by Maame Blue
Photo by Artsy Solomon c/o nappy.co
Don’t all the best stories start this way: at the beginning of the end. Just after things get difficult. This story is about leaving therapy, about being the therapist and walking out. It is about stepping away from a belief system you had given your life to for ten years.
Exiting the work was a process. You move away from the constant simmer of emotions, forget the polyester smell of the couch cushions, and return to the memories of borrowed time and fifty minutes filled with silence, anguish, and trauma. These were the hardest things to do. Can you talk about these things? Or at least try?
You wake up at 3 a.m. every morning and think about that one client; the one that slipped into your dreams and made you relive their day as if they were you, and you were them. You search the streets with suspicion, at the men and their young daughters playing in the park. You watch them quietly, wondering bad things, whose origins you could point to on a map the size of a pinhead.
Yes, the work impacts. The stories of late nights, vulnerable children, cruel adults, the injustice of it all; they stir you. In the way, anyone would be stirred, but you keep going, keep seeing survivors.
And we call them survivors because it’s the truth and you wonder often if you would have survived, if there were something you might be a survivor of. Something that you cannot recall right now, not during the session, not as an open sponge of safety ready to absorb everything that’s given to you. Then you turn it around, make it important, a reflection, an action. You stopped wondering about yourself, about that thing that may or may not have happened when you were young and naïve and filled with hope. You say, “Later. I’ll think of that later,” but you never do.
Instead, you get got. They call it the countertransference; when the therapist experiences the feelings of the client as if they were her own. This is dangerous for sure, but also an occupational hazard. You wake up too late, though, when you are already ripe for infiltration when you are walking your client’s path and running lines as if they belong to you. Maybe they did. Maybe they caught on so easily because they resonated, familiar like a running tap that knows the sea; we come from the same place, although we’ve never met.
So now you’re the vulnerable one. The excitement that used to fill you in the room quickly turns into fear. A sharp anxiety that takes your breath away and holds onto it for too long until you are blue in the face and unable to listen. And that was what you were, the listener, the ear, the shoulder, the hand, the friendly face. What were you without those things? A shell, a gesture, a placard of positive affirmations. But that disingenuous line did not suit you.
The leaving came before you knew it had happened. You had announced it sure, set a course to create ‘good endings’ for your remaining clients, but you weren’t sure you were ready. Ready to ‘take a break’ yes, but leaving for good? Who could be sure of that? You hadn’t noticed how you’d mentally left the work six months prior, when a client canceled and you were elated at the prospect of not sitting in another room with another person, of facing another grief and giving everything you had when you barely had anything left. You stopped listening to yourself, and leaving had become the only thing that you could hear.
Your clients were gracious, grateful, empowered people who made your aching feelings seem like pinpricks. They survived in ways you couldn’t imagine, a make-believe sort of memory that you still needed to figure out for yourself. You were grateful too and stood in the doorway of that room for the last time, as the last client left, waiting for that last click of the clock before you clocked out.
In the moments after, leaving was a grief process you couldn’t make sense of, or articulate to your fellow therapists, to friends, to family. It looked like you left, or alternatively, that you were taking a break after years of non-stop work. Or, it looked like something that wasn’t true, but you kept your mouth shut because what did you have to say that could explain things anyway?
You left. The work, it left you. And four years later, you think about it some more. Of the strangeness of leaving what you love, of the desire to never go back, knowing the ability is as awake in you as it was that first day you stepped into the consulting room. But to explain that, to be an ex-therapist, a non-identity and how it came to be, is to spin a story, a falsehood, that could never capture the moment it speaks of. The moment of leaving.
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