Clinical social workers call it the “termination process.”

I prefer to think of it as being released back into the wild.

There are quite lovable clients that I have been glad to see go, as they twist in the wind – stuck, sticky, and untangle-able, by me at least. Some begin, and remain, perhaps with good cause, suspicious about therapy and its usefulness in their life. Some may need other therapists, other modalities, or entirely different paths up the mountain than the routes I know how to travel. I try to think about what or who might serve them well, better than I, and refer them on.

And there are a rare few that, after a good start, settle into a sour, toxic relationship – clients who merely and consistently refuse or are unable to match my energies in the office, or in their lives. The people who really want just to be fixed without getting their own hands dirty – who expect me to work harder at making their lives better than they do. These are the relationships that challenge me to protect myself from being drained, used, drawn into a masochistic space. For the most part, I’ve gotten very good at protecting myself and my practice from these ill-fitting relationships, offering referrals to better-suited services.

There have been times, usually when someone needs to move away after a long stretch of work, when the final brave-faced goodbyes have left me alone in the office, that I have set my head down in my hands and wept for a good bit. Moved by the depth and arc of the entire emotional journey. Following years of investment of my energies, attention, and nurturance – I sometimes need to grieve the symbolic empty nest that will not be filled ever again, by the same person, in the same way. These are clients that have driven me forward, made me face my own deficiencies, nipped at my heels, making me a healthier, wiser, better, bigger person.

Most people leave without really leaving. They begin to reduce sessions, schedule only as needed, returning for occasional tune-ups. Most often, the “as needed” appointments become fewer, until my function as a safety net simply fades away.

Several times a year, I open my e-mail to find wedding photos, a graduation announcement, a thank you note, baby pictures, family portraits, obituaries, or news articles: messages from the long ago past about the future, about what happened or didn’t happen next, after, later. I am always glad to hear it, and grateful for the chance to rejoice or grieve. To hear some news of the subsequent chapters in a story where I have served as a narrative device for a chapter or two, helping only to drive the story along.

These are relationships that stop taking place in the office, but the sense of the other is clearly retained – so the relationship itself continues to exist, internally, for both of us, without regular external contact.

We have changed each other, been made a part of each other’s lives, written our names on the other’s neuropathways. We have committed some small or large acts of permanence upon each other. We are free to disconnect when we have been authentically connected in the places of our Selves where nothing is ever really lost.

For others who come to therapy to focus exclusively on single crises or targeted problem solving, I watch for the signs: a growing number of sessions that begin with self-satisfied self-conscious smiles with “not much to report. ” I often hear “and then I suddenly knew exactly what you would say!” in the months before a client is able to head back into the wild.

Many people excel at reaching out for others to share suffering, complaints, pain, anger, and problems. But it can be a new relational milestone to learn to share happiness. Like an animal defending its kill, we have been conditioned to protect our joy from those who would snatch it away, contaminate it, claim it as their own, or diminish it out of their own unhappiness or envy. We also fear our own inflation at those self-satisfied moments, worried that we will appear insensitive, grandiose, braggadocios.

It takes time, safety, and practice to be able to share the good-stuff (and, even then, it should probably be reserved for the special intact people in our lives who are actually capable of being happy for others.) It’s important for people to sometimes linger a bit in the treatment, to be able to feel their own powers, giggle over their new accomplishments, express pride in their growing skills, flex their strengths and flap their wings in front of me, practicing the intimacy of happiness. When it becomes clear that I am impressed and pleased to see how ready they are to fly, we will take on the task of leaving safety behind.

And then there are the Lifers:

There are those that have absorbed unimaginable wounds, who are absolutely entitled to a lifetime of support and admiration for having survived the unsurvivable, scars and all. For others with sufficient disposable income, therapy becomes an integral part of their wellness in the world, like a gym membership – a part of their preventative care.

There are the types, like myself and most of my colleagues, who have attached to the process of psychotherapy itself – as a path, as a sacred practice, the road to salvation – as part of their on-going spiritual hygiene. These are often those in helping professions, artists, writers, creatives, other therapists, people who court the unconscious, who work with their intuition, whose calling in the world requires vigilant self-awareness, who need a close, well-maintained relationship with their inner life.

Psychotherapists are flying blind at termination. We sometimes leave or change therapists, but we have never left therapy behind. Once upon a time we staggered into treatment as patients, and just stayed there. We moved into the office. We made the consultation room a template for our own practice, and now spend our days creating the healing space that someone offered us. Becoming a therapist is the best way to never leave therapy. You channel the voices of your therapists by day, in your own office, say what you think they might have said or what you wish they had said. If that isn’t enough, you can also make regular appointments to meet your old treatment team – now mentors, supervisors and training-analysts, back in their offices, for tax-deductible sessions as part of your “on-going professional development.”

Recently, my family and I visited a wildlife rescue center. The animals – wounded snakes, owls with injured wings, abandoned birth-blind litters in need of bottle feeding, are expected to return to freedom once they have grown sufficient strength or maturity.

One crow at the refuge, loudly, uncannily introduced himself to my daughter. “Hello! Hello! Hello!” He is one who will never leave – he greets the visitors; he has learned to speak the language of his rescuers. His communications alternate between the wild guttural avian cry of his own kind, and the American English equivalent learned from humans who tried to speak crow language: a perfectly articulated “Caw.” He is a translator, living in the crack between the worlds – mastering both the language of civilization and the primal cries of wild instinct. Preserving the calls of the wild for those that are in danger of forgetting. Allowing those who know little of their own animal instinct to listen in a language that they can tolerate.

I imagine to myself that there are other creatures, drawn by the transformative and transitional energies of the center, who visit regularly, circling overhead, marking their scent-trail, reminding themselves of the path back should they, or their offspring, ever need assistance again. Perhaps some even stay nearby after their release, hoping to catch a glimpse of a hand they licked; or even waiting to help escort others, disoriented by their own sudden wellness, back to the culture of freedom and wilderness. But most, I’m sure, ultimately take flight or race for the thickets – and rarely, if ever, look back again.

Just as it should be.

copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford