I graduated from social work school a few months after Newt Gingrich released his “Contract On America” – slashing social service funding. My graduating class was riddled with anxiety about their ability to get hired at all for the significantly diminishing, shockingly low-paying, and exhausting non-profit agency and state jobs that clinical social workers take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to be trained for.
After spending most of my twenties waiting tables in NYC, the $28,000 starting salary for my first agency job (with insurance and sick days!!!) seemed like a fortune. I was hired to work with severely and persistently mentally ill ex-offenders and found the work moving and intellectually challenging. Burnout seemed impossible! An abstraction, a professional hazard – but nothing to worry about personally! I had all my needs met, more security than I’d had ever before. Sick days!! Four weeks paid vacation and did I mention 30 sick days!!!!
It hadn’t occurred to me that those benefits were offered for a reason. And that I wasn’t earning enough to actually afford to go anywhere on those glorious paid vacation days…
The new schedule meant arriving at 8:30 am and clocking out at 4:00 pm – but staying until 8:00 or 9:00 pm to complete the ungodly stacks of paperwork, progress notes, treatment plans, assessment tools, documenting all contact with collateral service providers, phone calls, immigration applications, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, SSI forms, urine sample lab forms, parole officer reports, police reports, hospitalization and discharge forms, incident reports, alternative to incarceration assessments etc. I stayed late so that I could at least preserve the hours when my clients were on the unit, to provide some treatment, for god’s sake.
Around the second year, I realized that stress-induced migraine headaches and every imaginable cold and flu virus from a weakened immune system, were going to use up more of those sick days than I could have ever imagined.
And that a week or two of those vacation days were going to be used pinned to my mattress with dread, guilt, and paralyzing despair, unable to face again the multiple tragedies of the average work day. Supporting clients in taking, or not taking, horribly toxic but necessarily effective medication. Clients dying. De-compensating. Disappearing. Clients absorbing institutionalized abuse and perpetrating it on the street. Having men and women that I trusted, and who trusted me, their eyes terrifed, taken forcibly to the hospital in restraints because I had noticed some tell-tale but certain signs that the voices had returned, and were likely commanding them to act, as they had in the past, to harm others, maybe even me.
And the salary just didn’t seem like so much somehow.
This is the formula for burnout. The work itself requires that you take deep, vigilant care of yourself, just to come back to baseline. In order to do that, you need trips away from the city, some contact with the larger world and nature. Perhaps acupuncture or massage, at the very least, a new pair of running shoes or a gym membership: something to work the adrenaline out of your body. You need one or several blessedly peaceful hobbies or activities that have nothing to do with your work, and hours or days to socialize with healthy friends. You need to feed yourself clean, healthy food, have excellent sleep hygiene. You need a home that feels like a haven, and some faith in your ability to pay the rent. You certainly need plenty of your own therapy, private supervision, maybe group supervision too, and probably advanced training. And, especially in New York City, all this costs money, and time.
And you don’t have any, and you have to pay-off those humongous student loans too.
Although in social work school we talked about the possibility of burnout, the realities of poverty, the importance of entitlement programs and social policy, no one had ever talked about the necessity of money FOR the clinician, as an essential tool to buy time, purchase self-care, and to save themselves from sinking into the matrix of trauma that surrounds them everywhere, everyday.
My idealized, youthful, privileged fantasies about money “not being important” were gone with the wind. But the journey toward finding some kind of balanced, Self- and Other-respectful relationship with money would soon reach a new turn on the road.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
I’m sure my clients have their own opinions about the moments when I am most useless. People who want my advice about whom to marry, which school to go to, whether or not they should move out of the city, or to tell them what they should do next – I’m certain find me exquisitely frustrating.
But the clinical experience of pure uselessness, surrendering utterly and with some dignity to our real limitations, is a far more excruciating process.
There are different flavors of suffering: some smack of justice, and we taste something sweet in our mouths in the moment the crows come home to roost; some suffering feels generative, the sand in the oyster that produces a pearl; and some suffering violently blasts huge healthy holes through our defenses – allowing intimacy and relatedness to pour in.
Moving through the endless suffering of bereavement and the too finite dying process is heartbreaking, but the inevitability and universality have made this particular kind of powerlessness familiar to me. Other kinds of crises have a recognizable Hegelian flow: homeostasis, disruption/chaos, re-organization. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. Great waves of adrenaline and despair may crash through the office, but I am generally able to stay oriented, grounded, keep breathing, and trust that we will get through this.
I’m most likely to be knocked off my feet, caught in my own existential dilemma by the kind of destructive suffering that appears, for some good amount of time, to be just fucking pointless. Victimizing, crippling, sickening, destructive: “Random Horrible Inescapable Things Happening to Good People” kinds of suffering. Tragic coincidences, the terrible hand of cruel fate. Chronic, inescapable, uninformative pain. The biblical suffering of Job, the oracle-entrapped Oedipus. The kind of shocking and fateful events that made Kurt Vonnegut say: “If there is a God, he must sure hate people.”
Some people, the truly heroic, are able to wrest meaning out of such occurrences, actively assigning meaning and creating empowering narratives for themselves. Others find some form of Faith that such pain serves their growth. Some people reach backward to karmic history for explanations, some reach skyward toward God’s Eternal Plan. Others powerfully, forcefully, refuse to search for meaning – surviving on raw courage and cold, hard pragmatism alone.
However it goes down, it is not my place to tell anyone – or even organize my own belief – about what such events could or should mean. It is simply not my prerogative, not my experience, to define. I must find a way to sit in the meaningless of it all for the duration – until, and if, the client finds their own relationship to their suffering.
In that interim, I do my best to manage my fear. I may spend weekly session after session with a hot twisted wire in place of my vocal chords, my feet and hands tingling with adrenaline. I am sometimes agitated, over-activated – driven by the fear that I will be worse than useless, the lifeguard taken under by a drowning man. I can at times over-leap to help clients “get on top” of the experience, find group support, seek legal redress, right wrongs, get medical intervention or alternative therapies, encourage and teach mindfulness mediation. Sometimes this puts some useful structure around a crisis – sometimes it further overwhelms both of us.
I can, when flooded by existential crisis myself, forget that people dealing with such Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling and sickness unto death” may primarily need me to sit still and keep my eyes and heart squarely open. Barbara Stevens Sullivan, in her latest book on Jung and Bion The Mystery of Analytical Work says that there are times when conducting psychotherapy is like being called upon to perform “brain surgery in the midst of a double earthquake – and the epicenter of one of those quakes is in the therapist’s core.”
I stop or sometimes – thankfully – my clients stop me. We breathe. I remember what I can do: I can keep company. I can bear witness. I can promise not to look away and to never retreat.
And do my best, with all my limitations, to vicariously tolerate the intolerable.
Early in my practice, I once said to a supervisor: “I really had a good week! I was a good therapist!” She laughed and laughed, and said, “Enjoy it while it lasts!”
In the moment, I may have felt taken aback but, as the years passed, I began to hold onto those words like a smooth stone in my palm, soothing and cool through hot, prickly times of anxiety and discomfort.
I do try now to bask in it, to treasure the fleeting moments of efficacy and fruition. Revel a bit in the subtle, satisfying clinical “I told you so’s” when things work out for the better – because those supplies, a belly-full, will be needed as the process passes through dark times: times when both of us will be lost, disoriented, overwhelmed, anxious, drained, powerless, paralyzed, hopeless, and totally useless.
That’s the gig.
The good news is, just as that “good session” feeling is fleeting and temporal – so is the “bad session” feeling – and, for that matter, so is any feeling of any kind.
So, we may never know the ultimate effect, if any, of that terrific feel-good session until long afterwards – the flowing, connected vibe long since passed. Likewise, the 45 minutes struggling with an awful, dreadful, at-a-loss impotence may generate far more than we could ever imagine.
Simply put: empathy only feels good when we offer it to someone who is feeling terrific.
To empathize with someone in pain, to hold their feeling with them, is necessarily painful. Feeling lost, useless, and powerless is the absolutely expectable outcome of working to truly understand someone who is feeling lost, useless, and powerless.
Recently I attended a brilliant staging of King Lear at EPBB theater gym (http://epbb.org/). As the Shakespearean agony escalates, the innocent are outcast and slain while the evil and oblivious are utterly annihilated. As the dead bodies piled up at my feet, I sat – unable to affect the outcome, disrupt the action, or protect the innocent. Watching, witnessing the power of destructive acts spread in ever widening circles, I thought: I know this feeling. I do this a lot. Maybe everyday.
I wondered, maybe this is why such stories exist and need to be retold. Maybe we all need to build up this muscle, to increase our ability to tolerate the tragic so that we can look squarely at our loved ones and our neighbors, and not flinch or retreat when the everyday tidal waves of tragedy move through their or our own lives.
What good does all that do? It depends.
It depends on what you hope for, what you expect.
Maybe it doesn’t do much.
We might not know for a good long while.
But sometimes, it may do more than we will ever know.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
I rediscovered this favorite, dog-eared page from an old text last evening just before I left the office at the end of a long day – and remembered that I’d had these words framed on my desk, during my years of agency practice. It’s one of the most beautiful descriptions of the work itself.
