I’ve spent a lot of my life in therapy. Like any kind of relationship, there were therapists I liked more than others. I think most helped me in one way or another, but there are only a couple of therapists who truly made a profound difference in my life. When I was 19, during the summer before I started art school, I was in inpatient treatment for my eating disorder. Upon discharge from the program, the psychiatrist who ran the program introduced me to Pat, the therapist with whom I would have follow-up outpatient therapy. While inpatient, I had been working with another therapist I liked, so I was disappointed about being assigned another, but the doctor thought Pat’s degree in nursing made her a good fit for me since I had diabetes.
I was not an easy patient. I was stubborn, angry, resistant, and clearly didn’t have much insight since I couldn’t see a relationship between my feelings about diabetes and my other problems. I think most therapists would have eventually referred me to someone else, but she stuck with me through all my craziness. She watched my weight fall until I was teetering into anorexia. She welcomed me back the couple of times I strayed from therapy during the eight years we worked together. She patiently worked with me, helping me come to the realization that diabetes was a primary source of the anger that drove my self-destruction. She was the one who excitedly told me about the DCCT, and photocopied a story about it for me to take home. I was only 20 at the time, doing the bare minimum diabetically speaking to keep myself alive and functioning, so I was mystified at her enthusiasm. She loaned me books that I still have because I never returned them. Eventually, I came to recognize that the books represented more than books. They symbolized how she genuinely cared about me, and my unconscious reluctance to return them represented my need for something tangible that represented her acceptance of who I was, and her belief in my ability to overcome my problems. She answered the phone when I called her a few months after I graduated from college, 23-years old, living on 1-pound bags of spice drops, baby carrots, and maybe a third of the insulin I should have been taking, lost, contemplating suicide. She got me admitted to the psychiatric hospital where I started a new medication and made some progress.
When I was 27, I told her I was going to be working with a family therapist closer to my home and job, because my boyfriend at the time and I were trying to repair our relationship. I’d made a lot of progress, completed college, completed graduate school except for my thesis, and she recognized that, in spite of the work that still lay ahead of me. I don’t remember how exactly we left things, but I always felt like her door was open should I decide I want to return.
I met Jason, I moved to New Jersey, we bought a house, we got married, and I finished my thesis, and graduated with my master’s degree. I continued to struggle to accept my diabetes, and my eating disorder symptoms persisted for over a year into our marriage. I returned to intensive treatment with the same psychiatrist who initially introduced me to Pat, although Pat had moved on, and was working with another organization. A couple of weeks after that round of treatment, I finally relinquished my eating disorder.
About two years ago, I tracked her down. I wanted to tell her about my life – that I was married, I had finally recovered from my eating disorder, I was using an insulin pump, and my diabetes was well-managed. We spoke on the phone for a few minutes, and there was discussion of us meeting for coffee or lunch should I be in the city. I felt weird about it though. I always felt close to her as my therapist, but I didn’t know if I was being intrusive by trying to connect with her. It seemed that maybe if a little more time passed, it wouldn’t feel so weird.
Over the weekend, I was in Southern California, celebrating with George and Team Ninjabetic. I’ve been making horribly slow progress on a book I’ve been reading for over a year now, so I brought the book with me to read on the plane. The book is about therapist self-disclosure in psychotherapy. This is a topic of great interest to me, as you may well imagine. I’m very much out there in many respects online, which is obvious just from this post, and I’ve expressed concerns on many occasions about how that intersects and affects me professionally. This book has given me a lot to consider regarding this issue.
Of interest was one chapter in particular. It was about a therapist who works with eating disordered clients, so it struck a chord. The therapist wrote about her experience running into an old client, and asking her what the client felt had been most helpful about the therapeutic work they had done together. This made me think of Pat, and it made me reflect on our work and the therapeutic relationship we had. It made me think of her self-disclosure, the intentional and unintentional, and the actions and gestures that made me feel connected to her. The times her son was there in the office suite, occupying himself with toy cars or coloring books in a conference room, presumably because there was no childcare. The vacation plans she had, including the stay-cations during which she told me I could still reach her if I really needed to talk. The books on her bookshelf, and the mementos in her office. The hugs she gave me. I reflected on what it was about the work we did that was most salient, what it was that most helped me, and how I should probably make that lunch date with her to tell her. I thought about how it was well past time for me to return those two books.
Late last night, I googled her. I expected to find that she still worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s eating disorder clinic, so it would only be a matter of finding a phone or email. This time we would make concrete plans for lunch, and I would tell her about my work, the blog, the private practice, the advocacy work, everything I do to undo the absence of services that I once desperately needed. I knew she’d understand the value, and appreciate my efforts to transform my personal struggles with diabetes and mental illness into something positive.
Instead, I found an obituary link for Patricia Lipschutz. I wanted it to be a different Patricia, not the one who helped me become who I am. I clicked the link, and I saw the facts that I didn’t want to see. Two years older than my mom, her husband’s name, a son who would have been about the age of the boy I remembered seeing in the office. Patricia Lipschutz from Philadelphia. It was her. She died in June 2009, and I’m only discovering this now.
I don’t know that I can convey how instrumental she was to my eventual recovery. She helped me become a better, healthier person. She stuck with me through some times when everyone else was justifiably done with me. She stuck with me when I felt like I was done with myself. She was the one who helped me understand how my diabetes was connected to my eating disorder, my depression, my anger, my strained relationships. I had only wanted to thank her. As a therapist, I know it feels good to see a client overcome obstacles, and I wanted her to feel good about having helped me work past so many issues. I wanted her to know her work with me mattered, that she helped me change my life. I no longer need the books as evidence of our relationship because I internalized the care she felt for me, transforming it into the care I now have for myself. I just wanted to return her long overdue books.