I was raised in an alcoholic, dysfunctional family and at the age of 5, I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa: deterioration of the Retina, which results in a slow loss of vision. By the time I was fifteen, I had lost most of my vision. But if I hadn’t had the childhood that I’d had and the life experiences that I’ve had, then I wouldn’t be the person and therapist that I am today. I can be very patient and have incredible empathy for others – because I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to struggle and to feel ashamed.
Growing up, my life was unpredictable.
I never knew what was going to happen next and that created emotional stress and trauma. My parents fought often. My mom started drinking when I was diagnosed, most likely because she had no support from my dad or anyone else.
The fighting and alcoholism meant that the attention and guidance that a child needs – that I needed – weren’t there. If someone is intoxicated, then they can’t really be present. And I became a people pleaser, always hoping that if I did everything right, then maybe they wouldn’t yell, maybe they wouldn’t drink again. A misguided hope.
My mom, despite her drinking, was always there to help me with homework, and when I was losing my sight, she was there to help me with the practical stuff. She still wanted me to have a “normal” life and to do “normal” things, which meant that I pushed myself to excel in a regular school, surrounded by kids without any physical challenges.
Still, losing my sight was, as you can imagine, a huge source of insecurity and self-consciousness, making me feel “less than” in many ways. And from the very start of that downward slide in my vision, I began to encounter many people, children and adults both, who had prejudices against people with vision problems. They couldn’t see that I was a person despite the blindness. One comment that I remember very clearly was, “Too bad she can’t see because she’s so pretty.”
All of which meant that I really tried to hide the fact that I couldn’t see.
I would bury my head in my Braille books and I wouldn’t use a cane, even though it was far too dangerous for me to be walking around the streets without one. Not being able to see was a part of me that I was completely uncomfortable with, mostly due to other people’s perception.
During high school, even though it seemed like I knew what I wanted to do in life and, to everyone else, I must have looked like a typical high achiever headed to college, I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to travel that path. Traditional school was just too much of a struggle. I was always trying to fit in to both worlds—the sighted and the non-sighted—and not really fitting into either since I didn’t see fully but wasn’t fully blind.
I couldn’t wait to get out of school and planned to be an office worker. But when I was seventeen, everything changed. I went to mobility training to learn how to use a cane (the time had finally come!), and there was a counselor I encountered that was so horrible, so awful, and such a negative influence, that I could only think, “She’s doing this, and she’s terrible at this. I could do this and be really good at it. I could help people.”
At that moment, I resolved to become a psychotherapist.
I knew I could do a better job than the counselor I had encountered during mobility training. But my newfound resolve meant that I was going to have to go college, and even grad school, to fulfill my dream.
So I moved out of the house at 19 and worked part-time while going to Hofstra University to support myself. When I was going to graduate school full-time at Adelphi University School of Social Work, I was also working full-time and doing a 21-hour-per-week internship.
After completing grad school, I began working with prisoners at the Nassau County Work Release Program and Nassau County Jail. I was the coordinator for the drug and alcohol tier for minors. These 16- to 20-year-olds were waiting to go upstate for their prison sentence, having been convicted of murder, rape, arson, and other violent crimes, and all were drug and alcohol addicted.
I really loved working with these clients: I could really see their pain. To me, they weren’t just people who had done something wrong (even though they clearly had). I could see beneath to the kid or young person who had withstood devastating emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. From my perspective, the upbringing that these kids had was what led to the drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and their tendency to act out. I was able to see beyond what they had done to who they were inside. These prisoners, my clients, were people too, and they were especially open to counseling and therapy. From their perspective, nobody really cared about them, so they appreciated the forty-five minutes of concern and care every week.
At that time in my life I was a real rebel, always rooting for the underdog.
That came partly from my own childhood. If there was someone whom nobody wanted to help, then my heart went out to them. Part of my gift was to be able to empathize without identifying; I could see their pain.
At the time, I was also undergoing my own therapy regarding my tumultuous childhood and that included working on releasing my need to keep my visual challenge hidden from others. I learned to really embrace this part of myself. It had been so uncomfortable to be okay with this part of me, but after some great emotional release work and a lot of therapy, there came a day in which I finally decided that I wanted to get a guide dog. It was a pivotal moment for me. I would no longer have a cane that I could fold up and put in my purse. No! Getting a guide dog meant that I was putting my lack of sight out there for the world to see.
