The following story took place almost 20 years ago when I was doing my internship for a degree in counseling psychology. To protect the privacy of this person, I’ve changed a great many of the details.
I share this with one wish — that if you are about to give up hope, please know that healing is possible.
And most important, if you are contemplating hurting yourself, call a friend, hotline or counseling center. Someone is there to listen. If you know someone who is hurting, reach out.
I sat across from the young woman and felt helpless. She had come to me in deep emotional pain. Her suffering was palpable, the room suffocating with grief.
How might I serve her best? I tried to remember my training and reminded myself to stay present, to offer unconditional positive regard and to listen.
She could not look at me, her eyes downcast, her hair falling onto her pretty face, hiding it. But she did not think of herself as attractive thanks to a deep gash on one cheek, a permanent and agonizing reminder of the day that had changed her life.
I listened as she struggled to find words, how she had been shuffling from job to job. Waitress. Retail clerk. Now, nothing. Only hopelessness. Despair. Guilt.
I knew those emotions too well. I knew how life could be brutal to sensitive souls, how sometimes resiliency was lost and we needed to re-connect to our center with the support of a listening heart. It was one of the many reasons I had wanted to enter this field, because I understood. And I wanted to help.
“But it was my fault,” she whispered. “Someone died.”
Her story unfolded in layers, like a tightly compressed flower bud, opening its petals one by one. It wasn’t until the fourth session that she told me about the car accident. She, driving. Somehow surviving. The other person, dying. And she had the facial scar to remind her each and every day.
It had not been alcohol or drugs or recklessness. Simply cruel fate.
I could only be present in that session when she said, “I don’t want to live.” She stopped, looked down at her hands on her lap and said, “I have a gun at home.”
My breathing stopped. Duty to warn. Duty to warn.
We learned this as part of our training. If someone posed a threat to themselves or someone else, we had a duty to warn the authorities. But was she serious? And what should I do? My stomach churned as I sat there, listening, waiting.
I asked more about the gun. Where was it? Was it loaded? Did she have a plan to use it?
The more she talked about the gun, the more she seemed to move away from the idea of using it. I sat there, praying inwardly, “Please God, help me to know what to do or say.”
I asked her to promise me that she would not use the gun. To call the center — or me — if she had any desire to use it. I asked to see her for an extra session that week.
With that crisis behind us, she began to open up more. The unfolding of the petals was still tenuous and uncertain, but the more she trusted me and our work together, the more she began to trust herself.
We continued for six more months of therapy until my internship ended. When we had our last session, she was in a more centered space in her life.
She was now able to look me straight in the face. Her hair was groomed; she wore makeup. She even smiled — something she rarely did — and said she felt more motivated about looking for a better job.
I affirmed her for all the progress she had made. I assured her that she alone had come to this point of healing, that she had the power to make positive changes and that I had simply been a facilitator and a companion on the journey.
After I graduated with my degree, I decided not to pursue a career in counseling. Perhaps it was the pain of that one young woman — or perhaps witnessing too much sorrow in the people who had come to my internship door — that I decided not to make a career change from writing to counseling.
Friends in the psychology field told me to give it time, that I would develop better boundaries. But I knew my sensitive heart would never be able to do this work. So I returned to my writing roots. Life went on.
A few years later, I met a friend for dinner — near the counseling center where I had interned.
The restaurant was busy at the dinner hour and the hostess greeted us at the door. She was polished, attractive and graceful. She looked me straight in the eye and held my gaze, making me feel a bit uncomfortable. Did I know her?
She continued to look at me and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Recognition came in ripples as I stared into her beautiful face. I swallowed hard when I noticed a barely visible scar on her cheek covered with makeup.
Without wanting to divulge more in front of my friend, she gave me a knowing smile and led us to a table.
“Whatever you want on the menu,” she said. “It’s on the house.”
It took me awhile to absorb all this. She had transformed. Not just outwardly in her appearance, but inwardly, with a confidence and self-esteem that dazzled. I didn’t recognize this as the same person who had sat with me in such pain those few years ago. That same person who had wanted to die.
Sometimes we are humbled to see how connected we are, how we need each other to heal, how we are one.
And sometimes we marvel at the courage of others and our own courage, how through some transcendent grace it forges its way through the sorrowful cracks of life.
And sometimes, when it does, how the flower blooms. Oh, yes, how it blooms.