Trigger warning for suicide
For those of you that have seen the film Good Will Hunting, you may remember the scene where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon over and over, “it’s not your fault.” The scene culminates in a meaningful embrace and what can only be considered as a therapeutic breakthrough. In graduate school, my professor showed us this scene to demonstrate a point about empathy and understanding in the therapeutic relationship. And while most therapy doesn’t really work like that, this scene remains one of the most poignant scenes that I have seen in regards to the portrayal of therapy.
I’ve watched this scene several times since the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. And it sums up everything I want to say and get through to not only my clients, but everyone suffering from suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, mental illness, and those who have ever felt a sense of hopelessness and despair.
It’s not your fault.
I had planned to do a “one-year reflection” type of post this week, but an unexpected circumstance has been making it difficult to reflect back on the past year. That post will be slightly delayed.
It was a Thursday morning like any other. Swipe in, head to my office, check emails, grab charts for the day. As I grab the pile of green folders, the support staff coordinator says hi and shares some unsettling news.
“Hey, do you remember so-and-so? She died.”
“How are you?” This is the text message I get from my mother last Saturday.
Now, most people probably wouldn’t think this is weird. But my mom’s not much of a small-talk conversation texter, and she hates talking on the phone just as much as I do (and I wonder where I got it from). Uh oh, is something wrong? I debate ignoring the text and waiting to talk to her in-person during the week (after all, if it was urgent, she would call, right? There’s the rationalization defense mechanism for ya), but I was too curious to know the meaning behind those three words on my phone.
“Thanks for that detailed update on your recent major life changes!”
Last Tuesday was my last day on the job.
Let’s go back to March of 2011. I was 22, had not heard back from any graduate programs, and was in a state of constant anxiety about the next phase of life while simultaneously denying that my senior year of college was coming to an end. Desperately attempting to find alternate solutions and avoid moving back in with my parents (no offense to my dear ol’ mom and dad), I obsessively patrolled the job boards. And one day, I found a hidden gem on Craigslist.
Some self-disclosure: I’ve never been on the other side of the couch.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I went to a child psychologist when I was three or four – my parents regale me with tales of my “weirdness” as a child (apparently speaking entirely in quotes from Winnie the Pooh is “abnormal”…but really, what do they know?), but I only have a few vivid memories from my childhood (someone can analyze me on that one). There was the time in 10th grade, when I got sent to the guidance counselor after my grandfather died. And there was my one-therapy-stand in college to deal with re-adjusting after studying abroad, where my therapist’s coldness and judgmental attitude only strengthened my desire to enter this field.
But since then, I’ve only been the therapist, rather than the client. And as I begin to establish a career in the mental health world, I’m realizing how problematic that is.
I was walking out of the stadium, clad in a cap and gown, when my father yelled “GET A JOB!” from the stands. While my dad was only kidding (here’s hoping anyway), it illustrated the pressure and necessity of getting a job as soon as possible after graduation. Maybe you’re taking a summer position or working at your part-time job you had in graduate school. Or maybe you were lucky enough to land a full-time, paid position at your internship and be the envy of everyone in your graduating class. Or maybe you decided, “hey, writing a dissertation sounds fun, maybe I’ll spend my next 5-7 years in a Ph.D/Psy.D program!” (If I wasn’t so burnt out from school, I’d envy you all). Or perhaps you were smart and started applying for jobs in February and got one before you graduated. In any case, this life cycle is primarily intended for those of us who are not currently in school or employed full-time.
It was the end of the day at my internship, and one of the patients was discharging. At some time during one’s final wrap-up group, the concept of acknowledging each other outside of the treatment setting comes up. As confidentiality ethics and laws (thanks HIPPA) stipulate that a therapist cannot disclose any information about a particular patient without their consent, I always go into the standard, “if you see us in real life, say hi because we can’t legally say hi to you first” spiel.
Whenever I have given this speech, it is usually met with one of three responses. One is the eye roll/blank stare/”there’s no way in hell I’m saying hi to you if I run into you” glare. As angry as I would expect to be with this response, I can legitimately appreciate the honesty of these individuals, as I’ve struggled to fully internalize the fact that clients lie (another post for another time). The second is something along the lines of, “oh my goodness of course I’ll say hi if I see any of you!” Some have been stated genuinely, where others have been as phony as…a telephone? And then there’s the hesitant, “if I say hi, will you say you’re my [teacher/family friend/distant cousin/classmate/circus performer I met once]?”