‘Be okay with not being okay’: Allie McLaughlin on Mental Health, Addiction, and Cincinnati Renewed Wellness
I bumped into Allie McLaughlin at one of Women of Cincy’s Boozy Hours last year, and in true small-world-Cincinnati fashion, we realized we’d gone to high school together and holy crap, now we were both entrepreneurs. The co-founder of Cincinnati Renewed Wellness has a lot of letters behind her name – L.P.C.C. stands for “Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor”; L.I.C.D.C. means “Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor” – but McLaughlin’s dreams and approach to wellness go far beyond our traditional expectations in the world of mental health.
We chatted in her office just before the holidays about her lovely business partner, Meghan Hewitt; their fledgling wellness practice, which offers counseling, medication management, acupressure, and more; and how we can all play a part in normalizing the topic of mental health.
This interview is sponsored by Cincinnati Renewed Wellness.
Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Oh, god. Okay. [Pauses.] I would say outgoing, compassionate… Strong – and not like, physically – because I feel passionate about everything that I do, and strong in my convictions and my values, and I feel like I try to reflect that onto my clients. I want them to walk out of here each time feeling empowered. That’s kind of my mantra, ’cause I don’t always feel empowered, but I’m strong enough to continue.
Give us the CliffsNotes of your journey to where you are today.
Meghan and I had a very strange year. 2018 was really hard for both of us. We met at a previous job: We were working in a doctor’s office, and we felt like our professions weren’t valued in any way.
It was the fall of 2017, and we were in my office, and I was just kind of lamenting, like, “God, I feel like they don’t understand mental health. This is stupid. What are we doing here?”
And she was like, “Yeah, I feel the same way.”
And I was like, “What if we just… did it?”
And she was like, “Yeah, well. What if we did?”
And so that’s when we realized, “Oh my god, I feel the same way,” and many dinner and lunches later… In June , we opened. We left our cushy jobs where we had a stable paycheck. People thought we were nuts for taking the dive into this business adventure.
I don’t always feel empowered, but I’m strong enough to continue.
It’s super terrifying, but we joke about it: It’s like a chosen misery. We chose this; it’s our baby. We realized that we wanted to do more for our clients and patients. We recognized that these people were not getting the services that they deserved and needed.
We recognized that [our professions] often work a lot against each other. Our dynamic is special because we value each other’s opinions and are committed to working together to treat the whole person. She is a nurse practitioner and I’m a therapist. We have very different training, but our values are aligned. We merge our backgrounds to provide a dynamic and multidisciplinary service that we believe people need and deserve. We both value the merge of western and eastern interventions and medicines. So that’s kind of how this was born, and it’s been crazy and amazing.
“Chosen misery” – that’s hilarious. Any entrepreneur will love that. Can you outline exactly what Cincinnati Renewed Wellness is all about?
So, my role is the mental health/therapy side of things, so I work with teens and their families; young adults emerging into adulthood trying to figure things out; adults facing difficult life transitions. I work with a lot of trauma and mood disorders, and anyone with dual diagnoses, so that means with mental health and addictions.
Meghan does the med management side of things, and she looks at the whole-body picture of what’s going on with that person and how we can work together.
One of the things that we promote to other practitioners is that if medications are needed, our expectation is that you have therapy with somebody. You don’t have to be with me or any other Cincinnati Renewed Wellness affiliate; we just need to know that you are with somebody and working on it – or have a history of trying. We think medication is complementary – and necessary, at times – but we want people to know that this is the bread and butter at this practice. It’s about whole health and not a quick fix. You have to really work on yourself; you have to challenge yourself; you have to get uncomfortable.
So that’s where we merge together and figure out the best way to intervene, and then we coordinate with other practitioners out in the Cincinnati area and we collaborate. That was our biggest thing that we really wanted; at our last place, there was no collaboration.
We chose this; it’s our baby. We realized that we wanted to do more for our clients and patients.
