nor to America right now. But this country has treated me very generously. Despite the discouraging practices of the current government, America was where I realized I was a human in this world, as coming out of my ethnic origin and LGBTQ identities.
No matter what happens, my only wish for myself is to contribute to people who somehow ended up living here, and to live in peace.
(1) Please provide a brief summary of your background before entering into the MSW program. Why did you choose this profession?
Before entering the MSW [Master’s in Social Work] program at Wayne State, I was a Global Studies Adjunct Professor in Northeastern University’s International Studies Program teaching classes on ethics. While I enjoyed teaching and connecting with young students, I realized that I would enjoy even more the kind of long-lasting and meaningful work (impacting others’ lives) that can occur with clinical social work.
(2) Why did you choose to intern at The Women’s Center?
Several of my close friends had already volunteered at the Woman’s Center and recommended the supervision offered by excellent clinicians. My friends also spoke highly of the Woman’s Center environment, which is warm, collegial, and supportive.
(3) What was the biggest challenge about interning at The Women’s Center?
The biggest challenge was being able to do one-on-one therapy with clients who have complicated trauma backgrounds. You have to be fully present and able to engage with another person’s pain and be willing to be witness to this pain and move forward collaboratively. There isn’t the filter of short-term therapy or the mandate of doing cognitive-behavioral work, both of which can shield you from truly “being” with the client. The biggest challenge was also clearly the biggest opportunity.
(4) What was the most valuable lesson that you learned while interning at The Women’s Center?
Working at the Women’s Center taught me the importance of having a warm, supportive community — how this, alone, can make any work-day challenges much easier to navigate. No matter how complicated some of my work with clients could be, I always looked forward to going to The Women’s Center. It became an oasis or a refuge of sorts for me.
(5) How did your experience of interning at The Women’s Center prepare you for your professional career?
If I had not had the experience of doing longer-term therapy at the Women’s Center, I would have much less appreciation for the kind of pacing that is essential for people with complex histories, including trauma. I had an outstanding clinical supervisor, Diane Blumson, who was able to provide excellent wisdom and discernment in helping me navigate the therapeutic process with sometimes very challenging situations.
(6) Can you give an example of your therapeutic approach and philosophy?
I used a person-centered approach with Women’s Center clients, which is based on Carl Roger’s humanistic philosophy. It encourages client-therapist collaboration to bring out, appreciate, and validate the rich and unique qualities that make each person unique. Much of my work involves providing a safe space in which clients can really learn to value their own strengths and inner capacity for growth and personal transformation.
(7) What is your current profession?
Currently, I am a psychotherapy fellow at Psychiatric and Psychological Specialties in Saint Joseph, MI. This is a two-year program: I see approximately 25 clients doing long-term therapy using an interdisciplinary approach (psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, and family systems interventions). I participate in extensive training: multiple one-on- one and small-group pedagogy formats to accelerate the training and learning process of becoming a more effective therapist/clinician.
If there are other important “lessons” that you want to share about your intern experience at The Women’s Center, please go ahead!
It can be easy to take the Women’s Center experience for granted when you are in the middle of a packed school year, having to handle so many requirements for your master’s program. But it is important to understand what a rare and unique opportunity it is. I would recommend meeting with all 11 of the supervisors at The Center — this is an opportunity that is offered every year and it is a wonderful way to draw from very rich but varying perspectives on how to do effective therapy. I also recommend active participation in the weekly seminars (don’t just sit back and let others do the talking.) There is much to be learned by being engaged!
Ultimately, I feel so grateful to have a training experience that was also so emotionally nourishing and a place that felt like my home.
A native of Idaho, Andrea relocated to Michigan as a newlywed in 1998 after graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian Studies and Japanese. After completing masters degrees in Southeast Asian Studies and History at the University of Michigan, she turned her attention to raising her four children. She became a client at The Women’s Center in 2013, where she found the information and support she needed to file for divorce and leave a troubled marriage. As a Women’s Center front desk volunteer from 2016-2017, Andrea developed the confidence to apply for graduate school one more time. With the support of Women’s Center staff, she was admitted to Michigan State University’s clinical social work program and awarded a scholarship for leadership potential. In September she began working as a intern-therapist at her favorite agency on earth, The Women’s Center, where she provided weekly therapy sessions to uninsured community members and co-facilitated the same divorce support group that had once supported her.
How it started
My great great grandmother Anna Louisa was born in Sweden in 1859. When she was 17 years old, her whole family emigrated to Utah. At 18 she married Johann Wilhelm, a fellow Swedish immigrant, and they started a family. When she was 23 years old, 6 weeks after her third little girl was born, Anna lost her kind and loving Johann to pneumonia.
