“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” -Sir Edmund Hillary
I like to think of things in pictures. So when I close my eyes and imagine being a therapist. I imagine myself as a mountaineer, guiding a person, couple, or family up a mountain. It may be the first or twelfth time up the mountain for my client, nonetheless we climb the terrain together. Up the mountain there are switchbacks and creeks to cross and deep snow and wind, all the elements. Are you with me on how complex this is? As a therapist I know that we are not just talking about the mountain, we are climbing it and experiencing it.
Have you ever climbed a mountain? I imagine mountain climbing is painful and hard and beautiful, just like therapy. I imagine there are several points that one considers turning around and never coming back. I have had people sit in front of me and say, “I considered not coming today, I mean, this is really hard.” It is. So I climb the mountain with people. Sometimes progress is slow. I used to run cross country and one race we ran up a steep goat trail. It was literally a mountain goat trail. I remember running so slow it seemed as if I was barely moving. Some weeks the story is hard and we get through one sentence at a time and then sit with all the content. Being a therapist means you learn how to follow your client’s lead, while at the same time pointing to the next landmark, “do you see that tree, we are so close.”
We make sure our clients have enough tools in their backpacks (or we try atleast) to survive the sharpest rocks, to wade through the deep creeks, and climb uncertain terrain. We would never ask a client to climb a mountain without noticing first the need for safety. I often consider, if something is hard in therapy, do you have tools to regulate again as you leave session? My goal is to help clients climb the mountain while preventing an avalanche. And sometimes, we don’t even realize the danger and beauty of how therapy changes our lives until we are knee deep in it.
How long does it take? This is a question that comes up all the time for therapists. How long until I feel better or until I reach my goal? The answer is annoyingly simple: as long as it takes. Maybe the trail we are taking is winding back and forth and in order to do this mountain justice, it takes years to climb every travine. Maybe all you are ready for is the first loop. That is ok. We climb at our own pace in our own way and you finish when you finish.
I imagine at the top of the mountain you leave a flag or a stone, to record that indeed you were once hear. Today a young mom called me, tears through the phone, I am bringing home my babies. I am bring them home for good.” Her story is years of steep switchbacks. Drug use, trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma. And the whole time my message to her was this “you are so worthy of this work. You are not even close to being alone in this work. You can do this work. You can heal. You can be ok. Your babies need their momma and you are the very best momma for them.” Together was we climbed the mountain, we looked under every stone and processed hard things. The steepest goat hills I have ever seen. So when she got to the top of the mountain, she left behind all the boulders that were dragging her down. Being a therapist means I believe any story can have redemption. I love to sit at the top with couples that were on the very edge of leaving it all, to discover they have found each other again. Is marriage therapy hard? It is some of the steepest terrain. However the view from the top is some of the best I have ever seen. Every person deserves to climb their mountain and leave behind the shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, that was dragging them down. It is an honor to be invited on the climb.