“You may call it countertransference. I call it building a bridge.” – Lauren Slater
My good friends Ben & Ann recently lent me a book called Welcome to my Country, a therapist’s memoir of her work with people with severe mental disorders.
What’s so great about Slater’s memoir is both her candidness and her willingness not just to enter the madness of her clients, but to acknowledge the madness in herself.
She expresses the great scandal of psychology- that she hesitates to share her past because she would lose her credibility, yet she’s “supposedly in a profession that values honesty and self-revelation.”
Maybe this is why my program at Wheaton emphasized the idea of knowing your own baggage and of “but for the grace of God, there go I;” that given other circumstances- different parents, a different temperament, a history of abuse- I could be in my client’s shoes, however ratted or torn or crazy or obsessive or sinful or cruel those shoes may be.
Throughout the memoir, Slater has breakthroughs with clients only when she’s willing to be graphically real with them. She connects with their stories because she knows that even though she may not be a wife beating sociopath, she has tried to crush the feminine in herself; even though she is not suicidal now, she has been suicidal at times in the past; even though she is not schizophrenic, she does have disorganized thoughts and lost dreams.
Slater’s work and much of what I learned in my program pose a challenge to a traditional view of counseling, because essentially what they are arguing is the powerful and heart breaking truth that the cure for the pain is in the pain.
But if the cure is in the pain, what do my clients need me for?
I think they need me to be a witness to the pain, to sit with them in it and let them know they are not crazy and they are not alone.
And perhaps this is why it is most important for me to be connected to my own story, my own madness. Because if I can’t remember my own struggle to be accepted, how can I empathize with what it’s like to have severe social anxiety? If I can’t remember what it was like to struggle with my own deep seeded sin, how can I keep from judging the man or woman who just cheated on his or her spouse? If I can’t allow myself to bring up memories of my niece, how can I properly grieve with my client who just lost her two-year-old daughter to cancer?
And perhaps that is why my profession is so excruciatingly painful and so excruciatingly beautiful at the same time. I witness a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, a lot of suffering.
But I am also connected in relationship to someone who has the strength to grieve and the strength to hope.
Somewhere in the strength of the client who struggles, I also find strength.
And somewhere in the gritty and raw relationship we share, I find hope when I am struggling too.