Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.    

Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.

Our complete list of conversations, including:

Pixelatedthe digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat

A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books

The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the market


Episode IV: An interview with Wendy Ortiz

Published 8/4/15
In this installment, Wendy Ortiz talks about therapy from both sides of the couch.

I’m here with Wendy Ortiz, who, as I know from our Pixelated series, is in the unique situation of having an MFA as well as an MA in Clinical Psychology. She is also, in her words, a “former and future” client. Let me start by asking: did your academic interest in psychology precede your personal interest?

Well, my academic interest in psychology officially began in high school, where I took an intro class...so yes, it preceded my personal interest. Not by much, though.

It didn't really take root, though, until much, much later, after years of being a client.

How do you mean?

I started therapy when I was about 23 years old. Maybe about three to five years in, my therapist would ask me, Have you ever thought of being a therapist? I could not even imagine it, though I was interested in psychology as a subject. It would be another 10 years before I'd officially enter an MA in Clinical Psych program. 

What prompted that decision?

A friend whose sister was a visual artist began a psych program, and we talked about how it was a good decision for her, how, actually, the type of work she'd be doing in the program, as well as a future therapist would in fact potentially impact her work as an artist. This intrigued me. I thought back to my therapist's question about whether I'd thought of being one, how I always said no without thinking. I started thinking more seriously about it. Especially because I knew that as a writer I would need another "career" (that was the first time I ever thought of myself as on a "career track"--that had not been something I ever considered for myself, really). 

Always the decisions you make quickly you end up going back on. Did you ever end up practicing? How do you think it influenced you as an artist?

So as of now, I'm a registered marriage and family therapist intern, and have been for a a few years now. This means I see clients in private practice and in a counseling center as I gather the 3000 hours I need before I can sit for exams and be licensed as a psychotherapist. 

The work itself influences me constantly. I'm listening to stories everyday. I'm drawing on all my experiences, what I've learned in school and out of school, stores of empathy, and more, and this all feeds, in many ways, my writing.

Also: I'd say there's an influence to be had in having a career that is not about writing at all.

I have to ask—what boundaries do you set for yourself in using someone's reality in a creation?

Yes, I'm glad you asked. I never, ever use anyone else's reality in a creation. Ever. I never quote from clients, I never use any story lines from their lives. I have boundaries when it comes to people in my personal life, of course, but they are looser than when it comes to clients. The clients are actually way more privileged in terms of confidentiality. 

When you say that there's something to be said for having an influence that's not about writing—how do you mean? I imagine anything that's going to fuel better writing will have you asking more questions instead of answering those you already have?

I've learned that I don't like the person I am? become? when my world is only about writing. I have to have other outlets and interests. They all eventually find their ways into the writing, whether through questions that come about, or experiences that happen. A huge part of my job is actually to be extremely curious, all the time, with clients. I don't believe I have the "answers." I am not the expert of their experiences--they are. My role as a therapist is to maintain openness and non-judgment, and that naturally leads me to asking questions to understand someone else's experience more deeply. And since I write stories, usually about people, and often about the interiors of people, this kind of work illuminates a lot for me as I consider the people I write about.

What did you find out about being a therapist that was most surprising to you (and that someone who isn't a therapist might also be floored by)?

I'm most surprised about the depth of relationship one can have in therapy. I mean, I knew this as a client, but I also know plenty of people who never find the right therapist, a good fit, as some call it. I was lucky in that I did. I've been seeing clients now for almost six years, and in that time, the kind of relationship that can develop with a client, even with the structure of the therapy experience (the fact that there's payment, we're not "friends," all the limitations of those things), can be pretty phenomenal. I receive so much in this work. *I* feel privileged to sit with people in this way. I don't know if anyone would be floored by that, but it's surprising to me that even after six years of what is sometimes very difficult, trying work, I can still feel this way, and want to keep doing it. 

It sounds like you've found a great thing for you as a person, both personally and professionally. This next one is surely an impossible question, but I'll ask anyway: what have you found to be most illuminating to you about the human condition?

Yes, almost impossible to answer, and yet...I'm changed by witnessing how people can transform serious trauma, horrible tragedy, into something they can integrate into their lives and keep living, even thriving. I think of a client I had years ago who had survived a genocide. I also think of people I know who've known abuse and other traumas for most of their lives. Somehow humans are able to withstand what is for some totally unthinkable. This is constantly illuminated for me when I work with people. 

So, to boil it down: you're more optimistic of the human will?

Wendy C. Ortiz

Ha! I'm not optimistic in general but when it comes down to it, I know people who have survived serious shit that in moments I find incomprehensible and the fact that they're still here walking and talking forces an optimism in me. 

How has your experience in the field made writing harder?

I'm not sure it's ever made writing harder, though I do ask myself more questions as I write memoir because I'm aware that past, current, and potential future clients may come across my writing. I want to ask myself more questions when I write memoir, anyway, so it's a plus.

And what are the negative repercussions of a client finding it?

I imagine the negative repercussions could be a client questioning decisions I've made in my personal life and wondering if I could really help them. I guess this comes down to judgment? That they might judge me and not trust me? It's hard to say. So far I know a few clients have come across my writing and it's not been an issue. I can also imagine a client thinking they "know" me too well after reading my work, but the truth of the matter is, they couldn't "know" me from just reading my work (this is for the clients who have hard and fast boundaries around what they want/don't want to know about their therapist).

Psychiatry, psychology and therapy plays a big part in fiction—plot wise. Do you find reading these now that there are logical gaps are unfair representations of the profession?

Well, it's fiction, so I expect some varied representations. I was actually thinking the other day of the tv show "In Treatment." How I watched it as a trainee and was completely unnerved. There is so much wrong there, and yet it's fiction. It's the story of what could happen (and yes, does happen, I'm sure, all the time). Because who'd want to watch a show where there was just a good therapist with easy clients and everyone was happy? 

Maybe what I feel most affected by in representations of the profession is that all therapists are presented as the same--use the same language, have similar mannerisms, etc. This is obviously a shortcut in fiction because not all therapists are the same, but there's humor and connection found in representing them a certain way. 

Where do you see both roads (writing and your work as a psychotherapist) taking you? Which do you think will be a bigger part of your future, if you can say?

When I started the psych program, I went in with a fantasy that down the road I'd be able to write half-time and see clients half-time. One of the things I love about being a therapist is that you can actually gain currency as you age. I like to imagine myself seeing clients into my old age--clients whom I've had for years, clients who seek me out because I'm older and have lived through some things. Writing has always been a part of my life, so it's present, too. I'd only change the original fantasy slightly by saying I'd like to be writing 3/4 time and seeing clients 1/4 of the time in my future. 

We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask one last question. You touching on growth and maturing made me wonder: how do you compare the learning curve of each, writing and psych, if you can? Not that you end up "mastering" either, whatever that might mean, but as far as gaining footing, etc.

The learning curve of both changes over time enough that any time I think I've gained some footing something new enters the picture and I'm back to remembering that I'm just learning. I'm always just learning. I may know some things and practice some things but with both writing and psych, there are worlds I have yet to come across and I have to be, and am, excited by that.

Wonderful, Wendy. Thanks so much for your time and words.

Thank you, Andrew!