Everyone Has a Story. What’s Yours? Share Your Story—Leave a Legacy.
Liz Pearl @ PK Press
I first crossed paths with Sandra (esteemed therapist) when I was a hesitant participant in a casual workshop exploring personal boundaries. Immediately, I was drawn to her eclectic professional style and unique aura. Sandra is creative, authentic, dynamic and passionate. Her energetic vibe resonates with me. And now our journey together continues. Here is the next chapter.
A Therapist’s Journey through Therapy
By Sandra Lax
I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. As a child, I was social, open, playful, determined, cooperative, and relatively fearless. At the tender age of five, my parents made the decision to move to Toronto. I remember being brought into a classroom at my new Hebrew Day School and immediately feeling fear, disconnection, and insecurity. My foundation had been shaken.
I struggled in school and was placed in another class for students who weren’t succeeding. I was labeled “stupid” and told that I spend too much time daydreaming. It would be years before I came to recognize this powerful creative force as my superpower.
Although I might have been born a dreamer, I now understand that it was also a way to cope with the devastating dysfunction occurring in my childhood home and the bullying I was enduring at school.
I was fortunate to have a loving grandmother, Sally, who was strong, elegant and wise, and who enjoyed spending as much time with me as I did with her. I found refuge in ‘Saturdays with Nana’. We shared insights and storytelling, designing and nourishing. Kids would remark, “Why do you always want to be with your Grandmother?” I wasn’t prepared to tell them. How could I have possibly explained the magnitude?
I experienced my first panic attack at age seven. Between the trauma at home and the shaming at school, my young body could not withstand the intense energy that needed to burst through. I was rushed to SickKids—breathless, heart racing, and dizzy.
Upon entering the emergency room, I saw a security guard and had to squint my delicate eyes to avert the over-stimulating fluorescent lights while simultaneously covering my ears from the seemingly blaring television. This intended Urgent-Care Zone did not soothe my fragile nervous system.
I had one follow-up appointment with a psychiatrist and had a panic attack about being treated for panic attacks. That seemed silly. It was then and there that I pledged to perfect the external projection of, “I’m ok,” so that I never had to return to that type of chaos again.
Instead, I put all my energy into friendships, relationships, and school ‒ looking for safety at every opportunity. In my turbulent teenage years, I advocated switching back to private high school from public. I began excelling in the smaller classrooms and came to understand that my learning style is primarily visual. My trajectory changed for having the divine experience of sitting next to twins who colour-coded their notes. I started seeing rainbows and retaining information.
In undergrad, I became fascinated with sociology, psychology and social work, and chose those as my areas of study. It was a focus in line with the four generations of family members that preceded me, all with impactful legacies of serving community.
My academic career continued its upswing and in 2004 I entered my first choice Masters program at Yeshiva University; the Wurzeiler School of Social Work in New York City. Living in New York City was a dream-come-true and the experience fostered boundless exploration and self-discovery.
The classroom became a place where talking about feelings was both highly encouraged and academically necessary. It was completely opposed to the marching orders of my family of origin: “don’t feel, don’t be so sensitive, and don’t speak about what happens inside the house outside the home!” My academic success was a betrayal to the system I grew up in and yet my greatest personal freedom.
A few months after completing the first semester, I returned to Canada and sunk deep into a mental health meltdown, much like quicksand being unearthed under my feet. I was struggling with integrating the two opposing forces.
This was my first run in with clinical depression, and my second with severe anxiety. It also opened up a previously held erroneous belief that PTSD can only happen to those who are involved in catastrophic events such as war, rape, or car crashes.
The suffering was so intense that I decided to take a medical leave from graduate school to tend to the toxic emotions that were suppressed for so long. The grace of God guided me to The Meadows; a renowned residential in-patient facility located in the heart of the life-giving Sonoran desert.
