We were connecting over Skype, she in her temporary apartment in Chicago, me in my office in Newport Beach. The cold, bright sunlight flowed through her windows, lighting the tall table for two that was covered by a makeshift tablecloth. The cat, quietly present, weaved in and about the space, occasionally stepping across the keys of her computer.
The bookshelf was full of books, odds and ends, spilling in all directions, threatening to topple off at any moment. Even through the computer, I could sense the energy of her creative spirit, her artistry, that translated into her way with words, and her way of being in the world. It was palpable.
She looked at me earnestly, her hair piled into a messy bun. We were at the end of our time together. She had been crying, but now looked fresh. Her smile was bright and unburdened.
“I was thinking of you last night, ” she told me. “Like what you do? It’s like this. You know how everyone has a voice? Some people have a loud voice. But some people can’t talk. Or they talk too quietly because they don’t know how to speak up. They don’t know that they deserve to speak up. That’s like me. But people like you give people like me a voice. And then one day, some time from now, maybe I will do the same thing for someone else. Kind of a chain reaction.”
I was touched and blown away. In a few words, she had honestly and poignantly summarized how I felt about therapy. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, if I am able to give volume to one person’s words, evolve feeling into expression, then I can leave my office knowing that I had done something important and powerful that day.
There are so many reasons we become quiet. Shame, guilt, uncertainty. Or because no one seems to be listening.
In therapy, eventually, an individual speaks aloud that which has felt dark and silent. And if those words are received with a sense of privilege and non-judgment, a little light is let in. Like the dim glow that shines in through a mostly closed closet door. Things seem a little clearer because two sets of eyes and ears are focusing in together, carefully, on that which needs undoing. And the work can begin.
There are many days where I may not hear if or how I have helped someone. And I try to rest in the knowledge that, in my field, movement happens in the smallest of ways. Until one day we look back together, and see that we have actually traveled miles, through the arc of the past, into the present, and even ahead into the future.
But today, I didn’t have to trust that change was happening, or that I was making a difference, however small, to someone. She told me, loud and clear, in her own words.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect patient confidentiality, and permission has been sought from patients to share their stories.