During my career as a psychiatrist, I have been given a very privileged view into the lives of thousands of people. One day, I actually took the time to estimate just how many contacts I had witnessed over my tenure as a psychiatrist. I began my residency in 1985, and continued the general practice of clinical psychiatry until June 2005. During that time, I treated people from all walks of life. I worked with governors, astronauts, professional athletes, ambassadors, serial killers, boxers, corporate CEOs, career criminals, children, adolescents, housewives, physicians, millionaires, and countless other people within the human tapestry.
I spent years counseling tens of thousands of individuals in nursing homes, hospitals, emergency rooms, homeless shelters, my private office, jails, schools, churches, community centers, adolescent care facilities, and hospice centers. I estimate that I have participated in over 96,000 individual contact sessions with my clients over the past 20 years. This amounts to an average of 20 sessions per day, 5 days per week, and 48 weeks per year over 20 years. This rough estimate does not include on-call nights, weekends, and emergency consultations.
There are many physicians in my field and other walks of medicine who have spent far more time with clients than I have. I personally know that a number of my colleagues treat many times that number of individuals per day. My point here is not to point out how hard medical professionals work. That is part of the arrangement that we accept when we take the oaths and training of a medical professional. I have noted, however, that the tremendous amount of time that we spend delving into the intimate lives of people gives us the opportunity to develop thought-provoking insights into humanity. I will outline these points for you before we proceed.
One: My clients were teaching me more about life than my medical training ever did.
Two: As I watched the sea of humanity parade before me on a daily basis, I often noted how our lives played out like gigantic scenes upon the stage of the world.
Three: Sometimes, when I listened very carefully, a player upon the stage would speak directly to me, and share profound life-changing insight derived from the heart of suffering and desire.
These profound and insightful statements were often repeated at the most unexpected times by the most unlikely clients. I recall one session where one such insight came from a five year old. I was asked to evaluate a young girl who was suspected of being psychotic. Her family reported that she talked to herself, was isolative, and did not sleep well at night because she was afraid of the ghosts that came into her room. After the family had exhausted a number of avenues, including church counselors, psychologists, and family counselors, they brought her in to me for medical evaluation.
The child, Melissa (not her real name), was a beautiful young lady with long, curly golden locks, ruddy cheeks, and large, penetrating blue eyes. She stormed into my office under obvious protest, and sat sulking in the corner chair as her parents presented her medical history. I noticed that the child would occasionally throw furtive glances at me and just as quickly look away. After her parents had finished giving me her history, I asked them if I could spend a few minutes talking with her alone.
I offered Melissa some of the dolls and stuffed animals from a box that I kept in the corner. She took an almost immediate liking to an old, tattered stuffed bear that lay beside the box. As she stroked the bear’s head, she looked up at me and smiled. Then she uttered a statement that floored me.
“Your grandmother says she enjoyed talking with you last night.”
I had dreamt about my grandmother the night before. In the dream, my grandmother had cooked a wonderful meal for me, and we’d talked about my work and the family. I remembered the dream because my grandmother had died ten years earlier, before I had graduated from medical school.
“Melissa, how do you know that my grandmother talked with me last night?”
“She told me,” Melissa replied plainly.
“How do you know that it was my grandmother, Melissa?”
“Dr. Gibson, we can do this like all my other counselors, or you can empty your cup a little and really listen to me.”
Her words hit me like a blinding flash of light in a dark cave. This child was experiencing perceptions that she could not share with others. If I continued along a cold, clinical psychiatric line of questioning, I would most likely hospitalize her, place her on anti-psychotic medication, and turn off the unique light that burned within her consciousness. If I listened to her, emptying my cup so to speak, I learned that I would have to accept my role in the creation of something wonderful.
We talked for 30 minutes. She explained her visions and communications with the “people in the dream,” as she called them. As we talked, I realized that she was not psychotic. Melissa was a budding clairvoyant. I never gave her medication, and through our work together, she learned to control her gift and grew into a happy, healthy young lady.
Her insight into her own dilemma was profound. There have been many “aha” moments in my clinical career that mirror the empty-your-cup perspective provided to me by Melissa. Sometimes, listening is the most important thing you can do in life.
Melissa is an adult now, married, with a husband and two happy children. She has a good job, friends, and a full life. She uses her gift with wisdom and courage and from time to time, she lets others know just how much she can see. To my knowledge, the question of psychosis never came up in her life again.