As a therapist, I have had the kind of jobs with the kinds of populations that scare some people. They scare me too sometimes. I would like to say that I have wound up in those places out of altruism. Altruism maybe 10%, the other 90% is divided between happenstance and paying the bills.
I don’t dread the gang-bangers, the CPS cases or the substance abusers. The ones that I avoid are the people that just “want to talk” to someone. When I was little, my grandma used to tell me that I was too big for my britches. I still am. It is easy for my ego to take over for me and I think: this person doesn’t need me with all of my super-special amazing training. They need a cat. They need a friend. They need HBO. I am way too important for this! I’m not of course, but I am quick to let myself think it.
That’s how I felt recently when I was called about a referral.
I was buttered up of course. This case needs someone like you; he requested you because you’re the greatest person on the face of the earth; only someone of your caliber could handle this, blah, blah, blah. The truth is that they forgot that I get the general referral emails and this particular client had been on it for months. I had read it ten times. Several other therapists had too. No one wanted to take his case.
Here’s how it looked:
Elderly person with chronic pain, trouble with insurance company, wants someone to talk to.
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Are you S#*ting me. The triumvirate of things that someone doesn’t need a counselor for, but yet will consume my entire life with phone calls and appointments ahh, ahh, ahh! Yes this person needs help, but not my help!
Of course I said yes. I can say no via email, but the phone is tough. They get me every freakin’ time I answer the phone! I called the client to set up an appointment. It was my worst fear realized. Not to toot my own horn, but I am an expert and the cut the client’s rambling off and redirect, maneuver. I’m slick – they don’t even know what hit them.
This client was impervious to my attempts. I had to do the whole, “I’m driving in a tunnel… you’re breaking up,” thing and hang up the phone.
That’s not true. I would never, but I was tempted. After much discussion the appointment was made.
I had a poor attitude about it the whole way down there. If you know me, that probably isn’t too hard to imagine. I saw the client first through the window. He was old and mostly skin over bone. He was walking very slowly. My paperwork said chronic pain. I wondered if he had terminal cancer or something equally as debilitating. It is an uncomfortable mix of compassion for another human being and a scary reflection of our own mortality to see someone like this.
I steadied myself for our introduction. I was greeted with the overpowering smell of cigarette smoke. My allergies immediately kicked in and my head started pounding. The greeting was cold. He ignored my attempt to shake his hand. We walked silently, at a snail’s pace into his house. It smelled exactly like him.
I know I may seem insensitive to this point. Maybe I am. The thing that is hard with this kind of client is that they have usually had difficulty with the systems in their life because they are difficult people. As the therapist, it won’t be long until I am labeled as a problem, too.
This man played into a lot of my expectations. Once settled he was a talker. He was a tad irritable. He looked me up and down with contempt and said, “How long have you been doing this?” That was client-speak for, you are way too young to be able to help me. He was toeing the line of conspiracy theorist. He mentioned an alien abduction, prefaced by, “I know this sounds crazy but.” I am not the kind of therapist that normally deals with the crazies.
My first session is always paperwork. We were going on an hour and a half and we weren’t halfway done. My entire arsenal of cut off and redirect skills evaporated as if the nicotine stained walls were my counselor kryptonite. As crafty as I am at anticipating an opening and cutting a client off without hurting their feelings, he was twice as good at not giving me one.
I put a lot of stock into the idea that my life lined up the way it did because God wanted me to be a counselor. When certain things fall into my lap I tend to move (usually begrudgingly) towards them because I know God is at work. Usually these things illuminate holes in my ability or weakness in my character. I think that God wants me to learn humility from them. I need it. I will complain the whole time, but I’ll take my licks when I have to.
I had a thought popping in to my head that was like a Burmese python trying to suffocate my worldly selfishness. It was that I have been given a truck load of blessings and led to a profession I love through God given gifts, but I think that I am too good to sit and talk to an old man that lives in a stinky apartment.
