Saturday, April 7, 2007

Finding the Dragon Shrinker

One of the greatest challenges of being ill is finding someone to talk to about what you are truly experiencing. When I was very sick, I was surrounded by people who loved me but I had an overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t be completely honest with them about my deepest thoughts and emotions. My feelings were complicated and heavy; I felt too heavy to be confessed to those I loved. I simply didn’t want them to carry my burdens.

This is why I sought out a good therapist. I needed to talk to someone that could handle my situation and who better than a professional? What I eventually found was that a good therapist can save your life and a bad one can make it worse.

Experience 1:

I was only 16 but I wanted to talk to someone about having CF. I needed to process my thoughts of dying and the feelings of being different. My parents got me a shrink and I began to see him once a week.

Despite my deep desire to talk, I was an ornery teenager and was unwilling to open myself up to just anyone. This therapist had the Stare-at-the-Patient-Until-They-Talk approach and I had the Stare-at-the-Therapist-Until-He-Impresses-Me approach. We were not a good team. We spent many sessions with only a greeting and farewell passed between us.

At some point, he made the bold move of asking me a question. He wanted to know how I felt about having this disease. I believe my answer was along the lines of “It’s fine”. He went on to praise me for how well I handled it (based on that answer) and told me I was a model patient. I thought he was a complete idiot but, at the time, I always accepted any compliments I could get. I stopped going to see him shortly after that session.

Experience 2:

I was in my early 20’s and getting ready to go off to an acting conservatory. My illness was progressing, I was worried about my mortality and, once again, I felt the need to process my feelings with someone outside my inner circle. My doctor recommended a therapist that specialized in treating people with illness. This thrilled me and I began to see her on a regular basis. At first I liked her. She made me cry about stuff which I took as a good sign. After seeing her for over a year, however, I started noticing that some of her advice was way off the mark. I became weary of what she told me and lost some trust in her perspective.

During one of our sessions I was talking about my life, I think I was crying again, and she began to interrupt me to tell me stories from her life. It was very jarring and I tried to see how they related. Simply put, they didn’t relate. She was a person who had suffered sexual abuse as a child and one day she decided she wanted me to know it. It was almost as if she had gotten sick of listening to me and decided she wanted me to listen to her for a change. I listened to her for the remainder of the hour and left feeling like I never had the right to complain about anything ever again. Clearly, my life hadn’t been as bad as hers. I felt very uncomfortable when I thought about going back again. I didn’t know how to handle it so I canceled my next appointment with a promise to reschedule. I never called her again.

Experience 3:

When I was diagnosed with Chronic Rejection after my first transplant I was confused, scared and devastated. I couldn’t believe I had been given this tremendous gift and the ride was over already. Perhaps more than any other time in my life, I needed to talk to someone.

A friend of a friend recommended me to Glen and I hoped he could help me work through some of my pain. Glen did much more than that. He became my rock, my teacher and my sanity. I have countless stories that I could tell about a time when Glen took me from a very dark place and helped me transform my perspective and my life. I couldn’t begin to describe how valuable he has been to me over the years. Because one story is no less valuable than the next, I will simply tell you the story of our first meeting that I still think about to this day.

It was difficult to even tell my story to this stranger without tears. I was going through so much and needed guidance so desperately. I told Glen of my fears and my fear of my fears. He listened and commented as I spoke. When I had come to a resting point, he pulled a book off of his shelf. I don’t remember what it was called but it was a paperback children’s book with an orange dragon on the cover. Glen presented the book to me as if I were in a group of kindergarten children and slowly read and turned the pages. At first this made me feel silly and uncomfortable but, like a kindergartener, I quickly became immersed in the book and forgot myself.

Glen told me the story of a young boy who found a little orange dragon and wanted to keep him as a pet. The little boy would show his pet to his Mom and she would respond with “There are no such thing as dragons”. For some reason, the dragon grew bigger and bigger. The boy showed the pet to his father and was again met with the response; “There are no such thing as dragons”. Still, the dragon grew bigger. One day the father came home from work to find that the house was bursting open as the dragon had grown so large that his head was poking through the roof and his limbs were hanging out of the windows. The father was very upset and asked the boy where this dragon came from. The boy told him that it had been in the house all along. The dragon then began to shrink and soon was, once again, the size of a small dog. As the dragon, the boy, the mother and the father cuddled on the sofa, the mother wondered why the dragon had gotten so large. The boy answered; “I don’t know. I suppose he just wanted to be acknowledged”.

I quickly found the value of this story as Glen and I began tackling my own dragons. I was astounded at how quickly they shrunk when I had the strength to look at them and truly acknowledge their existence. To this day, Glen and I face my dragons head on and, after the initial fear of their power, marvel at how quickly they become small.

I believe so strongly in the importance of Glen’s role in my life that I am unsure if I would still be here today without his guidance through the dragons of terminal illness and recovery.

The Verdict:

Finding a good therapist is not easy. Just because someone has a degree does not make them worthy of being a key player in the complexities of your life. Shop for the right one and don’t be afraid to move on if something doesn’t feel right. I wish you all the luck in finding the right professional to help you shrink your dragons, whatever they may be.


Jen! said...

Great post - I have had to "fire" my share of therapists in my life and am so glad I did to get to the ones who have helped me in my journey.

Midlife Midwife said...

I love the allagory of the dragon, The book is "There is no such thing as a dragon" (1975) by Jack Kent. You can find it on