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Author’s note: name and certain details were changed to protect confidentiality.
“For many people, going into the depths of their thoughts and feelings is like going into a dark alley—they don’t want to go there alone. People come to therapy to have somebody to go there with.” ~ Lori Gottlieb
At the age of 16, passenger Jeri was one of those people.
Her mind, with its murky depths of thoughts and feelings, indeed felt like a long, dark alleyway she’d seldom traversed. Now though, she is training to become an escort for others down their own obscure paths.
It’s 7 p.m. when I pick her up, and the sun’s beginning to descend over the shingled rooftops of East Alameda. Thick blankets of cotton candy clouds devour the last remnants of it as we drive.
She comes in with a magenta-colored laundry basket filled with clean clothes (“I do laundry at my girlfriend’s house,” she explains), wearing Ugg boots and plaid pajama bottoms. Her brown-red hair is gathered up into a high ponytail, with two loose strands on either side, falling just past her cheeks. The smell of butterscotch cookies fills the car, fresh from her girlfriend’s oven.
Jeri’s MSW studies (Master of Social Work) become the main topic as we weave through the streets of Alameda (hitting occasional bouts of traffic) on our 30-minute ride back to her apartment in Hayward.
“I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a therapist,” she admits, blinking from behind the chestnut-colored circular, frames of her glasses. “I finally committed to it though, after years of wavering. Not because the doubts went away—they’re still there and might always be—but because I just made the decision to go for it regardless.”
She describes one of her main doubts as having been “the need to maintain empathy for patients who might be doing sh*tty things to other people.”
Patients who are hurting others or hurtling down self-destructive paths can be some of the hardest to work with. It could be argued, though, that they’re the ones who need help the most—so when one of them has just admitted to harmful behavior, how do you remain supportive and continue to care?
When I pose this question to Jeri, she says that consciously redirecting her focus onto the patient’s positive qualities gets her through the more difficult moments.
“It sounds simple, but it can be hard to implement sometimes,” she admits.
I relate to Jeri on this, having applied a similar tactic when working with students who were at times challenging as an English teacher in Uruguay.
One of them, for example, from time to time, expressed thoughts and feelings that carried a whiff of disdainful discomfort with homosexuality. To ensure that my obvious frustration in response to this didn’t affect the quality of my lessons, I focused on his love for his dogs, his tenderness toward his wife, and his upbeat energy. I recalled the time he told me that he’d once given up his bed to a cat who was giving birth.
Sometimes, a therapist’s own self-healing can help as well.
“If they’ve hurt someone in a similar way to how someone’s hurt me, and I haven’t fully processed that situation—or I still feel resentment toward the person from my past—I won’t be as present with the patient who reminds me of them. I’ll feel more distant,” Jeri explains. “If I’ve made peace with it though, I’m more able to see the patient as an individual—separate from whatever happened to me.”
Sharing a specific example from her own life:
Jeri (who is bisexual) and her ex-boyfriend had been together for three years. Though the two of them had at one point planned to get married and settle down, after losing his job, her then-boyfriend pulled a complete 180.
He told her he wanted to change his trajectory: start a blog where he could showcase his photography, travel, see the world, and have/embark on adventures. The life with her he’d claimed to have once wanted, he now viewed as holding him back—even going so far as to call it “baggage.”
After they broke up, instead of resolving these feelings, Jeri admits to having stuffed them down and carried on with her life. She continued to harbor resentment toward her ex, albeit unconsciously—the feelings no longer at the forefront of her mind, but still in there somewhere, muddying her lens from beneath.
Years later, a patient she was working with told her she’d recently dumped her boyfriend. “He had too much baggage. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” the patient had said.
The phrases she used were similar to those that Jeri’s ex had uttered when breaking up with her years ago (“I just want to see the world” and “I feel like he’s holding me back”).
“If I’d worked through my stuff, it wouldn’t have triggered me so much. I would’ve been able to stay in the room with her, mentally and emotionally,” she acknowledges.
“Maybe I still would have had a slight internal reaction—initially, at least—that wasn’t 100 percent accepting. But I think I could’ve moved past it without a wall going up.”
Lori Gottlieb describes therapy as a “dual apprenticeship” wherein therapists can “take their patients only as far as they’ve gone in their own inner lives.” That said, emotional upkeep of one’s self can be a critical component that helps in maintaining empathy for patients. Without it, patients may continue to tap into the therapist’s own unresolved traumas.
“It’s no surprise that as I heal inside, I’m also becoming more adept at healing others,” Gottlieb writes.
Therapy can be emotionally draining, which is why for now, Jeri says, on a Friday night, she wants nothing more than to do laundry, bake butterscotch cookies at her girlfriend’s house, and be in bed by 10.
Just as she’s about to leave the car, I notice a book on top of her pile of clothes. A sock nestled between the pages seems to be functioning as a bookmark.
In the past, I’ve used candy wrappers, napkins, and other unconventional items as page holders. Never a sock though. Impressed by Jeri’s innovativeness, I compliment her on it.
These days, when I find myself struggling to accept a person in all of their complexity, I sometimes think back on our conversation.
When a jerk drives by me, I picture his mom. When I’m feeling some inklings of road rage toward the car in front of me, I focus on the adorable Labradoodle with its head out the window, reminding me of its owner’s humanity.
It’s kind of cool that it actually works—at least temporarily.