Corrective Experiences… For the Group Therapist?
Katie White PsyD.
When I was elected Early Career Professional, I did not know that I would be responsible for a column. Truthfully, I asked very few questions before I agreed to put forth my name to replace the outgoing Early Career Professional and, coincidentally, my direct supervisor, Dr. Misha Bogomaz. As I sat trying to figure out how I might introduce myself to the Division 49 community, my mind continuously returned to the most meaningful group I could have ever facilitated, one for college students with chronic pain and illness. I am deeply familiar with that experience, as I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome at the age of 9. There has been no realm of my life that my illness has not touched in the 23 years since my diagnosis. Even in its absence, it has always been there.
On the very first day of my undergraduate studies, I had a spinal cord stimulator implanted, and I suddenly went into remission. I enjoyed the freedom of remission for a couple years, but in the back of my mind I always worried that it was too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was, and the pain returned with a vengeance during my junior year. I felt hopeless and imprisoned within a body that had – once again – betrayed me. The college students I was surrounded by lived life fast, with the short-sighted, spontaneity that only youth can have. My illness never allowed me to live with such reckless abandon, but I so deeply wanted their freedom for my own. While my suffering felt pointless at the time, it paved the way for the acceptance that I will continue to nurture for the rest of my life. It is still painful, however, to think back to how broken I felt at that time, though.
Fast forward a few years, and I asked Misha if I could create a group for students experiencing chronic pain and illness. I saw a younger version of myself in them, with their experiences being so akin to my own: They knew no one their age that looked or lived like them, and no matter where they went or who they were with, they felt profoundly alone. They endured loss, sorrow, fear, all within a body that felt more opponent than teammate. They so deeply wanted respite, which they realized may never come. Their tales of resilience reminded me of my own ability to persevere and overcome with a newfound appreciation.
For 90 minutes every week, they received each other with unbridled compassion, despite the heaviness of their own experiences. In a world that questioned the validity of their illness, they believed in one another without hesitation. They appreciated that their illnesses were separate from their personhoods, and they never, for one second, allowed one another to conflate the shortcomings of their bodies with the quality of their character. Within the space we had created, they were not alone in their suffering – in fact, it was quite the opposite: it was their suffering that brought them to see and care for one another so unconditionally. Through fostering this community, I began to let go of all the times when I had not been received by others with such love, and I developed a newfound commitment to treat myself in the way that they treated one another.
I often say that illness has been my greatest teacher. In this case, my illness brought me to this group, who reminded me of some very valuable lessons that I return to again and again when my life becomes difficult. They reminded me that love and compassion are always available to us, should we seek them out. That light can always be found within the dark. That suffering is inevitable, and if we do it right, so is growth. And that if we find good people and we choose to let them see us, we will never truly be alone.