The words and rhythms mirrored my thoughts and my heartbeat as I flipped off the light, locked up and released the days work for the night.
From The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development
“You apply yourself to the case.
You get to know what it feels like to be your client.
You become reliable for the limited field of your professional responsibility.
You behave yourself professionally.
You concern yourself with the client’s problem.
You accept being in the position of a subjective object in the client’s life, while at the same time you keep both of your feet on the ground.
You accept love, and even the in-love state, without flinching and without acting out your response.
You accept hate, and meet it with strength rather than revenge.
You tolerate your client’s illogicality, unreliability, suspicion, muddle, fecklessness, meanness, etc. etc., and recognize all these unpleasantnesses as symptoms of distress (In private life these same things would make you keep at a distance.)
You are not frightened, nor do you become overcome with guilt-feelings when your client goes mad, disintegrates, runs out in the street in a nightdress, attempts suicide, and perhaps succeeds. If murder threatens you call in the police to help not only yourself, but also the client. In all these emergencies you recognize the clients’s call for help, or a cry of despair because of the loss of hope for help.
In all these respects you are, in your limited professional area, a person deeply involved in feeling, yet at the same time detached, in that you know that you have no responsibility for the client’s illness, and you know the limits of your powers to alter a crisis situation…..”
by D.W. Winnicott 1963
These advices have become the spinal cord of my practice.
Thanks D.W., wherever you are, for articulating a life-long process and professional mission so clearly.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
When I first started my practice, trying to feel professionally armored I suited up in quasi-corporate business attire – compensating with my clothing and pearls for my youth and inexperience. Still in training, I knew I had good instincts for this field and could assure a new client that their investment in low-fee therapy with me would provide some return. I’d learned some good tricks, some useful skills – but none of them were my own. Hence: the uniform. I knew what to “do” and tried to make myself near invisible – ridding myself of any adornment that would draw attention to me, away from the client.
It eventually became clearer and clearer that knowing what to “do” in the office was far less important than knowing who I am. The more I am authentically, honestly myself – cognizant of my weakness, respectful of my history, vigilant against inflation – the deeper the work. When I am comfortable in my own skin, and can admit, at least to myself, when I am not, it gives my clients more permission to inhabit their own lives honestly.
I’ve grown less and less worried about the ways that my reality, my self-definition, my taste, my sense of humor, or stray bits of my biographical data comes into the room. I’ve found, at least for the clients who seek me out, that their projections onto me were not so easily disrupted. When spotted on the street with my interracial adoptive family, or seated next to clients in a restaurant while on a date with my husband or any of the hundreds of random moments when I cross-paths with clients in this, the largest small town in the world, I’ve learned that my clients’ fantasies and fears about who I am are rarely dissuaded by reality.
Then there is the tattoo.
A four-inch-long stylized flower, tattooed along the outside of my lower left leg, starting just under my knee; it peeks slightly over my dress boots in the winter and throughout the summertime, it’s prominent – my feet perched on my shrink-chair ottoman – anytime I wear a skirt, which is often.
I must admit that when treating very religious/Orthodox Jewish clients for whom tattoos, “marks in the flesh” are forbidden by the Torah – and for whom it was a big anxiety-provoking leap to see a clinician outside of their faith – I learned how to open the office door facing the client with my unmarked right leg. I would then masterfully maneuver the few steps backward to my chair, keeping my right leg in position, and then quickly cross my right leg over, tucking my left leg under my seat for the duration of the session. I imagined that I pulled it off with out looking completely peculiar.
It is this kind of mark to me: The Dictionary of Myth, Folklore and Symbols discusses tattooing as demonstrative of ancient covenant, a symbolic bloodletting that indicates devotion and eternal allegiance; Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols refers to tattooing pre-historically as a “cosmic activity” – a sacrificial brand which acknowledges and reciprocates the sacrifice of another, an initiation which refers to a “turning point.”
I have, of necessity created a snappy self-deprecating social narrative which tells the mundane story of the tattoo – for the curious “did it hurt?!” types. I don’t share, in or out of the office, my most personal, multi-determined associations – the many recorded dreams in my journal which led up to it, the external synchronicities, the persistent wish to make an indelible spiritual, psychological, emotional commitment manifest in/on my body; to acknowledge and reciprocate, in a very small way, some primal sacrifices made by others which have expanded my world and my being in unimaginable ways.
That’s it really.
I knew what the tattoo meant to me – but who knew how helpful and diagnostic it would be professionally?
