Letters from Home

From Storytelling 2020

Elliott Connie
Magazine Issue
May/June 2020
An illustration of an envelope with a note coming out

I’m a psychotherapy supernerd. I travel the world doing therapy trainings while writing books about my specialty, Solution-Focused Therapy, and posting online about the big and meaningful questions we wrestle with in this line of work. I love what I do with every fiber of my being. If someone invented a device that scanned the world for the biggest therapy fans, my enthusiasm for this work would instantly overload its circuits and explode it into pieces.

The kind of therapy I practice helps clients focus on what they’d like to be different in their lives through questions that imply they’ll get what they want—questions like, “What do you want to see instead of your problem?” “How will you know when your goal’s been reached?” And most famously, “Suppose overnight a miracle happened while you were sleeping. When you woke up, how would your life have improved?” This work requires faith on my part that clients not only can answer these questions, but welcome change into their lives.

It’s deeply ironic that I now get to believe in and witness clients’ changing, because I grew up having zero faith that things in my own life could ever change. I had a very difficult childhood. For 12 years straight, my father beat the shit out of me. He was an angry, dominating man, and there were periods when these beatings would happen every day. Nobody could fix that situation for me—that was my father. In those years with him, I learned a lot of about endurance, but I also learned that endurance without a hint of hope that life can be better is not enough to survive on.

I’d always been the quirkiest child in my family. Socially awkward and quiet, I isolated myself from the extroverts who surrounded me—which just made my dad angrier. As the abuse went on, my quirkiness became tinged with anxiety and depression, and it became hard for me to see beyond my circumstances to something better. Then one day, at age 10, I found myself climbing onto a bus with my mom for a big trip out of state with our church group. The excitement and anticipation I felt when I took my seat and realized I was finally going to see a world outside my own small town gave me something I’d had little experience with at that point in my life: a small sense of hope.

Traveling from Massachusetts to New York City, we weren’t going to see famous landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or Times Square, just to visit another church and sit in on its service. But as a poor kid who’d never had a chance to get away from the misery at home, even a simple journey like this was a thrill. So you can imagine the heartbreak I felt when about 45 minutes into the ride, the bus got a flat tire. We sat on the side of the highway for hours. By the time another bus arrived, it was too late to get to New York for the service. As we pulled away to go back home, I shrank down in my seat, crushed.

Sullen and silent for a while, I gave into frustration. I turned to my mother and asked her why God would do this to a bus full of people on their way to do his work. She gently explained that sometimes God gives people tests to prepare them for tasks later in life. I stared at her for a moment. What was she saying? That suffering could have purpose? Wait, I thought as this possibility took hold, did that mean mine wasn’t meaningless?

What my mother didn’t know when she uttered those words was that I was on the brink of attempting suicide. There hadn’t been a day in as long as I could remember that I hadn’t wanted to die. But as I looked out that bus window into thick rows of pine trees whizzing by, I thought, Maybe if I just carry on, one day I’ll see what God is preparing me for.

Many years later, I realized all that childhood pain prepared me to be a counselor and help others in pain. Not only that, but when I found Solution-Focused Therapy, I saw how I could quickly and effectively help them see a way through it.

Of course, SFT has a particular protocol. We ask clients to tell us their problems, but rather than lingering there, we immediately ask questions that focus them on potential solutions. I won’t deny that I had some initial doubts about whether this would work for everyone. How are you supposed to help a real person with a real problem while not talking specifically about that problem? I struggled with the logic of it all. Could asking questions of people who have come to you for answers really help alleviate their suffering? Well, I kept seeing evidence that the SFT works, so I just kept using it in my practice.

Then I met the Johnsons, who were the closest and most loving family I’d ever come across. The parents owned a restaurant together, and the two teenage children played on the same sports teams and supported each other in all sorts of ways. But as all four of them huddled together on the same couch, an air of desperation surrounded them. The mother, Donna, had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable form of cancer and given six months to live. The family hoped that therapy would help them deal with the news as well as the difficulties that were sure to follow.

