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Staring Into Abyss: Failed Healer's Confession

Uploaded 4/5/2021, approx. 5 minute read

I have been trying to help people in psychology ever since 1995, and I want to share with you an experience that is common to many mental health professionals and practitioners, psychologists, those who teach psychology like me and others.

When we work with clients, when we work with patients, sometimes I feel so helpless. When I work with a client whose mental health condition is hopeless, is unmanageable, I feel hopeless and sometimes unmanageable.

It's like these nightmares or horror movies where a small child is trapped under a transparent sheet of ice in a lake, running out of oxygen, drowning in the cold dark water, and you're trying desperately to break the ice, you're trying to reach in, drag him out, resuscitate him with your breath of life, provide him with warmth, and you just can't, you just can't because the ice won't break, won't give way.

And he's, the child is flailing and screaming and bubbles come all over and you try so hard and you keep failing and failing and failing until the child dies right in front of you.

Sometimes the experience of treating people, counseling people, trying to help them with their life crisis, traits, dysfunctional behaviors, wrong choices and decisions, sometimes the experience is exactly like this nightmare.

Self-interested hype by therapists aside, many patients, many clients are just beyond help. They have strayed far away, too far from home, their minds are jumbled, tangled messes, a chaos pulsating with the trauma and agonies that had shaped them.

And so you're trespassing. There's no access there. It's a primordial, primordial jungle teeming with predators, dark fears, creatures glined out of convoluted, perverted fairy tales. It's an enchanted place and you're drawn as a therapist, you're drawn inexorably deeper and deeper into this forest, knowing that it could spell your own doom.

Because I have breaking news for you. Therapists, psychologists, counselors, coaches, they're all human. They're all exactly like you. They all have their own mental health issues. They can all be triggered. They can all disintegrate.

When the therapist comes across this kind of patient, the heart of darkness, the deep space, the void, the howling winds amidst an emptiness, the hollow of mirrors with nothing reflected in them.

When a therapist comes across a patient like this, he's liable to lose his mind. It's frightening. It's a terrifying experience and yet in some inexplicable way, it's compelling. It's addictive.

It's as though the patient's mind or the patient somehow pushes all the buttons, somehow activates all the triggers, somehow merges malevolently but inadvertently with the therapist.

It's like an emanation, an apparition, an entity of sorts.

So therapists are traumatized. There's even a diagnosis for traumatized therapies, vicarious trauma. They burn out like candles. They melt down. They act out. They decompensate. They dysregulate. Therapists react sometimes very badly.

And above all is this knowing, harrowing feeling of impotence, of rage, rage at whatever had gripped the patient.

This rescuer and saviour complex, the need to rescue the patient, to save her, to resurrect her, to revive her, to resuscitate her, it's like mouth to mouth.

You are the defibrillator. Her heart is in your hands. You need to squeeze it, to massage it, make her come alive.

But she's dead inside and has been dead inside a long time.

It is this encounter with death, this terrifying interaction with a zombie that drives some of us sometimes to the brink.

Some of these patients inherited miswired brains or toxic cocktails of neurotransmitters and hormones. Sometimes it's just biology. Sometimes their brains are wrongly put together. The neuroplasticity worked against them. They are hardwired for trauma and despair and dissociation and denial and fear and anxiety and depression.

And sometimes you can see in their eyes a flicker of a human being incarcerated, imprisoned in this cell whose walls are ever closing in.

Anyone to reach out and extract them, extricate them. I lose sleep over such clients. I agonize, I fret, I pit the full might of my formidable intellect only to be defeated time and again.

And it is a humbling, traumatizing experience, especially for a grandiose narcissist, which I am.

I don't know. Maybe I just see myself in them and I lash out at my own reflection.

It's mini-motification every single time.

These clients are so vulnerable, so raw, so abused, exploited and shunned by everyone.

And they succeed to penetrate all my defenses and they dysregulate me badly.

Many of these clients are endowed. Many of them are great looking and sexy and sensitive and even hyper intelligent and all of them are such god-awful waste, such unmitigated, unadulterated desert.

And this cruel discrepancy between what could have been and what is induces burnout in those of us who attempt to salve and heal and soothe and hold.


When I studied medicine in my youth, I had witnessed the most authoritarian, intimidating and resilient doctors, medical doctors, heads of departments, gods in their own mini kingdoms.

I had witnessed them dissolve into tears, having lost a patient that they got attached to despite all the training, despite all the warnings to not get attached to patients.

But they did and they cried like babies.

And sometimes, sometimes having confronted some of these patients in secret, when no one is watching, so do I.

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