After 4 years of being a widow with three little ones to care for, Anna remarried Lorenzo, who had just moved to the area from Wyoming. Anna had grown up in a happy, loving home, and her first husband was sweet and kind, so I doubt she was expecting the abuse she experienced at the hands of her second husband.
We only know a few details about her life with him: When Anna was 8 months pregnant with Lorenzo’s 3rd baby, her 6th, he decided it was time to move from their home in Utah — where she was surrounded by family and friends — to Montana. She walked with her 5 children, ages 14, 12, 10, 5, and 2. They never made it to Montana, arriving in the Teton Basin of Idaho just 5 days before her baby was born.
In Idaho, Anna had 4 more children with Lorenzo, for a total of 10. She built a new home and community for herself, and eventually her sister moved from Utah with her husband to be Anna’s neighbor.
When Anna was 53 and happily settled, Lorenzo decided to move again. Anna was not happy to once again be uprooted from her home and community, including her sister and many of her now-married children, but she dutifully followed her husband.
Abuse becomes apparent
Seven years after this move, when Anna was 60 years old, Lorenzo broke one of her ribs. We don’t know if this was the first incident of physical abuse, or one of many, but two years later Anna filed for a divorce.
The rib that Lorenzo broke never healed, and Anna developed an abscess, which opened outside her body and into her stomach, and oozed whenever she ate or drank. This became a cancerous tumor, and she died 6 years after her injury at age 66.
On her deathbed, Anna told her children and grandchildren about a dream that inspired her to finally file for divorce at age 62. In her dream, she and Lorenzo were walking hand in hand along a mountainside. They were thirsty and hunting for something to drink. Anna looked down the mountain and spotted her sweet first husband, Johann. He was standing beside a spring of sparkling water. He smiled and opened his arms to her. Anna let go of Lorenzo’s hand and walked down the mountain toward Johann.
The pattern repeats itself
I found this story in a family history book several years after my own divorce. It gave me chills, because I, too, had been a young bride, married at age 22 to a perfect-seeming man who I met in a history class in college. But unlike Anna, I did not have a sweet first husband. It did not take long for me to realize I had made a terrible mistake, but like Anna, I was not willing to walk out on a commitment I had made, so I stayed.
When our first two children were small, my husband and I began to discuss divorce. He told me that if we took that path, he would sue for full custody of our little ones, and that he would tell the judge I was unfit to be their mother because of my struggles with depression. Rather than seeing this as a warning sign that I was in an unhealthy marriage, I interpreted this as a sign that I needed to try harder to be a more perfect wife and mother, and that I could never get divorced or I would lose my children.
My first interaction with The Women’s Center was in April 2010, when one of my friends recommended that I contact the Clinical Director for advice on how to transition from being a stay-at-home mom to becoming a therapist. Marnie talked to me about different schools, and recommended that I begin volunteering at some of the agencies in town that provide excellent volunteer training. Following her advice, I completed volunteer training at SOS, and later I worked at Ozone House, Ele’s Place, Arbor Hospice, and SafeHouse Center.
Shame gets in the way
But it was difficult for me to actually apply for graduate school. I had 2 master’s degrees and knew that I was capable of studying hard. But each time I faced the application essays and the task of preparing a resume, I felt so ashamed of my work history and how little I felt I had done with my life that I couldn’t bring myself to apply, and another year would pass.
Knowledge is power
My next interaction with The Women’s Center happened in February 2013. A friend had recently gone through a divorce and attended a class there, taught by a lawyer, and she recommended it to me. At that point in my life, I had been married 15 years. I was so afraid of losing custody of my children through divorce that I actually saw suicide as a viable alternative.
When I walked out of the divorce education class that night, I was armed with the new knowledge that my husband would never be able to take the children away from me. The next day I wrote in my journal: “Last night I attended a divorce education workshop at The Women’s Center of SE Michigan. . . .When I left, so many of my fears were gone. Main fears being that I would lose the children. I felt so happy last night and all day today. . . .I feel free and safe and unafraid. I feel strong and peaceful.”
Beginning as a front-desk volunteer
Three years later, in April 2016, I went into The Women’s Center looking for more advice about becoming a therapist. I met the Program Director that day, and Paula invited me to be a front desk volunteer. We set up a formal interview, which I was expecting to be brief and cursory. Instead, she spent over an hour asking about and listening to my story and providing me with plenty of tissues while I cried. She shared with me that she, too, had been in a difficult marriage, had gotten divorced, and had started her career as a therapist later in life. I began a weekly 4-hour shift at the front desk.
