My journey in becoming a registered and licensed counselor has not been devoid of trials and challenges. When my application to do Masters in Psychology Counseling in UKM came through, I was already 41 years old. Time became more precious than ever before and I decided to focus real hard only on things that really mattered. As I struggled with what seemed to me as my flailing memory through the previous semesters, I sighed a great relief when I finished my last written exam papers. No more having to get angry at my brain that seemed to do backstroke swimming whenever I was swatting for an exam paper.
Being a part-time student served a different set of challenges with time management. Therefore, I declined to be a part of the organizing committee for the retreat preparation. I was willing to let others make the necessary decisions and arrangements, and just follow their lead. I had bigger issues to deal with, mainly the anxiety of what I know will happen during the retreat.
Having done my Post Graduate Diploma in Psychology Counseling in UKM, I could roughly gauge what to expect. Although we were not taught group counseling as a specific subject, we had a retreat too back then. As an after thought, having learned the skills and processes of group counseling from Dr. Wan Kader this semester had prepared me to understand what would be happening before, during and after the group counseling sessions.
I pushed the thought of the retreat out of my mind while preparing for my exam papers. However, as I walked out of the exam hall of my last exam paper, the anxiety of the retreat began to pick up pace. Having had two of my old friends, whom I had known since primary school, betray my trust, I found myself traumatized by those experiences. This is because I never had trouble trusting anyone before. I consider myself as someone who had the knack of knowing instinctively who I can and cannot trust. Betrayal was rare and far in between. But now, trusting others is an issue for me. I was afraid to trust again. Betrayal was too painful.
During the two weeks leading up to the retreat, I found myself tearful and tensed during the days and sleepless at nights. It’s like as if there’s an F1 racing going round and round in my head. I began to doubt myself as a counselor. How can I be a counselor if I can’t bring myself to trust anyone? I found myself experiencing an internal conflict. I dreaded the retreat but at the same time I needed help to resolve my conflicting issues. I needed this retreat. But I was still afraid. After having my trust in confidentiality breached by one of the lecturers, I prayed fervently to Allah to be assigned in Dr. Wan Kader’s counseling group. I believe that I can still trust him. I needed to believe this.
I braced myself through the bus journey bound for Ilham Resort in Port Dickson. The presence of the handful of classmates that I consider close to me gave me comfort and quiet support. They knew about my anxiety and trust issues. I allowed myself the luxury of enjoying lunch with my friends and was happy when I was assigned a like-minded roommate at the resort. During the briefing, we were told that after the tea break, there would be an outdoor activity called sensory exercise. I felt reluctant to participate in this activity. I couldn’t understand the reason, though. I just knew that I wanted no part in it. However, after minimal coaxing from Dr. Wan Kader, I found myself slowly yielding. I took off my flip-flops, rolled up my army fatigue cargo pants to my knees, and walked down the concrete steps that led to the beach. It was 5 pm and the tide was low. The water was about 300 meters away from where we gathered as a group.
Going through the sensory exercise with Dr. Wan Kader brought a realization to me. I have been disconnected from my surroundings for far too long. I have been living in my head and had forgotten how much I love nature, especially the seaside. I felt the heat of the sun softly tingling the skin on my face. I could hear the gawking sea gulls near and far, and the crushing tide at the farthest distance. I could smell the salty air slightly polluted by smog and smoke. The feel of the beach sand on my feet brought comfort and relaxation. I felt ready to open up now.
When we were instructed to look for something with which we can relate to, it didn’t take long for me to find one. An empty little crab shell caught my eyes and touched my heart. I carefully picked it up and laid it on my palm. I slowly made my way toward Dr. Wan Kader. With his approval, I began to share with him the reasons why that object of my choice had significant meaning to me. Tears began to flow and my heart ached, mourning the death of my soul brother and lamenting over the cadaver of what was once called Trust.
After finishing my last expression, I asked Dr. Wan Kader for permission to be excused for a while. I needed to pull myself together again so I could go on with the other activities. I knew that if I were to let myself go, I would fall apart. I found solace in my Asr prayer and rejoined the group feeling refreshed and composed.
Since I had already prepared my collage prior to coming to the resort, I had time to be alone with my thoughts while my classmates huddled together to compose their story on a piece of white manila card during the collage making session. I took the golden opportunity to quietly enjoy the night sea breeze, feeling it caressing my face. My thoughts flew to what I wanted to share with my group members during the group counseling sessions scheduled the next day. I wanted to be clear as to what were the issues that I needed to resolve in order for me to be the best counselor I can be.
As midnight inched nearer, we were given leave to retire for the night. We needed to rest well because the next day will be long and tedious; physically, emotionally and psychologically. It took a good while for me to unwind and relax. It was close to 2 am before physical and mental fatigue overtook my emotions. My sleep was dreamless and sound.
I woke up feeling rested but restless. I didn’t have much of an appetite for breakfast. When everyone gathered in the hall for the announcement of group assignment, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. My heart jumped with joy when my name was announced to be in Dr. Wan Kader’s counseling group. I felt relieved and optimistic. I was certain my inner turmoil would be put to rest. I began to look forward to starting the group counseling sessions.
When Dr. Wan Kader’s counseling group convened in the hall, I looked around at the other members of the group. I was glad to find Lokman and Gabriel there too. As for the rest of the members, I hardly knew them personally. I geared my mind to fully participate in the group processes. I wanted to learn and experience the moment.
As the first member began to tell her story, I listened intensively. I kept glancing at Dr. Wan Kader to see his style of leadership and counseling approach. I paid attention whenever he summarized a member’s story and noticed how he phrased his questions. One by one, the members took their turns at sharing themselves with other members. Each story had something I could relate to. Some made me cry my own grief. Some showed me how small my so-called problems are in comparison to theirs.