Upon intake, I felt so seen, heard and valued, that by day two, I called my parents and told them I no longer had depression or anxiety. Their response, “That’s great. You have 28 more days. Enjoy them!” By day seven, peers and staff members alike were commenting, “You’re absorbing this material like a sponge.” It was recommended that I finish Social Work School and return to the facility to “teach this stuff”. My response, “okay!”
Although, not before making a commitment to spend the next decade prioritizing my newly found mental wellness by transitioning to an aftercare center located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I followed this with weekly therapy sessions and participating in meetings, workshops and lectures worldwide. That 10-year promise has turned into a decade-and-a-half serendipitous self-actualization journey, that’s ongoing and profoundly enriching. It’s been magical.
“Taking care of yourself is an essential part of taking care of others. The healthier the tree, the better the fruit it can offer.” ‒Barb Schmidt
I was even more motivated upon return to NYC and the Masters Program. I graduated Magna Cum Laude and gave the commencement speech as Valedictorian for the graduating class of 2009. I capped off my school career at the height of success, a vast turn around from the elementary school kid who had been thrust into “the stupid class” and told to “dream less”.
I left the bigger city a few weeks later, bound to an off-the-beat-and-path town called Wickenburg, Arizona to intern at The Meadows‒the diamond standard of mental healthcare, and to pay forward the miraculous treatment with which I was blessed. It was time to shine my light.
My initial goal was to complete a six-month paid internship that I had contracted for. I was hired as Primary Counselor 90 days into employment. I resigned from working in the middle of the desert a year and a half later. However, the lessons learned sparked added ambition for the continuing process of uncovering my genuine self that were even more rooted and iridescent than I could have ever imagined.
In 2012, I Founded Sandra Lax Counseling (former Recovery Connections Canada) a private practice located in the fashionable Yorkville district of Toronto. I had been envisioning it for years. The focus is on supporting others with healing in the direction of meaningful growth and bold, wholehearted living.
In 2015, I applied and was accepted by The Daring Way™ to study with Brené Brown in London, England. It was a short hop over the pond to study with a fellow Social Worker, whose work I thoroughly admire. My heart surged open from the training. This was my marker. I was finally thriving!
I have spent the last 21 years now working in the field of mental health. What is clear to me, after occupying both seats behind the office door, the therapist and the client, is that people, namely survivors who either contend or have overcome adversity with mood disorders and/or addictions (such as I have) are, as Glennon Doyle articulates, “the canaries in the coal mine”. In fact, we are the truth holders and the deep feelers in a world that, itself, carries hurt.
Further, we are profoundly worthy of quality care, exquisite empathy and nurturing environments. I am grateful to have received mine.
I do my best to be of service to others in this way. My practice is currently growing into a larger organization, with expanded reach, offering progressive mental health care, illuminating public education and large-scale philanthropic contributions.
To be able to have had these experiences and to deliver this work is a wild joy in my life. I have come to know who I am, who I am not and what lights me up. At this stage, I have awareness that my plight in life is founded in meeting xenophobia with humanity. What an adventure it’s been and what a wonder it will become.
If there is one lesson that I’ve learned, it’s this: Please keep going on your path. Know that your greatest challenges also have the opportunity to be your most outstanding victories!
Sandra Lax, MSW, RSW, CDWF, CSAT, CMAT, is the Founder of Sandra Lax Counseling, public speaker, published author, event organizer, guest expert on Passion with Dr. Laurie and member of the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. She can be reached at www.sandralax.com.
To support Sandra’s mission, please save the date—November 9, 2019 to attend the event she is organizing to bring people together who have been impacted by mental illness. It’s a gathering for humanity; an evening of connection through multi-sensory experiences of performance, music, art, food, movement, and dance. In support of SickKids Hospital to contribute to the rebuild of the emergency room that is currently underway. It’s an evening to celebrate empathy, courage, hope and light and will impact generations to come!
Liz Pearl, M.Ed., is the Founder and Director of PK Press, a member of OACCPP and a blogger at WordPress: Pearls of Wisdom. She is the editor of the series: Living Legacies – A Collection of Personal Narratives by Canadian Jewish Women (PK Press).