Many of the clients that I work with have lost touch with their will to live. For some the emotional pain is so great that they need to renew their commitment to stay alive in a contract every few hours. I admire their strength and their tenacity as they struggle to coexist with experiences that should never have happened to anyone. I have no answers or words of encouragement for them. I only have empathy. I feel helpless in the presence of such profound pain. I would love to be able to say that everything is gong to be ok but if I did I would be lying.

Twenty years ago I had a therapist who refused to tell me that everything would be ok. At the time it made me furious. I wanted that reassurance. I wanted the comfort that we give to babies when they are crying in our arms. We sooth them by patting or rubbing their backs and promise that everything will be the way it was, the world will return to normal, and this pain they are feeling will never happen again. We meet their sadness and pain with empathy and encouragement, but also with promises that we cannot keep. I hated my therapist all those years ago for refusing to sooth me in this way. Instead she insisted on taking my blinders off. She showed me the moment of discomfort that I was experiencing and helped me understand that there would be other moments of lesser or greater pain and stress in my future. I remember the shock I felt when I fully faced this reality. I don’t remember what I was upset about the first time this happened, but I remember realizing with disbelief that after I got through it I could depend on the fact that there was more to come. There would be more disappointment, discomfort, death and grief waiting for me in my future.

She taught me that the current piece I was moving through was just one set of waves guaranteed to be followed by a new set that I could not yet see forming far off on the horizon. I remember the internal “fuck” that I said to myself as I realized that each huge set that I got through was going to be followed by another set of waves for the rest of my life. When I was a kid I spent my summers in the ocean by the pier in Santa Monica. My best friend and I would rent one inflatable raft and float over and ride in the waves all afternoon. One afternoon we were on our raft, lying side by side on our bellies, out way past the waves and facing the shore when she suddenly said, “by by” and slipped off the raft into the water. When I looked up I saw a huge wave curling above me. I was tossed and tumbled pretty thoroughly inside of that wave that afternoon but it did not keep me out of the water. I went back in having learned not to turn my back on the ocean.

I have learned different ways to be with the waves when they come. I can be tossed around inside the wave or dive deep and swim through to the other side. I can surf on them, swim forward to meet them before they break, bob over the surface before they are fully formed or grab a buggy board and hold on for a powerful ride to the shore. It is also possible to play in the shallow water and take a break from the waves for a while.  That is an option I am just beginning to explore. In my case, and for many of the clients that I work with, we found ourselves in deep water under that unexpected crashing wave as a starting point.  Staying in shallow water and feeling the waves lapping softly around our ankles was not an option.  It is now. I have learned to take a break either on the shore or in the lull between sets. I have learned to float and feel the support of the water beneath my back. I know now to take time to listen to the sounds of the seagulls and witness the majesty of the pelicans as they fly in formation or dive into the water. I am aware of the playful dolphins, otters, and seals, and of the magic waiting to be discovered in the tide pools.

Tonight as I walked my dogs I saw the most beautiful crescent moon hovering on its side just above the mountains, inside of a perfect circle of light. It was a breathtakingly beautiful evening- clear and warm and full of the soft sounds of crickets.  Tonight fresh from work and with threads of my client’s struggles still clinging to me it was difficult to appreciate and take in the pure beauty of the moment. It was difficult to shake off their despair and see the radiance of moon and the world around me. I could still feel their experience of isolation and was keenly aware because of it that I was experiencing this perfect moment alone. I had to focus and redirect my thoughts. The moon is glorious. The night, breathtaking. I say a silent prayer of gratitude for the land that I live on, for the warm breeze, and for the coyotes now howling in the oaks below my home. I slowly exhale the day and all of the despair and grief I have witnessed and experienced. I breathe deeply taking in all that is around me. I am grateful that I remember to look for the moon at night and that I understand that there is always light in the darkness and tide pools on the shore.

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