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Breaking The Stigma – She’s Not Just A Woman – She is a Life-Changer

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During one of the darkest periods of my life in 2013 when I felt that I needed help mentally and emotionally, I contacted several different therapists and counselors. No one was available to see me immediately, their schedules were months out in some cases.

After what I definitely know to be over 20 calls, I was finally able to reach a therapist by the name of Karen Gill; however, she could not see me right away either. In fact, it would not be for several days. Several days sounded like music to my ears versus weeks or months. My first appointment was scheduled for Thursday, July 25, 2013.

I figured I was tough, I could wait. Oh boy, I was wrong, so very wrong. By the time that appointment came around my life had taken a drastic turn.

Karen called my cell phone to see why I missed my appointment and my oldest son answered. My son explained that I was in MCV hospital on life support. I had a breakdown. A mental, emotional, physical breakdown, (I have said it in previous blog posts, and I will say it again, I was tired, tired of everything. Mentally I could not realize what I was doing to myself). Currently, that is neither here nor there.

Karen was adamant that he let her know the outcome.

Once released from ICU and placed in a regular hospital bed, my oldest son informed me that she had called to check in on me and upon my release, I was to contact her and to immediately schedule an appointment.

The day after my release, during August of 2013, I contacted Karen Gill and made that appointment. In fact, my appointments were three times a week in the beginning.

She has essentially been one of my biggest supporters, challengers, advocates, lifesavers, and she knows me probably better than I know myself. I trust this woman beyond measure.

Karen has taught me so many things about myself and life. She has taught me how to set boundaries, we have tried numerous types of therapies, she has taught me how to know exactly what is and is not wrong with me and that me being “different” is okay. My mental status does not have to control me. I can break the stigma. She has helped me to understand my deepest traumas. She has helped me to take pieces of myself back that I never knew were lost, I just knew something was missing, I never knew exactly how deep those wounds went. Through Karen, I have learned how to control my “triggers”.  I have come to terms with the various diagnoses given by my psychiatrist and other healthcare professionals. Karen helps me to understand these. I very much struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and catastrophic thinking, Karen has helped me to take back control.

This work remains ongoing, it will continue to be. Not because I am broken, it is because I am healing, and Karen is a healer. She does not judge me, she does not judge my spirituality, she does not judge my past, my faith, my mistakes, she helps me make sense of my choices and actions.

My continuous work with Karen has strengthened some of my relationships, set boundaries across those that needed it, helped me to see my patterns and the patterns of others that I wish to not have in my life and so very much more.

This is all part of my self-care. Every person is complex. I am complex. I have mania, I have lows, I am impulsive, I am an overthinker, an over-achiever, an over- lover, an over giver, etc., Karen helps me to recognize the healthy traits of these parts of myself and the not so healthy parts.

As part of my self-care and the process of my journey along with the initiative of breaking stigmas surrounding mental illness, I want others to understand that there are true, caring therapists in this world.

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Being that Karen is extremely ethical, caring, level headed, mindful, and always works within boundaries, when I initially approached her about the possibility of an interview for the blog, she took several days to think it over. She wanted to ensure no conflicts or boundaries were being broken (patience/ doctor). I am delighted that she finally agreed to participate in the blog and show the world what great therapists look like!

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to one of my favorite people in this world, one of the best women I know and respect, my therapist, the woman that holds ALL of my secrets, my therapist, Karen Gill!

About Karen Gill

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Karen Gill

With over 15 years of experience as a clinical social worker and therapist (MSW, LCSW, CT), Karen Gill specializes in helping individuals deal with trauma. Karen’s interest specifically was with grief, loss, bereavement, individuals dealing with workplace stressors, depression, stress anxiety, suicidal tendencies, suicidal losses, suicidal prevention, and interventions, addressing childhood trauma, and even life transitions.

Karen has experience in funeral home care, hospice, nursing home care, and university counseling center.

Karen is certified in Thanatology (2010). Thanatology is the study of bereavement, dying, and death. She is also a certified supervisor for LCSW candidates.

Karen Gill is a founding member of the Bereavement Coalition of Central Virginia, Crater Caregiver Coalition, and Virginia Caregiver Coalition.

Receiving awards such as Field Instructor, VCU School of Social Work, 2006, Distinguished Community Partner in Healing Aware, Presented by the Department of Pastoral Care of VCU Health Systems, 2009.

Karen Gill has several different types of therapy approaches which she offers her clients. They are trauma-focused, cognitive behavioral therapy, existential, interpersonal, attachment-based, psychodynamic, EMDR, and she continue to expand her studies and education.

As a 1995 graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University, Karen Gill is a private practitioner, she is established in Richmond, Virginia, owning her own counseling practice, Gill Counseling & Consulting, LLC.

Interview Questions

When did you know you wanted to be in the mental health care field?

Karen’s Response:   I knew when I was in grade school that I wanted to work with people’s pain.  I did not know what that might look like, but it was clear to me that my care of people was a central passion.  I always wanted my career to be something that felt useful and connected to my values.

I also think that when we experience pain and trauma in our own lives, we seek to make meaning from that.  It is very common for therapists to see themselves as ‘wounded healers’.  It is a way of working through our own life challenges.  That is why it is so important that therapists are engaged in their own reflective practices—so they can be present to what is in front of the client, less so what is in front of themselves.

What motivates you to continue your work?

Karen’s Response:  This work allows me to create relationships based on deep knowledge.  It allows me to be a companion to my clients, and hopefully offer them a pathway to see themselves as whole and worthy, and filled with possibility.  That is ideal, and the motivation to continue exploring, learning, and deepening my own personal work.

