THERAPY FOR THE THERAPIST

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

 

Imperfection Beauty

Our clients put their trust, their lives, in our hands.

They come to us in emotional distress, vulnerable and fearful.   Some with lives collapsing and falling apart.  Pain is their impetus to seek help.  Often, we are a last resort.

They are asked to divulge their most private and sensitive experiences to someone they hardly know.  The relationship is not reciprocal.  Therapists may occasionally share small details of their lives as a therapeutic intervention, otherwise, it is a one-sided experience of intimacy.

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It is imperative, as counselors, that we engage in a life-long examination of our own lives, our values and beliefs….cognizant of the fact we will be most useful to our clients only to the degree to which we have worked on ourselves.

This requires an honest examination of our blinds spots, recognizing our biases and short-comings.  Therapists, for instance, might benefit from an awareness of how components of their upbringing could skew their thoughts and feelings toward unhealthy beliefs inadvertently passed on to their clients.

Our ethics must be impeccable.  Our skills sharp.  Our interventions crisp, candid, compassionate.

My first therapy experience was at age seventeen.  My first therapist warmhearted, inviting, empathetic….and blind.  As though she had sight, she sensed my muffled tears and tenderly acknowledged my sorrow.  She created a safe, welcoming space for adolescent angst to be shared.  That early therapy encounter of kindness and gentle directive…. impacted the decision to make this my career.

I have sought therapy throughout my life as one of several forms of personal exploration and growth.  Working with someone you respect and trust….who holds with you your most fragile thoughts and emotions, aids in sifting through jumbled feelings and unproductive thinking, assists in challenging perceived injustices or in identifying projected hurts and wounds….provides a valuable opportunity for emotional healing.

Each therapist I have worked with over the years has played an angelic role in guiding me through all phases of life….. struggles in relationships, bumps in my marriage, the loss of my parents, challenging transitions….and now….the navigation of  this daunting, yet delightful period called the ‘Autumn Years’.

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My preference was finding someone with honed skills and hair as gray as mine….reflecting someone having traversed similar life stages and phases…. and possibly better able to relate more personally with my therapy goals.

My current life guide more than fits the bill.

Energetic, bright, warm, yet firm….I feel safe in her presence and believe she will ask the questions meant to rattle me to consciousness, and call me on my BS.

The ‘work‘ this go-round is hard, but liberating.

I am seeking a sweet spot between my public/professional persona and burrowed shadow side…hoping to better integrate the two.

Some of the objectives I have in mind are to develop a more definitive picture of what life could look like during these senior years, explore and identify new interests as I age, develop the confidence to expose my creativity more publicly, melt any facade between me and my authentic self….and achieve the life I desire as I grow closer to seventy.

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As an example, a recent appointment with my therapist led me to revisiting a childhood trauma flooded with difficult images, recapturing the scenes of decades ago.  For several minutes, I was pummeled by powerful emotions.

At the next session she asked,

“What were you thinking and feeling right after you left my office last week…and how was it for you to share at such a deep level with me?”

Great question.

I paused for a moment, checking-in with that tender and sensitive place of honesty and authenticity.

“Hmmm,” I replied, looking away for a few seconds, attempting to recreate the last session in my mind and recall my reactions.

“I felt self-conscious and exposed.  My self-confidence was shaken and I wondered and worried about how you were experiencing me…..I even questioned if you were making a judgement on whether or not you felt I was a competent therapist?”

She chuckled a little, and responded.

“Actually, I thought to myself that you are most likely an excellent therapist.  You bring a combination of emotional depth and analytical understanding to your own personal work…. and I assume you must bring that balance of both to your clients as well”.

Lesson learned.

If I allow myself to be ‘real’, to be raggedy, warts and all….if I am open and willing to be less guarded and embrace my ‘shadow’ side…..the more authentic I become as a person….and the more effective I am as a therapist.

