Caring for the Caregiver

Caring for the Caregiver

The Art of Oscillating Attention

By Christine Caldwell

July/August 2004

Nancy is beginning to deepen into her story, a frightening and all-too-common rendition of what it's like to live with an alcoholic husband. She cries a little as she relates the details--the shouting matches, the contrite explanations, the fear of telling others about it. Her face is contorted with despair and shock, her voice quavers. When her hand goes to her throat, I feel my heart break a little.

Later, hours after Nancy is gone, I become aware of a tension headache at the base of my skull. As I sit quietly with it, images of this session arise. I realize as I sit there with my pounding head how swept up I'd been by Nancy's hopelessness and fear. I visualize myself listening with my head jutted forward, unsupported by my body. I experiment with this position and, sure enough, when I stick my head out, the headache gets worse. I suspect that I've been unconsciously craning my head forward to hang on to her every word. I've taken on her pain in a very real, very physical way.

We've all experienced what happens when get tied up in our clients' knotted lives. But how do we attune to our clients' experiences and not get knotted up ourselves? Good supervision always helps, and it's a relief to untie some of our own twisted history while we do it. Through supervision, we can discover the common threads between our historical material and that of our clients. It helps us avoid unwittingly weaving our stories into theirs.

But what about my headache? Research…

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