I also really love that there is always more to know.  As health and brain science continues to dovetail with mental and behavioral health, the field gets more complex and more interesting.  This creates a duality that is sometimes hard—I want to know all there is to know, but there is always more to know.   So, when do we get to say, ‘I know enough to show up for my clients in a helpful way?’

What are some of the high points of your career?

Karen’s Response:  Surprisingly, this is a hard question for me to answer.  Maybe the answer is when my private practice took off, and I was able to relish being my own boss, and taking care of myself in ways that suit me, not some corporate policy about how many days off we need to feel refreshed and re-energized.  Maybe the high point was being nominated by an anonymous person for an award that let me have dinner at The Jefferson last year!  (I did not win, but the winner was so deserving!)  Or maybe, the answer is the more mundane experiences of having clients feeling more connected to themselves and feeling more able to move in directions that reflect their value.  There are some very lovely high points that I am so grateful for!

What are/were some of the low points of your career?

Karen’s Response: My lowest points have also been the jumping-off point of forward movement.  I was laid off from my job providing aftercare services at a funeral home.  In that moment and the days that followed, I felt exhilarated by the possibilities, mortified that this had happened to ME, and terrified that I would end up falling down the ladder to some low-paying job that did not connect with my training.

And, in all honesty, when I have disappointed my clients, or when there is a therapeutic break, I am filled with sadness and introspection about how I could have done things differently.

What do you find most challenging?

Karen’s Response: Working with my inner critic.  That voice has really shaming messages when things go wrong in the therapeutic alliance.   This harsh voice, (which is really trying to help me out) often carries over into my home life—feeling like my skills and knowledge should be able to protect and heal my loved ones but more often than not, this is not how things unfold.  Part of that is the idea of the dual relationship which is unethical—I cannot be a therapist to the people I love—and part of that is the truth that we all have to go through our own struggles, face our own consequences, and we have to be ready to make changes before the change can happen.

What is most intriguing about your field?

Karen’s Response: I am absolutely amazed by all of the things that impact mental health—our environment, genes, experiences, diet; our sleep patterns, our gender and gender identity, our childhood experiences, and how we were nurtured.  It is estimated that each of us has over 100 trillion neural pathways—more than the stars in the entire universe.  It is what makes us individuals, and what makes our unique lives and perspectives so vital to the world.

How do you continue your studies?

Karen’s Response: When I started my journey in private practice, I did not know what I did not know.  I could not imagine traveling to different parts of the country to learn from the leading experts in any given field.  I have appreciated the opportunity to do so.  Learning is so much fun for me!  However, with the COVID-19, all such in-person learning has ground to a halt, at least for now.  I am very thankful that we live in an age in which online training is also available.

I have several opportunities to get supervision from individuals, peers, and professionally-led groups

Licensed and certified practitioners have a duty to maintain their education, and their various boards and licensing agencies set standards for a minimum number of continuing education credits.

Tell us anything else you want us to know about you, mental health or the human mind or trauma

Karen’s Response: One size does not fit all.  If a therapist’s style, technique, or personality does not work for you, find someone who does fit your individual needs and character. 

Bessel van der Kalk, a leading figure in trauma studies, reminds us that the part of our brains that hold trauma is not the prefrontal cortex—the part of consciousness and decision-making.  It is the survival brain—the part that hijacks our systems and leads us to fight, flight, freeze (deer in the headlights or possum) and fold (learned helplessness—nothing I do matters, so I will not try.  I will fold up into a fetal position and wait for death.)  This part of the brain responds to basic things like diet, sleep, movement, physical comfort—like weighted blankets—and structure.  For someone with trauma, feeling ‘relaxed’ often feels terribly unsafe because we are asking the defensive system that has been needed for protection to stand down without any other resources.  That is why relaxation techniques, deep breathing, or meditation often feel un-doable for someone with trauma.  EMDR, gentle yoga and other movement-based therapies are often very effective.

Often medications can help with symptoms of trauma (sleep issues, for example), but do not help heal the trauma itself.  I know when I try to do my own work with myself, it is often overwhelming and ineffective.  Having the presence of someone you trust, who can guide you may be the only way true healing can occur.  This is not a deficiency; this is how our brains are structures—we need the safety of an ‘other’, a community to take the journey.

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Karen Gill

I am so very thankful and grateful that Karen Gill participated in the Colorful Chaos Blog and she is also helping to spread awareness and break the stigma attached to mental illness!

I truly want everyone to know that if you need help, you can reach out, you do not have to go down a road of suicide or a breakdown.  I, myself, did reach out to reach for help in ways that I knew how. It did not relieve the parts of the pain I was feeling, nor did it fill the emptiness and address the root cause. I sought out different ways that I figured would work. These were through psychics, drinking too much, friends who were not friends, and family that would tell me I was strong, and I just needed to rest. Not one person during this time in my life addressed my behaviors, acknowledged my emotional state, nor my mental state.

Not one person was hearing me! It took Karen to do that. I am grateful and thankful for my journey, my trials, my struggles, for without them, I would not have met Karen. I would not have found the love within myself; I would not have found ways to properly cope with the “child” in me, I would likely not be here. She remains the biggest part of my “strength” circle.

If you are dealing with thoughts of self-harm or depression, and you find that talking to a friend, or family member is not sufficient, please contact a local hospital!

It is OKAY to not be OKAY!

Here are other resources for you:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (they even offer chat) https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/suicide/?msclkid=6e49eaefb11f168ce406b43fcba7934c#how-to-get-help-if-youre-thinking-about-ending-your-life-1

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