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However, a frenzied debate remains among colleagues in the mental health field regarding whether or not it is important for a therapist in-training to engage in their own personal therapy, as noted in an excerpt from the article, “Personal Therapy for the Future Therapist: Reflections on a Still Debated Issue” which appeared in the European Journal of Counselling Psychology in 2013:

     “The issue of personal therapy in the training of counsellors and counselling psychologists has long been debated and is still being discussed. Although some people believe that trainees’ processing of personal issues helps increase their self-understanding, they do not consider it mandatory. Others argue that personal therapy is an integral part of training for future therapists revealing the characters and personalities of those who are fit or unfit to practice this profession.”

Regardless of this debated issue, I hold to the notion that a therapist is only as good as the degree to which he or she seeks a conscious life through an examination of self-perception and self-exploration.

I believe the better I know myself….the more understanding and helpful I can be to the apprehensive, but hopeful client sitting across from me in my office….and….the more I can fully appreciate what it is like to walk in their shoes.

THE HEALER

When we are struggling with an illness, injury or any health problem….we are reliant on the ‘healers’….those persons who play a role in our recovery and healing.

In 2006, the discomfort on the outer area of my right kneecap worsened to the point where I sought a medical opinion from an orthopedic surgeon.  The x-rays revealed a meniscus tear and surgery was in order.

I hate visits to the doctor’s office.  I loathe hospital stays.  I despise hearing the prognosis “surgery”.  Although this procedure would be considered fairly minor, no major organs involved…it was still a big deal to me.

I pulled out all the stops in preparation.

This was a period of time when I was heavily into spirituality.  I met once a year with an astrologer as well as a tarot reader, women who were ‘members’ of my team of personal life guides.

I had an “altar” in my office covered with eagle and turkey feathers, family pictures, greeting cards from those I love, Spirit dolls, crystals and statues and other objects that were gifts from friends and my partner, colorful sea glass and awesome shells collected on every beach I have ever walked, unusual stones from Monhegan and Campobello Islands, magic wands, spiritual books and several decks of angel cards.

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Through ‘journeying’ at a Shamanic workshop,  I met my Power Animal (snake) and a loin-clothed, caveman-like character who became my Spirit Guide.

In the mountains of New Hampshire at the onset of winter, I walked a labyrinth, participated in a blindfolded trust walk and a sleep deprived overnight in a cone-shaped tipi.  Dory Cote, a Shamanic leader in Maine, led me through a soul retrieval session and one of her workshops on Soul Painting.  I offered a Spiritual and Personal Growth group to women in my private practice.

Vision quests, drumming circles and chakra meditation were my portals to peace and understanding.

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Having grown up in an Irish Catholic household, it was a difficult departure as an adult to leave the teachings of my religion, but I was no longer able to associate with the doctrines of the Church and eventually found more solace, soul connection and a sense of ‘spiritual residence’ in Nature, Shamanism, Buddhism and Native American spirituality.

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Given this orientation, it was an easy transition to seek non-traditional forms of healing, which included Reiki therapy, a Japanese Buddhist alternative modality that advocates relaxation, reduces stress and promotes healing through a ‘laying on hands’ technique.    I worked with a Reiki therapist for a week before and after surgery.

Lying on her table in my living room the night before my procedure, in a darkened, candlelit space, her hands lightly touching my forehead, she leaned over and whispered, “Tomorrow is the first day of your healing.”  Such a gentle reframe and departure from the concern and scare I felt as I imagined my leg cut open in the morning.

She accompanied me to the hospital and utilizing her hands-on approach, calmed me completely on the gurney just before I was ‘rolled’ into the operating room.

The repaired knee would require physical therapy post surgery, so I explored the possibility of working with someone who combined the ‘western’ medicine mechanics of PT as well as embraced the ‘eastern’ model of more holistic, alternative, spiritual methods.

I found her!

