capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Client I Won’t Give Up On

I liked her the first moment she walked into my office.

She was funny, hysterical actually, with a dry sense of humor that reminded me of my own, and she was wise beyond her years, transparent about all her mental scars and self-deprecating thoughts. This client had a captivating energy to her, the kind that made our sessions both intriguing and enjoyable. I always looked forward to our time together. Whenever she left, I felt flooded with a surge of gratitude for the job I have and the work I do.

I believed in her more than she believed in herself, which is one of those traditional therapist mistakes you learn about in graduate school. You can’t want it more than your client wants it. You can’t do the work for her. 

Logically, I knew and understood this. It was common sense- the basic principles of our professional relationship. Emotionally, I had to work to keep those boundaries- and my own emotions- in check.

I so badly wanted her to do well- I was proud of her, readily able to celebrate any of her victories, no matter how small or minute they seemed. I was her cheerleader and her advocate, the one who wanted to hold the faith she couldn’t have for herself.

I just wanted her to see herself the way I saw her. I don’t know if there is anything more sacred in this universe than having someone who thinks the world of you- and who isn’t afraid to say it.

I absolutely identified parts of myself in her. Another therapist phenomenon known as countertransference. I related to parts of her family, parts of her personality and coping skills. Most all of this, I kept from her, as it was not clinically appropriate to share such disclosure. Yet, she shared how she saw parts of herself in me. We engaged in rich and engaging conversation about our relationship- about what it was like to have such strong reactions to one another.

The therapeutic issues we worked on were not overly different from other issues I’ve worked on with countless other clients. Of course, I believe clients represent so much than the sum of their presenting problems. They are entities, whole people, beautiful and complex and tragic wrapped into one evolving personality. Labels, diagnoses, behaviors- they never tell the complete story.

She shared dark secrets and exposed her full spectrum of emotions. Sometimes, after such a reveal, she would pause, anticipating my reaction. We had to process several times that she expected a response of anger or disappointment. We had to process what it was like to be accepted unconditionally.

This was because I promised her that she could never disappoint me, even when she disappointed herself over and over again. She so quickly anticipated my criticism and my rejection. Most clients do. Most clients are used to such abandonment, and they expect to push others away with their perceived brokenness.

Instead, I remained steadfast and constant, a stability in her chaotic life, a stability she had never experienced before.

I continued to thank her for trusting me. I continued to express that she couldn’t disappoint me. I continued to emphasize I would be there for her and support her no matter what decision she made.

She made a lot of progress, as clients do, and once things were going well enough, she ended therapy. We both agreed she was ready for this transition. It was a hard goodbye- on both of us- and I remember feeling that twinge of selfishness to hold onto her. I remember the grief of having to say goodbye.

Therapists struggle with goodbyes, even if they don’t talk about it.

 

Months later, I heard from her again. She reached out- not as a returning client- but just because she needed to talk. She was regressing- her words- and she was scared, incredibly scared, of losing all the progress she had made. The old vices we had worked so diligently on- were coming back with an angry vengeance. She felt out of control, defenseless, and it was painful for me to think of her struggling so badly again. I wanted to rescue. I wanted to save. I wanted to be her figure mother, and I wanted to take all her heartbreak away with a giant, magic therapy eraser.

Obviously, I couldn’t do any of that. There was no rescuing to be done. She had to undergo the stress, learn the lessons, make the mistakes. Our interaction was brief, and again, she anticipated my judgment and disappointment. Instead, I listened because sometimes all therapists can do is listen. And, I told her I was there for her. And, I told her that I still thought she was amazing and gifted because all of that was my absolute truth.

For complicated reasons, she didn’t return to therapy, and she hasn’t been my client for quite some time now. Regardless of our relationship and regardless of her actions and choices, my promise stands true: I will never, ever give up on that girl.

 

 

  • All reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client confidentiality. Because of this, names and identifying details in this piece have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.