Sunday, May 13, 2007

Farewell, Thou Counseling Center!

This morning, as I lounged around in a pleasant, sunny-Sunday haze, it came to me that I really don't want my counseling internship to be over.

It's odd, since for the last few weeks, mostly what I wanted was to be done with all things school-related. This isn't unusual at the end of a long semester and a long year, and this might have been my most demanding year of school so far, what with two job changes, an internship representing my first (almost) professional experience in the field, and a year-long class. I was ready to be done, to focus on simplifying my life for the summer: finding a job and hunkering down to it. No classes, no clients, no counseling center office politics.

But I had my final client session on Friday morning and I miss it already. I miss sitting in that little 8' x 8' room, face to face with whoever was due in that hour, going through the dance of listening and reflecting and guiding and prodding and empathizing and analyzing. The long year of counseling was the culmination of two and a half years of studying how one does this mysterious work. Zillions of gallons of ink have been spilled on the inner workings of that puzzling dynamic, I won't try to crack the code here. The point is, I complained a lot this year about difficult clients, uncommunicative colleagues and, primarily, about ever-mounting stress. But dang it, I'm going to miss looking down the long hallway I could see from my office door, checking to see whether my next client just got off the elevator.

Actually, the moment that sprang to mind while I was relaxing this morning was that odd half-hour or so when I didn't have clients scheduled. I'd sit in my office taking care of lingering paperwork or phone calls. But all the while, even during the early-evening hours around 7 or 8 p.m., I had this feeling of being "on duty." Because, as my supervisor so prophetically told me when I started there in August, "You just never know what's going to walk through that door." I've had crises spring up out of a clear blue sky, and they were real crises -- not the ones I used to have when I was a project manager in the technology world, where some infernal piece of software would not do what it was supposed to do, and I had to call a client and tell them we would be late for a deadline which was randomly assigned in the first place. No, this was different. One quiet, snowy morning last winter, an academic tutor from two floors up come racing bug-eyed into my office telling me she was worried she had a suicidal student on her hands. Within the space of a very packed five minutes, that student became my client (for 20 minutes, until her regular counselor showed up) and I came face to face with mortality and deep psychological pathology. I had to make this young woman feel at ease, help her to trust me, get her to participate in a suicide assessment, and try continually to contact both my supervisor and the woman's regular counselor by phone -- all at the same time.

Now that's vital work.

I did just never know what was going to walk through the door. A client who had literally done nothing but gripe in a high-pitched, angry voice for five weeks in a row -- that's almost four hours of shrill finger-pointing, for those who like to count -- suddenly, in week six, responded dramatically to a small challenge I offered, and proceeded to turn her course of therapy around 180 degrees. Each of the remaining five sessions were sharply different from the others, as she took responsibility for the bad mess she was in and began to figure out what she wanted to do about it. Inspiring! Creative! Thrilling!

As tiring as it could be, I liked that. I like being "at the hub of the wheel," as I like to say. I like that the skills that, through the twisted calculus of life, I exited childhood with, which always made me so weird in the eyes of my fellow children as a youngster -- the deep relatedness and sensitivity, the tendency toward profundity, the lack of fear of the darker side of human experience -- they all became clear assets once I started in this business. Who wouldn't want to stick around a place where their weirdness becomes strength -- and where their co-workers share that very weirdness? It's addictive.

I'll miss it!

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