In this series we look at a day in the lives of our therapists. Their stories illustrate the joys and challenges of dedicating one’s life to helping others improve their mental health and cope with mental illness.
I awaken to a chorus of birds chirping, singing riotously, endlessly. The windows are closed and we don’t have any pet birds, but for the first minute or so I believe I am hearing the lovely music of birds in the treetops. Eventually I remember that it’s the ringtone of my iPhone, and I roll over and hit “Snooze.” This happens a few more times until I’m ready to put my feet on the floor, sit up on the bed, and admire the view through the wall-to-wall window of palm trees and sky.
Returned from my morning walk, I park my specialized orthopedic walker in the dining alcove. I’ve been using it as a mobility aid for about six years now, since my arthritis, fibromyalgia, and COPD overtook me and I became disabled. Like the commercial says, I love my walker. I named it Dolly. Without it, I’d be unable to walk more than thirty yards. With it, I can go almost anywhere!
After a breakfast of coffee, yogurt, and granola, I open my “office” to see who is in the “waiting room.” I used to grab a briefcase and drive to my brick-and-mortar office in time to greet my first client of the day, but now my office is my computer. I hold it on my lap, on the rose- and celadon-cushioned love seat in the living room, facing outward past the lanai, to the treetops. I feel like I am in a treehouse! I’ll spend a lot of time here, today, because it’s my favorite spot – for working, reading, knitting, phoning, and even meditating. In a little while I’ll probably pick up my laptop “office” and carry it outdoors to the lanai, and work there for awhile. The weather may be cold back home in New England, but here in Florida it’s sunny, warm, and balmy.
The waiting room (Talkspace screen) was packed this morning, and I’m barely halfway through my morning rounds. By “packed” I mean that quite a few clients were waiting to hear from me. I read what each one has texted me, carefully consider my response, type it into my reply, and hit “Send.” I could use the voice feature on my iPhone, but I prefer the larger screen and the keyboard of my laptop. I taught myself to type when I was eleven years old, and my parents gave me my birthday wish: an old, used upright typewriter with a yellowed booklet titled, “Teach Yourself Touch Typing.”
I love this work I do. All my life, I’ve wanted to help people find their way out of unhappiness. I read books about girls and women who were accomplished in the arts of healing, educating, and communicating. I started writing poetry when I was seven. I also wanted to be a doctor, to heal and comfort and inform people. I didn’t know there was a field called “psychotherapy.” If I had known about it, it’s what I would have aimed for at the start, rather than as a midlife career change.
I learned about psychotherapy when my world fell apart and I needed to be held up. Friends and family could help only so much. I needed someone who could stand to let me cry, listen to my anger and despair, and provide some perspective on reality. Therapy saved my life.
I have “seen” all my morning clients. Now I have a few hours to spend any way I choose. I fix myself a little lunch (I eat very healthy – mostly paleo, at this point, with some Mediterranean diet influence) and then take a short nap. Because of the fibromyalgia, I tire easily and need to refresh my mind and my body with some magically restorative sleep. After that, I’ll either practice playing my harp or go downstairs to the lobby of the residential retirement community to check out the activities underway (and possibly join one). Or I’ll read from one of the books stacked on the end table or on the home screen of my Kindle. Or I might paint. I’m learning to work with acrylic, and I have a pad of blank art canvas waiting for me.
I have a video appointment with a client I’m treating online. I settle on the couch and dial her up. For this, I use my iPhone, which I prop up against the cover of my opened Macbook. I’m a dedicated Apple user, and I bought an iPhone 6+ shortly after they became available. My husband had suggested that I save money by getting the standard-sized iPhone 6, but I was determined to get the wider screen of the Plus version. For the next half-hour my client mostly talks and I listen.
Because so much information about the client is visual, I love using video! I can see the bags under her eyes that tell me she’s tired, and I can see the frown that shows she’s unhappy, or at least grumpy. Sometimes I interrupt her with a question. Her eyes and hands reveal, by their movements, that certain topics agitate or enliven her. This is all very valuable information for me, as her therapist, so that I can be of maximum help to her. We do well texting, too, but the therapy moves a bit faster using video, and this client has a lot to work through.
