The Therapy Session That Wasn’t
Feeling dismissed and ignored wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan
I was employed for approximately twenty-seven years as an addictions counselor and clinical supervisor for the state of New York. As a beginning therapist, I made my share of mistakes with clients either through lack of experience or poor judgment. I readily owned my missteps to myself and my clients, vowing to learn from them.
Thanks to some quality education and training and competent supervision, my direct practice skills gradually began to develop. As a clinical supervisor, I readily shared my experiences with the counseling staff for whom I was responsible. I wanted them to learn from my mistakes, so they could avoid making the same ones.
Though accountability may make one vulnerable, it allows us to acknowledge our humanity to ourselves and others. The genuineness, which is a natural byproduct of accountability, helps both supervisory and counselor-client relationships to truly flourish.
I retired in July of 2012, eager to start a new chapter in my life. At the end of my career, I felt that I served those individuals requesting services from me and those staff whom I supervised, honorably and ethically.
An Audience of One
In June of 2002, my 18-year-old daughter Jeannine was undergoing her first chemotherapy treatment in one of our local hospitals. Jeannine had been diagnosed in May of that year with an incurable connective muscle tissue sarcoma. Given her poor prognosis, Jeannine’s oncologist wrote a doctor’s order for a therapist to meet with me and my wife, Cheri, during Jeannine’s hospital stay.
The therapist in question was a clinical psychologist who had extensive experience with children and families. We were in Jeannine’s hospital room when she first introduced herself to us. Jeannine was sleeping soundly after her first round of chemotherapy. This psychologist took us into another room and for the next forty-five minutes to an hour spoke with my wife. I looked on, anticipating that at some point, she would inquire as to how I was managing the stress of dealing with a terminally ill daughter. Unfortunately, that never happened. This wasn’t couples counseling as I knew it to be. It was more like individual counseling with an audience of one.
I have given a lot of thought as to why the session transpired as it did, without this therapist acknowledging my presence or bearing witness to the emotional pain that I was experiencing due to my daughter’s diagnosis.
Perhaps she knew that I was a therapist and felt that I didn’t need her attention as much as my wife did. Perhaps she figured that I was managing using the coping skills that I had taught to others.
My background as a therapist didn’t remotely prepare me for the road that lay ahead. My daughter was terminally ill and, short of a miracle, was certain to die. All of what I knew about therapy was useless to me now.
There are certain missteps that are made in therapy that can prevent a counselor-client relationship from ever being established. Feeling dismissed and ignored are, from my perspective, two of them.
Needless to say, I did not sign up for a follow-up session with this therapist. Thankfully, I had a solid support network during Jeannine’s illness that was readily at my disposal. I would also need that same network and more because on March 1, 2003, Jeannine died at home, six weeks short of her 19th birthday.
Men Hurt Too
I was pleased that this therapist was attentive to my wife’s needs. However, I would have welcomed her asking about my needs as well. I may not have opted to express them but I would have been glad to have been asked. Every individual should be given the opportunity to have their voice heard.
She may have also interpreted my silence as stoicism or quiet courage in the face of untenable circumstances. Perhaps she felt that for the moment, I had everything under control, which allowed her to focus exclusively on Cheri.
If she chose to involve me in the conversation she might have discovered that I was experiencing fear and uncertainty about my present and future, instead of the stoicism and courage that she may have perceived.
Men feel just as intensely as the women in their lives, we just deal with it differently. Rather than directly express my emotions when they became uncomfortable, I would simply work through them or enter the world of my thoughts. That world had always served me well during previous life challenges.
If I was uncomfortable with my wife’s tears, it was because her tears were a reminder that I could not protect her (and my sons) from the pain of my daughter’s death. I could not fix what providence so unceremoniously decreed.
A Karma of Sorts
The bad taste of an unfulfilling therapy session was soon washed away by a simple act of natural compassion. During one of Jeannine’s chemotherapy treatments, I was sitting at the foot of her bed, head in my hands, fatigued beyond belief. I was broken and overwhelmed, left to wonder how a world that once made sense was no longer recognizable to me. As I was pondering my fate, Mary, one of the nurses, assigned to Jeannine’s care came over to me and touched me gently on the arm. In a soft soothing voice, she asked me:
“Are you doing ok? “
As I fought back tears, I simply replied that I was ok. I was ok because for that moment she knew that my silence and stoicism served as a mask for what I was truly thinking and feeling. The fact that she took the time to check provided me with a moment of much-needed comfort and peace during what was and will be the most tumultuous time of my life.