• Behind the Curtains

Strangers in Cars

When I was an intern at the Houston Galveston Institute I had no idea what I would be in store for. No clue at all. I had a sneaking suspicion I would gain experience providing therapeutic services and learning more about Collaborative Dialogic practices but that was my base level of expectation. I ended up experiencing and learning far more than that.

Let me set the stage. This little tale took place in August. Now if you are from the Houston area than you know that hell opens its gates in the month of August. Everything is burning hot. Even the ice in the freezer is hot. It’s really really hot, ya got it? During this time I was assigned a case with my co-therapist Jessica Henderson. Jessica is the epitome of therapeutic talent, fashion fabulosity, and all around ability to think outside of the box. We got along famously and she has forever held a place in my heart as someone who helped me grow as a therapist. We were both interns without a damn clue but we were loving every minute of it.

Back to this case we were assigned. It was a mother daughter duo and from the sounds of it mom really needed our help. Daughter was a teen and growing apart from mom. Mom had no idea what to do and felt lost and hopeless. Jessica and I were ready to work with this family and get things started. The month of August was just not ready for us.

The day finally arrived for the first session. Jessica and I were going over our styles as therapists and how we wanted to work together. We were feeling pretty calm about this, we had already established a nice relationship and expressed how we would want to communicate with each other during the session. Everything seemed so simple.

Until mom showed up for the session with pieces of baked potato mashed into her hair and smeared across the side of her face. “She won’t come in for the session. When I told her where we were going she chewed me out and threw her baked potato at me.” The exhaustion in mom’s face was honing in on us. Jessica and I looked at one another unsure what to do. All of a sudden the answer was very clear for Jessica, “Come on, let’s go talk to her.”

Together we left mom to go wash her face while we ventured outside into the fiery gates of hell. Side bar, it is very wise to be aware of what you wear in extreme weather conditions. I was wearing a lot of man-made faux silk fibers and the heat was not doing my blouse any favors.

We carefully approached the car. The windows were down and the teen girl was looking away from us. Being cautious with our language we introduced ourselves and explained why we had walked to the car to talk with her. We also explained that she did not have to leave the car at all. There were some pauses. The teen girl explicitly reminded us she would not leave the car. So Jessica asked simply, “Would it be ok if we got in the car with you and just learned more about you and your side of what is going on with your mom?”

Now dear reader, this is the part where internal me was like, “Wait. She just threw hot fast food potato at her mom. We aren’t supposed to go into the cage with the angry bear. Also, we are going to get in this car, in this heat, in my polyester get up? My fate is going to be that of Frosty the Snow Woman.” However I knew that my own issues needed to be put to the side, I was not going to seriously melt. And in all honesty having baked potato thrown at me would not be the worst thing that I have been through. So we got into the car.

What happened next was a conversation that created a space for this teen to open up and question what she thought she knew about therapy and the role of a therapist. We weren’t these overbearing mental health monsters ready to open her brain and pick her emotions apart. No, we were something else altogether. Jessica had a way with the teen girl, there was an honesty that was real and transparent and the teen respected that. I brought in some much needed humor to lighten the severity of the situation. We managed to make a conversation work through respect and tentative language. This all fell into place so much so that the teen girl came back a week later. We got to have a session in a nice air conditioned room. We were painting our nails. It was a therapeutic relationship built on taking a risk by getting into that car. Just a bunch of strangers finding a way to connect.

Not entirely strangers. The connection Jessica and I had formed a couple months before helped with this experience. We worked together and had a respect for each other. We jumped in and took a chance. Luckily for us the outcome was a decent one but the take away was that as interns there was maybe a hope that the rules would be there for us to fall back on. However sometimes there isn’t a safety net. Sometimes we make decisions on the spur of the moment and that can be important because some magical things can come out of that. Just make sure you aren’t wearing polyester when you walk through the flames of fear, ok?

On the next Behind the Curtains!

Michael learns the importance of meeting people where they are. What does that even mean? Find out soon!

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