During the next 18 months as a volunteer, Paula, Marnie, and Katie, one of the intern-therapists, would regularly come and sit by my side to check in and see how my week had been. They were a source of comfort and confidence boosters to me. I also met with The Women’s Center job coach, Lisa, and she helped me realize that I really did want to go back to school, even though I was afraid to apply. I attended the 10-week divorce support group that Paula runs, and made friends that I still see every month.
Becoming an intern-therapist
I finally was able to face and complete my applications for social work school, 6 years after first contacting the Women’s Center’s Director for advice on how to become a therapist. Marnie and Paula wrote two of my letters of recommendation, and I was admitted to both of the schools I applied to. When the student internship I had lined up fell through at the last minute, Marnie made a place for me to be an intern at The Women’s Center. In September of 2017, I switched roles from front desk volunteer to graduate student therapy intern.
Clinical training and support
Over the past 7 months, as part of The Women’s Center intern cohort, I have received exceptional training and support to begin my career as a therapist. We receive 1.5 hours of training as a group each week, provided by experienced therapists from our community who volunteer their time, plus one hour of one-on-one time each week to review and ask questions about how to best help our specific clients. I have not heard of any training site my classmates are at that gives students the experience and support equivalent to what The Women’s Center provides.
Partnering with my clients
I have had the sacred privilege of working as the therapist for 8 women these past several months. My clients range in age from 18-70. They have faced abusive families and intimate partners, abandonment, deaths, health challenges of their own and of loved ones, unemployment and troubles at work, discrimination, and the stresses of moving and reestablishing themselves in new communities. None of my clients have insurance that will pay for therapy, and that is what brought them to The Women’s Center, where we let clients choose how much they can afford to pay for services. My clients donated between $10 and $20 per week to The Women’s Center in order to work with me, and if they had needed to pay less, they could have.
Women just like you and me
My clients are vital members of their communities — of our community. They are students, teachers, employees, business owners, renters, property owners, devoted daughters, mothers, and caregivers. They have bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and professional credentials. I have heard countless stories of acts of service they have performed for friends, neighbors, co-workers, housemates, and family members. One lives on disability, yet makes extra donations to The Women’s Center whenever she can. At our last appointment together, she emptied out her wallet, giving me ten dollars for her therapy fee, and an additional eight dollars to help keep The Women’s Center going.
What we worked on together
At the end of our time together in April 2018, I asked each of my clients what she had learned from our work together. Several said that I had helped them understand that they are trauma survivors and how those difficult experiences in their past are still affecting them today. This helped them move from seeing themselves as defective and at fault to understanding the role their environment has played in their struggles. Others told me that they have begun to hear my voice in their mind, telling them that they are good, worthy, and valuable, and that is helping them to be more gentle and patient with themselves. A number of clients said that although their life challenges are still the same, after our work together they feel more calm, peaceful, and better able to deal with those challenges. They told me they feel safe, normal, unjudged, accepted, loved, and supported at The Women’s Center. During our time together they found the strength and courage to face fears, make difficult changes, process trauma from the past, and embrace life more fully.
The ripple effect of women’s power
Why does helping women matter? The Women’s Center was there for me when I was struggling, without much support, to find the courage and resources to change my life.
Now my children see the work I do at The Women’s Center. On Thursday nights last semester, they watched movies and ate treats in the room next door while I helped facilitate the same divorce support group I once attended. They are proud of the way I am helping and supporting other women. I know that if my children find themselves some day in a situation that is hurting them, they may not need The Women’s Center, because they have me. And it is not just my children who have me: It is my therapy clients, my co-workers, and the members of the new community I am building for myself out of the ashes of my old life. I am a force for good in this world, and I am not cowering inside my old life any longer. When women suffer, our suffering spreads to all those whom we care for, and that is often a great web of people. Likewise, when we help women, we help all the members of their family and community. Women are a good investment.
Changing generational patterns
For many of us, the people we are closest to are the ones who are hurting or who have hurt us the most. Many of us do not come from safe, healthy, or resource-rich families or communities. We might be trapped by toxic patterns, harmful beliefs, and false information. We may need someone to beckon to us, like my Grandpa Johann beckoned to my Grandma Anna in her dream — with a smile, open arms, and a spring of pure water — to let go of whatever is tormenting us, and walk down the mountainside toward hope and healing. That is what The Women’s Center has done for me, and for my clients, and countless others. Please help us to keep doing this vital, life-saving work, not just for women, but for all the lives that women touch.