College counselor offers advice for surviving the pandemic: give yourself a break, and maybe get a cat

Sawyer G Sheldon, a Graduate Intern at CCC, discusses ways to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sawyer G Sheldon.

“Oh my god, the world is on fire!” Sawyer G Sheldon, graduate intern in Clackamas Community College’s  counseling department, shares insights on mental health from the unique perspective of being both a student and a counselor in a global pandemic. We sat down with her to discuss how to stay healthy during the pandemic. 

The Clackamas Print: So, what drew you to want to become a counselor?

Sawyer Sheldon: I am a military veteran, I served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And when I got back from the service my experience with mental health was awful. I didn’t feel supported, I had a lot of trouble finding services for female veterans. Portland isn’t a military town, we don’t have a major military installation in Oregon, so there isn’t really a lot of people that deal or have experience with that sort of problem, and I was like, “This is crap, and I hate it, I want to fix it, so I might as well start fixing it.” So, I got my bachelor’s in social and behavioral sciences from Linfield, and I’m currently in my final year of a two-year program to get my master’s in applied psychological sciences. Part of that program over at Pacific University is I have to go out into the community and perform therapy. So, I’m here at CCC.

TCP: So, you see a therapist? 

Sheldon: I do, a lot of mental health care providers see therapists. The pandemic has been hard on everybody. So, I also need someone I can go talk to for 50 minutes once a week and be like, “oh my god the world is on fire!” I think it’s especially important for mental health care providers. “You can’t take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.” So, I like to practice what I preach a little bit. 

TCP: Is that a requirement?

Sheldon: It’s not really a requirement. I went to therapy before I decided to become a therapist, and it really helped me. When I first started school, we would do roleplay where you would be one of my classmates and we would play a scenario where I’m Susie and I have depression, but you could definitely tell when your partner had never been to therapy and you’re like, “I’m sorry. No.” 

So, I think it’s really great to get the client’s perspective. The nice thing about therapy is that my therapist cares about me in that I’m another human being. They have natural empathy, but they’re not my friend, so they’ll be like “you’re being unreasonable about this” and my husband wouldn’t do that. Or my friends would be like, “you’re right.” But It’s really great to go to that person and have them be like, “no, but actually.” 

TCP: Self-reflection is something that a lot of people are secretly afraid of, and they don’t know it, and it drives them into this space of not even seeing the connection between how they’re acting and what’s happening in their life. You know, how they’re contributing to that reality.

Sheldon: Yeah, a lot of therapy is that. I felt like every Lit. and English class I’ve taken is like “okay, now write a half a page about how you felt when we read the story.” People stop doing that because they’re like “I’m done. I don’t have to do that ever again.”

TCP: Yeah, like some of the best things I’ve ever written were actually reflections on something in my (Writing) 121 class.

Sheldon: I think it’s really healthy, we do that a lot in grad school, like a lot, which is good.

Knowing what you should do and actually doing it are two completely different things.

TCP: Yeah, in one of my classes we read this book that takes place in this dystopian future, you know it right? 

Sheldon: 1984?

TCP:  I think, no, the other one that’s kind of like that.

Sheldon: Brave New World?

TCP: Yeah, Brave New World.

Sheldon: I have a Brave New World poster. This (room) looks all professional but over here (off camera) is a bunch of Star Wars memorabilia.

TCP: Yeah that book, we just read it during the pandemic you know, and I was like, wow, this is super relevant. And it always has been, you know.

Sheldon: This was written like 50 years ago and it’s really coming around.

TCP: Yeah, it just keeps getting better. But you know, they talk about the pursuit of happiness. You can’t value happiness and truth and have them both be in the same place. If you make pursuing happiness your priority it makes truth become subjective to your own feelings. 

Sheldon: Yep. Yeah, it really does. That’s kind of what therapy is. A lot of people think they’re unhappy because of external factors. A lot of times they are. Sometimes, there’s stuff I can’t help you change.

I can just help how you interact with that system, or that reality.

