Sifting Through the Dross
It seems that every day young people are choosing to take their own lives. Just last month, a beautiful, intelligent female track star, who appeared to have everything to live for, jumped off a roof at UPenn.
Last summer, handsome Disney star Lee Thompson Young died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. And just this past week, my family received the devastating news that one of my son's high school football buddies decided to end his long suffering by checking out of his life. He was handsome, smart and funny; he had a loving family and great friends—and a gaping hole in his heart.
The "20-somethings" have their challenges for sure. As in past generations, their young lives are full of questions; there are so many uncertainties. "What kind of career will I have?" "Who will be my partner in life?" "Will I have a partner in life?" "What's this life all about anyway?"
Yet while they face similar challenges, the world has changed since 9/11 as we all can agree, and the questions they now face seem to take on even greater significance and cause even more stress than they did for 20-somethings in the past. Their life view has become jaded far ahead of their time.
When I look back to my 20s, it is striking to remember how painful a time it was for me. As a junior in college, I saw law school on my horizon. In my blind ambition, I went to summer school in order to graduate early and worked two jobs to help pay for my schooling. Then suddenly—crash.
I began to experience what I later came to realize were panic attacks. I was engulfed in panic and fear, bewildered and utterly terrified. All the confidence and promise I once had was sucked out of me like air from a deflating balloon. I began to feel like a hollow shell, surviving from one panic attack to the next.
Unfortunately, in 1981 there was very little talk of panic attacks in the field so the professionals I spoke to were as bewildered as I was. When I tried to talk to therapists to sort things out, I could sense the panic in them. As they distanced themselves from me and objectified my suffering, my sense of loneliness and alienation became even more acute. They wanted nothing to do with this type of pain and I was at the end of my rope.
Then by some sweet twist of fate I met Sally during the lowest ebb of my depression. Sally, a therapist with a warm and wise countenance, was someone who wasn't afraid to hold the pain I was feeling. She wasn't afraid of it. She saw past the pain to me and she liked what she saw.
She began to guide me gently back to myself and taught me how to look beyond this pain and discover what she was seeing in me all along. I discovered myself again. At that moment I knew that law school would not be in my future. This precious gift that Sally gave to me was something I wanted to share with others who were desperately trying to find their way out of the dark like I had.
This was the start of a wonderful new path in my life, which continues to be a journey of unspeakable joy and satisfaction. I have met so many wonderful people in my practice and have been so privileged to help them see beyond their pain and discover the treasure of who they are. They are courageous people who took the daunting step of reaching out for help instead of burying their pain and keeping it locked up inside until it killed them.
I'm seeing so many positive changes in my profession. The once negative, shame-filled image of a sick person going to a "shrink" has evolved into an image of an intelligent person looking to "grow" him or herself and become the resilient person they can't yet picture. The therapist's office is now a place to discover one's strengths and gifts and develop effective tools for living a successful life.
The evolution of solution-focused, strength-based therapy resonates so deeply with me. It is so rewarding to work with individuals and couples, helping them discover their own intrinsic treasures and building a better life experience on them.
I am so grateful to witness their shift in perspective and embrace, maybe for the first time, what has been inside them all along—and realizing, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that the power of her own ruby slippers could have taken her home all along.
The Chinese, in their wisdom, have a symbol for crisis, which is the same symbol for opportunity. A time of crisis in our lives can be a remarkable opportunity to grow. Yes, it shakes us to the core and often shatters the very foundation, which appears to hold us together.
But sometimes a shaky foundation needs to be shattered and then restructured and fortified. A crisis, albeit painful, may be the most efficient way to do this. I truly believe that if you can begin to look beyond the pain, the way Sally helped me to do, you will find the treasures that lie beneath it, waiting to be discovered.
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