A familiar piano melody begins on the radio, then comes the
guitar, and then the mellow voice of Garth Brooks sings to me about "The Dance”
of life. I am somewhere on the interstate, half paying attention, but mostly
crying. Not the attractive crying that
you see in the movies, the "I can’t breathe, snot running down my face, need my
inhaler” type of crying.
I pull off the interstate in order to compose myself. As I sit in the car I wish I could rewind the
song, I don’t want to lose this feeling. An intense discharge of emotion washes
over me, and wow, does it ever feel good.
I wanted to drive back home; did I hug my kids long enough? Did I
memorize their perfect little faces? Did I tell them they are going to be
amazing human beings because they do so effortlessly what I struggle with - to
love and to feel?
I chose oncology because it is what I know. I have lost an
unusually high number of family members to cancer; I have experienced cancer as
the unwelcome visitor, the family secret, and the disruptor of emotional and
physical balance. I have been determined
to figure out a way to help families stay connected and "healthy”. This is why I sought out my internship site;
I wanted to be immersed with the families who are dealing with a diagnosis of
My internship site is a rural Minnesota oncology clinic and also
the location where I conducted my master’s thesis. While researching caregivers of cancer
patients, I recognized the need for integration of emotional support for family
members. With the help of the director,
we piloted a MedFT internship that provides therapy for patients and families
who are coping with a diagnosis of cancer. What a better way to feed my
research mind, to be privileged enough to hear first hand the struggles and the
triumphs of these families. Another
reason I chose oncology was my ability to disconnect, to be able to be around
illness, and death, and to not have it affect me.
Or so I thought.
The emotional revelation I experienced in the car was after
my second full day of patients and families.
There were two patients weighing on my mind. They were young; both were mothers, and wives
who were newly diagnosed. Much to my
dismay there was transference and counter-transference all over the therapy
room. I had prided myself in being able
to theoretically conceptualize, to validate, and reflect feelings, all the
things a novice therapist is taught. As
I’m doing the mental dance, self-reflection of my physical responses while staying
connected to their narratives, I begin to feel this burning in my throat. Are
you serious?! I have tears in my eyes! I
quickly shut it off, back to being emotionally available to them, the patients,
the ones who needed me.
That night I cried for a myriad of reasons. Everything I knew about myself had been
challenged. I felt energized by my
patients’ determination and optimism, is this how "normal” people handle
cancer? And why was I not able to be
more stoic in the therapy room? Why did
I cry? Have I not resolved the emotions
of my past traumatic experiences? How am
I going to be able to do this? Have I gotten in over my head?
I have decidedly begun another quest for knowledge, what
does "self of the practitioner” look like?
As the only therapist on-site, I began to ask the oncology staff, "how
do you do this day in and day out without it affecting you”? The overwhelming response I have received is that
you have to disconnect a little bit if you are going to deal with this setting,
you will get used to it. I am
immediately compelled to go into defense mode, I wanted to shout, but don’t you
know I have to connect to my patients?
In order to facilitate healing, I become part of their process! In trying to make sense of this I cannot help
but to reflect on the perceptions of Maturana and Verela’s, "we do not see that we do not see”. It appears to me that I have made a quick
judgment, could this simply be a gap in professional training?
In order to be an effective therapist, I am coming to terms
with my new professional identity. I no
longer have to stuff the emotions that are transparent during the therapeutic
process. My outlets have become; crying
in the bathroom between patients, journaling mad scribbles, listening to sappy
love songs followed by angry heavy metal, and cursing the makers of Dove
chocolates for personalizing their quotes to me. Feeling, connecting, and loving make me a
better therapist. It is the dance that I
choose to do, sometimes it may look like the "African Anteater Ritual”, while
other times it may be an elegant ballet; but it is mine and I believe it is how
I will be an agent of change within my clinical setting and most importantly
for my families.
Trudeau-Hern, MS is a doctoral candidate specializing in medical family therapy
at the University of Minnesota. She is currently in a behavioral medicine
internship with the Coborn Cancer Center in St. Cloud, MN in collaboration with
the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of
Minnesota. She is a student member of CFHA, a collector of books, an
enthusiast of John Hughes movies, and a sponge for knowledge with her most
influential teachers being her 6 and 3-year-old children, and her patients. |