It was an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, almost 80 degrees. As a new family therapist working at a home-based counseling agency, I drove toward my first client’s home, enjoying the sunshine and sipping an iced tea. I pulled up in front of the address I had been given and looked at my client’s information.
Her name was Angela, a 21-year-old single mother who lived with her parents and her two children, aged 16 months and 2-and-a-half years. She was having trouble with depressive symptoms, and difficulty being patient with her young girls. Angela had already been through two counselors who had each left the agency; I would be her third.
I slowly walked up the driveway, a bit nervous but determined to really listen to Angela and find out what her needs, hopes, and dreams were.
Angela’s father answered the door, holding one crying child and shushing another, who was tugging at his pant leg. “You must be the new therapist,” he grinned. “Angela’s out back. Through that door.”
I thanked him and walked through the back door to find a young-looking, heavyset woman smoking a cigarette and gabbing on her cell phone and cursing indiscriminately. She saw me, said, “Gotta go,” and hung up. “You must be the new one,” she commented as she regarded me.
I learned quickly that Angela didn’t feel she needed counseling, but had agreed to participate so she could continue receiving welfare benefits. She made it clear that she wanted individual counseling with me, not family counseling or play therapy with her children. She often took phone calls during our sessions, and would rarely look me in the eye.
Angela had seen two counselors prior to me; she had not liked the first counselor, but felt extremely connected to the therapist who had recently left. She warned me that she tended not to trust therapists, and that it might take her awhile to open up and trust me.
Our sessions started slowly. Every week Angela would share about her children’s behavior, stress related to finding a job, and crushes she had on different young men. I would ask questions about her needs, goals for therapy, or her depression, but Angela’s answers were cursory and deflective. I respected her need to be protective, and remained patient despite my desire to help in a greater way.
One day, six weeks into our sessions, I arrived on Angela’s back porch to find her crying, shaking, and chain-smoking. I sat down across from her and remained silent until she began to speak. “My brother molested me when I was twelve,” she said, looking at the ground, tears falling at her feet. “It happened all the time, and I eventually told on him. He’s been in jail for two years,” she shared, finally looking up at me. “I love my brother, and I feel guilty for what I’ve done, every day. What he did was wrong, but I took away his freedom. So there…that’s it.”
I thanked her for sharing something so difficult and personal, and we talked about her story that day. At our next session, Angela asked whether she could share something from her notebook, a story she had been working on. Angela had shared in the past that she loved to write, particularly horror stories, and stories about witches.
That day, she read me the first chapter of a fictional story about witches that gripped me from the start. An avid reader, I was delighted to find that not only was Angela’s writing suspenseful and exciting, but extremely well written. Toward the end of the first chapter, as the narrator was setting the plotline and describing different characters, I realized that the protagonist was Angela! She was writing about herself!
Each week, I arrived eager to hear more of this compelling story. We spent the first half of our sessions with Angela reading her novel to me, and the second half talking about the characters. I learned, through Angela’s storytelling, that she felt guilty for hurting her brother, and conflicted about whether she was to blame for the abuse. I learned that Angela avoided intimacy by getting involved in long-distance and online relationships. I learned that she had attempted suicide as a teen, and had been hospitalized for a long time. I learned that she was terrified of being a mother, and feared her daughters would also be perpetrated upon at some point in their lives.
Eventually Angela became able to speak about her abuse using the words “I,” “me,” and “we,” instead of solely through her characters. In the process of writing and working on character development, Angela had realized her protagonist had been badly injured emotionally, and had not been responsible in any way for her abuse. She saw new qualities in herself such as strength, passion, and a wicked sense of humor, which increased her self-worth. She was able to re-write the story of her life via this novel, but reframed with a perspective of strength and survival.
By the time Angela finished the book, she spoke freely about her experiences of abuse, survival, her growth, and her hopes and dreams for the future. She reported her depression was now an occasional visitor who stayed for a couple days before heading home, rather than a constant companion. She also realized she wanted to return to college to major in creative writing. Angela envisioned a bright future for herself and her children.
As a therapist, I was powerfully affected by this experience with Angela. She taught me that no matter how much I want to help someone, I cannot force change, and I cannot create trust with a client immediately. I learned the power of trusting the client’s own process, and truly becoming a fellow traveler on her journey rather than an expert with all the answers. Angela conducted her own therapy, with me as witness. She moved through the process eloquently, and both she and I emerged as more enlightened beings.
I am now in private practice and have not seen Angela for years, but I think of her often, particularly when I am feeling pressured (usually by myself) to “fix” somebody. I remember her story and relax, thinking, “Trust the process. This client is strong enough to get there.”