By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
The following is the second condensed excerpt from Don Laird’s upcoming book, whose working title is “Tilting Windmills: A Journey Beyond the Therapist’s Couch.” Reprinted with permission.
Alice glanced at me, reached for her trendy, purple hand bag and confessed, “I thought I would have been dead by now.”
I looked at her for a moment. If nothing else, Alice was candid with her thoughts and feelings. During this session, our first hour together, she had detailed the many trials and tribulations of her 72 years that ranged from pure joy to pure despair. She described the arc of her life in a most captivating fashion. Her many travels around the world with her two ex-husbands, followed by the death and burial of each of those same men; her tireless work with juvenile cancer survivors and their families; the death of her parents in a house fire when she was 26, and the loneliness of being an only child with no extended family to help; a sexually abusive boyfriend in high school. Most recently, her dog of 14 years, Mable, a yellow lab had been euthanized. Death was, as always with Alice, sitting in the room and our hour was nearly over.
“Alice, is there a question in there for me?” I asked, mindful that my next client was likely sitting in the waiting area should Alice produce a lengthy reply. I remained seated and casually braced myself for her response.
“Not a question.” She leaned forward and handed me cash for my services, no change required. Like most in her generation, Alice was always prepared. She slid the hand-bag strap across her shoulder and stood. “More of an observation, and don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt myself or anyone else for that matter. I have some things to talk to you about first and even then my time on earth will not end by my own hand, I can assure you.” There was the smile. I could see why Alice had no issues with meeting men. Her self-assured presence, her wit, and youthful beauty all contributed to an appealing allure that was at once reassuring, but not without a distinct hint of mystery.
That night, I lay awake thinking of the day, but especially of Alice. Most clients are surprised to discover that their therapist might think of them outside of the therapy hour. I can understand why. Clinicians are taught to keep strict boundaries, mind their ethics training and don’t get too close, but this practice robs a therapist of an opportunity to do the very thing they are trying help a client with: be human. As I drifted off to sleep the words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were taking on a whole new meaning for me, “Die at the right time.”
Alice returned to my office five days later at 10 am for her follow-up session. This was encouraging since she had made her views on psychology and psychiatry fairly clear during our first session, “How can something be called a science when it can never really quantify the subject it is studying?” Alice had apparently read some of my earlier essays in which I referred to psychology as a “soft science.” I prefer to help clients view their lives as art rather than as a science project. Alice knew this and, frankly, I must admit it was the perfect boost to my academic vanity. As I escorted her from the waiting area to my office, I noticed a slight change in her overall presentation. Although she was well dressed and her manner was friendly, there was something different about Alice. She wasted no time in getting to her agenda for this session.
“You’re younger than me, and male, so I won’t bother you with the particulars of what it means to grow old as a female, but you should know that I have a keen sense of the world around me, like my mother and her mother. I feel things, in my body, rhythms, if you will. In other words, I’m beginning to feel as though my days are short.” She crossed her legs, rested freshly manicured fingers on her purple skirt, and casually waited for my reply.
“I’m not sure I follow you, Alice.” I reached for my coffee and continued, “Are you telling me that you feel as though you are going to die very soon?”
“Then why come to me first? Have you checked in with your PCP recently?” I was beginning to feel a level of frustration rise in my voice. Besides being courageous, strong-willed, proud, attractive, creative, and intelligent, Alice was also the most exasperating woman I had ever encountered. “I’m not sure that I can help you if there are somatic issues going unchecked.”
“I had a full physical only six months ago, Don. I have a clean bill of health. Oh sure, the usual aches and pains with age, but the doc said I could live another 20 years in my current condition.” She stopped me before I could respond. “Look, as I said, I have these thoughts, these premonitions just like…”
“Your mother and your grandmother,” I said smiling, but it was clear that I needed her to cut to the chase.
“You interpret dreams, don’t you?” Her eyes softened, and I could tell we were about to go in a direction that didn’t seem like a riddle.
“I work with dreams, but I don’t interpret them. After all, they’re your dreams, not mine. I am more of a guide, someone walking along with you on the same path.” I stopped as Alice took a moment to pull a leather bound journal from her hand bag.
Freud believed that dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious.” If they are not the royal road, then they are at least a make-shift byway to understanding a person’s deepest existential questions. Many therapists today react to clients’ dreams as if they have a live grenade in their lap. A certain “what do I do now?” look seizes their faces as they wonder how to make a client’s dream applicable to modern treatment modalities. These days dream work has been relegated to the closet of psychology and psychiatry, and only occasionally sees the light of day and mostly in a misused or misunderstood fashion.
I was a knight in the court of Camelot. Upon hearing the news of King Arthur’s death I mounted my horse and rode quickly through the meadows and glens until I reached the shore of a fog-laden lake. All at once I felt sheer terror, but also a sharp awareness of being alive. For a moment the fog lifted and there was a group of swans, each more beautiful than the next. They swam gracefully in a solid V formation and then, as if on cue, slowly turned toward a small, tree-covered island located near the middle of the lake. A light shone brightly through the trees and out of the mist stepped…”
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.