For Elizabeth Berrocal, it was life’s little moments that were pivotal in gradually steering her on a path to pursue a career dedicated to helping others, opening San Antonio’s first mental health clinic specifically for women. As a licensed therapist and PhD candidate with her own practice devoted to improving the mental health and wellness of women and teaching them to use the power of pain for their personal growth, Berrocal’s mission is to be the change she hopes to see in the world through empowering one patient at a time. Deeply inspired by women of other cultures, she shares about her personal and professional journey, the challenges that have led her to where she is now, and her profound admiration for French existentialist philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir…
EM: What was the defining moment in your past that set you on the career path you ended up following?
EB: Interestingly enough, in my early years after high school when we had to make decisions about what career we may be interested in, I always said there were two things I would never become. One was a flight attendant (for as much as I have flown, my fear of heights and flying is legit), and the other was anyone in the mental health profession.
To this day, I can’t really pinpoint exactly what my aversion was to the mental health field, but here I am. I wouldn’t be able to specify at what exact moment everything changed for me, but I can say that it was in all of the tiny moments throughout the course of my late teens, 20s and even 30s that formed my love for helping women improve their mental health.
Helping the community and those in disadvantaged situations was ingrained in me from an early age, as my mother taught English as a second language to women with Catholic Charities who needed to look for work to support their families. She later taught in the prison facilities around San Antonio. My father also instilled in us that helping those who are in extreme circumstances builds character, and most importantly, empathy.
During my college years in London, I studied International Relations. I deeply love learning about cultures and people outside of my own. I also majored in Sociology, so the pretext was set for the eventual study of people…understanding how we differ and how we are alike. I spent a total of ten years abroad in London and in Spain, and I would never be able to say, in words, what those years did for me in regards to growth, insight, autonomy, education, experience, and the fulfillment of my love for travel.
Coming back to San Antonio, I already knew I had to go for my Masters in a field related to both mental health and the community. I earned my MA in Community Counseling from St. Mary’s University. It was during my clinical hours for state licensure that I had the opportunity to work at the Pregnancy Care Center, with women who had become pregnant and had neither the means, nor knew what to do with the news of their pregnancies.
At the time, I was struggling with trying to conceive my first baby and it made an impact on me to realize how different our situations were, yet how similar the levels of despair were that we shared in regards to unexpected pregnancy, or the lack thereof. Another profound time was when I finally did get pregnant, and I had my baby. The birthing process was a complete disaster, and very far from what I imagined it would entail. After birth, my daughter was taken to the NICU, and for weeks my time with her was limited and so was the extremely crucial time of bonding I expected we would share.
It spiraled me into a Postpartum Depression, and I didn’t leave my home for a full year. Thankfully, it did not manifest as an aversion to my baby, but it was an intense anxiety to not let anyone around her for fear of her becoming ill again. It was just my husband, my daughter and me for an entire year. I think back often on that time…it was bittersweet, but it was a momentous time for me to grow. Without knowing it at the time, it instilled this tremendous empathy inside of me for women, and what we go through and I knew at that time that I needed to move forward into my doctoral PhD program.
I was extremely lucky to be accepted into a prestigious doctoral program at the University of Oviedo, in Spain. I am very proud to say that my PhD is in Gender and Diversity, and my research is in regards to immigrant women and their decision making process in pregnancy. In retrospect, each experience bled into one another and the stars aligned for me to begin researching and working with pregnant Latin American immigrant women in Spain. My personal experience provided me with the message I try to instill in my patients, it is through pain and despair that we transform. It is up to us to maneuver which way, but our hardships can be harnessed to create incredible self-growth and learning opportunities. As with anything good, the power is in all of the very small, incremental steps it takes to finish the marathon.
EM: What makes you unique in your industry?
EB: I feel there are several aspects that set me apart from others in my industry. My life experiences and exposure to many different circumstances, demographics of people and cultures and living abroad for over a decade have really helped me to hone in on relationship building and empathy.
The ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes is key to being a therapist, as it helps us better understand and identify issues that perhaps the patient may not even realize at the time, that can be so very important to their own self-help and awareness. As a therapist, another important point that is unique to me, specifically, is my specialized approach in seeing mainly women. I feel that in the course of a woman’s life, there are so many changes and situations we go through that are specific to just us, that are not only the physiological changes such as menstruation, pregnancy and birthing, and then menopause. We are our own entities in regards to our mental health, and the emotional processes that we as women go through and the ways in which we are pulled in many different directions with child rearing, careers, partners, etc. is a continuous juggle.