Jesus was tortured and hung on a cross to die for me, but I am belly-aching about spending an uncomfortable hour with someone. The Bible didn’t say help rich folks with Scentzies and nice smelling houses. What kind of man am I that I avoid something that may have eternal significance because I don’t want my shirt smelling like smoke all day? A self centered one, for sure.
As my client was telling me his story I started to notice that the first few years of his life were very similar to mine. The difference is that I had a solid family and resources. He didn’t. He had tough times and a family history of mental illness. I couldn’t relate to that directly, but I do know a whole bunch about it.
It didn’t feel like God was showing me a snapshot of me for my sake. It wasn’t like a ghosts of Christmas past, future and present to show me something about me. It wasn’t the usual ego-centric interpretation of divinity that benefited me somehow. God was showing me a picture of me in this man so that I could begin to understand his life.
As he talked I realized that he probably had undiagnosed Autism; maybe Asberger’s. He was a kid in the 50’s and 60’s that sort of diagnosis and treatment were unheard of. This frail old man in front of me was highly intelligent. He was well spoken with only occasionally lapses in memory. His story was ringing a bell with me about a book that I once read. The book was called, Look Me in the Eye, My Life with Asbergers, by John Elder Robinson. Mr. Robinson was diagnosed with Asberger’s at 40. He led a very interesting life, the book is a great read and I recommend it. Some of the struggles he had were reminiscent of the things that I was hearing from my client. Asberger’s folks have trouble with social cues and interactions. That might explain the awkward introduction and dismissal of my attempted handshake. I was beginning to get a picture.
My client learned to cope with his differences the best he could without any real help. Here he sat in front of me troubled, the sum product of years of being off-kilter with the majority of the population. His life hasn’t been as storied as John Elder Robinson’s. It has been rough. He isn’t a warm and fuzzy grandpa type. He is gruff. He is argumentative and doesn’t trust people. In fact, he thinks people are out to get him. His apartment people, the psychiatrists, SAPD and soon enough me, probably. There is a touch of mental illness peeking out around the corners, too I think. We’ll get that sorted.
None of that matters. What matters is that God got me here. What matters is what comes next.
I do believe that God wants me to be a counselor, but I don’t think counseling is why I am here to talk to this man. I think my vocation is a means to an end in this situation. I think I am here because God knows I will eventually say yes when he gives a good tug. I will fight it and bitch and moan, but once my cage is rattled enough I will show up.
I think that I am here because I know how to get around resistance. My experience has taught me how to disarm the most resilient defenses. I know how to talk to people in a way that they will best suit their ability to hear what they need to hear.
I think God may want this man to hear something specific and he gifted me with the ability to navigate the land mines of a hardened heart with out getting frustrated. I think he knows that I won’t cave easily to well-honed defense mechanisms or get my feelings hurt by a reactionary client. I also think God made me just enough of a dullard mentally that my face doesn’t react to startling events like the mention of alien abduction.
I could be wrong about this whole deal. I will know soon enough I guess. I do have a hunch, though. I don’t know yet if my client is a believer. I will this Friday. I have to believe that he isn’t from what I have seen and heard so far.
If he isn’t, I hope that I am there because God trusts me enough to introduce Him to my client. I mentioned that the first part of this man’s life looked a lot like mine. That would be a great way to talk about how ridiculous I thought Christianity was until someone spoke into my life in my 30’s.
Maybe he is a believer and is on fire for God. If so, then I will figure out the real reason God got me here. I wouldn’t expect it to be easy, but that is okay. I have made a living of the tough cases.
The long-winded take away that is playing pong in my mind and in my heart is that if we don’t show up, nothing happens. If I fall flat with this client, I fall flat. It is okay. What this man ultimately takes away from our relationship is up to him.
The outcome of things that are external to me isn’t in the relationship between God and me. The process is. How I present Him is. Showing up is. God can and will do whatever He sees fit in this man’s life without me. He wants to see what I’ll do.
God has an itinerary waiting but we have to go to the station to get the ticket. I hope to do better at listening to the voice, not resisting the tug and following the signs.
Part two to follow. It is now Friday, I have seen my client again it is almost laughable what happened. Stay tuned.
I love you all, but not as much as I love Tom Brady.