It’s an enfleshed psychological test – gathering the projections – good, bad, and indifferent – of many of the clients who walk into my office. It takes the temperature of the transference for many clients who can’t easily share their fantasies about who they wish I was, and who they fear I am. It also gives me a huge amount of information about their own relationships to their tribes, to their peer groups, to their autonomy and individuation, to their feelings about conformity and non-conformity.
Each spring, when the boots come off, a new crop of clients notice it for the first time. The more traditional, conservative, are often startled: “You have a tattoo!!!! I had no idea!” I watch their narrative of me reorganize in front of my eyes.
I respond: “You seem surprised – does it change how you have been thinking of me?”
“I just thought that…. No! Not at all!! You just didn’t seem the type – I guess you had some wild years like everyone else…. ”
(With a snide smile:) “Mid-life crisis, eh?”
Some clients are fearful that I am hiding a fully tattooed torso, that I am an entirely alien creature. Others are concerned about whether I experience stigma from other professionals or clients (themselves?). They wonder if I have been cast out by the Collective – or if I’ve exiled myself from the land of the “Normal” that they are striving to live up to.
The non-tattooed iconoclasts see the tattoo as evidence of my caving into common trends – straining, self-consciously, narcissistically, to stand out by falling in line with all of the other tattooed hipsters – my identity collapsing into unbecomingly youthful faddishness, my individuality washed out by collective forces.
Some lightly tattooed or pierced clients have been relieved that I am enough like them, and see it as a point of identification – even if our values, intents, and purposes bear little resemblance to each other.
To be like, to be different, to be lost in the crowd, to stand out, to demonstrate allegiance, to differentiate, to be a false self, a poser – these all get projected onto this self-imposed mark.
At the magazine stand in the subway station, a headline on a dishy magazine reads:
“Tattoo Do’s and Don’t’s!”
I smirk, imagining the headline attached to an article in a psychoanalytic journal –
“For shrinks considering an occasionally visible tattoo:
DO be prepared to discuss the fantasies, prejudices, anxieties, projections and archetypal implications of your tattoo with your clients.
DON’T worry about covering it overmuch; you are who you are, and people’s fantasies about who you are and what it means says more about them than about you. You can tell them ‘what it really means’ or not, depending on their readiness to tolerate the presence of a two-person therapeutic process.
DON’T FORGET that what ever symbol you choose, for what ever reason, none of us can ever really know another person, or even our own unconscious, and your tattoo will be a permanent, perpetual reminder of that.”
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
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
Ending and Unending, Part 2 of 3
In NYC, the traditional psychoanalytic models still reign in lay-peoples’ imaginations. For many, being entrapped in a Woody Allen-esque interminable, lifetime analysis is an active barrier to entering into any helping relationship at all. There is a fear of dependency, a fear that the therapist won’t let them go, that they will be held hostage, infantilized, exploited by the therapist’s never-ending hunger for the weekly check written at the end of each session.
Oftentimes at a first consultation, clients, like anxious airline passengers, want to know if they can find the clearly designated exit before they will settle into their seat. “How long do you usually see people for?” or “I think I will only need to come for 5 or 6 sessions, is that okay?”
And, to give their fears credit, there probably are some clinicians who are reluctant to let clients leave, who do hang on to people as long as possible, for many different kinds of reasons, conscious and unconscious, selfish, fearful, well-intentioned, loving, clutchy or well-reasoned. And all of the above at once.
Traditionally, patients’ attempts at “premature” terminations of the analytic process are viewed as resistance. And many people do choose to take flight from the treatment at the moment when it gets difficult and threatens to re-organize life as they know it: changing relationships, work, or long-held beliefs about themselves.
I let them go. I trust my clients’ larger psyche, their higher Selves, to make their own choices and to assess their own readiness. I also trust Life itself to put any essential lesson they are fleeing from in front of them again and again – until it is either digested and assimilated or it returns in force, threatening to consume them.
And by the way: I’m not going anywhere and I won’t lock the door after you leave. I’ll still be right here, same cell phone number, same e-mail – happy to roll up my sleeves and get right back to work if and when you decide to return.
8-10 sessions, a year, two years or ten – it’s all fine with me. I also don’t think that everyone needs to work it out in a therapy office. I’ve known too many people who have taken just one or two small tools received from a very brief “incomplete” therapy, and put them to remarkable use for many years after a consultation or two. I don’t underestimate the impact of brief but transformative contacts in my own history, and I don’t assume that I – or psychotherapy in general – are the only mechanisms for learning and growth.
My own first departure from therapy was in my mid-twenties. Working in restaurants while applying to graduate school, I was struggling to financially emancipate myself and set more adult boundaries with my complicated family of origin.
