When the Student is Ready

December 10, 2012

Very few therapists at Council for Relationships are involved exclusively in providing therapy to clients. A number of us teach – either as members of the Jefferson University’s faculty in the School of Psychiatry, or facilitate workshops throughout the tri-state area, or as part of the Community Partnership Initiative work with schools, faith-based organizations and a variety of community service agencies to provide counseling and other support. We do this for some obvious, and some not so obvious reasons.

The obvious reasons? Well, these are good things to do. Transferring clinical knowledge and experience to the next generation of family systems focused therapists keeps the field vibrant and sustainable. Providing psycho-educational workshops is an efficient and effective way to get information and resources into the hands of people often desperately looking for tools to enhance the quality of their lives. And partnering with the Gesu School and Project H.O.M.E in North Philadelphia, Broad Street Ministry in Center City as well as others, gives us opportunities to develop models of collective impact designed to improve the lives of many vulnerable individuals, families and children in our communities.

The not so obvious reason? Well, that turns out to be another obvious reason in hindsight – it makes us better therapists. A case in point. I happen to be fortunate enough to spend half my time at Council as a co-located staff person at Broad Street Ministry (BSM) where we have a counseling center in partnership with BSM. Our Council staff that includes clinicians, interns and students come into contact with individuals that we would never encounter in our offices. A few days ago while walking down Broad Street I encountered a regular guest of BSM’s lunch program, Breaking Bread. Let’s call her Stephanie.

Stephanie is a transgender person in her mid-twenties, who usually presents herself as a woman. She usually wears a dress and high heels. Other times Stephanie, as she says, “dresses like a dude.” When she does so, she feels more comfortable being called Stephen. She is not schizophrenic, or delusional. No multiple personalities to contend with. Just the enormous complexities of struggling to survive in an often emotionally hostile terrain with very few maps available to her.

On this particular day Stephanie looked unusually content, as we talked for a while. She told me that the last few days had been difficult, and that she had an even greater difficulty navigating her course through life recently. And yet she looked calmer, more focused and engaged than I had ever seen her. I commented on that, and asked her what had changed.

She said, It has been a real struggle for a while. But that part of my life is over now.

What’s different now? I asked.

Smiling, she replied, I now realize that I am more than my gender. I am more than either Stephanie or Stephen.

That day Stephanie/Stephen gave me the wonderful gift, a simple tool to improve our lives and relationships. Often I will hear a client say, “I am depressed”, or “I am bi-polar”, “I am angry all the time”, “I am an addict”… the list goes on and on. We all hear or say such things in therapy as well as in our everyday lives. It seems to make sense to say these things. And yet, if someone who has cancer said, “I am cancerous,” we would most likely be taken aback, and say that is not true. We would probably (and quite rightly) say, “You are more than your cancer.”

So because of the remarkably good “training” I received at the corner of Broad and Spruce Streets not long ago, sometimes I will now gently challenge clients who say, I am a terrible person, I am a procrastinator, I am whatever with the question: And what more are you at the same?

Some have said, I am also kind (even when I feel mean-spirited), I am also curious (when the to-do list continues to grow, as the reading list shrinks), I am deeply spiritual (even when the depression feels almost overwhelming).

If for a moment when we are in the darkness and loneliness that all of us human beings visit from time to time in our lives, we can say that we are more than that, then our lives and our relationships can transcend the illusion that this is all there is. In that moment we can – like Stephanie – move in a direction toward health and healing. Often one of the many perks of being a therapist at Council for Relationships means that you have teachers show up at the oddest of times in the most ordinary of places.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Edd Conboy, MS, MFT is a Senior Staff Therapist at our University City office. Request an appointment now.