Image Credit: Mercedes Floresislas-Medina
“I’m a therapist.
I’m a psychotherapist.
I’m a mental health professional. Repeat. And breathe. Don’t forget to breathe. Breathe.”
I’m frazzled by the lack of sleep the night before or maybe from the realization that I may have made a mistake. I sit at a naked desk wondering why I left the easiest job in the world working with severely mentally ill inmates. Their voices and delusions might be out of control, but it’s manageable compared to this crazy, conveyor-belt pace of non-stop patients—pardon me, ‘clients.’
The chronically incarcerated and homeless have the same issues. It’s like a big dysfunctional family that never changes and they always come back home. Therapy for them can only happen when their internal voices are silenced. My new clients are too high functioning for voices to take hold of their lives. Nevertheless, I start to miss my incarcerated caseload. Then, the densest cloud of gray colored clothes catches my peripheral vision. Just a second before she entered, I checked my schedule and saw the time slot empty. This is an unexpected client.
She closes the door behind her, doesn’t say anything, barely looks my way, crosses the room, sits and stares at me expectantly. She’s there to get a service from me. Now.
I greet her as I stand from my desk. But she’s not there for pleasantries. I sit across from her, notepad in hand. I don’t ever write anything significant on it. I scribble just to ground myself as I listen to my clients.
She crosses her legs and leans into the back of the seat. She looks at me as if it pains her to acknowledge me, then she answers an unasked question, “I’ve been in therapy for three years. But my time with my old therapist has run out. So here I am.”
I fight the instinct to apologize to her. What for? I don’t know. She seems overdue for some apologies but I don’t think my neurotic ones would help. She speaks and I assess her. Her energy is dense. I need air! My inner supervisor checks me: “patient’s outcomes are directly related to the therapist’s expectations of them.” So, I breathe, subtly; I don’t want to disturb anything.
“So, what brings you here?” I say as invitingly as I can.
She sizes me up again and her gaze pushes my boundaries.
“Lady, you’re the one who came to see me, I’m not trying to bother you, all right?” I sass in my head.
“I had gone through a separation, but my brother died three weeks ago.” Suddenly, the heaviness around her lifts revealing a little girl in despair.
It’s my first week at this job and more than half of my caseload is dealing with grief. Some clients come either in shock and barely notice their tears as they reveal the recent passing of a relative. Others come in asking for permission to grieve.
But this client is different. She is fully present in her pain. She is grief and sorrow incarnate.
“I’m months older than him but, I was his mom since we were little,” she pushes the words out despite her tears. Yet, I cannot hear her words.
At this point in the session, it’s easier to dismiss my intrusive thoughts as my own coping mechanism set in motion than it is to acknowledge them. She continues giving voice to her pain, and her guilt. When she pauses, her tears shed in such quietude, nothing else exists but her sorrow.
She unfolds the life of her brother before me. With reverence and unashamedly, she points at their horrible upbringing; she floats over the ocean of addiction that killed him; and she pours gold over unspeakable wounds. She sways in her seat or her breath sways her, I can’t tell. She speaks, and she cries, and she moans in despair.
I want to comfort her but the words that start to form are not professional. I’m a psychotherapist, not her bestie or her mom. I push through the disembodied thoughts that demand my attention and reach for the go-to therapeutic tools: I rephrase, validate, and normalize.
But she’s not here for that nonsense. She lets loose the rage against herself; surely, she’s the reason he’s not alive. In pathetic helplessness, I can only stare at her. “God, help me,” I plead in own my despair.
I’m not even religious at all, but that’s how desperate I am. I know that if I invoke anyone, it should be Kubler-Ross not god, especially because this mourning soul is convinced that her god has forsaken her.
I search my mind for the words but they can’t reach my mouth. All my knowledge is trapped in my brain because intrusive thoughts don’t leave room for much to flow.