But like you said, If I just want to be happy, it’s really easy to just ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore, and push and push, and push, and push. But eventually all that stuff comes back out.  Brave New World is a perfect example. You can only shove that box shut so much before it explodes all over. You can only take so much Soma.

TCP: So, what’s been an unexpected hurdle during the pandemic?

Sheldon: I thought that this was going to be over at the end of summer. For me as a counselor, it’s really hard to sit here and not have the answer and be like, “You’re right, I don’t know when this is gonna end. We’re all kind of just in this together.” That constant unease of not knowing, it permeates everybody, including your doctors and your counselors.

As much as I might be able to help mitigate how you’re feeling today or change a situation, it doesn’t 

replace being in a room with someone and feeling how the vibe is in the room, I really think telehealth, which previously was kind of this thing that not a lot of people like to do and a lot of providers didn’t like to do because it’s harder, I think it’s going to stick around. I hope that means that we have better access to care for people that might not have the time to drive somewhere, or the means to drive somewhere. It’s nice to be like “you don’t have to get on four buses to come see me now, you just have to log on your computer.”

TCP: What about an unexpected benefit?

Sheldon: I think one of the fun benefits about telehealth is that you can do it anywhere. A lot of people who couldn’t find childcare, or were trying to shove it on like their lunch hour driving to a place that takes time. Being able to just log on to a screen, it’s nice to have that convenience. As much as I really miss being in a room with someone and feeling how the vibe is in the room, I really think telehealth, which previously was kind of this thing that not a lot of people like to do and a lot of providers didn’t like to do because it’s harder, I think it’s going to stick around. I hope that means that we have better access to care for people that might not have the time to drive somewhere, or the means to drive somewhere. 

TCP: What would your advice be to Clackamas Community College students who just don’t have time for therapy?

Sheldon: Yeah, I’m blessed to not own a TV. I think that it’s been really helpful for me personally, staying sane during the pandemic. People are like “man, did you see this?” and I’m like “I don’t own a TV actually, and I’m really glad I don’t.” That’s one thing like, if you want to watch TV as your one thing to do for you, like that’s fine I’m not going to take that away from you like, I’m a big movie person, I love sitting down and watching a movie it’s my favorite thing in the entire world. But I think like you said there’s something to be said for being a little disconnected, even if it’s just for an hour a week or 10 minutes a day.

TCP: Yeah. So aside from taking time to decompress, as far as self-care goes, is there any other advice that you’d have for students?

Sheldon: I would really just remind people that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel the feelings that you’re feeling, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I think especially like we’re all in college, we’re all driven enough to show up here and want to do good, like we don’t go to college to flunk out right? You go to college because you want to do something better with your life and you need to do this to get there, right? This is the stepping stone.  It’s easy to just be like, “this feeling isn’t productive right now and it’s not helping me get to my goal; I’m not gonna feel it.”

And I think especially right now during a time where we’re all so isolated, giving yourself just a little bit of slack can go a really long way. It’s something that I work on. I still feel like I should be producing at the level I was before a pandemic, and I’m like, “that’s a really unreasonable goal to have myself, but self, you better start!” It’s okay, like we’re still in a global pandemic and like the entire world is shut down. You don’t have to be producing at a level that you were before…

The way I think my professor put it, “being a lazy overachiever in a pandemic is really really hard”.

TCP: What is the one thing you think readers need to know?

Sheldon: We’re in this for the long haul, and it’s time to start taking care of your heart and now, stop dreaming about a future that we might not have or thinking about a past that we no longer have. It’s really invaluable to invest in making your situation now better. Whether that is monetarily investing in a new office chair so that you aren’t uncomfortable all day in class, buying a Switch so that you have something to do, or investing in the relationships that you have by setting up a weekly Zoom happy hour every Friday. If I could tell anybody anything it’s like we’re here now in this situation and we need to stop pretending that we’re not. Invest in yourself, in your relationships, and if you want, in your physical environment. Get a cat, get a friend. Yeah, it sucks, but it can suck slightly less if you get a cat.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.