A Meditation on Life, Love and Being a Therapist

Volumes have been written speculating how therapy expands the lives of clients. Far less is understood about the impact of doing clinical work on the therapist’s own life. In the process of the therapeutic journey, clients are not the only ones in the room who contact buried grief.  Therapists too, inevitably revisit their own buried darkness, which offers ongoing opportunities for growth and renewal.  I realized this when I said to one of my clients: “Ella, we have a lot of work to do this year so you don’t make the biggest mistake of your life.”

Right after I said this, Ella gasped. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her long curly brown hair. It took me a moment to realize what had just happened. I’d meant to say, “We have a lot of work to do this year before you make the biggest decision of your life.” But instead, I’d substituted the word “mistake.”

Minutes earlier on that windy November day, Ella had come into my office in a mood of triumph. She told me she had finally decided to leave her husband, Al. When Jeremy, their youngest son left for college in September, she would file for divorce. After 21 years and four children, all on their way to adulthood, she was ending her marriage. “You’ve been asking me to think about what I’m hungry for ever since I started therapy. Now I realized: I’m hungry for freedom, I’m hungry for a new start,” she said.

Ella had begun therapy two years earlier complaining about her weight. It didn’t take long before we began looking at her inner hungers—which were both hidden and expressed in over-eating. Before long, she became aware of an inner emptiness—and a sense of isolation, which inhibited her speaking up or reaching out to others. As she began giving voice to her inner pain, many of her intimate relationships improved. She became more genuinely connected to her sisters, parents, and a few important friends.

What remained, unfortunately, was a painful disconnect from her husband. Al, a successful businessman, was frequently away on business trips. International travel took him across the globe, but before long, Ella began to realize it was the emotional, not the geographical distance that troubled her. Ella had worked hard to open up a more intimate connection with Al, but to her dismay, he was either incapable or disinterested. Just recently they’d been “fired” by their second couples therapist. Once again it was suggested they learn to live with their differences—or separate. Coming to grips with the failure of couples treatment ushered in a new wave of hopelessness for Ella. She had arrived that morning expecting me to congratulate her for leaving her unsatisfactory marriage. She was finally taking action. My words must have felt like a daunting indictment— “before you make the biggest mistake of your life.”

“Was that a Freudian slip?” Ella said. Freudian slips are defined as unintentional errors revealing subconscious feelings. What was happening? For the past months I’d listened to Ella grieving about her unfulfilled marriage and I supported her exploration of divorce as an option. But my slip—how did I really feel?

“It was,” I said, feeling at first embarrassed and before long, a bit curious. When a patient makes such a slip, I am always intent on understanding what feeling or thought needs to be addressed. And here I was in the same boat, having made a slip that made me want to shrink away.

A nervous, inappropriate giggle began to form in my gut, but Ella rushed on, as if I hadn’t spoken. Absorbed in her own agenda, she minutely catalogued Al’s shortcomings—listing the past weekend’s injuries: inconsideration, self-absorption, selfishness, and narcissism—justifiable evidence for her decision to divorce.

“I need to stop you,” I said. “You’re right, I made a Freudian slip. And it’s important we think about it,” intentionally stressing the “we.” Although the slip was mine, and I wanted to take responsibility for it, I imagined it might have implications for the both of us.

“No big deal,” Ella said, shrugging in an off-handed way. “An innocent mistake. One thing is for sure, I want to tell you how out of control I was last night. It was the left over Chinese food that got me this time. Me who doesn’t even like spare ribs—I ate at least eight or ten cold ones and the shrimp fried rice. What bothered me was even as I was eating, I knew I wasn’t hungry. I haven’t binged like this in ages.”