Even as I was coming to terms with this vital aspect of myself, though, the state penal system in which I worked with the prisoners made it harder and harder for me to be there. I then made a decision to transfer to Nassau County Department of Drug and Alcohol addiction. I was working with people addicted to substances, those in recovery, as well as clients experiencing trauma and codependency issues. I became a senior supervisor, I had a lot of responsibility but not a lot of input, other than the work I did with my clients. As a result, I experienced a great deal of frustration, despite having job safety and security and five weeks of paid vacation. While working at the department of drug and alcohol addiction, I also had a small private psychotherapy practice which was profoundly satisfying. And so, after many years I reached a very heart-wrenching crossroads: I decided it was time to go into full time private practice in order to do the clinical work that I wanted to do.
The opportunity to purchase Nassau Guidance and Counseling then presented itself.
Here was my chance to hire the kind of therapists that I could be proud to match with clients! But the thought of running a business, with all of its financial and emotional risks – I just wasn’t sure I could do it. How could I leave my safe and stable position to do something this crazy? I feared that I didn’t have the experience or the skill set to run a business.
But then I recalled all that I had gone through, everything that I had achieved, despite the odds, and knew that I could do it. This was my chance to really practice the therapy that spoke to my heart, to develop a practice of kind and compassionate therapists who catered to clients from all walks of life – this was my dream, and I was going after it.
The learning curve was steep, though! I was never previously a business owner; I didn’t know anything about business! So I needed my own coach and my own mentor and I needed to learn from others. This was completely uncharted territory for me; I had no idea what a mission statement was, how a balance sheet worked, etc. But what I did know was that I wanted to give quality therapy to people. There were certainly times that I thought it might not be possible for me to take on all of this responsibility, but I kept plodding along, sometimes taking a few steps backwards, and sometimes needing someone to encourage me.
What I did focus on, though, was keeping my end-game in mind: in order to be able to help people on a larger scale, in order to match potential clients with the best therapists, then I would have to master some of these other tasks. Just as I encourage my clients, I kept asking, “What is my intention, what is my goal, what is my dream?” And those questions kept me going even when I wanted to quit, because if I quit, that would mean giving up on my dream. Some dreams require doing things that we are uncomfortable with and don’t know how to do or don’t want to do. Every time my resistance and fear came up, when I was thinking about things like, “But how do we design a website, how do we reach out to people?”, then I would work through that resistance and fear, and I kept coming back to knowing that it was important for me to learn to do these things if I wanted to pursue my dream.
That process parallels with therapy.
If someone wants to heal, or to work though the grieving process, to reduce their anxiety, or enhance their relationship, then even though the process can be really hard and painful at times, you can keep going by holding the goal in mind. Which is also why I only hire therapists who have done their own personal work; if you haven’t worked through your own personal issues, then you have no idea how the process of true healing occurs.
We originally started out with only five therapists, and now we’re at forty-two therapists and counting. As we grew, I remained true to my goal: hiring the kind of therapists who could provide the best care for anyone who called. Now it wasn’t just about my own clients, but knowing that everyone who came in the door was going to be matched up with an amazing therapist. For instance, if a new client had a specific need for help in anxiety, trauma, grief, family, couples then we now had a specialist in each area who could help. Highly skilled and experienced, these therapists have done their own personal work, and I feel completely comfortable with what they offer.
Moreover, I continued to grow as a psychotherapist, too, changing and expanding the way I worked. My influences became more gestalt, more emotional release therapy, and I started to understand that I wanted to really bring the body, mind, and spirit connection into my work. I wanted to work with clients on releasing the emotions, and that meant that I was expanding the ways in which I was working with people into more body-centered and holistic approaches.
This heart-centered approach is how I continue to practice with my clients.
I bring heart, body, mind and spirit into the partnership between my clients and myself. I see all of those that I work with as a unique and real person, with their own path to healing, and I respect their journey, wherever they are on that path. I feel blessed to have been given the gift to connect and help facilitate healing of my clients and assist with attaining their goals and dreams. I am so thankful to be sharing my dream with others each and every day.