Many times we are so caught up in just trying to “get through it” that we lose ourselves in the process. And, for many women, it’s not until middle age or later that they recognize or feel they have “missed out” on so many things in life. It is my belief that we must empower ourselves first, and then one another. Through my utilization of techniques that self-empower women, such as Motivational Interviewing to help women find their purpose in life (separate from the lives of their children and partners) and my holistic approach to integrating wellness of the mind and body, I’m set apart from most therapists.
Lastly, I believe strongly that our past traumas influence our everyday actions and interactions with others. I am also an EMDR therapist, as well as a certified Hypnotherapist, helping those in need to overcome past traumatic events. When I view my paths in life and where they took me, they all led to where I am today, helping women help themselves. As my favorite author, intellectual, and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir said…
One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.
EM: What is one way you hope to impact your community in the future, either personally or professionally?
EB: There are so many important aspects of mental health that really need to be brought out into the open. I always think about what sort of footprints I choose to leave with those I help, and in my personal relationships with family and friends. It’s so incredibly important for me to help those who are in need. On both a professional level and a personal level, I believe that we MUST understand that we all change, we all transition and at many different times in life. But, only we choose if it is for the better or for worse.
I want to help be the voice that really makes people question themselves, and think about the ways in which they can be better or progress in this process we call life. We all can keep climbing up the ladder of success physically, mentally and emotionally, even when we feel we have it all. Change, and often very painful change, is the precursor to growth, and it is my desire to help people understand that at some point we all suffer, but it’s how we grow through the suffering that matters most.
I want to continue to work with women, and do so on a level that is impactful for each of them on a personal level. I’m a believer that when one wants to see change, we start with ourselves and then we pass it on from person to person. It is impossible to help the world all at once, but we can always start by being strong within ourselves, and then helping those around us. Really, the smallest of things can make or break a person’s day, and why not be the one to lift someone up?
Eventually, I would love to work with either immigrant and refugee women, as well as the population of homeless women. I have an incredibly soft spot for those who are extremely vulnerable. What people don’t understand is that so many disadvantaged people were born without a chance, and for them it’s an uphill battle their entire lives. There are definitely times when I get discouraged at the severity of their circumstances, and where the world is now; however, as long as I stay focused on impacting the lives of one individual after another, I know that in my own way I can make a difference.
EM: If you could sit down with any woman in the world-either from history or who is currently living-who would that be and what would you discuss with her?
EB: I tend to have a great affection for revolutionary women that have an existentialist heart that beats towards learning about our meanings, our desires, and the fulfillments we are all looking for in this lifetime. So, naturally, the one who came to my mind in an instant was Simone de Beauvoir, a French existentialist and feminist who radically pushed social, ethical, religious, and political boundaries when women didn’t have much of a voice in any of these fields.
She challenged the patriarchal status quo through her writings, which were in fact deep philosophical musings on sex, the treatment of women throughout history, and profound existential questions on the purposes of evil and desperation in the life of a woman. I read somewhere that her father encouraged her intellectual precociousness from a very early age, and was rather proud that she, “thought like a man.” This resonates deeply in regards to my own relationship with my father, who is also my biggest fan.
What I admire about Simone is that she knew from an early age that dowries were uncertain in her times, and preferred to look for opportunities and ways to make a living for herself, rather than depending on a man. Reading her books such as The Second Sex, and The Ethics of Ambiguity: Bad Faith, the Appeal, the Artist really make my heart beat quickly in excitement…in these texts there is so much resonation on both a professional level and personal level.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity she wrote during the sufferings of WWII, when the desperation, hunger and the cold of war were instrumental in her feelings, and she poses questions on authority with complete power. She spoke about an existential rupture in times during war, and intimately describes a conversion, or a shift within herself, with an emphasis that there was no longer the luxury of focusing on her own happiness and pleasure. In true revolutionary form, she believed that one cannot refuse to take a stand, and an individual really has to question their own self, to determine if they are collaborators with a cause or not.
This oscillates truth with me so very much, especially lately when the world seems to have been turned upside with so much division and social unrest. Just as in her writings, we have to come to the recognition that we are not alone in this world; we exist without guarantees, but we have freedom in the truth, in acts of reciprocity and responsibility. We can apply her writings to our everyday life, and in every form.
If I could go back in time, I would love to have just one hour (or even 5 minutes) to sit in a small Parisian bistro in a back street of Le Marais, discussing how times are just starting to change for women since she was alive, and to talk about life, what she thinks about love, and her relationship with Jean- Paul Sartre. What do two incredible philosophers and thinkers talk about in their private time? What did they fight about? It gives me goosebumps to even imagine a conversation with a woman as intriguing, trailblazing, insightful, and profound as Simone de Beauvoir. I feel that naturally I am a romantic, and a thinker, and her writings help me understand that although our predicaments are very different, there are many underlying factors that remain true to the test of time.