I told my therapist that after six years of meeting with him, for much of the time twice a week, that – after years when being a patient had practically been my primary vocation – I had to stop. I could see no way to extend my pending student loans to cover school expenses, rent, and therapy and individuate from my family. I had to leave.
What came next startled me. He said: Okay.
He didn’t fight for me, protest, or seem to feel rejected. He also didn’t seem particularly upset or happy to see me go, or insist on over-processing the how’s and why’s and unconscious muck beneath my decision. He just said, OK, and wished me luck.
I was stunned. And a little unmoored. Maybe I even felt a little abandoned. I just hadn’t expected him to drop his end of the rope when I let go of mine. I’d thought that I owed him something for all that he had seen me through. I thought that he would need something back from me, something more than my paid fees and my heartfelt gratitude. I assumed that my leaving would disappoint him. I thought I should feel guilt about disrupting his income stream. But, here he was: kind enough, but essentially unaffected. He hadn’t been dependent on me just because I had been dependent on him? It was confusing and liberating. I understood for the first time that I really did not have to take care of him at all. I did not have to worry about harming him. I did not owe him anything emotionally. We were even. I was not in debt or indebted. Fresh oxygen filled my lungs.
(A year or so later, when my financial circumstances changed, I was happy to get back into his office to resume the work.)
Another memorable termination comes to mind. In my first year out of social work school, I briefly joined a supervision group led by a woman who taught at a group therapy institute in the city. I learned a great deal from the supervisor and found her very specific practice methods borne out of the “modern psychoanalytic” model provocative and intellectually fascinating. But after only six months or so the group was wearing on me. I knew that I was not going to absorb their clinical values as my own. Although I respected the therapeutic model and saw that it had much to offer, it also felt too cold to me and, at times, too calculating. I felt that my studies in this group were stimulating but supplemental to my practice, not essential. I also knew with certainty that I wanted to transition to group work with one of my former teachers from NYU.
As I began the process of trying to extricate myself from the group, my fellow therapists/ co-group members began trying, in earnest, to “solve” whatever problem they felt was causing me to leave. The discussion was becoming increasingly frustrating as the group clung to me. I had wanted to leave gently, respectfully, and with gratitude – not to be pressured into pushing anyone away or devaluing anyone’s practice model.
Just as the tension began to peak, the supervisor said: “Do you need the group to help you to leave? Or help you to stay?”
Help me to leave?
Help me to leave.
Help me to leave you.
What a sacred, generous idea.
I could think of so many people that I wished could have helped me to leave, in so many ways.
It was the most important gift I received from that group, a gift that I still cherish. It is also one of my favorite gifts to pass on. I enjoy watching the surprised, relieved expression on a new client’s face when I promise I will help them to leave, if ever they need me to. And then, they take the first deep breath of the hour and settle more deeply into their seat.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
Ending and Unending Part 1 of 3
Two or three times a year, I’ll unwittingly schedule an initial consultation with a potential client who reveals that they are “thinking of leaving” their current therapist – and are meeting with me and several other clinicians as they shop for the quickest exit strategy.
Here is the deal: if you’re single, it’s not a great idea to date someone who is going to leave their partner any minute now, but just hasn’t told them yet. And it’s not a great idea for me to take your case when you are in an active relationship with a clinician who has committed to working with you, but hasn’t been told that it’s not working.
So: how do you know when you should break up with your therapist?
Unless there are some shockingly obvious ethical violations involved – in which case you are permitted to head for the hills without looking back – the answer is very simple:
Talk to them.
Ridiculously obvious advice about how to use the talking cure.
You may feel that the therapy has reached a state of impasse right at the edge of a wonderful milestone, a fantastic accomplishment: the moment when it is discovered, with absolute certainty, that you know more about your own needs than the therapist does. Many people become fearful or disappointed at this crossroads – certain that their therapist will feel diminished, injured, enraged, or may never be able to be of use to them again.
We all just prefer to have our minds read, don’t we? We don’t want to have to explain all the time. We want our partners, parents, and friends to guess exactly what we want for our birthdays. And we want our therapist to just “know” what makes us sad, upsets us, what we need from them. Why on earth are we paying them if not to be understood – magically, instantly, completely and without having to explain a thing?
If we have to tell someone what we need – or say that we don’t know what we want but are pretty sure we aren’t getting it – well then, it just ruins things somehow.
It disrupts the illusion that there is any way (after two years of age) to have our un-verbalized needs read and met by huge, magical, intuitive all-loving parents. And part of us thinks that should be quite doable somehow; because there was, in fact, a time in our lives when our needs were quite simple: food, human contact, sleep, diaper change. Simple needs, clear clues, good odds (1 out of 4) of getting satisfaction without having to say a word.
