Your True North.

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In my favourite book The Virgin Suicides, after a first attempt at death, young Cecilia is asked post-slitting-of-the-wrists “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

Her response, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”

This brief and realistic encounter between doctor and patient displays the massive rift in understanding that continues to be experienced in many of these interactions. My own extensive hours in therapy and counselling have ranked from grippingly boring and forced to seemingly transcendent understanding. When I saw that my friend, Mattie Harrison, recently opened her own private practice in Tacoma as a counselor I was thrilled. When we met for drinks last week among friends, I knew I wanted to come visit her space and to have a chance to sit down with her to chat about why she chose this profession and celebrate the future opportunities of healing to come.

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Located on a corner on 6th Avenue in a charmed classic Tacoma Craftsman, the space is unassuming and serene. Upon entering it lacked the sometimes clinical, hospitalesque atmosphere I’ve felt in some past practices. Where you’re concerned you might have to skirt around an Oliver Trask and feel almost apologetic for being there; it felt like I was walking into a close friend’s home, ready to share. The home’s natural layout allowed for various areas that suit different needs: large dining room table for group therapies, cozy downstairs lent a comfortable and relaxed place for children, a spacious dining room suited for connecting with large groups, a bonus area for group activities, and each room used by a different therapist.

Mattie’s office- muted, warm, and perfectly Pacific Northwest-meets-Anthropologie– was a toasty ‘welcome’ and I was eager to hear about the beginning of her own journey. After graduating with a Psychology major, she spent a few years as a flight attendant but found that she found herself unhappy, finding it difficult to connect with her crew and coworkers much of the time and that “most of the time it was pretty lonely”- and no wonder, only seeing her husband for three months out of their first year of marriage. Post soul searching and a stint with AmeriCorp, she decided to move forward into the realm of counselling.

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Pre graduation from Pacific Lutheran University, Mattie applied for a specific internship with the Chaplain Family Life Center on Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), which she thanks for preparing her for private practice in many ways. Her experience with many younger couples working in a relaxed environment while focusing on intense situations created an atmosphere that grew her perceptions, her insight, and her ability to connect. Once her internship ended, she began to search…and found that her compass directed her to begin her own private practice. Early October of this year, she began Your True North.

I asked about her thoughts around the taboo of needing therapy and help, particularly for men in this society, and even more specifically for those who have undergone true traumas and how she hopes to be available. She’s aware of this stigma, saying, “there is so much shame involved in asking for help…in our society we’re told to just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and if we’re not able to do that, then we’re told ‘there’s something wrong with me’- and then we’re set up for isolation.” With U.S. suicide rates surging to a 30 year high, it’s apparent that this is truth. “For me, I want this to be a comfortable place to go where they (her clients) know they’re not going to be shamed. It’s a human process; we all have times when we need extra support and we need people to come alongside us for that extra support. Whether that be a friend, family member, or counsellor. We’re all human…anyone can benefit from talking to someone and having someone come alongside them.”

As she opens her doors to those ready to take steps towards healing, she explains that some expect her to provide a sort of life coaching or give a specific answer to solve every problem. Instead she considers herself a guide and while she understands and respects the role of a life coach, she doesn’t exist to tell you what to do. Mattie hopes to offer “different perspectives and ways of looking at things; ultimately it’s up to the client to choose what fits them and what doesn’t. I’m not here to force a certain idea or way of living down someone’s throat.”

When it seems like so many people throughout life are trying to do just that- push their ideologies and thoughts and opinions of what you should be doing and how you should be doing it- Mattie offers a safe place. But how does she expect to propel forward as someone considerably younger in the industry, when she may not necessarily have the extensive life experience someone practicing counselling for 20+ years has? Education. Education and continual learning and her drive to constantly find innovative ways to lend a hand. “I offer a fresh perspective,” Mattie explains, “society as a whole has shifted a lot. I’m here to give different viewpoints and honouring and valuing people with different beliefs is important.”

Revisiting Mattie’s internship at JBLM, we discussed the effects of a military life on our soldiers, veterans, and their families. She’s seen and heard the effects of war personally within her family, the thing that initially sparked the passion for connecting with our troops and their families. “I felt this pull, this tugging that I had to be there (Chaplain Family Life Center).”

Mattie spent memorable and important time working with the Permission to Start Dreaming (PTSD) Foundation, incepted in 2011, this organisation’s goal to “inspire hope and action in the Community and provide access to solutions for Soldiers, affected by Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury, and their Families via professional services, challenging peer adventures, education and spiritual devotion.” Their website explaining, “We run because the longest journey many of our soldiers face is not the plane ride home from distant battle fields, but rather the struggle they face upon returning.” Seeing firsthand the devastating effects of war that are many times ignored, brushed under the rug, or hidden away creating a calling in her to be the conduit for healing. “There is this fear of reaching out, there is this isolation. And then of course, that plays into relationships with family members…anger is the only acceptable emotion to express for males a lot in our society.”

And it seems that anger prevails so much right now. During a highly charged time in our own homes, in our country, in the world- turning to the things that have always been there for us is one of Mattie’s focuses through Ecotherapy: healing centered on spending time in the environment we live in and connecting with the natural world.

“Getting outside has been really helpful for me, and at the time I maybe didn’t realize what a benefit it was. Whether feeling anxious or sad- whatever’s going on- getting outside, even if it’s just taking thirty minutes to walk around the block I feel better.” It gives new meaning to taking time to smell the roses. After researching and studying, Mattie found that intertwining with the outdoors can help one be mindful and change perspective greatly. She hopes to incorporate this aspect as a supplementary tool for her clients who choose to add Ecotherapy to their sessions and having a mindful agenda. Would love to be able to incorporate this aspect as a supplementary tool for her clients who want to add this to their sessions and having a mindful agenda.

It is clear that Mattie has a bright future ahead of her, but more importantly and clearly than that- she’s here to give, to rebuild and reconcile, “the end goal is to be serving other people”. There is so much work to be done in the hearts and minds of those around us and while therapy may be considered a luxury, it is as much part of self care as brushing your teeth or remembering to spend time understanding one’s emotions.

Reaching out can be the most difficult part, or sometimes opening up, or sometimes facing that reaching out might be important, or that maybe something in us is very, very broken. Ultimately though, it makes my heart happy to know there are people here to give themselves to their work and to the people around them. When my hour was up (kidding, kind of) Mattie simply said, “we’re better together, as a whole. We are better when we’re not divided” and during a time when hurt swirls around us like pollen on a spring day, these words were like balm to a wound.

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