A bell went off in my mind. Binging on spare ribs was what had initially brought Ella into treatment two years earlier. We had worked hard helping her learn to identify and sit with the uncomfortable emotional feelings that so often triggered the urge to binge. Just now she had clearly stated she finally identified what she was hungry for: freedom and divorce. Although she sounded confident and determined—binging on cold spare ribs signaled trouble. I wondered if it was her “decision to divorce” that had triggered this binge. And my “slip?” Ella seemed more than willing to sweep away my “innocent mistake,” but I imagined it had impacted her—for it certainly impacted me! Why had I said what I’d said? As I asked myself this question, a memory from 25 years earlier popped into my mind.

It was the Thanksgiving before my divorce was final. I’d been separated from my husband for several months, and was driving with my two children to my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Philadelphia for the holiday weekend. A light snow was falling and the icy road terrified me. At that moment it dawned on me: my ex had done 90% of the driving and would have definitely been at the wheel in this snowstorm. A new realization was born: being married had sheltered me from all kinds of anxieties, snowy roads being the least of what lay before me.

As I was digesting this sobering thought, 13-year-old Zachary piped up from the back seat. “Mom, why do we have to go all the way to Pennsylvania?”

“Yeah Ma, why?” chimed in nine-year-old Rachel.

“Because we are going to be with your cousins.” I said. “We’re going to be with our family for Thanksgiving.” I was trying to sound bright and excited, even though by now I realized it wasn’t just the icy roads I dreaded.

Our family?” piped up Zach. After a long pause he continued, his voice was low. “Ma, where’s Dad going to be today? Whose house is he going to be at?”

As Ella and I sat in the silence, tears gathered behind my eyes. The power of this old memory amazed me. Touched me. I wondered why these old memories were surfacing now—and what to do with them. The words of an old professor surfaced, “A good therapist is always struggling with the question: what does it mean to be responsive and genuine in this very moment?” Was the pain of my own life really relevant to Ella?

Now I was the one to feel bewildered and uncomfortable with the unexpected memory that had emerged. How, I wondered, could I utilize my own personal pain and suffering in a responsive and responsible manner? Eventually, I felt an inner shift, and a direction emerged.

“Are you willing to do an experiment?” I asked. Ella nodded.

“Close your eyes, and breathe deeply,” I said, as I lowered my voice and set the stage for a guided imagery exercise. My goal was to present an evocative scenario that might allow her access to the concerns and fears I imagined lay buried beneath the spare ribs.

“Imagine it’s a year from now. You and Al are divorced. It’s the week before Thanksgiving. The kids are all coming home from college in a few days and you are planning the holiday meal. Where will you be living? Where will Al be? And the kids, are they coming back to you? To Al? And after Thanksgiving, Christmas. Think about trimming the tree.”

I stopped talking and after a pause, Ella opened her eyes. “What came up for you?” I asked.

Two tears trickled down both of her cheeks. “I never thought about any of this,” Ella said. “Just thinking about the children—how disappointed they would be without Al at the Thanksgiving table. I don’t want to be married to him, but thinking about the holidays without him was so upsetting. What came up? The picture that came up wasn’t what I expected.”

“It wasn’t what I expected.” Her words echoed. I was amazed. She uttered the very same words I’d felt on that snowy Thanksgiving day so long ago—being divorced wasn’t what I’d expected. The very same words I’d felt about my Freudian slip. The very same words I felt when my buried grief was evoked.

Yes, life brings us so much more than we ever expect—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Although now I was happily remarried, more often than I cared to admit, I still dealt with the impact of my divorce on my grown children—and on my own life in a way I never could have anticipated.

“I believe my slip might be more about me than you—but I’m not sure,” I said finally.

Ella sat silent, wide eyed.

“I’m not sure how I’m impacting you right now,” I said, hoping to bring her response alive in the session. “Something in this session has opened me up to you in a way I hadn’t expected.”

My words rang out in the silence.

“In a way I hadn’t expected,” I repeated. “And I’m wondering, what is that like for you—to know all this about me?”

Ella was breathing heavily, her face flushed. She was visibly upset. Perhaps I had overstepped the therapeutic contract, which was to help her make good decisions about her life. Should I have partitioned my feelings off—or, was I “saved” from making this conscious decision by my Freudian “slip?”

