“I know you said that you do not like the word survivor, but its just saying that you lived through, you survived, things that were traumatic…which was (and is) true. Much metta”
I had my first session with a client as a therapist in 2005. I can remember every bit of the experience. I could probably recite, verbatim, every word we exchanged. To say I was nervous is an understatement – I was a wreck. It meant everything (and means everything) to me to be good at this work. Not to mention, my training involved years of clinical professors analyzing me through two-way mirrors and commenting on my every little move. At the time, I hated that process, but now I see the benefits of such intense self-reflection and self-awareness.
Then I needed to see a therapist.
I have always struggled with depression and anxiety, and for the most part, I have been able to manage it fairly well. However, in early 2010, depression swept me up like a tsunami. I was not sleeping well (among other things) and I had the thought (at about 3am), “I could just disappear.” It wasn’t that I wanted to die, but it wasn’t that I wanted to live either. That thought scared the shit out of me. I knew in that moment, I needed professional support. In retrospect, I should have called for help much earlier.
I asked some of my colleagues for recommendations. I presented for my first appointment (scared and vulnerable) in front of a woman a few years older than me. From the beginning, she avoided eye contact. She asked me several stock questions, in a flat tone, and wrote out notes on a legal pad. At one point, I was describing how I was feeling and she said, “Oh wow!” and scribbled something on the pad. I thought to myself, “This sucks.” I left that appointment feeling even more hopeless.
As I reflect on the experience, I think if I had not been a therapist and known that there were better therapists than this, I may have never tried again. It takes immense courage to present in front of a complete stranger and lay your story bare. This business is serious stuff. I suppose she might have been off her game that night. Who knows, I never saw her again.
Still needing help, I tried once more. I asked around and this time the masses recommended Ken*. I sat in the waiting room of a dimly lit historic home that had been lightly (it still looked and felt like a house) remodeled into offices. A thin balding man with a Hawaiian shirt came down the stairs to greet me. He smiled warmly and called me by name. As we walked toward his office, he asked if I liked dogs. I replied that I love dogs. This is when a three-legged collie appeared (I cannot make this up). I sat in a soft comfortable chair and the dog curled up near my feet.
Little by little, I disclosed the details of my story. He nodded and asked all the right questions. There was no legal pad with scribbles. It was simply, perfectly, and beautifully a conversation between a scared, sad person (me) and a person saying that it was okay to be scared and sad. He told me this repeatedly for months. I wish I could tell you that he had a bag of tricks or magic words but that was not the magic at all. The magic was that he never tried to make me feel better. It was safe to share the scary thoughts and feelings and in doing so, it made them less scary and sad. It sounds simple, but there was nothing simple (or easy) about that process for me.
Let me also add that I have an incredible support system. My partner, my friends, and my family were literally by my side through this period in my life. But, when I hurt they hurt. I needed someone with a bit more objectivity. Someone that could sit with my pain and not try to make it better. That was the alchemy of my time with Ken – deep pain and sadness transmuted into intense love and compassion. The only way out of pain is through, and I needed someone to light the way.
I write this story because reflecting on my work with him fills me with so much gratitude, it’s intoxicating. My work with him changed my life and may have saved my life. It also taught me to treat my profession with greater reverence. I literally understand the level of vulnerability that sits in front of me on a daily basis. I am humbled and honored that this is what I get paid to do with my life.
Even now, when I need to, I see a therapist where I live (I’ve since moved away from Ken). My current therapist is remarkable (and she is certainly magical).
Ken and I shared email correspondence throughout our time together and I’ve included two excerpts (including the quote at the top).
“Dear Ken, Sometimes the most valuable lessons our parents teach us are through their mistakes and suffering. This should not get lost in all that sunny-side shit. I credit my parents for these very reasons. They helped me “be better” by their own struggles. I have to believe we all do the best we can with what we have to work with. This inevitably will be different for everyone. There is so much to be learned in the darkness. lovingkindness.”
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality and the integrity of the relationship.