Walking A Mile In A Client's Shoes

Jul 15, 2019

There's a woman I've worked with who never stops moving. She might visit the program office in the morning for a few minutes. Then she’s out the door, two or three shopping bags full of belongings on her arm.

Another client was so convinced that she was being listened to that she smashed a wall open and began pulling out wires.

Others would prefer to stagger through life drunk than challenge their demons.

Not long after I started working at the program, we got a call from someone who works at a local coffee shop.

One of our participants was there — and was terribly agitated. The caller was concerned about the other customers, who were clearly growing uncomfortable. But I could tell she was also calling out of concern for this man.

We never violate someone’s privacy by revealing who we work with. But Northampton, Massachusetts, is a small town; people know to call us.

Downtown Northampton, Massachusetts.
Credit boxer_bob / Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/boxerbob2000

At the coffee shop that day, a counselor found the client inside. He was talking harshly to himself, swearing intermittently. The two men walked outside, sat at a table and talked. After a while his movements became gentler, his sentences less angry sounding.

Eventually, he’d settled down enough to move on. The power of attunement is invaluable.

I’ve had my own struggles with mental health lately. I’ve seen the inside of a hospital for people with mental illness. I’ve spent long nights and days in emergency rooms where my belt and keys and right to leave were taken away. I’ve watched reality slip from my grasp more than once.

I’ve been lucky. I have resources. I have friends who will vouch for my general “stability.” I have access to regular and supportive psychiatry.

The other day, I saw that client on the street again. He seemed calm, for him.

I heard him shout out, saw the jagged motions of his body as he moved down the sidewalk. For him, this was a good day, and I was glad for it.

But my overriding thought was: that so easily could be me.

Tom Nields-Duffy is a writer and psychotherapist in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he used to direct a mental health program.