I couldn’t help but recall the things that were taught to us by Dr. Wan Kader in his lectures about anxieties experienced by members. Resistance and reluctance were present in certain members. These elements were evident in the shallowness of the issues shared with the group. However, I kept my opinions to myself and simply observed and absorbed as much as I could everything that I could perceive. I wasn’t going to allow the mental stance of other members to influence how I was going to do my sharing. I was determined to resolve my issues. This retreat is about me.
When it came to my turn to share, my heart was filled with excitement and dread. I told my story according to what was composed on my collage. But my issues were not on it. I couldn’t find an image that could depict betrayal. I had to show it through my verbal expressions. When I broke down while sharing my anxieties about trusting others, I wasn’t angry with myself for being weak. I believed that I needed to demolish every bit of me that has been destroyed by betrayal in order to rebuild something new that will be stronger and resilient. My sharing lasted almost 2 hours. But what I received from the other members and Dr. Wan Kader was well worth all the tears and pain. I have learned to trust again. I know now why the betrayal of my two old friends was so traumatizing. I realized that my trust in my soul brother does not die with his untimely passing. I have found myself again. And I am determined to never lose myself in my mental anguish anymore.
After I finished my sharing, Dr. Wan Kader called for a break. A barbeque dinner was scheduled in less than two hours. As the group began to disperse, almost all of the group members approached me. I apologized to them for taking so much of the group’s time. They, in turn, surprised me by saying how much they have learned from my sharing. Their hugs and words of support gave me comfort beyond description. My ability to trust has been restored. I feel brave to trust again.
The barbeque dinner was fairly enjoyable. The food was lousy but the company was wonderful. I felt honored when my classmates requested for me to sing a few songs to entertain them for the evening. Although it was impromptu, I delivered the best I could and sang from my heart. But mentally, I was geared for a long night. Group counseling with Dr. Wan Kader was known for his marathon tendencies. Mental stamina was crucial and greatly needed to see this group process until the end.
As the group convene after dinner was over, it was obvious that everyone was ready for hard work. The group cohesion was evident when members were ready to interact with each other in a more voluntary manner. I noticed how Dr. Wan Kader called for a 5 minutes break after each member’s sharing. He would disconnect himself from the group for what I guess to be a mental break. Mental stamina comes to mind again.
As the clock ticks later into the night and began inching towards the wee hours of the morning, it was getting harder for members to remain awake and not nod off to sleep. I saw how everyone struggled to pay attention to each member’s sharing, harder for some than others. As for me, I was relieved that my F1 racing was absent. My head was clear and although I was mentally tired, I was alert.
I have to admit that I found one member of the group to be very annoying. I tried my level best not to let this feeling show. I was aware that my feelings for this member could be a result of mental and physical fatigue. So, I just sat back and let others take the lead. I only participated in that member’s sharing when I felt able to do it constructively.
When all the members of the group had finished sharing their stories, Dr. Wan Kader began the final stage of the group counseling process. We were asked about what we have learned from this experience and we shared our individual experiences with each other. We walked out of the hall at 5 am feeling mentally, physically and emotionally tired. All that was left on my mind was sleep.
Since our group ended very late, we were allowed to sleep through breakfast, if we wished to. My phone alarm woke me up at 9.45 am and I quickly showered, got dressed and packed my bags. The closing ceremony was due at 10.30 am and I didn’t want to be late. I walked toward the hall with a slight spring in my steps. I felt like new. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Wan Kader again. This time my reason is not to unload my issues but to thank him for being there for me. He pulled me out of the water when I was emotionally drowning.
Lunch was scheduled before we were to board the bus bound for UKM. The atmosphere was joyous and happy. I was looking forward to going home, back into the arms of my loving husband and daughters. I wanted to show them the new me. But while I really wanted to go home, I felt a huge mass of sadness creeping up my chest. I was going to miss the people I have learned to trust the day before. I was afraid I was going to lose them and their much needed support. I sobbed as hard as the day my soul brother passed away. Comfort was regained when we exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch with each other.
What did I learn from this marathon group counseling retreat? It is very hard to put words to describe this profound experience. It has been etched in stone, unlike the footprints in the sand during the sensory exercise that gets washed away with the crushing waves.
I can’t help but compare my first retreat experience with this one. For one, the knowledge that I gained from Dr. Wan Kader’s lectures had given me a deeper understanding as to what was going on during the group processes and stages. At the first retreat, I was totally clueless and was merely a client member in a group. But this time around, although I was a client too, I was also a counselor learning to apply my knowledge to practice. I was made aware of what was required from a group leader. Dr. Wan Kader epitomizes the embodiment of group counselor’s characteristics, personally and professionally. Most of these characteristics cannot be taught theoretically but through example. He showed me how a group counselor ‘looks’ like.
I’ve also learned that mental, emotional and physical stamina is important in conducting a marathon group counseling session. Pure determination and passion is not enough to see a group counselor through a long marathon. Mental coping strategies in maintaining stamina are vital in the effectiveness of a group counselor.
I now understand that not all issues can be resolved, even in marathon group counseling sessions. Counselors need to be realistic about what can be achieved with the given limitations and challenges of each setting. After all, at the end of the day, whether you are a counselor or a client, we are all human beings. No one is perfect. No one is strong and resilient all the time. Everyone has limitations and own personal issues. We will become who we want to be and be where we want to be when we are good and ready. Until that moment arrives, we must continue our journey and hopefully discover parts of ourselves that will complete us when we reach our potential destination.