Twenty-something years ago, when I was just starting to learn how to be a therapist, I worked in an addiction treatment programme. One of my first clients was a man I’ll call Sam. I was full of anxiety about doing it right and doing it wrong… it all involved a lot of doing anyway, in my mind.
Sam was not having much fun in rehab. He was missing his drink and drugs. As a veteran of the revolving door that circles many people in and out and back again, through rehab after rehab, he wasn’t holding out much hope of anything changing.
We met twice a week for an hour, and somewhere between my need to get it right and his need to be heard, something very compacted was able to move a little. I sometimes think I might never have listened so hard, either before or since. I poured every drop, every ounce of my capacity to want to know and to listen, into those meetings. And maybe Sam, who hadn’t had much interest and attention offered to him in his life, just drank it all in like a dying man in the dessert. I should say now, that this isn’t a neat story, and I don’t know if there’s a so called happy ending. I don’t know what happened to Sam in the long term, or if he went back to drinking, or stayed sober. Or even if he lived or died.
This story is more about what happened in that exchange. I gave Sam something he needed, even and in spite of all my worrying about being a good therapist. And Sam, the first of many clients to teach me, helped me start to understand the business of deeply showing up and holding someone, holding space. He also gave me a piece of my own story back.
Sam was battle scarred. He had some of the most extreme self harm scars I’d ever seen. His arms were in tatters and his neck and throat. He told me he had tried very hard and on many occasions, to die. He thought it was fear of death that was keeping him in the world, and judged himself terribly, for being a wimp. He told me about trying to jump off a thirteenth floor window ledge, and failing. He was drunk, a whole bottle of spirits drunk, and out there, trying to let go. He cried when he told me this and cried when his body remembered. He cried when I wondered if maybe he wanted to live, as well as wanted to die, and if it were possible to long for both at the same time.
And although I’ve never taken a bottle out onto a window ledge, I had tried hard, several times, to kill myself. I never really understood until I was in that little room with Sam, that it wasn’t fear of death that kept me in the world, but rather an attachment to and fierce love of life. And that it is more than possible to love life and long for death at the same time. I haven’t been suicidal for a decade or two, and have found a way to be in the world, mostly kindly, with what is, and isn’t possible. I thank life frequently, and sincerely. I am here and I am grateful. I know why I couldn’t kick the chair away, swallow enough pills, or cut deeply enough into my wrist… not because of fear, but because of love.