I was talking with my friend the other day after one of his long days at work. He was telling me about the hustle and bustle he endured and the resulting pain in his feet. I expressed to him a tinge of guilt and then went on to admit that all I do all day is sip coffee and talk to people. He laughed – half out of ironic pleasure and half out of jealousy.
I guess I am indeed one of the fortunate few. I love my job. (Can I even call it a job?) I sit all day, mostly with my feet up, and drink way too much coffee. (We all get to have a few vices, right?) But mostly, I am honored with a front row seat as many a courageous person trusts me with the nitty-gritty, past-and-present details of their lives. Sometimes, I feel a little voyeuristic … I mean how did I earn access to such intimate detail? I get the behind-the-scene version. The pre and post make-up. The real self hiding under the mask of the public one.
After 17 years in private practice, I have yet to lose my awe and appreciation for being in this deep underbelly of everything it means to be human. I often get asked by patients if I get bored listening to folks drown on and on all day. And then of course, in the moments when the affectionate emotions that have grown between the patient and myself have been vocalized, I undoubtedly get … “but I pay you to listen to me” or “you can’t really care about me – I pay you.”
What patients don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – is that they are not paying me for the love. They are paying me for my time and my skills. The love is the free part. An added bonus. Inevitably, if a patient stays with me long enough, I do grow to love them. What is not to love? They sit with me hour after hour, week after week. And with moxie and faith, they take the leap of full emotional exposure. The necessary plunge into the unknown of their interior worlds – complete with its story, its heartbreaking ramifications and the ever desire to be whole and free.
I once heard a mentor of mine define psychotherapy in this just way. A symptomatic patient enters therapy and in so doing, he or she brings to your consulting room all their unlikeable parts. This is their “edge” – the well-worn defenses that have kept them from getting what they want out of life. As the physician been assigned to the job, it is my task to make their unlikeable parts likeable, to mollify that edge. In that process, I am not some robot in a factory but rather I am fully engaged – both as a trained clinician and a human being. I have my own thoughts and feelings on this side of the room. And over time, the predominance of these feelings is in the realm of love, warmth and respect – all going in the direction of the person sitting across from me.
I know that life is indeed complex and it takes much more than love to cure emotional pain. But when life offers you genuine affection and benevolence as a sidebar, by damn, enjoy it. Meanwhile, I am going to keep drinking my coffee, hearing your stories (that are really not much different from my own) and falling in love over and over and over again. I do love my job.