Family Matters

Family Matters

Boundary Crossing - Balancing professional decorum with human compassion

By Dea Silbertrust

May/June 2007

I'd been in psychotherapy for more than three years when I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma: a benign tumor was growing slowly on my left acoustic nerve, the one that carries information from the ear to the brain. It was the size of a golf ball and took a seven-hour surgery to remove. My recovery was prolonged, requiring 10 days in the hospital and several months of rest at home.

I was 31 years old and living alone. A half-dozen friends gathered around to support and comfort me. My widowed father traveled back and forth from his California home 3,000 miles away. I felt close to my therapist, whom I saw in group and individual therapy. She'd supported me when my mother had died suddenly during our first year of work together.

"My mother died," I'd uttered simply when she picked up the phone on the evening I got the news. My voice seemed disembodied, but her calmness brought me back.

"Tell me what happened," she asked, as the sound of running water and clattering dishes faded into the background. It was the first time I'd called her at home. Our brief conversation reassured me that I wouldn't float away in a bubble of grief.

But my surgery seemed different, and I wondered what to expect from her. I was nearing the completion of my own doctorate and knew that taking a phone call from a grief-stricken client was an acceptable boundary crossing. But what should a therapist do when a patient was seriously ill and couldn't possibly make it in for…

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