By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
The following is an edited excerpt from Don Laird’s upcoming book, titled “Tilting Windmills: A Journey Beyond the Therapist’s Couch.” Reprinted with permission.
Alice was dead. A client I had known only for a brief period of time, but her words still drift across my consultation room as if they were spoken yesterday. Her slight, yet radiant smile, her hands confidently holding a mug of tea as she imparted the bittersweet details of a lifetime, now mere shadows; ghosts that gracefully danced on cue as other clients revealed similarly painful details of their daily lives. Somehow, Alice had it figured out. Centuries of philosophy, tomes of written thought, the best minds in history and among my contemporaries, all debating the questions of life and their ultimate meanings, yet none of it seemed as authentic or grounded as a 72-year old woman’s journey from Point A to Point Z, with all stops in between.
Life, death, purpose, and spirituality were the topics Alice wanted to discuss. Death became the third body in the room: always with us. Alice felt as though death needed a better public relations representative. I agreed. Culturally, our public discussion of death has regressed to an infantile wish to live forever, a desperate cry for never-ending youth. “No one can die for me,” Alice often quipped throughout our brief time together.
My initial session with Alice was on a day like any other. Two cups of coffee, progress notes and a schedule that was full, but not overbooked. My noon appointment had cancelled due to illness, which gave me time to prepare for a new client scheduled for 1 pm.
Alice M., age 72, widowed, living independently, paying for my services out of pocket, and “seeking answers” ??
Minimal information scrawled on a telephone intake sheet, but not unusual. Staff is instructed to reveal as little about a new client to me as possible. It is of a higher therapeutic value to meet each client with a Tabula rasa. In the spirit of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, create a new therapy for everyone you encounter. What really grabbed my attention were the two bold question marks. Clearly the phone screening for Alice M, age 72, was an interesting one.
And so began my first session with Alice, one of only three.
She entered my office with poise and dignity, not at all visibly nervous. I was taken with her youthful appearance and attitude; poise and composure not often encountered these days. I found her beautiful. Had I met Alice under other circumstances I would have placed her some 15 years younger than her stated age. She sat gently on the couch, crossed her legs, and adjusted her skirt.
“Is this your first time seeing a therapist?” I asked.
“Yes, is this the first time you’ve asked that question?” There was that smile.
“What brings you to me today?” I said in an effort to collect all the “clinical” information I needed in this first session. I tell all my clients that I will rarely take notes after the first session. It’s not because I’m not interested, it’s that I hate taking notes. No, I despise taking notes. I detested it in grad school, and I dislike it even more now. There is nothing more debasing to a therapeutic relationship than a therapist using a clipboard or notepad to jot down every insignificant detail about something that occurred to an individual when that person was six years of age. It creates a physical barrier and an emotional divide between two individuals attempting to forge an authentic relationship.
“I could ask you the same.” She responded. “After all, there are no accidents, are there?”
“Depends on your life philosophy, I suppose. What’s yours?”
She thought for a moment, took another hard swallow of tea and said, “That’s why I am here.”
“Go on.” It sounded clichéd, but sometimes a therapist springs from his or her previous experiences like a safety net. This happens more often than not in the first few sessions, until a comfortable rapport has been established.
“I think I have some things to share, things that I’ve never talked about before. Not because they are some deep, dark secrets, but because there wasn’t enough time. Now there is, but not much.” She paused for a moment, and then gazed at the books on my shelf.
“You read a lot?” She asked.
I followed her gaze to the bookcase next to the couch where books with contents ranging from historical and modern psychology to art and human history, stood neatly displayed, all collecting dust. “It’s been a while for any of those,” I said, “but I wish there was more time to read.”
She looked back at me. “Maybe that’s why I am here.”
“To allow me more time to read?”
“One never knows,” she laughed.
Clinically, therapists go through extensive training to learn new techniques and how to foster existing skills for aiding in symptom management, while promoting emotional healing. How a therapist gets there is still up for debate. There is no statistical smoking gun, as it were, to illustrate that one form of therapy is more effective than another. So when faced with clients like Alice, most novices and even some seasoned professionals may find themselves floundering on how to proceed.
When in doubt, go the human route. The words of my long deceased mentor, Dr. Issac Schultz, are never far from my mind.
“You have something to share with me? Tell me more about that, but also tell me more about you.” I asked, very much intrigued with what she had to say.
Alice’s life history began to unfold like a pop-up story book. Each event beautifully detailed and expressed with emotion that had me hanging on practically every word. Her travels around the world, with not one, but two deceased husbands, her work with juvenile cancer survivors and their families, her effortless and lovely talent in the use of water colors, her liberating decision not to have any children of her own, despite family pressure. Alice was her own person, proud, strong, opinionated, but above all else, caring. Our first hour together was coming to a close, just a few minutes to wrap up until our next appointment. That’s when Alice disclosed some information that no therapist wants to hear at the end of a session…
The persons and situations contained herein are based on true events, but the details of the characters and their circumstances have been modified. Any perceived resemblance of the characters to real persons living or dead is merely coincidental.