As I tapped into my feelings, I realized how deeply I felt connected to Ella, and protective of her as well. Her life flashed before me. Here sat a woman who had never worked outside the home, was married to her high school boyfriend, and was living an affluent, up-scale life. As I sat thinking, I realized my divorce had been so much bigger, deeper, wider, and more complex than I could ever have anticipated. I had been completely unprepared for all I faced.

“You have brought up a lot for me—made me think about so many things I haven’t thought about,” Ella said, and the rest of the session focused on some of the realities she would face living with—and without—Al.

“Let’s bookmark dealing with ‘the unexpected’ for our next session,” I said as our session was coming to a close.

Ella stood up. “One last thing,” she said at the door. “Let’s put the spare ribs on next week’s agenda too. And my weight. I must have gained two pounds from those spare ribs.”

Ella’s parting words didn’t surprise me. It’s easier to think about the damage of six spare ribs than the realities of divorce. It’s easier to think about gaining two pounds than to imagine grieving a failed marriage. I wondered how Ella would deal with all that had come up in our session. When she arrived the following week, her face glowed. “Last session was a blessing, and I want to thank you,” she said. She had left my office feeling unbalanced. Rather than take her usual taxi, she used the mile walk home to sort through her feelings. “I realized that I never told you that I chose you as a therapist because I knew you had been divorced.” She remembered reading about my divorce in a book I wrote about eating disorders.

“I’ve always wanted to know how you survived your divorce, but never felt it appropriate to ask you personal questions. But when I walked home and thought about it, I felt you were giving me a warning that came from your heart.”

As I wondered what to do next, I spied a plaque on my office wall, “Practice prepares the mind, suffering prepares the heart.”

“You are right,” I said. Suddenly I felt more solid, knowing that speaking from my personal vulnerability was exactly what was needed. The slip had allowed my heart to grow larger, had pushed me to know and accept more of my own lived experience so I could be more fully present with Ella. My words did come straight from my heart. Straight from my own suffering.

I wondered if she would ask me any more questions, but she didn’t. She said that since our session, she’d decided to postpone making any decisions about leaving Al. In fact, when she arrived home the day from our session, her phone was ringing. She was invited to go on a hiking trip in the Grand Tetons with college friends. The trip was slated for September, “Right after Jeremy leaves for college—perfect timing.” And even though she’d never been away from Al except for visits to her family, she’d decided to go. “One last thing. That night I threw away the spare ribs. I think I got so engrossed in planning my life—and wanting to be healthy for the next stage of it that I was able to ask myself the question you ask me all the time: What are you hungry for? And for certain, it wasn’t cold spare ribs!”

After she left, I sat in my office, feeling alternating waves of exhaustion and exhilaration. My slip had propelled both of us into unexpected waters. When she’d arrived to our session, I had wanted to convey the importance of the upcoming year as a time to shore up her resources. But something inside me had another agenda. Perhaps, for better or worse, her situation touched my own vulnerability, for when we are truly present in our offices, we are often swept into our own unresolved pain. Witnessing Ella agonize over divorcing her husband drew me back into the realization that I’d made one of the most important decisions with little awareness of the far–reaching consequences to my own and my children’s lives. Yes, certainly I wanted to warn her about the potholes before she set out on a journey. And here she was—turning away from the spare ribs to a camping trip. And telling me something about why she had chosen me as a therapist—something she’d avoided in all our work together.

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Recently someone asked me if I ever get bored dealing with eating disordered patients. I smiled, thinking of how my Freudian “slip” with Ella allowed both of us to know more about our own strengths, resources and limitations. Most people are unaware that doing therapy offers endless opportunities for personal growth not only for clients, but for therapists as well. All that is necessary are a few crucial ingredients: the capacity to tolerate living in the unknown, a willingness to be vulnerable and explore our lives and our mistakes, and an openness to being swept into the unexpected..

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