The Therapeutic Relationship, Revisited

A Man Discovers a Safe Guide, and a Real Person, in His New Therapist

Stephen Lyons
The Therapeutic Relationship, Revisited

“Close your eyes and try to find that little boy,” my therapist, Sara, suggests, gently moving me through my first guided meditation. “Do you see him?”

“Yes,” I say, but I don’t, not really. I see no one but an anxious man who rarely sleeps anymore, who wakes up at one, two, and three a.m., filled with fear, rage, and unquenchable guilt. I’ve finally left my wife, who abandoned me years earlier for alcohol. “I’ll never divorce you,” Maria once hissed. “You’ll have to leave me.” She was right.

“Approach that little boy. Is he happy to see you?” Sara presses. From the note of quiet urgency in her voice, I know we’re approaching catharsis. Should I cry like a guest on Oprah? Or perhaps tremble like a born-again Christian who’s finally seen the Light?

“The little boy is angry,” I tell her. “He feels abandoned and scared.”

“Good,” she answers. Good? Abandonment is good? No wonder my insurance carrier won’t cover this.

As our session draws to a close, I watch Sara write something quickly on her yellow legal pad. “Did this process help you begin to get in touch with your past?” she asks.

“Yes, it was very helpful,” I lie.

My work with Sara began in an uninspiring, windowless, downtown suite that she shared with another therapist. As I sat fidgeting in her reception room, waiting to meet her for the first time, all my naive imaginings about therapists floated before me. I pictured a severe-looking person, perhaps a generation older than me, wearing a no-color business suit and horn-rimmed glasses attached to a chain—a cross between Freud and a ’40s-style schoolteacher. Then, a tall, athletic-looking young woman appeared in the doorway, dressed in the colors of a Santa Fe sunset. Was this another client, leaving her session? “Stephen,” she said, walking toward me, her smile broad and genuine. “How good to meet you.” Her handshake was strong. I felt slightly dizzy, disoriented. Why did I feel like I already knew her?

Before long, my therapy hour was the high point of my week. I was aware of how much I looked forward to hearing Sara’s footsteps on the stairs as she came down to greet me; how her warm, wide smile seemed to telegraph that she was truly glad to see me.

I spent those first weeks recounting my life with Maria: the spreading contagion of lies, fights, broken promises, false new beginnings. The strangely indelible memories: How, after drinking, her skin took on the smell of iron. But mostly I talked with Sara about my frightening encounter with my own powerlessness. How I’d held Maria’s hand and begged her to get help; in response, she’d described her hallucinations: talking toasters, singing irons, dancing skyscrapers. When Maria plunged her hand through our kitchen window, the best I could do was bandage her wrist and rock her to sleep. Then there was the awful night I came home to find her passed out cold, while our 6-year-old daughter played quietly in front of the television. I took our daughter out for grilled cheese sandwiches and fries. “Mom’s just tired,” I said, but we both knew better.

I’d never told those stories to anyone, ever. Sara simply listened, asked questions I’d never asked myself (“Why do you think it’s your job to protect people?”), and took the occasional note. Finally, I could stand it no longer. “When,” I wanted to know, “are you going to tell me what I did wrong?”

She looked up, setting aside her yellow pad and pen. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Stephen,” she finally said, her voice soft but authoritative. “Alcoholism is a disease.” She talked a bit more about addiction: about its fearsome, insidious power, about the doomed nature of any quest to keep an alcoholic from drinking. “You could never have stopped Maria,” Sara said, looking at me intently. “And if you’d stayed, who knows what further harm might have been done to you and your daughter?” She paused, letting me take this in. “You had to cut your losses.”

I hadn’t cried in a long time. Sara didn’t try to stop me.

At our next meeting, she surprised me by saying, “Let’s not talk today.” Instead, she asked me to draw a family tree, and to look in particular for any links to addiction, depression, or abuse. This sounded as uninspiring and hokey as the guided meditation she’d tried out on me earlier, but I wasn’t about to risk offending Sara. “Just draw, don’t analyze,” she counseled. So, obediently, I sat cross-legged on the floor with the colored pens and butcher’s paper she’d provided, and began to draw.

But as my tree trunk sprouted limbs, then branches, memories began to blossom. I saw my drunk grandfather driving my brother and I across the back roads of eastern Iowa, hurtling past cornfields as he chewed on a lit cigar and cursed all the relatives who’d wronged him. Then the face of my great-grandmother appeared, wild-eyed and terrified, as she was dragged out of her wheelchair by her drunken husband, while my grandfather tried to block him with his own body. Then I saw my mother, who, as a young girl, suffered frightening epileptic fits. Her mother was shaking an angry finger at her, telling her that God was punishing her for being a “bad girl.”

I was stunned to realize that the blood in my own veins flowed from this tortured, chaotic tribe. I flashed on my own repeated, impotent attempts to pull Maria away from her drinking. “But family isn’t destiny,” Sara told me. “You can choose another path.”

A couple of sessions later, I told Sara that I wanted to continue the guided meditation we’d started all those weeks ago. Back then, the process had seemed silly and theatrical, and at the same time a bit frightening–why dig up all that garbage from the past? But over these last months, she’d shown me that there were places I needed to go—vital, hidden places—that I couldn’t get to all by myself. She’d shown me that she was a trustworthy guide.

For me, our sessions always ended too soon. And who, I wondered irritably, were these other people hanging around Sara’s waiting room? I knew my problems were far more intriguing than theirs. I was her favorite, I was sure of it. I had evidence—for instance, the warm, enthralling hug she gave me at the end of each session.

I looked forward to that hug avidly; as a newly single person, I craved any physical touch. But the truth was, I wanted her touch. If I’d been able to see or think straight, I’d have understood that my attraction to my therapist was entirely a one-way affair. Sara never encouraged my ardor; there was never a glance, a comment that strayed out of bounds. All she was saying through her brief embrace was, “I care about your pain. You can count on me.”

Two weeks later, during a rare night when I’d finally fallen into a deep sleep, I awoke to tapping at the door of the tiny apartment where my daughter and I were temporarily living. I opened the door to the last person I wanted to see at 2 a.m.—Maria.

“Stephen,” she said, her voice faltering. “I have pancreatic cancer.”

Through a brain still fogged with sleep, I struggled to understand what was happening. Even as I reeled at the word cancer, I got that something else was going on, something that felt more immediately dangerous. The look on Maria’s face—supplicating, almost childlike—brought it suddenly into focus.

“I’m so sorry, Maria,” I said, inching the door shut. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Sara when I called her, distraught, the next morning. Her tone–less like a therapist than some indignant, protective friend–startled me into action. A few phone calls to Maria’s friends confirmed Sara’s suspicions. Maria wasn’t dying. She just wanted me back.

A few weeks later, on a sunny June morning, the phone rang in my kitchen. It was Sara’s business partner. Her voice was low and tight. “Sara’s husband just died,” she said. It had been sudden: a mountain-climbing accident. Oh, Sara. She disappeared into mourning. For the next month, I met with her colleague, a dispiriting and useless exercise.

When we finally met again, I was shocked by her appearance. The radiance of Sara’s skin and hair had been eclipsed by the dullness of loss. I still found her beautiful, but she looked drained, emptied out. So this is what grief looks like, I thought, and as I sat there, taking it in, I felt something move inside me, then settle. Looking at Sara in her pain and stillness, I saw clearly, all at once, that she didn’t exist to meet some need in me or fulfill some childish fantasy. The woman I saw before me wasn’t some defenseless female in need of rescue, a potential date, or even, at that moment, my therapist. Instead, I saw a woman within my community who’d just suffered a horrific loss. My role was clear: to simply acknowledge it.

“Sara,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, Stephen.” Her voice was flat, weighed down. “I don’t know how effective I’ll be today. But let’s give it a try.” She picked up her yellow pad, but wrote nothing.

“Sure.” But my familiar litany of complaints seemed petty in the wake of her devastation. Making a silent decision, I began to tell her stories of my recent misadventures in dating. “I went out with this woman last week who I thought was really cool, until she told me that both her kids were the result of one-night stands,” I said, chuckling ruefully. “There will be no second date.”

As I continued my review of dating badly, Sara tossed the yellow pad aside, took her shoes off, put her feet up, and egged me on. “I should be paying you,” she grinned toward the end of the hour. As for me, I felt strangely relaxed and peaceful, actually present in the room. I wasn’t straining to extinguish Sara’s sadness; it felt more like just hanging out, keeping her company. The Chicago park bench where that little boy had sat, alone and frightened, was finally empty. I felt like a man with a daughter to raise, an ex-wife to forgive, and a woman–who happened to be my therapist–who could use a break, a distracting chuckle or two.

Sorrow is part of who we are, I realized. There’s no saving each other from it. The best we can do–maybe all we can do–is offer each other a bit of kindness. Later, I’d think about the irony, the mystery, of this therapy process for me: how I experienced this moment of opening not when my therapist was inhabiting her professional, clinical role, but rather when she’d stepped out of it. The work we’d done all along was, of course, vital. But in the instant that I understood who Sara actually was, I, too, moved a little closer to the man I was. Or, at least, was becoming.

This blog is excerpted from “Breaking the Spell,” by Stephen Lyons. The full version is available in the May/June 1993 issue.

Photo © Dreamstime