For the first [appointment], Meghan meets with [patients] for a full hour, and then her follow-ups are half an hour. That’s really unheard of in a lot of medical settings. It’s just one-on-one in her office, and she’s spending time getting to know that person. We want people to feel valued and heard, because I think so many people have experiences in the medical world that it’s just cranking in, cranking out, and it’s just like, “Uh, what?”
And then we have direct messaging to Meghan through our patient portal, because how many times have you been in a doctor’s office and you walk out and you’re like, “I didn’t ask that when I needed to”? You can send her a message, and she’ll get back to you.
Tell us a little bit more about Meghan.
Meghan’s our nurse practitioner. Her background is in family nurse practitioning, and she is in the process of getting her certification to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner, so that will be really invaluable for our patients here.
You talk a lot about mental health being at the core of everything you do here. What does mental health mean to you?
Life. Living. It’s a part of you. Everyone has ups and downs – everyone. I think no matter how healthy you are or you perceive yourself, coming to counseling of some sort… Everyone can benefit. There’s a reason why we reach out to our friends and family and vent to them; we try to process things with people to get an alternative perspective.
It’s unfortunate that when people say “mental health” they think “bad,” but that’s not true. It’s not true at all. I think people who reach out for help, they’re the stronger ones than the people who run in the other direction. Change is so hard, but once people find the inner strength to reach out, magical things happen.
How does Cincinnati Renewed Wellness see a person’s mental health journey differently?
Everyone’s journey is unique to them, ’cause everyone’s narrative is their own personal story. That’s one of the things I always tell everyone: “Okay, listen to your own narrative. Is it positive or is it negative? How do you view yourself?”
I think mental health starts with the relationship that you have with you and within, rather than every other ancillary part of your life. You can’t be in a relationship or have a great friendship if you don’t have a good relationship with yourself. So I think that journey is recognizing that and being motivated enough that you want more.
Q: What does mental health mean to you?
A: Life. Living. It’s a part of you. Everyone has ups and downs – everyone.
Are you your best? I think that’s sometimes really uncomfortable for people. I tell them when I first meet them: “You’re gonna be uncomfortable, and that’s okay. I welcome that, and this is a judgement-free zone. It’s gonna be weird.” I let them know, like, “Hey, first session, I’m not expecting you to tell me your deep, dark secrets, ’cause you don’t know me.”
And at the end of every session, I say, “Hey, if you didn’t feel like this was a good match, that’s cool. Tell me what you are looking for and I will find someone in the community,” because therapy doesn’t work unless you have a relationship with your therapist. You have to trust them. You have to respect the feedback that they’re giving you.
I think sometimes people forget that their therapist is also a person.
Yes. Yes, we are. [Laughing.] I have my own shit, too. I go and see my own person, because it’s important.
I tell [clients], “I’m gonna say some stupid stuff in here. It’s not always gonna sound eloquent and profound.” ’Cause that’s not how human beings are, and someone who is constantly doing that, they’re probably not genuine.
And I get upset too, you know? I have a hard time hearing things sometimes, but I do my best to be present with them and just to be honest. Sometimes, I’ll be like, “You know, I’m hearing you, and I’m having a hard time finding words to give back,” because I want them to know that what they’re saying is like, wow, I need to take a moment and hear it, because I’m a human being that needs to process.
I always tell them that they’re the expert in their life. … They’re in the driver’s seat, and I’m just a passenger holding a map with the alternative directions and navigating what they want to do so the end result is their best self. I tell them, “I don’t want you to skip out of here being like, ‘I’m fixed!’ That’s not how it works. I just want you to feel like, when you are having a horrible day, tomorrow could be better. Not ‘It will be,’ but just, ‘It could be,’” ’cause that’s giving someone hope, and instilling that, I think, is super important.
You’ve talked a lot about the importance of simply talking to someone, even if that someone isn’t you. What makes a good relationship between a therapist and a client?
