Saturday, September 19, 2009

Stop, drop, & roll: Encountering Clients in Public

I had one of those days where if the sequence of events that happened on this day were depicted in a movie or a novel, you would never believe it. Totally unrealistic, you'd say, so far fetched! Well, I feel compelled to share what happened with you for two reasons: (1) it has relevance to my life as a burgeoning clinical psychologist and (2) I think it will help me with getting over how strange the day was--like exposure therapy. Here goes...

As part of a long held Sunday ritual, my husband and I set out for breakfast at one of our favorite local breakfast/lunch joints, let's call it Sallie's. Sallie's has been a locals' haunt that has recently enjoyed the patronage of newbies who became hip to it from some good ole Food Network exposure. Thankfully, its dive charm didn't lend itself to be totally overrun by tourists and bored outsiders. It's edgy-hipster appeal melds well with the urban charm of the rough-around-the-edges location in a way that speaks to most of the artists, rockers, and DIY-millionaires who like keepin' it real in the hood (creatives as Deet would say). As we make our way to Sallie's, crossing the street like two Froggers dodgeing traffic, I see this guy who looks familiar sitting at one of the outdoor tables. Hmm, I think to myself, where do I know him. Usually, when I feel that way, the person is an extra or supporting character on TV or in some movie. Nope, not this guy. Finally, when my neural networks made a data match somewhere in my memory bank, I realized this was a former client. Actually, he was half of a couples case my colleague and I saw for a summer. A sense of dread, anxiety, and a little nausea spread over me like a thick smoothie. I try to see who he's with without them noticing. Ah, it's definitely her, I know that profile from anywhere. Ugh, I thought, why them, why now, and why at Sallie's?! My Sallie's?! They live across town...way, way, way, across town. The server, who knows us by now, gets ready to seat us at our usual table outside. "No, we're doing inside today, pal, INside," I say emphatically. He's surprised but chuckles and obliges. Whew.

This couples case was a tough one. There was a lot of--ahem--sensitive issues going on. After some time it was clear that one person wanted to be in therapy while the other didn't. What complicated things even more was that the one who wanted therapy was originally seeking out sex therapy... but refused to talk about sex. We were not allowed to discuss sex, which, as you can imagine, makes sex therapy a little difficult. We ended up doing a lot of couples communication counseling. Eventually, there was a lot of frustration on our end with missed/canceled appointments and they felt like we were being to pushy. There were a number of angry outbursts, crying, and unpredictable reactions to topics we brought up. Right before my colleague and I were about to call it quits, they dumped us. Though they admitted that the one person wasn't interested in therapy, it just wasn't working for them. Fine with us!

Now my husband and I were seated on the other side of a window facing this couple's table. Joy. What does one do in this unfortunate situation? Part of the confidentiality agreement is that I cannot disclose the nature of our relationship in public without the client's approval. Therefore, when I see a client in public I cannot acknowledge that I know them, lest whoever they're with asks, "Who's that?: They need to initiate contact for me to acknowledge them. So that gets me off the hook. I had a feeling that this couple wouldn't initiate any contact, but you never know. They had a flair for the dramatic.

While I start meticulously looking at every item on the menu, something I rarely do since I have a usual order, I can keep track of where the couple is in my periphery. My husband has no idea what's going on this whole time but senses that something's up. "What'cha gonna order, hun?" I ask him. "The same thing I always order, you?" he says. "Oh, I don't know...might switch it up today...switchin' things up!" I responded, sounding a touch insane. Meanwhile, the man of the couple gets up and walks past my table to the bathroom. This is odd because no one uses the bathroom at Sallie's. It's way far back in the restaurant and you have to walk through the kitchen...and, honestly, it's gross. I sense that they're totally onto me. My eyes stay glued to the menu. I see him, in my periphery, leaving the restroom as he heads outside, again passing my table. Then the woman goes to the bathroom, passing my table on the way. WHAT GIVES?!?! How typical! They are trying to make me uncomfortable, my paranoia leads me to believe. Finally, she comes out and they leave. I put my menu down and let out a big sigh. "What the hell is going on with you?" my husband asks. I tell him that clients were sitting there and he laughs. He laughs even harder when I describe my theory that they were purposefully making me uncomfortable. "Maybe they just needed to go to the bathroom," he says, still laughing. "Maybe," I say, "but maybe not." I laugh and finally order my usual.

As we enjoy our meal, a group sits at the table next to us. As their conversation develops, I over hear a guy talking about his studies in psychology and seeing clients. At one point he says, "So yeah, I've got my Masters which basically makes me a clinical psychologist." I nearly vomit all over my half empty plate. My husband, who also heard this, starts to laugh a little. A master's degree does not a clinical psychologist make. It can make you a therapist in a number of different areas, but not a clinical psychologist. I don't spend years of my life tortured and stressed, working my self into the ground to get a Ph.D. to have idiots like this calling themselves clinical psychologists. The man continues, "Oh yeah, I'll be seeing clients on my own pretty soon, which is great. You know, big bucks. And I believe in it to, you know, therapy, it sort of works." Oh yea, sure, therapy sorta works. Why not try it out? The guy doesn't even believe in the work!! I'm livid and shaking at this point. Then the group's conversation shifts to the topic of awkward moments when people run into their therapists outside therapy. Can you believe that? Can you BELIEVE that? Thankfully, we were done with breakfast. "You ready to go?" hubby asks me. "You bet your ass I am!"