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Donna Maria was heaven-sent.  Her work with me was a combination of what I was seeking in the combo of a medical and spiritual realm.  She had a downtown office….and one in her residence as well.  I opted for home visits as she lived very near to me on Great Island in Maine….and I imagined my PT experience in such an environment would provide a more comfortable setting for healing.

Truth be told….it could not have been more perfect.

Physical therapy appointments were held in the front room of her home at 13 Graveyard Road, a dated Victorian house, properly worn and warmly inviting….a few miles drive farther out on my island…situated on a jagged coastline with open ocean views.  Stretched out between her home and the sea….a declining family graveyard….dwarfed by a bountiful garden of wildflowers, completed the ambiance for mending.Poem Photo

Her demeanor, her benevolence, her skills and the gratefulness I felt for the central role she played in my recovery from surgery, moved me to write a poem of gratitude.

We all have known these angels who show up when we are most in need.

This poem is the tribute to mine……

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“The Healer “

Waves of oat-colored hair caught in a clip settle at her crown, 

coiled tendrils spiral down to bright eyes

lined in blue.

 

The hem of a silken camisole grazes the waist of her skirt

billowing pink

to bony ankles.

 

I pray she’s a good witch.

 

Inside her healing habitat, 

pale porcelain angels peek from corners 

and attach to walls

conveying a hint of hopefulness. 

Lighted candles illuminate the room

with the musty smell of patchouli.

 

Here, she performs her magic

with small, knowing hands 

that lightly touch

the taut, twisted muscle

and bruised bone

expelling the anguish that once resided there.

 

From the cushioned table 

in this seasoned parlor 

at 13 Graveyard Point Road

with an ocean vista stretching just beyond

the granite markers

of the dead,

I look up, 

and I bless her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IF NOT NOW…..WHEN?

Can’t seem to make a decision about retirement.

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Just when I think I have finally reached a conclusion….I push the date farther and farther out into the future.

‘What if we haven’t saved enough money and live to be a hundred?’

Okay, that’s mostly wishful thinking.

‘What if we stop working and the stock market crashes along with our retirement plans?’

Well that one is actually a little more realistic.

Then there’s the whole career thing.

I’ve been a psychotherapist for just shy of thirty-five years.  In that time, clients have shared their euphoric joys and accomplishments….and have presented with trauma, struggles and agonizing sorrows,  approached courageously with gallant determination.

The challenge was to become a trusted confidante in order to coach, counsel and guide what were often heroic changes by brave individuals and couples who dared to dive deep into their souls, hoping to create the life they deserved.  The work has been humbling and rewarding.  I sat often in awe of their perseverance, their honesty and willingness to be raggedy, opting to attempt new behaviors that seemed contrary to how they had been navigating the world for decades.

I observed deep, dark wounds between couples heal before my eyes.  Women who had lived a life of subservience and domestic abuse, found their voices.  Men who allowed for no other emotion but anger, wept in my office.

I often learned from clients.  My skills improved because they….taught me.

There have certainly been moments when my confidence was shaky.  I could get lost in the complexity of a client’s diagnosis and would seek insight from others whose skills I admired.  Sometimes I made mistakes.  But I always brought my full self to my work.

So, who will I be when I cease being a therapist?  How will it feel when I close that door?

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So many identities are shed as we move into this final phase of life.

I am no longer a runner, a person with 20/20 vision, a size 12, a dark-haired woman, a child bearer, a “Miss” (yes….now I’m a “Ma’m”).  I have ceased to be a child/girl/adolescent/young woman/young adult……or someone’s daughter.

I’m a senior.  Yikes!!!

I am on Medicare.  I collect Social Security.  I have wrinkles where once my face was smooth.  Stretch marks where my skin was taut.  A knee that needs replacing.  Eyes that can barely see without contact lenses or glasses.  I notice I can’t hear as well in crowded rooms.  I no longer turn the heads of men…….unless their hair is silver.

And yet….most days, almost every day, I feel this is the absolute best time of my life.