Trust. Trust. Because this is a super, super vulnerable experience, and you are pulling things that are deep inside of you. Some are deeply rooted in your upbringing; some things are really traumatic and hard to discuss, so you need to have trust with that person and know that the words you’re saying are not going to be judged.
We want people to feel valued and heard, because I think so many people have experiences in the medical world that it’s just cranking in, cranking out.
Trust is… I mean, it’s the foundation for almost every relationship, so of course we’re going to need that in the therapeutic relationship, and when you have trust, you have comfort; you have confidence in that person’s ability to help you. If you don’t have that; if you don’t value that person’s opinion, you’re not gonna really listen. It’s not gonna be impactful.
What would you say to people who are stuck at that step of realizing they can’t do it alone?
I think it’s just getting to a place of identifying, “Do I want to stay in this position, or do I need movement out of it?” There are pros and cons of change. That’s why change is so hard. … It’s terrifying, so I think it’s validating that and identifying that it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s exploring those options and taking a reflection of, “Why do I want to stay the same and why do I want to change?” And I think it gets to that point when someone goes, “Okay, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve lost a job or I’ve lost a relationship or I’ve pushed away people I didn’t mean to push away.”
And everyone’s process to that… Sometimes it’s quick; sometimes it takes years, and that’s fine. It’s never too late. I think there are people who think that things are so in their past that there’s nothing that can be done, and that’s not true. You still have time in your life to really work on it. And most of the time, people go, “Ah. I wish I would’ve done this sooner.”
Culturally, as everyday people, how do you think we can all participate in the process of normalizing mental health?
Talking about it. It’s just talking about it. It’s reading about it, exposing yourself to new information and becoming aware of how many people face these challenges, educating and challenging others who shame or doubt it. The more things are out there, the more socially acceptable they are. I mean, the sexualization of women – that became normal, and it’s like, okay, well, why can’t we make something important and healthy talking about mental health be normal? We allow these bad things to become a normal expectation of society; why can’t we have that for mental health?
These are really big things that are impacting every single person, but we don’t talk about it, ’cause people are afraid that they’re sick, they’re weak, they’re incapable – and, frankly, they’re scared. They’re like, “Well, why me?” and I think they’d feel so much more comforted if they found out this coworker over here is dealing with this and being open about it. They’re not alone. It’s having that conversation, talking to your friends, checking in with them, seeing where they’re at. It’s opening up the dialogue and fighting against shame. I think there’s a lot of shame around it, and there shouldn’t be. …
We talk about physical health in school all the time. Parents at home are like, “Give them fruits and vegetables.” Well, why aren’t we talking about mental health, too? Why aren’t we checking in, like, “Hey, how are you feeling?” and processing with them when they’re having a really bad day? Why aren’t we validating their feelings and experiences? … I think it starts with upbringing kids who are open and happy and comfortable with talking about mental health.
There’s just so much stuff with our upbringings that we’re taking away. Recess is going away. It’s like, oh my god, that’s the one thing they need. They need expression and release, and we’re creating little robots.
That’s the makings of a whole separate interview. [Both laughing.]
The one thing I definitely want to talk about is just encouraging people to reach out and be okay with not being okay. That’s a huge thing. And normalizing… It just takes one thing at a time to try to break down the stigma.
Let’s talk about addiction. First of all, how did you come to that path in your journey in this profession?
I went into this profession not realizing I wanted to work with that population. I had an amazing job up in Columbus, where I used to live. I was working with children and their families, and it was low-income and a lot of intergenerational trauma. I was working with the kids on their mental health and their behavioral issues, but what I noticed so much is the kids that were really, really impacted had an intergenerational addiction and trauma that was kind of nestled in. There was a lot of drug use, whether in the home or in their neighborhood, and I realized that there’s a huge connection with addiction and mental health.
Addiction isn’t just someone who uses X substance and has Y reaction. It’s so much more.
