Changing my narrative: discovering the value of counseling

Most people know me as a boisterous, light-hearted joker; socially, I try to put up as much of a happy front as I can. This upbeat attitude embodies Paly’s atmosphere in many ways. In my time at Paly, mental health has been rarely discussed in classes and my peer group. Students don’t necessarily ignore feelings of stress, but instead either push them aside to make it seem like they “have their life together” or use them as bragging rights. Truly sad feelings, however, are bottled up because they show weakness.

This past year, administration has tried to improve the atmosphere regarding the topic of mental health at Paly, however, because this is such a sensitive topic, it’s going to take time before this becomes an open conversation on campus. As Paly starts to bring up the topic of mental health more through outlets such as Sources of Strength, I want to add to that conversation.

Around a month ago, Gunn’s newspaper, The Oracle, began a campaign called “Changing the Narrative.” The goal of this campaign is to change the conversation and mindset surrounding Gunn by “normalizing everyday struggles and showing the beauty of vulnerability,” according to The Oracle’s website. Gunn senior Lisa Hao’s moving article about her journey of recovery from depression brought “Changing the Narrative” to my attention.

The morning after Lisa’s story was posted, I was talking a friend about the article and that friend remarked to me, “Paly doesn’t have these issues about mental health, it’s more of a Gunn issue.”

Having someone to simply express your true emotions to is an invaluable gift that everyone should have, no matter your mental health status.

After hearing this, I was taken aback by my friend’s dismissive attitude. Mental health is not just an issue at one high school, it is an issue that many people deal with at some point. I paused and responded, “More people than you think struggle with mental health issues at Paly.” We quickly moved onto another topic but at that point, I still held something back — the fact that I have struggled with my own mental health and have been in counseling for over a year now because of it.

Much like how many juniors may currently feel, last year, I struggled to manage AP classes, extracurriculars, SAT prep and a social life while simultaneously trying to stay happy. It felt as if life got hard really fast and like I was close to my limit of what I could deal with while staying mentally healthy; I was getting little sleep, not meeting my own expectations in most of my classes, struggling trying to do as many extracurriculars as I could and not was doing well on the SAT. I was beating myself up over these tasks I was really struggling with, while it seemed like other people were just gliding through. I felt like a lesser person.

One night while with my SAT tutor, I got a practice SAT test score that was far below Palo Alto’s average and even the national average. I beat myself up over this failure, feeling as if the SAT was the “test of all tests” that proved my value as a person. Most of my life I had heard people be described the score they got on the SAT, as if it was a personality trait. Instead of hearing someone described as “a great friend” or “awesome person to be around,” I would hear, “they got a 2300 on their SAT.” It seemed like the SAT defined how people would look at me.

All these stressors started to build up, causing my mental health and self-worth to plummet. I expressed my thoughts verbally to my tutor, telling him I was not good enough and that I should just give up. My tutor asked me if I had ever thought of hurting myself, but I could not bring myself to answer his question. I knew we both wouldn’t have wanted to hear the answer.

After that incident, my mom told me that my tutor had recommended that I start seeing a therapist and that she had decided to follow through with that recommendation. At first I was confused. I didn’t have depression, so why did I need therapy? Although I did struggle with anxiety, low self-worth and occasional thoughts about hurting myself, I had never attempted any self-harm and did not think my inclinations were too serious. Like many, I believed that only those with diagnosed mental health illnesses need therapists.

In hindsight, I’m eternally thankful to my tutor for his recommendation. In the year since then, I have gone through personal issues that have led me to be in a really unhealthy place mentally. Around six months into my counseling, my mental health hit its low point; I was in a really dark place and was struggling to get through weeks, even days. There were moments where taking my life was an option I was considering. There were moments where I let my negative self-image allow me to question if I wanted to live.

When it comes to your mental health, it’s okay to be selfish. Your health comes first seeing as it impacts all other aspects of your life as well, from how well you do in school to how you interact with your family and your friends.

Now, I can happily, and honestly, say that I am out of that mental state, a journey that  wasn’t easy. It took time and a better understanding of myself to get me to where I am today, along with lots of help from my counselor. Through many sessions, I was able to recenter and get a grip on my mental health.

I am sharing my story because I want to emphasize that it is okay to get help. I know that everyone has heard this already, but there is so much more to this saying. I thought counseling would be like Freudian psychology, where I would lie on a couch and talk about my subconscious feelings. After my first session I realized that counseling is simply having a conversation with a trusted adult who, because he or she is totally separated from the rest of your life, is simply there to aid you. For an hour, you can talk about anything in life that may be impairing your mental health. Through conversations with my counselor, I received advice on how to alter my perspectives on school and on myself in order to develop a healthier mindset. Even though my counselor does not have all the answers, she guides me in a direction where I can find them myself.

There’s a misconception that counseling is solely for those who have been diagnosed with a serious mental health disease. People are often hesitant to try counseling because they believe that there is a person who is more depressed, more suicidal, more stressed or just worse off who deserve and need the help more than they do.That is certainly how I felt.

First off, the guidance office or Adolescent Counseling Service provides help that is available to everyone on campus. When it comes to you mental health, it’s okay to be selfish. Your health comes first seeing as it impacts all other aspects of your life as well, from how well you do in school to how you interact with your family and your friends. Personally, I could never have foreseen my mental health getting as bad as it did. Because I was already meeting with a counselor, I was able to quickly and adequately deal with my deteriorating mental health, before things could get out of hand

I don’t want to sound like seeing a counselor has solved all of my anxiety and self-worth issues, because it hasn’t. However, I do want to emphasize how much it has helped. For a while, I thought I was one of few people at Paly seeing a counselor because people rarely talk about mental health. However, as I have opened up to close friends about going to counseling, I have learned many other people have gone through or are going through similar struggles as mine.

If you feel like something is taking a toll on your mental health, do not be afraid to seek help. Needing to talk to someone is human, and we all need it sometimes. It does not mean you are weak, it means you are strong enough to take care of your mind and body. Having someone to simply express your true emotions to is an invaluable gift that everyone should have, no matter your mental health status.

That conversation with my friend after Lisa’s article was posted made me want to be open with my mental health struggles. Palo Alto is its best when we are one community centered around supporting one another. As Gunn changes their narrative, so should Paly. Being vulnerable is scary, but as The Oracle points out, there is beauty to it. There is beauty to being open about your own struggles, and making sure even one other person knows that how they feel is okay and is normal.

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  • L

    Laura HansenDec 4, 2015 at 11:22 am


    Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability in this beautiful piece. We all should be sharing more about available resources and stories of strength and resiliency. Positive psychology shows us that we are better and more successful students, workers, family members, friends, athletes, etc. when we focus on wellness and personal growth. I look forward to continuing this dialogue at Paly.

  • M

    Ms. AngellDec 2, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Bravo! Kudos & appreciation for sharing your experience.

  • E

    Eric BloomDec 2, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Kudos to Aiva! What a joy to have such a bright, articulate, and empathic Editor on the Campanile. My class, the Campanile, Paly, and the whole world is better off because people like Aiva Petriceks choose to participate in such an authentic way. <3 Aiva!