Our clients are often our teachers and, as they say, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Sarah appeared at a time when I needed to learn a lesson. What she taught me has stayed with me ever since.
A nervous breakdown
Sarah was a nurse but, by the time she came to see me, she had been off work for several weeks with what she referred to as ‘a full nervous breakdown.’
It sounded to me as though Sarah was a very good nurse. From what she said, she seemed very capable, so much so, that she had been given more and more responsibilities in the Accident and Emergency department in which she worked.
She often worked weekends and some nights too. I could only imagine the kind of stresses and strains of being in a busy A and E Department, especially on a Saturday night.
Sarah had coped with it for many years but had noticed in recent months she was getting a little tired, a little edgy with her husband and not sleeping so well at night. Then, on one occasion, in the middle of a procedure, she snapped and started crying and shaking uncontrollably. She walked away from her job that day and had not returned since.
Every time she now thought about going back to work, she had, what sounded to me like, a panic attack with a throbbing head, pounding heart, dry mouth, faintness and dizziness with a terrible feeling of foreboding.
I felt sure I could help Sarah, as I had already helped so many people who came to me with similar, anxiety-related problems.
After listening carefully to her story, I looked for the root of the problem; the first-ever panic attack. It turned out to be when a young lad had been brought in after a horrific motorbike accident. The youngster looked like her own son and, at first; she actually thought it was him. She began playing a horror film in her head of the future they might both face, with him disabled and wheelchair bound.
We ‘rewound’ that incident and some others too.
I taught her parasympathetic breathing, the STOP System for controlling anxiety. We did some coaching around her work-life balance. We looked at her future timeline, even setting some SMART goals with lots of positive mental rehearsal.
After four sessions, Sarah returned to work and was so happy to be, what she called, ‘back to normal’.
‘Well, it looks like you don’t need me anymore.’ I said.
Sarah looked a little shocked.
‘What, so soon?’ She said.
‘Yes’, I said, ’it seems to me you’re back in the driver’s seat of your life.’
I felt pleased, and ticked the box in my head for another bit of good work and a job well done…. somebody else all sorted.
But, as she left my house and closed the little gate behind her, Sarah’s last words resonated and stayed with me.
‘I guess I’m flying solo now then?’ She said with a sad smile and, in that moment, I wanted to call her back.
But I didn’t call her back. I had, after all, resolved the pathology I rationalised. I had given her the psycho education she needed, taught her mind management skills and given her the tools to cope with anxiety. She hadn’t had a panic attack for three weeks.
Back then in the brief therapy world in which I found myself, it felt a little competitive. Or perhaps I was simply competitive with myself.
Pathology resolved in four sessions, three sessions, two….a one session turnaround. ‘If you’ve done your job properly, the client won’t come back’ was how I was being trained.
These days, I have a different view.
I see myself now as a well-being coach and encourage clients to stay in touch if they wish to, or even consider the notion of a regular ‘check up from the neck up,’ a little bit like a lifestyle MOT.
Who of us, after all, couldn’t do without someone who knows our us well, warts and all, and who has the skills to help and support us, no matter where we might be on the continuum of well-being?
These days I would have suggested to Sarah to come back in a month, and then perhaps two, until she had the true confidence to ‘fly solo’.
The lesson Sarah taught me was that, no matter how skilled we become as practitioners, we need to make sure there is still a person attached to those skills, that our work is bespoke and that the needs of our clients take priority, not our own.
Wherever you are now, Sarah, I would like to say to you ‘I’m sorry, I got it wrong.’