I’ll never forget how terrified I felt at the prospect of trying to apply Solution-Focused Therapy to a problem that literally had no solution: I couldn’t change the diagnosis. And how insensitive would it be to ask a dying mother a question about a miracle?

Looking at her next to her children, holding her husband’s hand in both of hers, my heart broke open. I took a deep breath, grounded myself in the foundation of my training, and asked the only solution-focused question I could muster about the future: “What are your best hopes for this session?”

With little hesitation, Donna pointed to her kids. “I want to know I can continue to be their mother,” she said.

All of us began to quietly cry.

How could I apply Solution-Focused Therapy to a problem that had no solution: I couldn’t change the diagnosis. And how insensitive would it be to ask a dying mother a question about a miracle?

I swallowed, then asked another question: “What difference would it make to know that?” She explained how being their mom had brought the greatest amount of meaning to her life, and how the worst part of the diagnosis was knowing she’d no longer be there for them.

When I asked her husband, Peter, and their two children what their best hopes for the session were, each of them talked about wanting to know how to best support her. That seemed doable, and we spent the better part of the session exploring what that support could be. But Donna’s desired outcome lingered in my mind. I wasn’t sure what to do.

Close to the end of the session I turned to her and ventured a final question: “Suppose you woke up tomorrow and even though the diagnosis hadn’t changed, you’d found a way to parent your children going forward. What would you notice?”

“I’d notice how much easier this would be,” she said.

Then I turned to Peter and the kids and asked, “Suppose you all wake up tomorrow with the ability to be there for her even when it gets hard, what would you each notice?”

Each of them noticed that the fear and dread they felt would lift enough to allow them to be fully present with one another. Their tears and love for one another filled the room that day as they imagined their next six months together. It was hard for me to come up with these questions, and even harder, I know, for each of them to answer, but they did.

Over the next few weeks, they came back for two more sessions. Now, though, the tears were gone. There was sadness, yes, but also joy. When I asked what was so different, they explained they’d been focusing on what really mattered and were no longer bickering over stupid things out of paralyzing fear. After the third session, since Donna’s energy was waning, they decided not to come back so they could just focus on “being a family.” I thought of that family often in the following months, wondering if I’d been able to add some semblance of hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.

Then, one day, I got a call from Peter. Donna had passed away, and he wanted to come in with the children so they could talk through the experience. In the days before we met, I was nervous. How could I help them now? What state would they be in? As we sat together, Peter leaned forward and explained that a week after Donna had died, a letter had arrived at the house. It was from her. She’d written it from hospice, a short note describing a place in their home where she’d secretly stashed more handwritten letters.

When he found them, Peter was stunned to see that she’d written dozens of letters to each of them, in the middle of the night when no one was around, even as her health declined. They were labeled with things like, “Open this on your graduation day,” “Open this on the day you fall in love,” “Open this when you purchase your first home.”

After the children talked about finding those letters, Peter reached into his pocket and handed me an envelope. “She wrote this one for you,” he said.

When I opened it later, I couldn’t stop crying. Amid all she was dealing with, she’d taken the time to thank me for helping her family. Any doubt I’d ever had about the power of therapy to reach people’s hearts and help them find answers instantly dissolved. Despite a literally insurmountable obstacle, Donna had found a way to do just what she said she most wanted: parent her children beyond her death and continue to express the love that gave so much meaning to her own journey. That achievement felt exactly like a miracle.

One day, I’d like to write my own letter to her and thank her back—for reminding me that people can do impossible things in impossible circumstances, and for giving me, as my own mother did on that thwarted bus trip to New York, a lasting lesson in belief. Therapists can’t “fix” people—there’s no such thing—but if we believe in people, we can help them make profound things happen, which can sometimes ripple on even after they’re no longer with us.

Maybe now you can see why I’m such an enthusiastic believer, unapologetically—some might say irrationally.

Elliott Connie, MA, LPC, is a therapist, international trainer, and the founder of The Solution Focused University, an online training community. His books include Solution Building in Couples Therapy, The Solution Focused Marriage, and The Art of Solution Focused Therapy.