I am, to my delight and surprise, beginning to feel genuinely at home in my own skin.  There are still those moments when the “work” I thought was behind me ambushes my otherwise tranquil mind.  A humble reminder no true level of self-actualization or perfection exists….for anyone.

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My partner and I are on the same ‘senior’ page.  Just when we land on what we think is stability, the earth under our feet shifts, our desires change.  Our needs and wants are more in a state of flux than ever.

We designed and built a dream retirement home on an island in Maine almost twenty years ago…. with an outside hot tub, an electric sauna, multiple decks with water views, prolific gardens….three levels with three flights of stairs….and a fifteen mile round-trip to downtown Brunswick.  It was to be our retirement sanctuary, except as we crept toward sixty…. the stairs, the gardens, the upkeep, the distance from Brunswick let alone Portland, moved us toward condo living.

We downsized close to forty-five years of memories….and useless stuff that had been dragged through several previous moves.  Our ‘mansion’ is now a 1,200 sf loft.  We have an elevator in the building and are within walking distance of everything we need.  Portland is our playground!  We are positioned to ‘age in place’….apparently a new phrase that suggests we could actually live here until we die….with an elevator, all living space on one floor and walking distance to our hair stylist, financial planner, therapists, grocery stores, multiple coffee places…. and the best pie in Portland.  A few blocks from the ferry terminal, we can take a boat to an island and escape the city whenever we please.

All we need to do….is make a final decision.

Hmmmm….perhaps it’s time……

 

 

 

 

SEX….. AND THE 60’S

 

Have I sparked your attention?

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The word “sex” has that sort of power…grabbing us by the lapels with wide-eyed interest…while simultaneously making us squeamish and uncomfortable.

I can recall the ONLY time my Mom, an undeniably sexy diva when in her 20’s, uttered ‘that word’ to me.  We were deep in conversation, two adult women sharing lunch, when she responded to a question I asked with……”I never was that interested in sex.”

My uncensored reply….. “Really?!!  I love it!”

That was the response of a naive young woman who was awakening to a new revolution called feminism.  Women were seeking political, economic, social, and equal rights to that of their male counterparts.  Women were also breaking ground with a sexual revolution…and with the advent of birth control….claiming their bodies and embracing sexual exploration and freedom.

But truth be told, I haven’t always “loved” sex.

My sex education as a teen of the 60’s was limited.  It was not being taught in schools.  Most parents, including mine, avoided the topic.  Whatever generally faulty information was available was shared in hushed whispers between female teens.  There was no access to internet data.  Introduction to my first bra, was left in a bag on my bed…no discussion.  I remember fumbling for several minutes trying to figure out how the hell to put it on!

We were mostly clueless and clumsily experimented with unreliable birth control methods.  The pill had only just become available and was not easily accessible to young women., most especially adolescents.   We carried the anxiety and burden of avoiding unplanned pregnancy, of wanting to express ourselves sexually coupled with the risk of being labeled for that expression….slut, loose, frigid, whore….and worse.  Interestingly, the male equivalent vocabulary included words like prowess, stud, manly, virile.  (We still see evidence of this discrepancy today in stories related to Stormy Daniels).

At seventeen, I experienced an awakening to womanhood.  Dating a good-looking,  popular guy in the senior class gave me credibility and status.  A desire to please, lack of sex education, starry-eyed love, and wanting to avoid the label of ‘prude’ when many of my counterparts were already sexually active….eventually led to the discovery that I was pregnant.  It was 1967.  Women were just beginning to embrace freedoms never before realized, yet I could be asked to leave high school or be fired from a job because I was pregnant. I could not legally refuse to have sex with my husband, and I could be denied a credit card.  It was a personal setback in my quest for sexual freedom, equality, and claiming my body, as I hid my bulging abdomen in order to graduate and work.

