Five Questions with Dr. Fulmer: An Interview with Fourth-Quarter Student Sheila Abichandani

In the fourth post of our ongoing series, Dr. Russell Fulmer meets with student Sheila Abichandani to discuss her evolution through four quarters of the program, which included the unexpected surprise of creating lasting bonds with her cohort. Abichandani also shares how her studies relate to her experiences raising her son, who has autism.

Describe the fourth quarter with Counseling@Northwestern. How does it differ from previous quarters?

I’m in my fourth quarter in the program and fourth decade of life, and I notice curious parallels. I’m more comfortable in my own skin and more solid in my identity. I feel inspired by new ideas and learning, but I’m finding more congruence and clarity about who I am. Progression in the program seems to mimic human development. In the first quarter, as in childhood, I was wide-eyed, impressionable, and desperate for contact and approval. Through the next couple quarters, I individuated and even rebelled somewhat. I was bolder about my opinions and differences, and I advocated for my perception of justice in tense situations. With the turmoil of “adolescence” and emerging adulthood behind me, I’ve mellowed and found a workable path with a gratitude for the experiences that brought me to today. So, fourth quarter feels more balanced. I have a better sense of what is important to me, in school and life, and that gives me a sense of peace and intention.

By now, I imagine you know your cohort well. Is it possible to bond with others and form friendships in an online environment?

Communion and friendship in our cohort has been the greatest surprise in this program. I’m not a young student and I was resistant to online learning—assuming it would be a less engaging experience. I didn’t have an iPad in my hands through childhood and I didn’t grow up FaceTiming my grandparents. Perhaps because of that, I was a mom who, in a crotchety tone, wistfully mused about the good ole days when people connected in person. I was definitely skeptical about the role of technology in friendship and education.

Now, after enrolling in the program, I have a rich and robust social experience and I’ve cultivated dear friendships that feel no different than ones made in person. In fact, before our group immersion, I traveled ahead of time and met some of my cohort. I even stayed at a classmate’s home for several days before our conference. Reflective practitioner supervision groups are another place ripe for bonding. The distinct feeling of fellowship that comes from weekly meetings deconstructing our identities and histories cannot be replicated, and it is a potent catalyst for connection and attachment. My updated view of technology and online learning is one that includes meaningful and authentic relationships with students and professors—a very pleasant and cherished surprise.

One point of the convergence between psychodynamic counseling and neurodiversity is with attachment theory. Share some insight you gained from studying the three areas—psychodynamic counseling, neuroscience, and attachment theory.

I’ve been on a quest to understand attachment and neuroplasticity ever since my son, who is on the autism spectrum, was born. He posed a desperate dilemma for me. I loved him fiercely as he was. I also longed to connect with him and to see him grow his capacities to socialize and connect with others. I was underwhelmed by the available best practices and interventions for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that emphasized behavioral strategies. I wanted an authentic relationship with him, and I wanted that possibility for him with others. I wasn’t sure if this was possible, but I found myself cultivating what I now realize was more akin to a psychodynamic alliance with him, rather than the traditional ASD parenting model of behavior modification.

Fast forward many years, he is thriving beyond my wildest dreams. He is a happy, highly social, and interesting high school freshman. He reciprocates social interest and communication, both affectively and effectively. We have a sturdy bond grown out of trust and care. I don’t believe an emphasis on behavioral modification would have achieved the quality and richness of his expression and social interest. I’m now attending Counseling@Northwestern to extend my ability to support the vulnerable amongst us.

To my delight, our studies in this psychodynamic program elucidate the art and science of the relational dance and corrective emotional experiences necessary for growth and healing. Being with someone with intentional caring and skill can transcend the early influence of genetics and environment. This is where psychodynamic theory, neuroscience, and attachment theory converge naturally: clinical interpersonal neurobiology. Psychodynamic theory spotlights the parent-child relationship because much of the then and there informs the here and now. The attachment imprint and emotionally charged relationship between parent and child is transferred to others in the present. In a psychodynamic therapeutic relationship, this transference emerges and is handled by a skillful therapist for rework and resolution, effectively influencing and changing neural pathways. As a broker might tout, “location, location, location” to capture its fundamental, repetition-worthy importance in the field of real estate, I’ve similarly imagined “relationship, relationship, relationship” to capture the salient intersection of psychodynamic theory, neuroscience, and attachment. 

We find that students who excel in the program find a way to meet their personal and professional needs. They fulfill their duties on both ends. How have you struck a family life and academic balance?

Honestly, it was very difficult for me to strike this balance when I started this program. I was getting everything “done,” and my professors and family seemed pleased with how I appeared to be functioning—but I was tired and sick for much of my first few quarters. I started to feel resentful and irritable. I began almost celebrating when a client cancelled, shamelessly jubilant (internally) not because I would have the opportunity to catch up with a friend or relax, but because I could then catch up on assignments or pick up my son from school. This was a potent sign I was burning out before I had even really started my career! So, I asked to take one less class a quarter for the remainder of the program. With the internship demanding more time, I feel confident this is the sustainable solution for me. Now my internal experience is congruent with my external presentation of joy and delight with school, clients, and family. That, in itself, made the change worthwhile. 

Read the rest of the “Five Questions with Dr. Fulmer” series: “An Interview with First-Quarter Student Gayle Francesca Abraham,” “An Interview with Second-Quarter Student Cory Miller,” and “An Interview with Third-Quarter Student Sarah Douglas.”

Citation: Northwestern University’s Online Masters in Counseling program