It’s a long road but it’s very worth it – Judith Withers, Psychologist
Judith Withers on Growing up
Born 1947 in Hungary, I was nine years old when my whole world changed. Russia’s invasion of Hungary in 1945 was brutal, as was their occupation of Hungary. In 1956, when the Russians were pushed out during a revolution, there were a few days of hope. However, a few days later they came back, more brutal than before. This forced people to escape overnight crossing the mountains into Austria – including my family. My cousins and I were told we were going on a holiday and only leaving in the clothes we were wearing.
I vividly remember hiking all night across the mountains, which was scary. The next day at dawn we found some vineyards and then we knew we were in Austria. We were assisted by the Red Cross, who fed and clothed us, and helped us to travel to Australia.
When we were on the boat to Australia, no one said anything; I was with my parents, two cousins and their parents and still no one explained our new life or prepared me for what was about to happen.
A few months later when we were living in Sydney, I still had no explanation about why this was our new life. I remember thinking ‘this is a pretty long nightmare; it’s going to finish eventually and I will be home in my own little bed’. But the nightmare never ended. In no way was I prepared for what was happening to me.
We ended up in Sydney because one of my uncles and his wife and son had moved here a year earlier. They helped us to get started financially and with somewhere to live until my parents could work.
When my parents were finally working and we were living in our own home, I didn’t see much of them during the week as they worked incredible long hours. And with no friends, I felt very alone growing up.
When did you know you wanted to be a psychologist?
In my teens I joined a youth group where I gradually started to have a social network and to accept that this was my new life. At one of the gatherings, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I picked up my first psychology book – it was a book about the work of Sigmund Freud. From there I went on to read books on other psychologists like Alfred Adler. This is when I knew that I wanted to be a psychologist.
What was your first psychology job?
When I finished University, the only psychology jobs that were available were in Government. So I accepted a job in the Health Department. I felt I found my niche when I began working with children and families. I was very lucky to have had work based supervision for 10 years, as this helped me to increase my self-awareness and improve my effectiveness as a psychologist.
What does it mean to be a psychologist?
Being a psychologist is about trying to help people improve the quality of their emotional lives. It is 90% about being who you are and 10% about what you learnt at University. And remembering the significance of your opinions in moulding people who are perhaps vulnerable.
How do you see yourself compared to other psychologists?
Some psychologists are more directive and outspoken, some are less directive; I would see myself half way between those two.
What makes you a good psychologist?
I believe that my own personal journey, drawing from the experiences I’ve had, have helped me to empathise and to genuinely understand my clients. My parents never accepting my profession, moving from Hungary, growing up feeling quite lonely – all of it and more helps me to understand my clients better.
Who are your clientele?
They are a mixed bunch. Some come because they feel that they need to improve on their quality of life, and some have been advised to get professional help. Some come to me with relationship problems, anxiety, depression or straight self-confident issues, and a whole range of other concerns.
Some people self-harm and their level of desperation and level of hopelessness is such that it is difficult to help them to improve. It can be very confronting.
Are you aware when a person self-harms?
I’ve known about one young man who I saw a few times, who self-harmed. He was unreliable at keeping appointments. The last time I saw him he was having problems with his partner of 10years. She was very angry with him so I gave him a time to come back with her if he wanted to. He didn’t turn up to his appointment. I tried getting in touch with him – leaving two voice mail messages. I didn’t hear back from him so there wasn’t anything more I could do.
About 8 weeks later, my phone rang and there was a man on the phone saying ‘I’m so and so’s father – did you know he had passed away?’ And I hadn’t. I spent an hour on the phone with this father helping him feel less responsible for his son self-harming himself; trying to dissolve his sense of guilt – his son was only 30 years old.
Apparently, what had happened, was that his girlfriend did leave and it was too much for him. I think he felt too desperate to ring me.
I say to all those people who consider self-harming, if you are feeling bad, you can call me 24/7 and give me a chance to talk you down from that desperation. A lot of people have done so and it has made a difference. Sadly this person chose not to. There are a number of people about whom I wonder if they are still alive but once contact is closed, it’s closed. I cannot ring them or chase them.
What is your main goal with your clients?
My goal is to assist them to become more resilient and to feel more positive and fulfilled. If I can help to keep them safe, even if for 12months, that’s all I can ask.
Most of my clients find a new reason to keep going, and the quality of their emotional life improves. For some of them, it’s just been a temporary glitch and they settle down and everything is fine. For my clients who are really struggling, I let them know I’m available to them 24hours. Some have called and it has helped them.
Did you ever question what you were doing?
I didn’t question what I was doing. Most psychology work is private and now there are very few government jobs. I was in my 30’s when I decided to go off on my own and stop working in government jobs.
I had 10 years in health and four years in welfare. I started working when I was 23 so I was about 37 years old when I finally cut those strings. Working for yourself is an up and down way of making a living. Some weeks you are busy, some weeks you have nothing to do – fairly confronting but it was the best thing I could have done for myself.
What do you find most challenging about being a psychologist?
The influence you have in terms of your opinions and attitudes to influence other people and to make sure you do that in a way that is really in their best interest.
Working with people who self-harm can also be very confronting.
What do you find most rewarding?
When people get better. When people start to feel there is a purpose to life; find a reason to living. Some of my clients are at risk at self-harm, so it’s helping them to pull themselves out of that hole and giving them a reason to keep living.
I feel honoured to be allowed into my client’s personal lives and to try to help them to live life in a positive and more fulfilling way. When they become stronger, their self-confidence has improved and they form more constructive relationships – that’s my driver!
Is there someone you aspired to?
When I worked in welfare, our leader/director in the unit was a wonderful person in a very stressful environment. She was a positive person; no matter what she made you feel good about what you did. Nurturing, inspirational, personable – I remember thinking I wanted to be like her when I grew up. We got along really well.
Where are you working now?
I have my own practice where I work in an office some days, and other days I work from home.
I enjoy the variety of people I meet and problems I am confronted with.
What do you look forward to the most when seeing your clients?
I look forward to interacting with them and helping them to see their world a slightly different way. I get my real joy out of them improving.
How do you decompress?
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and go to the movies a lot. I switch off by meditating, or spending a few hours around a book shop doing things I enjoy, for example getting on a ferry to Manly – I find anything to do with water is soothing.
I’ve learnt over the years how to recognise when I’m not doing enough for me. I look after myself and make sure that I take time out to do things to nurture myself on a weekly basis. I also go on a holiday every year.
Are there any myths about psychology?
One that does get old hearing is “Are you going to psychoanalyse me now?” It just doesn’t happen. We don’t take the contents of your brain and put it under a microscope. Therapy is a two way interactive process between a client and a psychologist.
Is there any advice you would give someone needing to see a psychologist?
Pick a psychologist who is registered and a member of the Australian Psychological Association.
Ask to talk to that person so you can get a sense if you can work with them or not.
It is also useful if you were recommended a person by a doctor, friend or family member.
What are the signs of some-one thinking about self-harming themselves?
If someone you know talks about feeling so hopeless that they are planning to harm themselves, or they have harmed themselves, it is a warning not to be taken lightly.
Don’t try to solve the problem yourself. It is a time for professional help.
Sources of help
Suicide Support Line phone 1800 859 585 (open 24 hours)
Lifeline phone 13 11 14
What would you say to someone wanting to be a psychologist?
It’s a long road but it’s very worth it.2