Subsequently, in adulthood, we all occasionally feel terribly, unduly burdened:
1) We first have to figure out our own complex, mature, interpersonal needs –
2) Then formulate a plan to take responsibility for them ourselves –
3) Next, we have to ASK for the need, or some part of it, to be met and cared for by others
4) We then have to weather the disappointment of rejection or the mere partial fulfillment of our needs –
5) Worst and last: We are then left to cobble together some plan to take care of the leftover hunger on our own.
Too, too many steps: It would be so much easier if our partners, care-providers, healers, loved ones, bosses, shrinks – would just guess correctly and spare us all that work.
Often, clinicians/therapists can be pretty good guessers. The more intuitive and experienced they are, the better they are at seemingly pulling our most subtle needs out of thin air. Still, they aren’t magicians and – even if they were – at some point they will need to start failing, or just stop guessing because it doesn’t serve our process of growth to keep waiting for the grown-ups to show us what we want. Our needs are our own responsibility to negotiate.
So, you have to talk to your therapist about your dissatisfaction even if you don’t like them very much right now. Even if you know they are limited, haven’t been of much help, or will never “get you.” Even if you know that you have made up your mind, like them well enough, feel they have done their best by you, and you don’t want to hurt them.
Even if you dread it.
Tell them you are unhappy or dissatisfied with the course of treatment, that you don’t feel sufficiently challenged, supported, listened to, pushed, understood, whatever.
You will learn a great deal about the viability of the relationship from their response. If, as you fear, they become defensive, angry, anxious, injured, avoidant, accusatory, or calmly and completely blame only you for the relationship’s failures – that is in itself very important data.
Perhaps this is not a good fit. Perhaps you are activating some counter-transferential difficulties for them that makes it hard to respond due to their own history and their own wounds. Perhaps they are narcissistically attached to being right, to giving you advice, to your dependency on them. Perhaps they are extremely healthy, excellent at what they do – but they are loyal to a model that you don’t find useful.
Even if it’s a total miserable dead-end, you will get to leave clean, like a grown-up, making a self-respecting choice, after eliminating any doubt that you could have worked it through.
You will also have seized a great opportunity to create a corrective experience: what if the “no-longer-good-enough” therapist displays sincere interest in your “bad” feeling? What if they are pleased to have the opportunity to grow, to change, to accommodate, to learn more? What if they deeply yearn to take responsibility for errors and mis-attunements they may have committed? What if they can apologize, and take their share of the responsibility without collapsing in shame? What if they value your feedback because it will give them information they don’t know, maybe even information about themselves of which they were unaware? What if they are grateful to you for showing them an unknown bit of their shadow and giving them a chance to integrate it?
What if they treat your concerns, your anger, and your disappointment as if they are important and valid? What if they have enormous empathy for the hopelessness that has emerged in your relationship? What if they can still care about you and remain intact in themselves, in the face of your negative feelings? What if they have felt blocked and frustrated as well but were not yet able to identify it? What if this discussion is able, in and of itself, to break through the logjam?
Even better: What if they are proud of you? Impressed by your self-regard, and your ability to stay loyal to your own experience? What if they want to help you keep strengthening this newly discovered muscle?
What might that mean to you?
Or perhaps they can at least agree that the clinical relationship has not been a good fit, and the therapy can end honestly and mutually? What if they can release you to a new scenario, a new therapist, and still feel proud of whatever you were able to accomplish together or the integrity that you both showed at the resolution of the relationship?
What if you don’t need to protect them from your feelings, needs, wishes, desires?
What if you never did?
I’ve been in many relationships, personally and professionally, where the greatest growth came from the way we left each other. The real failure is not the necessary ending of a therapeutic relationship; it is missing out on the opportunity to be further healed by leaving well.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
I am going to step right in it.
It’s unavoidable. It’s inevitable. It’s mandatory. It’s practically the only way the process truly works.
Over and over people come to therapy hoping that this will be the one relationship where I won’t ever do the one, awful, terrible, hurtful, intolerable thing that everyone else has always done to them.
And then I do it. Or something kind of like it, or something only a very little like the terrible thing, but similar enough to bring it all back in a flash and make you feel the darkest déjà vu: “It’s happening AGAIN.”
I will be late, or forget your partner’s name, or double-book, or lose an e-mail, or push too hard, or seem preoccupied, or be masking a dip in my own personal energy, or be over-protective, or have a “tone” in my voice, or misunderstand, or misconstrue, or f-up.
And you will be absolutely sure that it’s proof that I don’t care, don’t value you, that I am crazy, or just like your ex-wife, or your father, or that I am too fragile, depressed, not keeping up, or that I left you – or am about to leave you – alone.
