My client, a 22-year-old woman named Summer, sat across from me with a blank stare. (The client’s name and some details have been altered to protect the client’s confidentiality.) We had worked together for several months as she battled addictions, relational issues, childhood trauma and a host of other rapids she had to navigate during her relatively short life.
She described what she could remember of her most recent binge. It was a night of excessive drinking with three men she met at a club that led to a rape she couldn’t remember because of a blackout. She awoke to a gray morning lying in a parking lot. In pain, missing clothing and realizing what had happened, she blamed herself. No thoughts of calling the police or going to the hospital. She didn’t even know the first names of any of the three men.
This wasn’t the first time either. Some days, I felt that she was trying to impress me with her exceedingly risky behaviors, and other times, I felt angry — countertransference because I seemed to care more about her safety and her future than she did.
As one would imagine with any client struggling with this level of alcoholism, her life was in turmoil. She didn’t have a single stable relationship other than with me. She had lost several different jobs and been evicted from apartments twice during our time together. And on this day, in addition to the events a few nights before, she informed me her boss was considering terminating her from her current position because she repeatedly failed to show up for work.
She asked me if I would write a letter to him confirming that she was in therapy and working on her issues. It is one of the very few times I agreed to this request. With a release of information in hand, I wrote a short letter, confirming that she had been in therapy and that we were working on the underlying issues that led to her troubles at work.
In addition, I added a line I had never before written and have never written since: “If at all possible, I am hopeful that she can keep this job. It is the one stable and healthy thing in her life.”
Gratefully, the boss agreed to allow her to stay on a probationary status. She had four weeks to follow through on the conditions of her probation. I was hopeful.
Then, just one week later, Summer showed up for what ended up being our last appointment. She had failed to live up to her conditions for even a week, and she was terminated. With tears in the corners of her eyes and a shamed expression on her face, she informed me she was moving to Texas where she had a cousin who was going to allow her to stay with her until she could get back on her feet.
She left that day, and I never saw her again. I lost Summer. Given her trajectory, I wasn’t confident she would live to see her 25th birthday. It was one of the hardest terminations I’ve ever had to manage.
But, thankfully, that isn’t the end of Summer’s story. I thought of her many times over the years and wondered how I could have better helped her. Then one day, maybe 20 years later, a handwritten letter arrived in my mailbox. I recognized her name on the return address immediately.
It was a long letter, nearly three pages, and much of it detailed her life after leaving Atlanta. In short, she stopped drinking, went back to college, married, became a nurse and had three children. Even as I tell you this story, I still feel relief that she survived and learned to thrive.
But the most meaningful part of her letter was the opening two sentences: “Hi, Dr. Moffatt. I don’t know if you remember me, but [short summary of our work together] and I’ve never forgotten what you did for me.”
I know that many of my clients have deeply appreciated the work that I did with them, and sometimes they tell me to my face. Many of the children I’ve seen over the years have become thriving adults, and I’ve crossed paths with them here or there. It’s always satisfying to see their lives moving on.
But I’ve never been so sure I lost someone as I was with Summer. That letter, the last contact we ever had, reminds me that we never know how we are affecting our clients in a positive way, even if those effects come about somewhere further down the road.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.