I can tell you a lot about physical illness. I can tell you about how particular cancers metastasize; I can tell you how the body begins to fail at the end of life. In nursing homes and as a medical case manager and in hospice, I became well versed in the way that physical health impacts mental health. I consider myself an expert in that field. Switching to a therapist role has been challenging of course, but I went to grad school; I was sure I would be able to transfer the majority of my skills into this new role.
And I have! Mostly. But last week I was caught off guard during a session with a patient and I can’t stop thinking about it. In the course of what was already a fairly intense conversation, one of my patients disclosed a history of childhood sexual abuse. The breath nearly went out of me. Anxiety rose in my chest. My first thought was: I don’t know how to handle this.
Not exactly helpful for my patient.
My second thought was how I could help her. Perhaps the best thing for her is to see another therapist. One of the ethical obligations we have as social workers is to practice within our scope of knowledge and experience. If this were a question on the LCSW exam, the answer would be to refer out. In fact, I’m quite sure this was a question on my LCSW exam. I’m not a trauma expert; I’m just not equipped to treat her. I’m going to have to refer her to someone else.
But I hesitate to do so at our very next meeting. This patient has been in therapy off and on for many years and I’m the first therapist she’s told. She’s entrusted me with a major confession and I’m not sure it’s appropriate to immediately terminate with her and send her to someone else. This needs to be handled with care.
So, what are my next steps? First of all, I can honor what she told me. I can thank her for being vulnerable and open and for trusting me to hold her grief and pain and not run from it. I can acknowledge how incredibly difficult it must have been to say the words out loud. (I did that in the moment but I believe it bears repeating). Secondly, despite everything I've been saying about referring her to someone else, I can continue to treat her for a few sessions. She was referred to me for help developing strategies to deal with stress and pain; I can still help her with that. Lastly, I can start to lay the groundwork for referral. I can’t one day say, “Ok, it’s been great, I’m going to send you to someone else now.” Instead, we have to have an ongoing conversation about my role and her needs and where the two may not intersect.
I’m also taking this to supervision. Like, it may be the only thing I talk about for the entire hour.
This is a theme I keep returning to: we cannot work alone. We have to have not just the support of a more seasoned clinician, but also the objectivity of one. All the self-introspection in the world cannot replace the objectivity of someone else. Additionally, I think it’s also necessary to have a confidante in a supervisor. Despite knowing that the best thing is to refer this patient to someone who is qualified to help her, a part of me feels guilty that I can't provide the help she needs. I trust my supervisor to validate that feeling and help me examine it critically. I also trust him to help me find the right words to say to her the next time I see her.
My biggest hope is that I do this right. With supervision support, I think I can.