In the beginning of 2011 I was in a rough place. My psychiatrist and I agreed to change up my medication and it wasn’t going so well. The depression in my life left me so low I had to enter a psychiatric hospital. It was a surreal and unsettling experience. Eventually I went back to the medications I had been on and my emotions leveled off.
Four months later I once again found myself in the hospital following an attempt to end my life. This experience in the hospital was better and more helpful, but still unsettling. (I’ve written about these particular experiences here and here if you want to read more about them.)
During these experiences I had the same therapist, Val. I began seeing her two years prior, in 2009, when I was in grad school. She was working on a PhD in psychology at the same school and was one of the student therapists in training. After she graduated in 2010 she did some training (or licensing hours—I wasn't sure) at a hospital near my apartment, so I continued to see her.
Val always kept her cards close to her chest. I didn’t know much about her. There weren’t any photos or artwork in her office. There were some flowers and a laptop but no decorations that might give me insight into her mind and personality. She told me she liked the singer Gillian Welch. She had a sweater vest I thought was cute.
Some therapists share bits about their lives—they’ll mention a spouse or kids. They’ll tell me where they grew up or if they’re familiar with a concept, place, or individual I’m talking about. I never got anything from Val. She was an enigma.
But Val felt very deeply. From the looks on her face and the questions she asked I could tell she cared. Her actions showed that, too. Both times I was in the hospital Val kept in touch with me on the phone. While she didn’t come visit me (which was fine) she checked in to see how I was doing. That meant a lot at a time I didn’t feel as though I had many lifelines.
After the first time I got out of the hospital I still wasn’t feeling 100%. In fact, I felt pretty horrible.
The Friday morning before I headed back to work after getting out of the hospital, I went to see Val. My desire to kill myself was still intact. In Val’s bare bones office located in a decrepit brick building next to a decrepit hospital I lost whatever I had left. I hadn’t cried in the hospital but at that moment I let out everything that had been building over the past week (if not longer).
I had seen therapists for close to a decade at that point and had never needed a Kleenex to mop up tears, until then. Therapy had always been so casual and detached for me. But at that moment I broke. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Val sat there calmly, but with empathy lined on her face. “It hurts me to see you in so much pain, Kurt,” she said. She did her best to re-assure me and let me know she was there for me. I blew my nose and kept crying.
Things got better for me thanks to Val's willingness to listen and provide advice, some of it almost benign, but still helpful. She once told me before I went into the hospital the first time to smile, whether I wanted to or not. She said studies had shown it could help improve one's mood. It was one of those “fake it ‘til you make it” things that I hated. I came to find out Val was right, though. It was some off-the-cuff piece of advice that I have no doubt she forgot soon after she gave it. But sometimes when I find myself down, I’ll force a smile, think about good things, and it helps turn around my mood.
Unfortunately, after the second time I was in the hospital in 2011 Val and I parted ways. Her internship at the hospital near my apartment finished and she had to go do hours at a hospital where she wouldn’t be able to see me. My next therapist was horrible and I dropped her within months. I’m not going to say Val was the best therapist I ever had—I don’t believe in ranking them. But she was there for me and was empathetic at a time I needed it most. It was certainly one of the lowest points in my life. I’m sure I was a source of worry for Val during that time. Yet I so appreciate her sticking by me and doing the things she needed to so that my mind could be at ease and comforted.
Recently I thought of Val. I wondered if she was still practicing in the area. I knew she had a partner but still didn’t know if she was living around Boston. I thought it might be nice to drop a line and ask if she remembered me and to let her know I was doing so much better than I was back when we had therapy.
I did a Google search for her name and while I pulled up some info about her practice, the top results were obituaries for her. I said, “Oh no!” out loud to my empty apartment and my heart dropped. Val had cancer that took her life in May 2019. She had a spouse and kids and a dog. She was only 43.
I learned more about Val through her obituary than I did from talking with her. It sounded as though she had a wonderful life and it makes me sad because she was such a good therapist: kind and caring. After almost two decades of therapists, I've learned that’s not always easy to come by.
It’s been a few days since I learned about her passing and I’m still sad about it. I hadn’t seen her in years but she held a special place in my heart because she saw me through a dark time and did so with love and gentle humanity. And I’ll be forever thankful for that. The world is a less bright place without someone like Val helping others.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.