“Are you okay?”

And then after:
“You look drained…”

And again, later in the day:
“Everything alright?”

The successive greetings from clients through out the day remind me that I am more transparent than I would like to be.

Some personal crisis has erupted in my own life: a death of a family member (there have been many over the past 15 years) an illness, a hospitalization, or an up-all-night concerning disruption in the lives of my children, a painful conflict, a fraught battle, or terrible news in my community. Something has pressed deeply on an old wound or a fresh injury has hurt me enough to be visible – but has settled sufficiently for the moment that I can, should, need to set it aside to get into the office, and show up for the tribe of people that gather around my promises to them.

I may still be exhausted, and shaken, but I need to be present for the people I have committed to nourish and nurture, who trust and need me, who bring me their own vulnerabilities and wounds to sort through and soothe each week.

There are times when we don’t carry our caseload, our caseload carries us.

During my first parental leave following the adoption of my oldest child, a therapy group I lead for years continued to meet in my office, with another therapist. They watered my plants, held down the fort, and kept me oriented and tethered to my professional identity as I faced down the tsunami of joy, terror, and role-reorganization that attends the happy crisis of new parenthood.

In the wake of a painful crisis: urgent follow up phone calls, or worry driven emails, or even some quiet contemplation in between sessions can trigger more tears, wiped away before opening the door. Or perhaps I’ve napped on the couch to escape, granting myself a forgetful reprieve from whatever the painful event – alarm set to wake me a full 15 minutes before the next arrival.

The buzzer rings. Smooth my hair. Breath pulled in deeply through my nose, blown out sort and fast: shake it off, put on my brave face and open the door.

But perhaps the puffy eyes and red nose linger. Or maybe it’s the dark circles underneath my eyes. Or maybe just an air of vulnerability. Or the lowered energy revealed in my voice or my carriage.

Some don’t notice. A gift, a gimme, a free pass. Everything is as it was, and as I would like it to be. I get to rest in the sweet pretend that am fine, and expected to be as normal as I ever am. I, and my real life, blessedly don’t exist while I am lost in the other’s story.

Some see – I can tell they see – but won’t say anything. Others ask as a polite convention. I assume that they are necessarily protecting themselves and I join in the illusion. I grab a tissue and mutter something like “lotta stuff’s going around out there” before sitting and putting my feet up and getting down to work. They nod, relieved not to hear anything more.

The connection we make, as far from my own suffering as possible, is so relieving, reorganizing, strengthening. Perhaps it is far more than merely escaping myself for the moment. It may be that the very nature of human connection, of intimacy however lopsided – is nourishing and comforting.

The experience of understanding another, and of being understood – of speaking a common language that we have created together, coming together for a common purpose, makes me feel well again.

I am expected to be well. To be intact. To bear up. To be able to think clearly and feel deeply. And the expectation summons my strengths, and makes them available for both of us. What a gift, to have people you care for summon your strength when you are most in need.

Conducting therapy through my own crisis states reminds me that the arc of grief, of loss, of crisis and disorientation has a shape, a course, that I am familiar with, and need not be afraid of.

I watch my fellow travelers sailing through their own rough seas, and their courage activates my own.

I certainly fatigue more easily riding on top of my own tempest. Waves of intrusive pain break through in the quiet moments and I am unhappily reminded of myself and my external circumstance. But it feels better to be present in the room, and so I come back quickly, and thankfully.

Some clients have known me for a long, long time. We have seen each other through births, deaths, and acts of war, fortunes great and terrible, joys and tragedies. They know right away, and offer kind words of encouragement, condolence, concern or support. The briefly turned table, the split-second opportunity to care for me, is sweet and meaningful for us both. As touching and healing as a child kissing a parent’s boo-boo.

Some see I’m off or under right away and need to know. They need to know that it isn’t something worse, something that will cause me to abandon them, or lose track of them, or contaminate the supplies I am providing. Some people were profoundly injured when their caretakers moved into states of disinhibiting depletion – unable to protect others from primal sadism and abuse. Some had family who collapsed out from under them, or dropped dead with out warning. My state is read as a signal of worse to come. Denying it will be crazy-making. We will spend sometime exploring the fear I have triggered. But it also requires some reassurance and some confirmation of reality:

“Yes” I say, “I’m dealing with something. But I’m okay. Really.”

For those that press further: “You’re perceptions are totally accurate. But don’t worry, I promise I would have rescheduled if I wasn’t okay. Listen, if I seem to you like I am under, my energy seems low – it is. If I’m not where you need me to be, please tell me. But, frankly, it will help me feel better to hear about you.”

And it will.

I know what is required of me.

I am vulnerable. But I am here.
And I am grateful.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford