Today, I want to share a story of one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had as a therapist.
I’m sure many of you have moments like this that stand out in your mind – one of those defining moments where you learn something from a client, a supervisor, or a colleague that shifts your thinking about the work we do as therapists and impacts the way in which you show up in the world.
For me, this moment came a little over 10 years ago when I was working as a therapist for a permanent supportive housing organization in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles. If you are unfamiliar with Skid Row, it’s one of the largest concentrations of unhoused adults in the U.S.
The organization I worked for was based on the Housing First model of providing homeless adults with permanent housing and then surrounding them with services. The building I worked in housed 115 adults and had a medical doctor, therapists, case managers, and a benefits advocate on the first floor.
This is where I cut my teeth as a therapist – and I can confidently say that I had no idea what I was doing. As is typical of our profession, the jobs available to the newest and greenest clinicians are often with the most vulnerable and highest need populations. Daily, I felt in over my head.
This is where I met my client, Diego (not his real name). I remember that, at first, he was very quiet during our sessions and I had no idea how to help him open up. But, slowly, over time he began to tell me about his painful life – the severe trauma he endured as a child, the way he learned to self-medicate with substances, and how he eventually lost contact with his family. In Skid Row, it was heartbreaking how common Diego’s story was. I heard it over and over again from countless clients.
At the time I met him, Diego had a lot to be proud of. He was sober, he had secure housing, and he was beginning to do the hard work of unpacking his painful past.
One day, I asked him how it felt to walk past the thousands and thousands of unhoused adults that camped on the streets of Skid Row. And he said something I hope I never, ever forget.
He said that every time he passed a person who was still without housing, he whispered quietly to himself, “There goes me.”
This phrase was an interpretation, in his own words, of the old saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
Diego went on to say that he used this phrase as his reminder that he is no better, no stronger, and no more deserving of love and care than any other human being.
Even as I write this, I have to stop and take a long, deep breath because his words still impact me so deeply.
Diego’s words provided me with a framework for empathy that I’ve tried to remember throughout my career. I think it can be tempting as therapists, or just as human beings, to assume that we would have chosen differently if we were in Diego’s shoes. But, I don’t think I would have. If I endured the kind of trauma Diego endured, I think I would have looked for something to dull the pain. To me, people’s response to their pain and trauma usually makes a lot of sense.
After this moment with Diego, I began following his lead by whispering, “there goes me” after a session with a client, or whenever I passed an unhoused person on the streets. Every time I do, I think about Diego and his powerful example of empathy, kindness, and humility. 💙
Thanks for allowing me to share this story with you today. I am confident you have a story or two like this from your career. If you want to share it with me, I’d love to hear it.