The Life Cycle of a Therapist, Part Two
I left the mental health center, burdened by too much work and total lack of support for my therapy politics. A Indian psychiatrist on staff at that time had told my women clients that they should have a marriage just like his and they would be happy of course, his marriage followed the 5000 year old traditional prescription (sex and services for financial support) that I was struggling to destroy both in my life and those of my clients.
I went to work as a family therapist in a school system, reasoning that perhaps, if helped earlier, children and families might avoid some of the suffering I saw in the adult clients I'd worked with. A staggering caseload and deeply dysfunctional school administration made me question this when I wasn't too tired to think clearly. Work had become my life at this point. I socialized, when I did, with other therapists.
Most of us had forgotten that there were happy people out there in the world we were so involved with the unhappy. My husband was working in a city an hour away and was home intermittently because he was still on call as a pediatrician. My children were both in college; my second son was on his junior year abroad in Italy. I thought about my clients and their problems all the time, and spent free hours reading articles and going to workshops to improve my skills at helping them. Most of the students' parents refused to come in. I had a missionary's zeal, not a good thing in a therapist.
And then my 20 year old son died in an accident in Rome. There was the funeral, and the trip to Rome, and then my older son's graduation from college, and then, emptiness. I'd always believed if you lived by the rules and tried hard to be a good person, that you would have a life in which things worked out. I think I believed that too, as a therapist that you could really change people's lives if you worked hard enough at it, mastering the art and the skills. I found out how wrong I was in the ensuing years. I left the school, too angry at parents who grossly neglected their children to be an effective therapist with them.
I didn't think I could work any more. My husband urged me to open my own office, but I said to him, who will come to me knowing the pain that I suffer? Again, how wrong I was. For almost ten years I saw a steady stream of clients, many of whom told me how comforting it was that they knew I had suffered as they did. It amazed me. I took up Buddhist meditation and began to learn about letting things be, about how you can't take pain away but you can change how you hold it, how you deal with it. I became much more human. The power of relationship to heal became clearer to me as I met with the scores of women who came to my office. I began to see the therapy relationship as one of love and compassion, in which there is a temporary dependence for the purpose of healing, and a hoped-for outcome of equality when the client could say to herself and her therapist, "I can be strong and tender, like you."
But still, the "secondary trauma" (my term) caused by being with people in pain day after day, in addition to my own burdens, was wearing me down. My husband and I had bought an old barn in Block Island a few years after our son's death, and we made the four hour journey out there and back almost every weekend to work on it, gutting the place, then shingling, insulating, sheet rocking, and entertaining the many friends who came to help us rebuild our lives there. Ever since reading a book in the early 70's , An Unknown Woman, by Alice Koller about the five winter months in Nantucket she had taken to discover who she really was, I had dreamed of doing the same thing myself. Slowly, fed by fatigue and burnout, the plan began to take shape in my mind. I would have to close my therapy practice. I would have to stop being a therapist.
I did it. Seven months alone, a few trips back home, a visit or two from my husband. I stayed in touch with a few clients by phone, but I was on my own each day, to write, meditate and walk the moors with my dog by the ocean. It was a lonely and powerful time. I felt life with few distractions, and without the problems of others a therapist always has to focus on. It was destabilizing to be without very much to do. I saw myself, and was not happy with what I saw. My husband wanted me to accompany him on a trip to Eastern Europe in June; he'd been asked to teach. I decided to go.
In Poland and Romania, the countries we visited, therapy did not exist. When people had problems they went to a church, lit candles and prayed. I met many women on this trip and the subsequent others we made and we talked and talked about what feminism was, what caring about yourself could mean. I was just Sharon here, an American woman, not a therapist. But I had all the skills I'd fine-tuned over the years and began to notice how they'd changed me I'd internalized them of course, and now that I wasn't working, I had more time to just be with people. I didn't just zone in on their issues. I had become a much better listener. There was no therapy talk because the Eastern European women were unsophisticated in western psychology it was wonderful. We learned from each other. These women were more mature in many ways than I was. They'd endured enormous suffering under communist oppression, and were resourceful and strong. I admired them.
That was five years ago. My husband and I sold the barn and bought a new old house that we love, with an office over the garage for me. I thought that I would give up practice completely and just do the volunteer work with writing and juvenile delinquent girls that I had begun, as well as my own writing; but old clients called me for 'checkups,' and in seeing them, I realized I was bringing a new energy to my work, a new detachment and understanding. I didn't have to work so hard. I could just be there, one human being sitting with another human being.
And there was time for friends, and the writing retreats that I continue to lead on Block Island, and for the garden I planted, and travel. Time for my husband, and grandchildren.
I will be 60 this year and feel the growth that my years of work as a therapist have brought to me; unknowingly I, of course, had been seeking my own healing and empowerment in my profession. It has taught me about life, and people, and relationships in a way my parents were unable to do; my clients have helped me to hold up a mirror to myself and together we have struggled for light in our lives. I don't need to do the work any more for the reasons I started with I don't need the money or the power or the position that being a therapist affords one in the world and that I sought as a younger woman.
I don't need to save myself, or the world. I am free, finally, to just enjoy it.