As a clinician we are not immune to having personal prejudices, preferences and double standards. We may explore options with clients that we would never try personally, either due to personal preferences or religious beliefs; we understand that our clients’ are not us, have a different lifestyle, religion or sexual preference and that they do not come into counseling to learn to be or act like us. Sometimes we may simply feel immune to an issue, or rationalize that though it is an option for others, “it’s just not my thing.” Such thinking can lead us to less than optimal success if we let it. Take my case for example: I ignored all the talk of finding balance in life and worked 100 to 120 or so hours per week for years on end. I acted as if the fact that there are only 168 hours in a week and that there is a need for sleep were issues for the rest of the world and not for me. I even justified this thinking because I had gotten away with it for so many years. So hypocrite that I was, I counseled my type A clients to slow down and live, while working endless hours for years and years until my body gave out. Nothing slows a person down quite like not being able to breathe. Suddenly I had to slow down. So I cut my hours down to no more than 60 at the office and whatever I could muster at the WIP (farm) after hours and weekends. Suddenly the physical pain started becoming unmanageable, testing continued and a few diagnoses including costochondritis told me that I was still not doing the right thing. Costochondritis is not deadly but it can feel that way. Breathing can become labored due to the pain in your chest and ribs caused by inflammation, the pain can spread into your stomach muscles as well (so I have learned). Sitting in sessions became a real chore, standing was the only thing that seemed to lessen the pain, but who wants a shrink that is standing or pacing during a session? So I sat, I squirmed at times and said a few four letter words to myself while I pretended to be ok. One time a medical professional who was in a session with me, questioned me due to my lips looking purple and a few other signs from shallow breathing. I refocused the session back to them, reminding that this was their time and not mine but I could see the client growing more and more uncomfortable until finally after the session they returned with their medical bag and demanded to listen to my lungs. I was reminded that they were indeed my client but that they too took an oath. I have had to call an ambulance for a client or two in my day but never thought that a client would threaten to call one on me, or that I would ever need one for that matter. I have rarely been as uncomfortable as I was at that moment. I reluctantly allowed them to listen to my lungs over my clothes so that they would leave my office. Thankfully my lungs were fine; it was the pain in my chest and ribs that lead to shallow breathing and the discoloration. I contacted my medical professional. I have learned a great deal since that time. I learned that prolonged hours in the office sitting can cause physical damage. I learned that it can greatly affect your long term health. I also learned that I can be extremely pig headed (though I guess I knew that since my wife and others have told me that for decades, now it was officially diagnosed medically). I also realized that eventually reality catches up to all of us. That emblazoned “S” on our chest is just a mirage and the laws of health and physics apply to us all. One day I tried something new when I was in with my medical doc and I thought about not what I would normally tell her, but what I would normally suggest to my clients to talk to her about. The change was startling. Instead of the usual “I’m fine, just a little pain but nothing I can’t handle” I said something like “It hurts a LOT, I am having trouble breathing due to the pain and frankly it is scary as hell sometimes.” These few words helped change not only my treatment but also my mind set. Honesty especially with yourself, is king. To her surprise I actually asked for medication to help with the pain, inflammation and related issues. This change lead to other things. I used to be a bodybuilder many years ago and as a natural body builder (no steroids or related drugs for me thanks) I built my body on the mindset that more was better. If the rack of weights held 250 pounds, I could get custom pins made that allowed it to hold a 45 pound plate or two; lifting until beyond muscle failure lead to great muscle growth and painful injuries. Though health issues ended my bodybuilding I maintained that mindset. More is better. It affected my view of such things as stretching, yoga, meditation etc. it just wasn’t for me, although I recognized its value for others. I recommended it so much that some thought I was really into it, that I practiced it faithfully but in truth I thought of it as “floating on clouds stuff.” It just wasn’t for me. I reached out to a dear friend that is a physical therapist and she helped me a great deal. She mentioned yoga and to my surprise I told her I wanted to try it. She sent me a DVD and I have been using it for many months. I see my pain reducing while my mind opens to new things. I learned how difficult it can be. I learned that you can break a real sweat doing yoga and that it can really challenge your muscles in ways that the heavy weights never did. I find that like our clients, we clinicians need to be reminded not to be so stubborn. We need to be reminded to listen, to really hear others, and to really hear ourselves. Working tons of hours for many years can do damage and though we can help more people for a short term, we can help more people over the long term IF we stay within due bounds and find balance. So next time I find a colleague in denial I will fight the urge to say “yogat to be kidding me” but will remind them to not just listen but to hear. The answers are typically there for the trying. Please excuse the pun, I couldn’t resist. Be safe, do good.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).