When a therapeutic relationship ends, it’s a celebration of progress. It’s also a huge adjustment, and yet another type of loss. I’ve been on both sides.
I’m guessing it won’t shock anyone to discover that after my teenage son died, I went to therapy. I’ve been in the human service field for 31 years; for me, going to therapy was as easy as going to the dentist with a toothache, or taking my car to the gas station when the tank is empty. I’m not ashamed to say, when I started counseling, my tank was pretty empty.
This is not to say that therapy is for everyone. Some people would not be comfortable and would not find it helpful. There is no judgement here! We are all making our way through life in our own way. I don’t want it to seem like just because I like therapy, I think everyone should like therapy.
For me, it was the right choice. I could fill a book with all the things I learned in therapy. I faced my emotions: examining them, experiencing them, and accepting them. I learned about identifying my own patterns of behavior. I figured out how to recognize destructive thoughts, then I developed ways to protect myself from them. I practiced various ways to communicate with family, friends, and colleagues. I learned how to build a completely different life out of the shattered remnants of my old life. And my clinician was right beside me for all of it: listening, questioning, coaching, and reassuring.
I don’t know if I could have learned as much as I did without her. I don’t know if I would feel as grounded; she helped me establish a new foundation for my life. Part of that new foundation is the framework I’ve built for striking out into the world without her. When you build up your strength, it’s time to leave therapy. Our paths happened to diverge perfectly: it was time for me to “graduate” from counseling, and it was time for her to retire. We’ve spent months preparing for this! (Maybe even years.)
But it’s a loss. I’ve had a lot of those in life; the older you get, the more familiar you become with the experience. This one is a mixture of happiness and sadness, because losing someone who has helped me so much means that I’ve healed. I’m grounded and stable, and it’s so exhilarating! I will miss my clinician, but I’m also excited for her! A whole new chapter—retirement. It’s a wonderful accomplishment. As we say goodbye to each other, we say hello to a thrilling new future.
The entire experience made me think about all the clients I have worked with in my career as a social worker and probation officer. All those goodbyes! Most of my clients made changes to their lives that enabled them to leave the social service system. Did I tell them I was proud of them? I hope that I did. I hope that they believed me.
I wonder if they still heard my voice in their ear like I hear Donna’s voice in my ear. For me the voice says words of encouragement or reminders of how to ground myself; for my clients the voice was probably nagging them about making a better choice or asking if this was the best use of their skills. I really hope that a few people changed their mind about making a self-destructive decision because they heard my voice scolding, “But you’re so smart! And smart people do something different.”
After I lost my son, I stopped working with juveniles and switched to working with adults. I enjoyed that work too, but after 25 years of working with kids, I couldn’t help but miss them. Adolescents are wild cards, but they are smart, interesting, funny, and energizing. I hope they could feel on some level how much I enjoyed talking to them and learning about them. I hope they understood that I saw them as people, as individuals.
If by some chance someone who was ever on my caseload is reading this, please know that I genuinely cared. I was sincerely concerned about all the people I worked with over the years. I honestly wanted better lives for them—whatever that might mean for them personally. I truly believed that every single person had the power to build the life they wanted, and I knew that everyone deserved that life. I hope I was successful in conveying that message.
Usually with a breakup, you wallow on the couch with some ice cream and self-pity, watching television in your sweatpants. Ending a therapeutic relationship is like a breakup, except instead of wallowing, I’m straightening my spine and looking forward to the future. After a traditional breakup, you cast a message out into the universe: I’m alone now, send someone new my way. After a therapeutic breakup, you cast a message out into the universe: I’m renewed, send positive connections my way.
Writing books is my way of connecting with people. I like to think of it as joining hands during the human experience, with people from my past, present, and future. I thank my clinician for listening to me and I thank my clients for the privilege of listening to them.
Ok universe, do your thing.