Sometimes it will happen right away, sometimes not for a few weeks, or even years.
But – inevitably – I will do it.
If I don’t, we probably aren’t connecting. We aren’t approaching the realm of intimacy. The terrible, messy, liberating sacred zone where your unconscious Self pulls on mine – and we slip, momentarily, into the black hole of our core conflicts.
Sounds like fun doesn’t it?
But that’s how it works. Really.
We all repeat patterns in our relationships, and the therapeutic relationship – although unique, with important parameters – is still a relationship. As we fall into our favorite tried-and-true dance steps, we all pull and lead our partners to fall in line. Even if we want to learn new steps – even if we want to quit dancing altogether – the old rhythms return.
So, whatever it is you want to break free from, we should expect it to happen, watch for it to happen. And when it does – that is our moment to strike! We can see it happening, live, in vivo, in our laboratory. If we can catch it, we can deconstruct it, we can explore what was at play, assign language to it for the first time, or rewrite the narrative, we can transform it, re-work it, create a new experience.
But, I will step in it. If you stay long enough, and want more from the process than some company while you wait out a disruptive brief crisis, I always do.
And so will everyone you ever love.
The road to all intimacy leads straight through the deepest hole of our worst fears and crashes smack into our darkest core conflict.
Lets not hope that it won’t happen. Lets hope that it does.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford
I listen all day.
Most of what I hear, I don’t get to speak of.
I sit nearby people as they mourn, fret, rage, weep, laugh, battle, celebrate, and sometimes, rest.
Here is what I plan to do here: Tell you what I have learned. Write about the gifts and burdens my clients and my work have given me. Let you know what it is like, for me, and only for me – I speak for no other clinician – to do what I do. What it costs me, and what I receive from it.
If you are a client of mine, I won’t talk about you – but, here, I will talk about what it means to me, for good and ill, to be a therapist. I plan to talk about what I have absorbed, things I have been taught, “universal” patterns that I have seen repeated endlessly, like the painted foot steps on a ballroom dance studio floor.
Admittedly, my professional universe is a small and specific one – New York City, from 1995 until the present. It is further confined in space to three offices, where, over the past seventeen years, I have had the opportunity to partner in therapy with an incredible range of people: chronic schizophrenics, addicts, sex workers, dying children, teens in foster care, billionaires, oligarchs, high school/college students, movie stars, the almost famous, the impoverished, the incarcerated. I’ve treated war veterans, policemen, firemen, rabbis, priests, doctors, songwriters, criminals, lawyers, Ph.D. candidates, manual laborers, teachers, restauranteurs, business-folk, bartenders, artists, theater people, union workers, strippers, physicists, fashion designers, teachers, housewives, and loads of other therapists.
I see straight, gay, bisexual, gender queer, transsexual and none-of-the-above people. I’ve had the honor of meeting with people from many different races, religions, social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, and have been grateful to continuously learn about the painful ways that race and privilege create reality in our communities. I’ve worked with people who have come to NYC from every continent. I’ve listened to people in every kind of imaginable family constellation: people in divorced, remarried, arranged and polygamous, openly non-monogamous, as well as adulterous relationships. Single parent, two parent, step parent, multiple parent and foster families; people raised by extended families, adoptive families and reunited birth families; two mommy and/or two daddy households, people raised collectively – in cults, communes, orphanages, group homes, and residential treatment facilities.
I’ve had clients die on me, survive death by the skin of their teeth, try to kill themselves, and threaten to kill me.
I’ve sat with the bereaved, the chronically sick and those in chronic pain, insomniacs, binge eaters, people who have compulsive plastic surgery, multiple personalities, cutters, anorexics, alcoholics, the divorced and divorcing, the profoundly lonely, the dying to get married, the frenzied on-line daters, the work-obsessed, and the work-inhibited. I’ve watched people struggle through depression, PTSD, PMS, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, obesity, ADHD, bipolar disorders, learning disabilities, relationship crippling sexual fetishes and sexual dysfunction, panic attacks, compulsive lying, destructive gambling. I’ve watched people negotiate every kind of crisis imaginable, 9/11 survivors, responders, and widows. I’ve heard the deepest thoughts of people with psychosis, and those with psychic abilities. I’ve sat with the abused, the abusers, and the masochistic. I’ve waded through the dreams of people lost, stressed-out, trapped, enraged, numb, explosive, delusional and dull. I’ve borne witness as my therapeutic partners face down family conflicts, cut off their abusers, fret about their children, recover from sexual abuse, quit or lose their jobs, fall entirely to pieces and transform their lives.
