Meet Cecilia, a former client of our San Pedro clinic. She’s the second of five clients we are honored to feature and celebrate her courage during May Mental Health Month. Priscilla, Cecilia’s therapist, reflected on Cecilia’s journey, resiliency, and bravery after facing a series of hardships.

Drawing of a flower by Cecilia. This represents her growth over the past years.

By: Priscilla S. Amezquita, LCSW

Cecilia is a unique young woman who taught me how resilient the human spirit can be when you commit to believing in yourself and use the resources and support provided. After noticing a significant change in Cecilia’s mood and behavior, her mother brought her in for treatment. Cecilia’s mother told me what many parents express during the initial meetings, “I want my happy child back.” On the day I met Cecilia, she appeared very reserved, shy, quiet, and anxious. She had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and we were working on developing treatment goals to address her symptoms. After we established her treatment plan, I asked Cecilia to take the Keirsey Personality Sorter. When she showed me her results, I knew immediately the direction I had to take. We read a brief description of her personality type together and I highlighted her strengths. She knew she was a sensitive soul, but she had never heard anyone emphasize her sensitivity, empathy, and compassion as strengths.

During our rapport building exercises, I discussed how cultivating her innate strengths and abilities would allow her to overcome the challenges from her past and her future. She had not realized that the key to her mental health journey was already within her. She just needed encouragement to believe in herself and build the additional skills necessary to help her effectively manage life stressors.

We quickly established a therapeutic alliance and began to map out all the painful life events that had contributed to her mental health functioning. Cecilia was a willing and motivated participant in her treatment, providing updates on her week and sharing how the skills she had previously learned in session were helpful in real life situations. Once she had developed a repertoire of adaptive coping strategies and had demonstrated the ability to manage her symptoms, we began to explore the unresolved traumatic experiences from her past.

Providing Cecilia with a safe place to express her emotions allowed her to let go of suppressed experiences. She was no longer carrying the painful past experiences that had contributed to her anxiety and depression. Cecilia was beginning to feel like her old self again. She had learned how to master her skills by employing them during stressful situations. She built her confidence by utilizing her innate strengths to encourage others. Because she had achieved significant progress within the first seven months of treatment, Cecilia, her mother, and I began to discuss a plan to conclude our sessions. But, a tragic event changed our plans.

I received a message from a Social Worker at Harbor-UCLA Hospital asking me to return her call regarding one of my clients. I spoke to the social worker and she told me that Cecilia had been in a car accident. I felt confused and worried. The social worker connected me to Cecilia’s room where she answered the phone. Cecilia told me that she had been involved in a car accident with her family. Then without her voice breaking, she said, “my parents died.”

On the way to the hospital, I talked to a couple of people, my old supervisor for clinical direction and a friend whom had unexpectedly lost her father. I had no idea what to say to comfort Cecilia; all I could do was to let her know that I would continue to be there for her during her healing process. When I saw her, she was cheerful, sweet, and in good spirits. I learned that she had sustained serious injuries from the fatal car accident and would be transferred to a rehabilitation facility for the next six weeks to receive physical therapy after her back surgery.

During the time she was in the rehabilitation facility, she drew, painted, played piano, and played games with the other youth (residents) and staff. Her older brother, Jose, became her caregiver and he was by her side every day. He became her rock and biggest source of support, but he was not the only person supporting Cecilia during the most pivotal time of her life. Her teachers, classmates, friends, and extended relatives visited her frequently. Cecilia by nature is a very positive, optimistic, and sensitive soul. She appeared happy on the outside to others (and to me), but I believed that she was reverting back to her previous coping strategy to deal with the grief she was feeling about her parents’ deaths. I knew that a different treatment approach to help her heal from this traumatic loss was warranted.

After reviewing the TFCBT (new treatment model) components and explaining the treatment rationale for creating a trauma narrative, Cecilia and Jose agreed to move forward with this treatment. I don’t think Cecilia would have been as willing to participate had it not been for the trust we had established. By the time Cecilia had returned home from the rehabilitation facility, we were already starting the new treatment model. Over the summer, she was apprehensive about returning to the same school for her senior year because she wanted to avoid reminders about the accident and her parents’ deaths, suspecting that classmates and faculty would ask her questions about her wheelchair. We met with her teachers and administrators before the school year to create a plan to better support Cecilia’s physical and mental health needs. After this meeting, Cecilia chose to be led by her courage instead of fear when making the decision to graduate from the school she had attended in previous years.

As we completed each part of the therapeutic process, Cecilia demonstrated immense strength and an adaptive capacity to navigate her mental health journey. As she was reminded of traumatic events during school hours, she used the support from school counselors to manage her emotions appropriately. By the time we completed treatment, she had straight A’s during her first semester of school and had received an acceptance letter to a university. Cecilia plans to earn a degree in physical therapy, so she can work at a rehabilitation facility and help children during their physical healing process. On a side note, Cecilia was recently voted “most optimistic” by her peers from senior class. That is remarkable.

Cecilia will always be a memorable success story for me because of her unique ability to stay true to herself when others may not have been as strong in the face of such hardship. While others would have blamed themselves, individuals, or the world, she chose to believe in the power of love to get through a difficult time. Cecilia, thank you for allowing us to share your journey; our hope is that others will be inspired by your strength, courage, and optimism as they travel the path of self-discovery and healing.