I make my afternoon rounds, checking my Talkspace page to see who is waiting to hear from me. I repeat the process of earlier in the day, considering each client’s remarks and my own response to them, and choosing the words I think will help most.
I saw a psychic/astrologer/past-life regressionist, once, who told me that in my previous lives I had been a writer, but of other people’s words — that is to say, a scribe. And that the purpose of my current life is to use my inborn skill with words to help others heal.
“By the way,” she asked, “What do you do for a living?”
When I told her I’m a psychotherapist, her eyes widened and she said, “You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do!”
“I know,” I said.
Doing what I was born to do — what feels so natural to me, that satisfies my drive to be helpful to others — is a gift from life. I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world, with one of the best jobs!
My husband has one of the best jobs, too. He’s a professional musician. While I work in my enchanting tree house office, he is often off playing in a band somewhere in town (as he is today), or closeted in the extra bedroom we allocated as his studio, practicing. We’re both old enough to retire but love our work too much to give it up. So we have found ways to keep working, but at a pace we can maintain. Four hours a day is fine for me. Four gigs a week is fine for him.
Dinner is a huge social event in this retirement community. People dress up every night and mill about outside the dining room when it’s about to open. I call this nightly gathering “the Senior Prom” because all these seniors are there to meet their “date” for dinner, or get a date with whom to dine. It’s very friendly and lovely to be part of!
Some of us are “going steady” with groups we dine with regularly and exclusively. My husband and I have steady dates four evenings a week (a different group each evening), and on the other three nights we go stag. Tonight is a stag night, and we’ve accepted an invitation from a group we’ve dined with a few times before and have enjoyed being with. This practice has helped us to meet almost everyone who lives here.
This evening after dinner a concert is taking place in the lobby. I take a short walk around the building and come back in time for the music, a jazz band that includes my husband. At the end of the hour I slip away to keep another video appointment, with a client for whom usual working hours were not a possibility.
That’s part of the beauty of online therapy. I can meet my clients’ needs for appointments in the evening and on the weekends with no need for either of us to get in the car and drive to some otherwise-empty office building. I’ve been there, done that, and am very happy to have this alternative method of meeting. We’ll get as much done this way. It’s easier and feels safer than being out and driving at night.
I relax, maybe watch some television while knitting. We might choose a movie on Netflix or Amazon, or reruns of the series, Blue Bloods, because I love it. It’s about family values and justice and always has a happy ending.
I need to see happy shows, especially true stories with happy endings, because my work life focuses on people’s struggles. I consciously avoid overloading myself with stuff that would upset me or pull me down. I already know how bad life can be. Something needs to remind me of how good it can be. And I love happy endings!
I’m lying on my back, where I started in the morning, but this time I’m on my way to sleep. The window shades are open so I can see the outline of the trees against the darkened sky. Some nights I fall asleep fairly quickly, other nights the fibromyalgia keeps me awake with its full-body discomfort. One of the strategies I can use to help myself relax into sleep is to try to think of five things I accomplished during the day:
- I walked for exercise and fresh air.
- I served my clients.
- I practiced my harp.
That’s it. I can’t think of any more. But I figure that if I count the number of clients I served, it definitely adds up to way more than five!
I still can’t fall asleep. I get up and move quietly into the living room, turn the TV on low, and watch some reruns of Golden Girls and Frasier. If I can laugh, even only once, that laughter will relax me and I’ll be able to go back to bed and fall asleep.
The shows are silly but brilliant. I marvel at the high quality of the writing and acting. Even though I know exactly what is going to happen (I’ve seen them all before so many times), I laugh aloud.
Then I go back to bed and drift to sleep. It’s the laughter that makes the difference. I was raised on it (my whole family loves to tell jokes), and it always works.
I fall asleep smiling, happy with my life, looking forward to tomorrow.
Bio: Samantha White is the author of the award-winning memoir, Someone To Talk To: Finding Peace, Purpose, and Joy After Tragedy and Loss.