Our patients often give us lasting gifts. Sometimes we know what those gifts are right away. Sometimes it takes years to discover them.
I moved to New England around this time of the year twelve years ago. I said goodbye to a lot of things--family, friends, familiar places from my childhood and young adult years. I also said goodbye to the first patients I worked with as a psychotherapist.
Between earning my first masters degree and starting work on my doctorate I spent two years working at The Free Medical Clinic of Cleveland. It was a crazy time to be working at the clinic. Started by a group of committed activists in the 1970s (click here for a YouTube clip about this history of the clinic), the clinic had outgrown itself and was transforming itself from a grassroots movement into a vibrant agency. It was a painful time to be there.
It was also a transformative time to be at the clinic--it's where I learned how to be a therapist. I had already learned some important lessons about the craft. I hadn't yet learned how to be a therapist. I had yet learned to sit with all sorts of people with all sorts of needs. I hadn't learned to just sit and experience the experience of another.
I remember my very first patient. He said he wanted to me two questions before we began. "Are you gay? Are you HIV positive? If you are neither of these things how dare you think you can speak to me."
I remember one of my last experiences at the clinic. A man who had been HIV positive since we knew what HIV was had told me "You have been more than a therapist to me. You've taught me how to die, and now I know how to live."
I learned many things during my two years working at The Free Medical Clinic of Cleveland. It's not the foundation my work as a therapist is built on but it certainly has provided me with a copious amount of raw materials to built what it is that I do.
What comes to mind today is the very last client I met with. He had a hard time with me leaving. He had a hard time saying goodbye to me. He left me with a gift--a Patsy Cline CD. In the card, he wrote that he believed that a good gift should represent something of the gift giver--some part of him. He hoped that I would take the CD with me on my journey forward and remember part of him.
I do remember that gift. I remember that gift most of all. It taught me about the gifts I give as a therapist. It taught me about the gifts I receive. It taught me about the part of me that carries on forever in the experience of my patients and the part of them that carries on forever within my own experience.
What gifts have you received as a therapist? What gifts have you received from your therapist?
Here is a group called Women's World Voices singing a little Patsy Cline. It is a good reminder of a gift that I once received.