Before leaving my sweet little nonprofit counseling center, my workplace for the last four and a half years and my second home in San Francisco (well, maybe third, after my church) for the last time, I sat for a minute in my favorite room, “the middle room,” and said “Thank You” out loud a few times. To Kate, who hired me, to Karen, who took over running the place rather than let it close down, to my colleagues. And mostly, to the clients who risked revealing their deepest selves in that room.
This last week, I ended with people that I’ve seen weekly for two or three or four years.
“Ending a long therapy is like reading seven chapters into a twelve-chapter book,” one of my professors said this year, “And you have to put it down and never know what happens next in the story.”
The people I was ending with talked about their fantasies of seeing me again, in months or years, and waving, saying hi, catching up. “Can I email you if something happens in my life?” Yes, of course, I said. I did not say, “You could email weekly, because I can’t imagine not hearing about your life that often.” I did not say, “Seeing your face every week brought stability and consistency when my own life was falling apart.” I did not say, “I worked hard on your behalf and it feels right that you paid me, but at the same time, it doesn’t, because those deep, healing, internal shifts you made were mirrored inside me, and I, too, am walking away changed.”
The echo chamber of “thank you.” True gratitude is never one-directional, it’s always mirrored.
I ended with my grave and wise supervisor this month, too.
“What a mystery,” she said in our last session, looking at me with her dark, deep eyes. She must have been beautiful when she was younger, I thought, followed by a guilty pang. She is beautiful, even with the slow drag of gravity that I’m also starting to feel in my own face. I’ve occasionally wondered how old she is, but she’s one of those people who roots themselves in other things besides generational markers. She’s felt like a peer sometimes, when I crack a joke and she responds in kind, when we share wit and banter. More often, though, she feels like an ageless, wise sage.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, the mystery of, what brought us together? What has the purpose of our role in each other’s lives been? I suspect I won’t know until much later, maybe years later.”
In the movie What Dreams May Come, a man named Chris, played by Robin Williams, is killed in a car accident, and he finds that his afterlife is inside of one of his artist-wife’s paintings. Shortly after his death, his wife commits suicide, and he learns that her fate is to spend eternity in her own created hell. With the help of some guides (who turn out to be his two children, and a former mentor, disguised as other people), he decides to find and rescue her.
On the journey into hell, Chris’ son, in the body of one of Chris’ former colleagues, reveals his true identity. Then he asks, “Do you know why we choose these bodies here, Dad? Because our roles about who is the teacher, who is father and who is child, they get in the way of who we really are to each other.”
While boundaries are important, and we can’t ever lose sight of who is therapist and who is client, who is the parent and who is the child, if we fixate on them too much, we risk missing the moments that provide two-way healing and growth. The teacher learns much from her students. The parents grow through the children. And healers are certainly healed by the wounded.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
It’s taken me some time in this profession, and a lot of help from my grave and wise supervisor, to understand how important it is for people to express love, gratitude, and attachment. It goes against my training, both that of my gender and much of my professional training as well. I want to deny it, to say, “Oh I’m not that good,” and “But you did the work yourself.” There was and is a lot of talk in my graduate programs about how to receive difficult feedback from clients, when they’re mad or disappointed with therapy, but none on how to keep my body still when they thank me. Six years into this profession, I can finally say, “You are so welcome.” Always followed by, “And thank you.”
In the end of the movie, Robin Williams finds his wife in her hell. After a few intense moments trying to convince her to leave with him, he realizes the futility of this. And instead of leaving, he decides to stay with her in hell.
This is another truth that speaks both to my human and my therapist heart. Years of training and education and theory do not actually teach a person how to be with another, how to join them in hell. That only comes from experiences of being joined. In the year that I was in hell, many people peppered me with useless wisdom and techniques and platitudes, but what I remember are the people, including my own therapist, who did not try to help. Who said nothing more than, “You’re in the dark. I’ll sit here with you. When it’s time to emerge, we’ll do it together.”
I am so grateful to the people who, through whatever route, end up in my office and let me into their lives. I’m so grateful for my first professional therapy workplace, that it will continue as long as possible to offer sliding-scale therapy to the remaining population of San Francisco who is not wealthy or well-insured. I am so grateful that I moved down here, even though this is where the biggest trauma of my life happened (and I do think the culture of San Francisco played a big part in my divorce). I am so grateful for the twists and turns, the mistakes, the dark and confusing moments of life, the ones that force us to seek each other out and sit in hell together.