It doesn’t leave me with a lot of small talk outside of session.
At cocktail parties – which I avoid – when people find out that I am a psychotherapist, they often ask me what my specialization is. I usually say: “Nothing” because to answer “Everything” sounds too grandiose.
I am a generalist. I don’t specialize. I partner with people. I bear witness. Then I draw from my own life experiences, my own treatment, my intuition, my training my studies, and I synthesize that with all of the data, narratives, dreams and metaphors of the hundreds of people I’ve treated over the past decade and a half.
I point out patterns I have seen before when I see them again. I learn from my own failures and the struggles of the incredible people who have chosen, however tentatively, to place their trust in me. After listening as closely as I can, I gather whatever images, impressions, ideas, patterns, lessons and themes that have presented themselves in my brain, and offer them up when they seem pertinent. If my reflections are not on point, or I am mistaken or mis-attuned, I ask that my formulation be returned to me, corrected, adjusted, tweaked, so that I can fine-tune my understanding further. I want to see my therapeutic partners, and hear their stories, as precisely as possible.
I have had many teachers, many mentors, many guides. I’ve worked with my own analyst since I was 22. He was 25 when he began seeing private clients. (I thought he seemed much older than me at the time.) We have grown up together through our entire clinical lives and I cannot confidently separate my own truths from the ones that I have received from working with him. My belief in empathy and my willingness to extend warmth, affection, admiration, and to love my clients, is inherited from my work with him.
I’ve been supervised over the years by generous professors and teachers; one woman, whom I first met as she led my group therapy class at NYU, taught me how to use my aggression in service of truth and health in the consultation room, and I saw her privately and in group supervisions for many years. Today when I refer clients to her, I often say that her spine seems to grow down into the earth’s volcanic core. Without her powerful model, I can’t imagine how bound I would be, tied in knots – unable to confront the inevitable and destructive forces that emerge in the therapeutic process.
I’m also a theory-wonk. I’m geeky enough to spend most of my recreational reading time digesting the great theorists of my tradition: Winnicott, Klein, Fairbairn, Kohut, Miller, Eigen, Bion, Lacan,and many others. In recent years, I have stopped reading psychoanalytic writings all together, and focused most of my extra-curricular reading on analytic psychology, Jung, myth, sacred texts, scriptures from all faith traditions, fairy tale, folklore and poetry. Expanding my catalogue of metaphor seems so much more useful at this stage in my practice.
I’ll try to give my personal and published mentors credit when I can – but many of their thought discoveries have grown into my bedrock, and I hope they will all forgive me if I accidentally share a gift they have offered me without remembering who I received it from. This is not an academic work and there will be no footnoting.
I will be vigilant and protective of my clients’ confidentiality – and focus on my own thoughts and reactions. I will hold my musings back for several weeks or months – or reach back years before and after the sessions that inspired them. I will disguise and distort and transform my clients’ stories so that they are entirely unrecognizable, except for the effect that they have had on me. You may, if you are ever in session with me, read things here that I have said to you in my office. If I have written it here – not only is it something that I have said before, to many people, over many years, it is even a possibility that I have said it more than once or twice to you.
This work is inherently repetitive; it has to be. Our emotional and spiritual learning is not linear. It happens in dream time. It’s a circular process, and needs to be repeated over and over again, with some new piece of an old idea digested each time the thought moves through, yet again, yet again. I am happy to repeat things. It was all repeated and restated for me over and over and over, as it took years and years for healing thoughts to be driven into my own thick skull. I am happy, and obligated, to pass the gift forward, as often as is needed.
A question lingers: I know why I do the work I do, I know what I love about it, what exhausts me, what heals me, what re-injures me, what is meaningful for me. So why this journal, why this blog?
I suppose the simplest answer is this: I suspect that I have been happily, professionally in hiding. If I have developed any skills, the mastery was forged entirely in private places, in the presence of only one other person at a time. I cozy up in my cave, reading, writing in journals, learning from my clients, and from chosen trusted peers and mentors. No one, really, knows what I do, except the people who happen to find me. I am a secret-keeper at the fringes of town, at the end of a small, winding path, the mouth of which is hidden from view. People knock on my door regularly and I am almost always happy to be found by those who arrive.
But, perhaps, it’s time to quit skulking about, remove the camouflage, and come out with it. Maybe I’ve learned some stuff. Maybe it’s time to define myself a little more. Maybe I should be more generous and teach a little. Maybe it’s time to be of more use.
That being said, I reserve my right to retreat from the public broadcast at any moment, stumbling back to my little hut on the fringe of the tribe, and return to sitting, one at a time, listening to my best teachers: my clients.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford