Clients Who Made Me Better: First Lessons 2

therapist-burnout-benefits-of-self-care

At bottom every man [sic] knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When I was an intern, I worked in an outpatient unit euphemistically called the “Specialized Adult Services (SAS).” While it included a stress management program, SAS was really an aftercare facility devoted to working with clients with the moniker “severely mentally ill.” By that time, I had acquired experiences in two community mental health centers and an assessment stint in the state hospital. But the hospital experience lingered, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. I saw firsthand the facial grimaces and tongue wagging that characterize the neurological damage caused by antipsychotics and sadly realized that these young adults would be forever branded as grotesquely different, as “mental patients.” I witnessed the dehumanization of people reduced to drooling, shuffling zombies, spoken to like children and treated like cattle. I barely kept my head above water as hopelessness flooded the halls of the hospital, drowning staff and clients alike in an ocean of lost causes. I could not even imagine what it would have been like to live there in the revolving-door fashion that many endured. Now, in my internship, my charge was to help people stay out of the hospital, and I took that charge quite seriously.

One of my first clients was Peter. Peter was not very liked at SAS. He sometimes said ominous things to other clients in the waiting room, or spoke in a boisterous way about how the fluorescent lights controlled his thinking through a hole in his head. When he wasn’t speaking, he grunted and squealed and made other sounds like a pig. As a new intern, I was put under considerable pressure to address Peter’s less-than-endearing behaviors, particularly because he sometimes offended the stress management clients, who were seen as coveted treasures not to be messed with. I found Peter to be a terrific guy with a very dry sense of humor, but a man of little hope who lived in constant dread of returning to the state hospital. His behaviors were mostly his efforts to distract himself from tormenting voices that told him people were trying to kill him and other scary things.

Peter would be routinely terrorized by these voices until he started taking actions that led him to ultimately wind up in the state hospital. He might empty his refrigerator for fear that someone had poisoned his food, creating a stench that would soon bring in the landlord and ultimately the authorities. Or, occasionally, he would start threatening or menacing others, those he believed were trying to kill him. Once hospitalized, his medications were changed, usually increased in dose, and he essentially slept out the crisis. These cycles occurred about every four to six months and had so for the last eight years. Peter’s treatment brought with it tardive dyskinesia and about a hundred pounds of extra weight.

Peter hated the state hospital and I could truly commiserate, after my own less-than-inspiring experience there. I felt profoundly sad for this young man, who was about the same age as me. I also felt completely helpless. Nothing in my training provided any guidance. I had no clue about what to do to be helpful to him. I was trying to apply strategies I learned from my supervisor about addressing the voices, which were helpful to others, but not with Peter. I knew he was ramping up for another admission—he told me that he had already emptied his refrigerator and left it on the kitchen floor. It seemed that nothing I said could convince Peter to get off the merry-go-round to the state hospital. The anguish in his eyes about his impending hospitalization haunted me.

Only because I had no clue about what to do, I asked Peter what he thought it would take to get a little relief from his situation—what might give him just a glimpse of a break from the torment of the voices and the revolving-door hospitalizations. After a long pause, Peter said something very curious—he said that it would help if he would start riding his bike again. This led to my inquiry about the word “again.” Peter told me about what his life was like before the bottom fell out. Peter had been a competitive cyclist in college and was physically fit as only world class cyclists can be. I heard the story of a young man away from home for the first time, overwhelmed by life, training day and night to keep his spot on the racing team, and topped off by falling in love for the first time. When the relationship ended, it was too much for Peter, and he was hospitalized, and then hospitalized again, then hospitalized again, and so on until there was no more money or insurance—then the state hospitalization cycles ensued.

On a roll now and enjoying a level of conversation not achieved before, I asked Peter what it would take to get him going again on his bike. He said that his bike needed parts and what he needed was for me to accompany him to the bike shop. Peter was afraid to go out in public alone for fear of threatening someone and ending up in the hospital. I immediately consulted with my supervisor who gave me an enthusiastic green light. The next day, I went with Peter to the bike shop, where I bought a bike as well. Peter and I started having our sessions biking together. Peter still struggled with the voices at times, but he stayed out of the hospital and they never kept him from biking. He eventually joined a bike club and moved into an unsupervised living arrangement.

Bottom Line: You can read a lot of books about “schizophrenia” and its treatment, but you’ll never find one that recommends biking as a cure. And you can read a lot of books about treatments in general, and you’ll never read a better idea about a client dilemma than will emerge from a client in conversation with you—a person who cares and wants to be helpful. Thanks Peter. I’ve never forgotten you or that lesson.

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