After over 35 years of working as a licensed professional counselor, I have stopped seeing clients. This article speaks to what I have learned from them through the years.
The inside story of being a counselor isn’t found in textbooks. It may be different for others, but for me, helping people lessen their life problems has taught me much about the world.
Recently I worked with a delightful, educated couple that despite doing all the right things had lost their home and were going through bankruptcy. I think therapy with me helped them began their healing process and get restarted. For me, it transformed stories from the media to a real understanding of the pain and suffering others are experiencing from the current recession.
I never would have known the inside working of the stock market if I hadn’t treated a trader or understood the pressure that faces a budding ballet dancer if I had not been the therapist for a highly conflicted mother/daughter relationship.
I’ve never been divorced and I have heard some say you can’t help people with our form of talking therapy if you haven’t experienced the situation yourself. Forget that. Through over 30 years of being a “shrink,” I’ve had many splitting couples in my office. I’ve worked with women rebuilding their lives after divorce, and I’ve treated lots of troubled kids of divorced parents. The best work I think I’ve done is to spend time with divorced couples and helping them put their differences with each other aside and be good parents to their kids.
Not too long ago, I had three unrelated cases of women dealing with alcoholism. Each one had been through at least one treatment program and was working on sobriety; each was also in an AA group. This chance experience of having three similar cases simultaneously completely changed my understanding of alcoholism, making me realize what a monster addiction is. I was able to clearly see the rational decision to stop paired with the incredibly strong emotional, genetic and cultural drive to drink. These people carry a burden that few of us can understand.
At one time, I worked at a community mental health clinic and treated people assigned to me via the intake worker. Once, a depressed man entered my office and after telling me how depressed he was, told me he had the gun in the car to shoot himself if I didn’t help him in our 50-minute appointment. I focused our time on his allowing me to keep his gun for him; before our time was up, he and I walked out of the clinic to his car to get his gun. That was probably the first and last time I handled a loaded shotgun.
I treated an 8-year-old boy whose prize possession was his boa constrictor. As his attachment to me grew, he wanted to bring his snake to my office. I did not think it would be therapeutic to say no, so the boa came wrapped around his neck under his T-shirt. Things went well until the frightened boa crawled under my sofa and we couldn’t get him out. With my next client waiting, it wasn’t easy to keep my therapeutic cool and eventually get that snake out of my office.
Yes, there is a lot of hard work involved in being a therapist. You carry people’s problems with you all the time. I treated a 16-year-old girl who called me so frequently at night that my husband finally got annoyed. “Tell her to call you earlier,” he lamented. I felt she needed to call me when she was at the height of her emotional trouble — which just so happened to be late at night — so I let it continue. I treated her for many years, including when she entered college and she would make a two-hour drive to see me weekly. Today she is married, has a happy 10-year-old son and holds a challenging job. I feel my availability saved her life.
As a counselor, my responsibility is to help my clients understand their painful life experiences and help them develop better ways to cope. I do this through talking together at regularly scheduled appointments and, when needed, recommending medication. I hope I have helped my clients as much as they have helped me. I never would have known about or understood certain life experiences without them.
In writing this article, it is interesting how many people have come back into my mind. I realize now how much each and every one of my clients has meant to me.
Margery Fridstein has been in the counseling field for many years, as a psychotherapist at a mental health clinic, in private practice, supervising LPCs and teaching psychology and child development at a community college. For many years she wrote a weekly newspaper column, “Let’s Talk Behavior,” answering questions people sent in regarding their lives and their family issues. Working with children has always been a sub-specialty of hers. She is currently using what she has learned from her professional work as the basis for the articles she writes. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.