A Therapist Caught in the Act of Being Herself
by Linda Stone Fish
I live in a small city in Upstate New York, and most people in town know somebody who knows me, my husband (a clinical psychologist) or one of our four engaged and energetic sons. My husband and I are both active in our town’s small Jewish community and have private practices; I teach family therapy at the local university; and all of our sons are heavily involved in athletics, drama and school social life. So it’s no wonder that I sometimes cross paths with my clients in town–if not at the supermarket, then on the athletic field, at the hairdresser’s or at temple.
Despite all this, I managed, for two decades, to maintain (in my own mind, at least) a fire wall between my personal and professional lives. In the consulting room and the classroom, I worked to present an air of calm worldliness, an expert with the answers to all sorts of painful therapeutic and family dilemmas. I was at pains not to look like someone who would lose it with her kids or yell or scream–which is precisely what I sometimes did when I got home to a house full of hungry boys ranging in age from 4 to 16.
Then, late one spring afternoon four years ago, I walked into Wegman’s, the huge supermarket on the east side of Syracuse. (It’s the kind of place with a dry cleaner and a cafe as well as acres of gorgeous fruits, breads and vegetables.) With me was my youngest son: 4 years old, tired and whiny. I’d been teaching and seeing clients all day. There was nothing in the house for dinner. I was having babysitter problems and I was due at another son’s baseball game in less than an hour. In short, I was fried.
Near the yellow and red peppers, I pried a shopping cart loose and asked–or rather told–my son to get in. He refused. In no mood to fool around or cajole, I grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted him up and tried to force him into the cart. He stiffened and began screaming.
It was one of those moments when other shoppers look over and think, That is the worst mother in the world. That poor child! I wanted to yell at my son at the top of my lungs or just leave him screaming on the floor while I shopped, but instead I managed to bend his legs into the cart and wheel him forward, still screaming. I was picking up hamburger buns when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jan, one of my most recent clients. She was staring at me, and she wasn’t the only one.
I did the only thing a professional could do under such circumstances–I pretended she did not exist, kept my eyes straight ahead and wheeled my screaming child toward the meat section while acting as though I was on a cruise drinking pina coladas.
Jan (now thankfully out of my sight) had become my client six weeks earlier because she was exhausted and overwhelmed by her 13-year-old daughter, who was doing poorly in school and behaving badly at home. We were at an impasse: Jan wanted me, the expert, to see her daughter individually and straighten everything out. I was insisting on seeing mother and daughter together and was (so far unsuccessfully) encouraging Jan to do homework that involved connecting with her daughter while setting limits.
Or at least, that was the role I was trying to play with Jan, until the moment she saw me push a screaming child around the supermarket in a controlled frenzy, picking up milk, hamburger, frozen french fries and a bag of lettuce greens. In the car on the way home, with my son still screaming, I, literally, had fantasies of closing my private practice and getting a job at K-Mart.
All that week, I waited for the call canceling Jan’s next session and letting me know what a joke I was. But on Friday at 4:30, Jan appeared with her daughter Sarah to tell me that, for the first time, she (Jan) had done the homework I had given her. (I had asked her to stand up to her daughter and make sure she did a schoolwork assignment, even if Sarah tried to distract her by being mean.) Jan had also made an appointment with a school administrator to get an evaluation of her daughter’s learning problems. Her passivity had disappeared.
“Linda, I hear what you have been saying,” Jan said. “I needed to do something different and I was resisting it!”
“I’m so impressed!” I said, leaning happily back in my chair, figuring that the woman in the supermarket must have just been a Jan look-alike.
“Seeing you in the grocery store really had an impact on me,” Jan said. “Boy, do you have your hands full!”
I reminded myself to breathe.
“You were a myth to me,” Jan went on. “You had it all together. How could you understand how overwhelmed I felt? Then, I saw that you, too, are overwhelmed, but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I can’t tell you how empowering it was.”
My face turned bright red in the presence of truth. I had been caught being myself. Jan was being helped not by my fake professional calm, but my humanness.
After that, I came to a decision to consciously bring some of the wisdom and skill of my profession into my life with my children and husband at home. And I started bringing into the office the honesty and imperfection I had once tried to sequester in my personal life. Nowadays, I’m much more likely to tell a client that a teacher once told me how much she hated one of my boys, for instance, or that another son still does something with his shoulders that I think makes him look retarded and I sometimes yell at him to get out of the room.
I still think back on the moment Jan saw me in the grocery store, and I continue to be freed by it. In my office, I no longer work so hard to project tightly wound calm. Clients who haven’t seen me in a while sometimes comment on how much more relaxed I seem. And I do feel less tense, having stumbled onto an old truth: it is me, not the image of professionalism I once thought I was conveying, that people find helpful and healing .
Linda Stone Fish is a professor, chair of the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at Syracuse University and in private practice in Syracuse, New York. Address: Syracuse University, 008 Slocum Hall, Syracuse, NY 13244. E-mails to the author may be sent to Flstone@syr.edu. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.