Counsellor Fran Ferguson harvests some cedar boughs for various projects in preparation for what would become “A Different Kind of Christmas

Finding the right counselling fit

Fran Ferguson wants to shift the way people view counselling ... and the holidays

The wonderful thing about being human is that each of us is completely different.

How boring life would be if we were all the same, right?

We all have different personalities, philosophies, backgrounds, experiences and interests.

Counsellors are no different, according to Fran Ferguson, who runs her counselling practice out of her home on McGimpsey Road, just south of Campbell River, “so it’s important to find one who is a good fit for you – who you feel comfortable with and can trust.”

After two different careers, Ferguson was what you may call a “late arrival” in the counselling world.

In fact, she only started her formal education and training in the field at the age of 35. She started with a bachelor’s degree in psychology before moving on to get her master’s degree specializing in counselling, because, as she puts it, “I found myself interested in other people’s stories – how they got to where they are – as well as how resilient people are, the struggles they’ve had and what makes for meaningful change versus being stuck in the struggle.”

Her interest in what makes people tick, combined with the fact that, as she says, “people seemed drawn to me to talk about issues in their life,” made counselling, she says, “a natural step.”

And now she’s been at it for 18 years.

Though she’s had experience in counselling everyone from young children to the elderly and everyone in between, she says she works “extensively with couples, from pre-marital counselling to working through any difficulties couples face in their relationship, including betrayals and affairs, right through to separation, divorce, and the aftermath of those life changes.”

Most people would agree that we all need a little help once in a while, even if it’s just someone to talk to about things that are bothering us. So why don’t more people make use of those few who are extensively trained in listening?

People are still reluctant to reach out to a counsellor, Ferguson says, because there is still a stigma attached to asking for help.

Many see asking for help as weakness – like being unable to cope makes them less of a person.

“My view is that life throws out plenty of challenges and difficulties,” Ferguson says, “and it’s very helpful to reach out for help with them. People may be reluctant to reach out to a counsellor, but it can be super valuable,” she says, “and it’s a lot healthier way of dealing with emotional difficulties than alcohol, drugs, food or the many other non-effective ways of coping people often engage in when they’re struggling.”

And people tend to emotionally struggle in larger numbers and with greater difficulty around the holidays, which is why, last year, Ferguson started an initiative she called “A Different Kind of Christmas.”

“It was very much an experiment, partly borne out of my own experience and partly borne out of what I’d also been hearing from clients,” Ferguson says.

When she and her husband moved out to this side of the country from Manitoba about 15 years ago, “what we found was that the tables were full,” she says. “People had their own family and friends already, so we found it incredibly difficult. I’d come from a large extended family and there was all that typical, large celebratory aspect to the holidays for a long time.”

And then one year, when they didn’t feel like cooking Christmas dinner for two, they went to a local hotel for dinner, instead.

“And I looked around, and the people there were, well, let’s just say they were not happy people. You could see the loneliness dripping off of them. So thinking about this last fall, I was thinking maybe we could gather some people together for Christmas dinner.”

The idea morphed from there, though. It became less about opening their doors and welcoming strangers to their table and more about the message.

“I started a closed Facebook page so that people could virtually gather more comfortably, and I started by setting up coffee meet-ups at local coffee shops, just as an opportunity to meet each other and celebrate the season a little bit,” Ferguson says. “Then we had another get together making Christmas wreaths, baking cookies, that kind of thing.”

While group members here in Campbell River were meeting up in small groups in person, the online community was attracting members from as far away as Cape Breton and New York State.

“What ended up happening is the group became a sort of online support group for people to talk and explain their situation and share with each other, and discuss what people are doing to help themselves during these emotionally difficult times.”

Watch for the December edition of the Wave magazine for more on Ferguson, her outlook on the holidays and the “A Different Kind of Christmas” initiative.