Where do I begin? The beginning.
Like many therapists, I entered this profession to save myself, my family, the world, only to learn that I could save only one; each person must save himself.
My very first counseling experience was in my Masters of Marriage and Family Therapy program in Portland, Oregon, 1977. I was a naïve, idealistic, insecure, student-therapist assigned to the Salvation Army Harbor Light Program in downtown Portland.
Group sessions were held in a small, narrow room in which two long tables were crowded. Men were required to attend group therapy in order to stay at the facility. Some “participants” sat with their backs to me while others sat mockingly blowing smoke into my face. Others insisted upon sharing their vast psychological knowledge, monopolizing sessions.
In an attempt to connect, prior to our session, I joined the men for lunch, chatting, eating shelter food. These men were experts on train travel. They taught me how to travel by rail for free. How to choose a train to hop and how to work the seasonal schedule, Seattle to LA, and survive.
These men were scarred. Most displayed the physical remnants of accidents, beatings, being “rolled.”
One short, squatty man with over sized glasses, a mustache, and long, curly hair was the resident expert on classic self-help, I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas Anthony Harris. He loved to pontificate on Harris’ theories during session. I soon learned he held a higher degree than the one I was working toward.
Ed a wiry man with weathered skin taught me to respect the boundaries of others by answering my insistence that he share in group therapy by spitting on me.
I returned home following these sessions, dropping my clothes at the door, reeking of cigarette smoke.
In my time with these first clients, many stereotypes of a novice therapist were blown away. I met doctors, lawyers, professors, brilliant people—many more educated and smarter than I was—whose lives were devastated by addictions. They had lost everything.
I never hopped a train. Too chicken. But I learned a lesson from these men that has served me well in my role as a therapist and as a human being. Through this experience, I began my lifelong quest of accepting people for who they are, where they are, resisting the lens of judgment.