I’ve been a therapist for a while. I’ve never been at a loss, why now? I didn’t sleep well, I tell myself, but I know that I know better. There’s nothing in my repertoire of psychotherapeutic tools that would be helpful. I can’t think, listen or fight off these unrelenting thoughts either. But she continues to cry and her despair has unraveled and doesn’t seem to stop.
She can barely look at me. Her sorrow has drained her energy. She blames herself for his death. She blames herself for his sad life. And she wails and cries and her body convulses with the force of her sorrow. I can’t do anything for her. I’m a psychotherapist, a mental health coach, a storyteller of sorts. I don’t know what to do. I admit it.
And at this point of the session, I consider whether I should cry. I realize I have to surrender. I either step aside or I dive in, but I must allow the thoughts to emanate from my lips: “You did all right, sis.”
I heard this, not because I heard myself speak these words but because she stopped crying. Her silence commanded life to stand still and the words that escaped my mouth echo in the emptiness around and within us.
Her eyes pierce my soul, I’ve surely committed a terrible sin. Yet, I say it again, and this time I feel my breath fill the words: “You did all right, sis. You did me right, sis.”
Her gaze releases me and she lets out a howl. This one, isn’t pain, it is an affirmation of life. She cries and barely audibly she says, “My brother called me ‘sis.’”
I know, but I’m a professional licensed clinician, so I don’t acknowledge this. “This was a choice.” I continue despite my own warnings to shut up.
She had suspected his death was a choice. Her little brother had relapsed and died alone. Now, she blames herself for not being by his side, she blames herself for not recognizing in his voice any signs of despair, she blames herself for all his unlived life.
“It’s all right now, sis.” I said aloud.
I. Am. So. Afraid. She could sue this company for these . . . shenanigans. There’s no other name for it. But I can’t stop now. She has stopped crying and I do not want to cause that to happen again. For the first time since she arrived, she seems to be breathing. Peacefully.
“The coroner thinks it was a suicide” she says without emotion.
“He was tired,” I speak for myself this time. “He was in too much pain.”
I let the therapist in me add, “There’s no services, no sensitivity, no where to go get help for men who have been sexually abused.”
I listen once again and repeat, “He tried. He was holding on for you, but he’s okay now.”
She stares at me. Her gaze was made to cut through the gates of hell. She sure did.
I’m hoping that she’ll say, ‘How dare you!’ then I could go back to being the sane and professional psychotherapist. But she doesn’t.
“He was tired. He really tried to make me proud. He stayed sober for over a year. He really tried. I was so proud of him,” she says.
A palpable calmness settles over her, she seems to be at peace. No more crying. She just sits there in unreal quietude. I guard this moment for her. I sense she hasn’t had this, probably in her entire life. Then she raises her eyes to meet mine and she expects me to say something. I’m afraid. I don’t want to speak; I don’t want to lose my license! But she keeps looking at me. Her story is unfinished.
Oh god, no! Please shut up, you listen to you now! I said to myself but of course, I continue, “You speak to him in front of a, window? A mirror? It’s something with a frame around it. He listens to you then. He knows you’re proud.”
Her eyes, still holding onto mine for dear life suddenly break into a smile. “I have a large picture of him and I talk to him every morning.”
Then suddenly, there’s silence. Total silence. I take a second to breathe. I exhale scribbles on my pad. I seek grounding—how am I going to keep up with this job! Yet, I breathe again, and she does, too. And nothing else should matter. She rests her eyes for a minute, wrapped in silence and acceptance. The little girl crying for her dead brother becomes a woman once again. She collects her purse, stands, smiles a simple ‘thank you’ and exits.
Mercedes Floresislas is a Mexican born, award-winning playwright who creates opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Latino/a/x actors to promote Deaf awareness about Deaf related issues and American Sign Language. She is also a playwriting instructor at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights, CA; a professor at the University of California Riverside in the Theater Film and Digital Media Department; and a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She obtained her BA in Psychology from UCLA, her Masters in Social Work from CSULA and her MFA in Creative Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR. She is the proud mother of three. This is her first creative nonfiction.