The Accidental Therapist
"How are ya?" Three simple words that we say and hear so often that it loses all meaning. It's no longer an inquiry as to someone's mood, attitude, or demeanor. Instead, it's an obligatory greeting on behalf of someone who really doesn't care how you're truly feeling. The real question is…how are you? Have you ever noticed that typically when this question is asked of you, it's by someone who's doing at least a half-dozen other things, and doesn't even look you in the eye to hear your response? That's because in the unwritten, yet understood "script" of the conversation, your stock response will be "fine". If it's something other than "fine", then it should precede why you mistakenly presented coupons for items which you didn't purchase; or why you're daydreaming and holding up the line while the cashier is impatiently glaring at you to take your change. Either way, it's made very clear that this person could not physically care less about how you're doing
In the age of cell phones, e-mail, IM's, MySpace, FaceBook, and Twitter, it seems like people crave communication and acceptance now more than ever. We want someone to genuinely listen to our heart, not just our words. We want to know that we're valued, appreciated, and most of all, that we're not alone. Every year, people willingly spend thousands of dollars to have a therapist many times, do nothing more than just listen to them vent because they feel like no one else cares. The misconception is that it would take a lot of money and time for us to really make a difference in someone's life, so why bother trying. I disagree. I believe that "It doesn't have to be a big thing; it just has to be the right thing" to truly change someone's outlook, at least for that moment.
If you were to begin a conversation with "How are you doin' today? You look a bit frazzled." I guarantee that the response you get won't be the standard "I'm fine". For those extra 2 seconds that it took to add an additional 5 word statement, you have for all purposes entitled that person the validation of their feelings. Will it change your life by knowing that they are on the verge of losing their mind because their 5 yr old decided to give the kitty a new hairdo by trying out daddy's razor on it? No. Will your day be different from hearing that their husband left them the car that had no gas in it; and they had to stop for gas on the way to dropping off the child at school, and when they got out of the car to pay for that gas, that same adorable 5 yr old jimmied the seatbelt, got to the auto locks which make that "clicky" sound that they just love to hear, and locked her out? No. But what you have done is you have effortlessly given that person the opportunity to blow off some steam. (Who'd have thought that 2 tiny seconds could have such a profound effect on someone's life?)
I have been "blessed" with a knack for doing this either "for" people, or "to" them; depending on how you choose to look at it. For quite a while, it happened so often in my life that my husband dubbed me "The Accidental Therapist" because of my ability to somehow end up in deep, lengthy conversations with people that I have never met before.
It would start off innocently enough; I would be in a grocery aisle, and someone would come along and block my view of the canned pears. I would move to the side behind them so I could see around them and they would take a step and block my view again. I'd take a few steps in the opposite direction, and it was like they were intentionally doing the same thing just to mess with me. Finally, after staring at the back of this one lady's head for about 45 seconds, (which in grocery store time might as well have been an hour), I took 2 steps forward and stood next to her. I tilted my head to the side, raised my eyebrows slightly, and leaned in toward her a little, and asked "Can I help you find something? I don't work here, but I do shop here a lot." I figured at the very least, now that I was closer to those pears; I could get another crack at 'em.The lady turned to me abruptly and shot me one of those "How dare you?!?" looks. She took a deep breath, and blurted out "My father is in a nursing home. He's refusing to eat. The only thing he wants is Jell-o. Can you believe it, JELL-O!? He doesn't even want plain Jell-o. No, that would be too easy. You know what he wants? He wants Jell-o with fruit in it. But not the Jell-o that comes in cups already made with fruit cocktail—he wants homemade Jell-o with tiny diced pears, and ONLY tiny diced pears!" (Wow, I didn't see that one coming.)
I stood there along side of her, pretending to stare at the canned fruit while thinking to myself "Good grief, lady, it's only fruit." But that's where I was wrong. It wasn't just fruit, at least not to her. Right then, that fruit represented all of the hope and control that she no longer had. Her seemingly aggressive and dominant attitude was in all actuality feelings of helplessness and frustration about a situation she couldn't change.
I turned to her and softly said "I know exactly how you feel. I work in a nursing home and I do hospice work with families. It's rough. You look at your parents now and they are a shell of what they once were. They used to be so strong and tough; and now they're frail and dependant on everyone's compassion. It's scary. You have a right to feel overwhelmed." Her eyes welled up with tears. As she blinked a slow blink and swallowed hard, I saw all the pain that she was hiding inside. She spoke quietly and said "I'm all that my dad has. It's just me."
This one-sided conversation went on for a while as she continued to purge her soul to me.
After she finished, I didn't quite know what to say. So I reached out, touched her arm and responded with "He's lucky to have you. I'll be praying for you. Good luck." As I walked away I wondered who benefitted more from that conversation; her for being able to talk about it, or me for being able to hear it. It's amazing how small some of our problems can be when compared to someone whose problems are life-altering. Within roughly 10 minutes, we both had a renewed perspective of life that day.
In all honesty, I'll never know if I've made a real difference in anyone's life. But sometimes all it takes is one person to say that they understand; and that's enough to give someone who's hurting the strength to go on doing what they do. The cost to listen is free; but the ability to help someone who's hurting is priceless.