Looking back on their presence with me during that time calls to mind another ancient myth, the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My father used to read it to us at bedtime when I was a child, ending with “and that’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and To-bed-we-go!” These three unfortunate souls were thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship his golden statue. They weren’t consumed by the fire, however, because an angel came and stood beside them and cooled the flames. This captures a crucial ingredient of my slow healing: the willingness of others to stand in the fire with me, even as it seemed that most of the people in my life, including therapists, were letting Garth Brooks’s hit “Standing Outside the Fire” shape their response.
Those who didn’t stand in the fire with me perhaps didn’t know how, or may have been enduring a fire of their own at the time. It’s difficult work to stand in the fire with someone in deep pain, and there’s a huge difference between those standing in the fire and those offering suggestions from the outside. The three could stay present with me in the fire because they’d withstood the flames of their own crises. Their fire-tested resilience kept communicating to me, “You can endure this; it won’t consume you.”
Though I’ve been using client in this article to refer to the people we serve because it’s the commonest term across nonmedical helping disciplines, I now prefer the term patient. Client carries with it a certain bloodless connotation of commercial exchange, while patient literally means “one who suffers.” For me, it’s important to keep bearing in mind that people who seek our help are suffering and need us to accompany them with compassion (a term that means “to suffer with”).
If there was one turning point in my struggles, it was the moment I stopped pressuring myself to return to work as a psychotherapist. It was only when I began to accept my life situation as it was—and no longer flogged myself for what it wasn’t—that I started to heal. Another Campbell insight gleaned from his study of the myths of humankind comes to mind here: “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” As long as I was clinging to the shreds of my precrisis life, I couldn’t move toward what was next any more than a caterpillar can fulfill its destiny by refusing to spin a chrysalis. There’s something about healing from deep darkness that feels like death and rebirth—not the quick kind that some claim to receive in a religious conversion, but the kind that asks us to be open to changing our contract with life in the most fundamental ways. No psychoactive drug (and I tried a few) or therapeutic technique can help patients reimagine a dark, tangled mess of their own creation as a place of transformation. I learned, though, that another human being familiar with the transformation process can encourage the letting go that suffering requires of us. More than anything else, it’s this kind of presence that I strive to bring to my patients now.
Using the Authentic Self
Fast-forwarding 12 years after the storm, I’m sitting with a woman with whom I’ve worked for several weeks. Today she’s telling me she wants to find a way off the planet. After assessing for imminent danger, I tell her, “Something needs to die, but I don’t think it’s you.” I pick up a pinecone from a sequoia tree, a souvenir from a camping trip out West. “This is the seedpod for the largest living tree on Earth,” I say, “but it won’t release its seeds until a forest fire comes through the grove and opens it.” We talk about the fire blazing in her life, made all the more painful by how she’s managed to keep it secret even from those who know her best. I tell her about my own storm and how rich life has been since I found a way through it. I’m trying to offer her what others gave me in the darkness—a sense that it doesn’t mean you’re crazy to find yourself there; it can even be thought of as a necessary part of the journey to an authentic life.
“But I feel so worthless!” she says, not cooperating with any ideas I might have of a Joseph Campbell–informed version of brief therapy.
“Imagine holding one of your children as an infant,” I suggest, and her face glimmers a bit with a latent memory of this good part of life. “Can you see that child as unconditionally sacred?” I ask.
“Of course!” she replies.
“The same is true of you and always has been: you were born with it and you’re stuck with it.”
Later, when she tries to tell me that no one would really care if she committed suicide, I say, “I’ve had that happen once in my career, and it devastated me. If you do that, it might knock me out of this kind of work for good. Even if you believe you matter to no one else, you matter to me, and I want you to know I’d be deeply wounded if you carry through with suicide.”
She later told me that this moment in our session was the first time anyone had told her she mattered that much. I’d spoken similar words with suicidal clients before my storm, but I used them as part of suicide assessment and prevention. What felt different in the way I handled this recent session is that I remembered feeling the way my patient did: how suicidal thinking rendered me nearly blind to any intrinsic worth. I knew that a discussion of her worth and developing a “no-harm contract” wouldn’t impact her meaningfully. I needed to communicate as deeply and fully as I could, as one human being to another, and not as a clinician standing outside the fire.
I think my work is better since the storm, but when one of my patients terminates therapy early, it’s clear to me that any boon I brought back from the deep is no guarantee of being able to help everyone. The craft of my life and my work as a therapist remains unfinished. I see far fewer patients than before, respecting the limits of my capacity to offer compassionate presence. Money is a less important part of the equation. I keep the last wallet Dad used on an end table in my office, a reminder that the value of what I’m doing on this planet probably has little to do with how many bills flow through my own wallet.
Am I becoming wiser, better at planning and living a meaningful life? Perhaps, but while wisdom may be my destination, it’s pretty clear I’m taking the slow boat.
Kevin Anderson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author who lives near Toledo, Ohio. His books include Divinity in Disguise and The 7 Spiritual Practices of Marriage. His latest book, The Inconceivable Surprise of Living, due later this year, is a creative interaction with ancient and modern wisdom about the human experience. Contact: KevinEAnderson7@gmail.com.
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