In her new book, “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love and Common Sense”,  Mona Charen cites her belief that feminism has ‘failed us in our personal relationships’ and ‘dismantled traditions of modesty, courtship, and fidelity that had characterized relations between the sexes for centuries”.  As she raises thought- provoking questions and points to be considered, she also challenges some deeply held beliefs of women like myself who over decades flourished professionally, personally….and yes, sexually….due to the powerful force of the feminist movement.

Fast forward.  I am a woman in my late 60’s.  One would think my days of sexual interest, sexual freedom and sexual prowess would be over.

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Just the contrary.

Women of my generation are like no other.  We grew up in the era of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.  We burned our bras, formed consciousness raising groups, and fought for reproductive rights, maternity leave, and equal pay.  We spoke out against domestic violence and sexual harassment.

As women of the ’60s…and now in our 60’s….we have a range of choices….and experiences….. regarding sex.

I have friends who have lost interest in sex and have gained interest in many other areas of their lives.  I have friends with lovers who are twenty years younger.  I have friends relishing their sexuality without fear of pregnancy…. or a monthly annoyance.  I have friends joyously having “sex” with themselves.  And friends having sex with other women.

And….I have friends….(ahem)…..having the best sex of their lives…….

Boom!  Drop the mic!

 

 

 

VISION QUEST

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It is not easy for me to try new things.

I tend to hem and haw, make excuses, convince myself I don’t have the time, energy, or perhaps even a genuine desire.  In reality, I get in my own way.  My inner conversation sounds like this:  “you’re just a mediocre photographer”, “you’ve never had any lessons, so how could you EVER sing publicly?”….. or…. “there are so many good writers out there…. would anyone really care about what you have to say?”

And then….this week….something surprising happened.

A Facebook photo of immigrant children seeking asylum, forcefully separated from their parents, provoked me to respond with a brief statement on social media.  Within a day, my post blew up…..receiving  5.1K responses with 4.3 thousand thumbs up, 662 hearts, and over 350 comments!

I had two reactions.

Astounded at the overwhelmingly positive replies to my thoughts and feelings, I realized my words had power, influence, connection to a mass of people… and that perhaps what I had to say had some import.

The second awareness….was a reminder that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. 

In addition to overwhelming support and positive remarks, the Facebook response was sprinkled with not just disagreement, but vicious attack.  I mentioned my age in the comment and was met with…” this one escaped the dementia unit”, “you are truly the definition of a 68-year-old fool”, “so…68 and senile?” as well as a few others that referred to me as basically decrepit, demented, out of touch and well past my sexual prime.

The fear of potential criticism and ridicule that often diverts me from taking risks momentarily overrode my desire to express myself.   My self-talk was riddled with apprehension about using my voice through writing.

The fear was simultaneously met with a memory.

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I recalled a Vision Quest on the desolate beaches of Chatham on Cape Cod.  It was over seventeen years ago that I stepped off a small fishing boat onto that wide, expansive strip of sand, several hours walk to where the beach eventually reunited with the mainland.  Strolling the shoreline, accompanied by dozens of seals playfully bobbing and rolling in the surf, engaging me with dark, soft eyes of curiosity….I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity of silence and inner dialogue rarely offered in day-to-day life.

Between a bottle of water and a few granola bars, I had tucked a camera in my backpack.  A favorite picture taken that day is the photograph above of the solitary seashell I discovered among the steep, wind-blown dunes.  The shell, symbolic of a spiral journey into myself… and the interaction with the sleek-bodied mammals…evoked three words I later wrote in marker on a smooth, oval-shaped stone dropped in my pack on the way back to civilization.

PLAY….CREATE….RISK

So here I sit….fingers tapping a keyboard… pushing through doubt and fear….in an attempt to embrace those words and venture into the world of blogging!

In response to Facebook hostility, I titled the blog:

“Musing with Margaret….Approaching Seventy….with Hair… and Soul on Fire.”

I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, comments… and (gentle) feedback.  Smile.