I got really interested in, “Okay, how can I work with someone who has a lot of mental health issues, but they’re also facing an addiction?” So then I went and got my additional licensure and, with my background in clinical mental health, it helped me understand addiction in a much more dynamic way. Addiction isn’t just someone who uses X substance and has Y reaction. It’s so much more. There are underlying mental health challenges, and if those aren’t addressed, the addiction is not going to change. So that’s why I really love pulling back all of the layers of, “What’s going on with this person? What’s their background?”
A lot of them have poor senses of self. Almost everything I say is like, “I want by the end of this for you to like yourself.” Ideally, love yourself, but I just need to get you to like yourself. It’s sad and it’s impactful how many of my clients who first come to me, and I hear how they talk to themselves… It’s like, no wonder it’s hard to make any changes, and then you add the dynamic of an addiction – you know, an actual disease – and that makes it even harder. But it’s not impossible.
And how does addiction fit into this conversation we’re having about normalization?
There’s nothing I hate more than when people are like, “They chose that. So they deserve it.” Nothing makes my blood boil more than when I hear that. I think it’s a load of shit. How invalidating. Have you ever even thought to hear their story? ’Cause I think if people actually heard every individual person’s story that is struggling, they’d have maybe a little bit more empathy and understanding, and recognize that they’re not just an addict. They’re someone who’s facing this challenge.
And how do you see your practice’s role in that conversation?
It’s talking about it, showing our presence, knowing that we are a safe place. We’ll coordinate with whatever services… Obviously someone who’s a danger to themselves, I’m going to refer them to an inpatient program or more intensive services. We have some great programs here in Cincinnati. Our services are helpful for identifying someone who has a problem and treating it holistically: “Okay, how can we create a plan for your overall wellness and how can I get you connected?” And then we are helpful for people discharging from inpatient programs, in terms of the maintenance side of things: “Okay, you’ve gotten through treatment. How can we maintain it?”
I want people to know that if they reach out to me, I will do whatever I can to get them connected to the right services, ’cause I think sometimes people think we only care about what’s going on in these walls, and that’s not true. Our goal is to assist the community of Cincinnati. …
Have you ever even thought to hear their story? ’Cause I think if people actually heard every individual person’s story that is struggling, they’d have maybe a little bit more empathy and understanding.
Addiction and mental health go hand in hand in terms of: Don’t be ashamed of where you are; it’s okay. Unfortunately, there are systems that you feel are counting against you, but it’s just reaching out and finding your own support network and doing that in a safe way. How can we find you something that’s going to make you feel safe? What’s gonna work for you? There are options out there. I think 12 Steps is great, but it’s not the only thing. If you don’t click with that, okay, cool. Let’s figure out what will work for you. No therapy approach is a one-size-fits-all.
What does your dream practice look like in the future?
Oh, gosh. Dream practice is that we have a whole plethora of practitioners and modalities, all under one roof, because again, our view is that no one’s one-size-fits-all. We do have an acupressurist who works out of our office; I’d love to have acupressure, acupuncture, massage, nutritionists on staff, more counselors who have different approaches than me so that we can be way more dynamic… We want to have an integrative, multidisciplinary practice. Right now, we’re a little multidisciplinary, but we want so much more. We want people to come in and be like, “I know that they will be able to provide me something that I need.” So that’s like, goals. One day.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
[Pauses.] My mom. Yeah… I think I’m gonna cry. I don’t know why I’m so emotional.
We get that reaction a lot.
Yeah, my mom. One hundred percent. I think even probably for Meghan, too… We have very strong moms. My mom did not know English until kindergarten. Her parents were in the Holocaust. She has a very unique approach on life, and she always taught me to value and appreciate and empower the people that we view as “less than.” I feel like that was so ingrained into me, and that’s why we created what we did.
She made me who I am. I wouldn’t be here without her – literally and figuratively. I mean, she is the strongest person. She empowered me enough to believe in myself, to be confident: “Don’t take bullshit from anyone else.”