A fishy moment in therapy

A client arrived for our session with a lovely angel-fish in a baggy. No longer allowed to have a fish-tank at home s/he wondered if the fish could live in my tank, rather than facing execution-by-toilet.

A boat-load of traditionally trained psychotherapists instantly filled my thoughts with a cacophony of reasons why this would be ‘bad-therapeutic-form’ – it was a sign of transference, I was being cast in the role of ‘mother’ to the fish, and albeit to the client, the client was seeking special status in my office and caseload, and what if the fish brought a bacteria and killed everyone in the whole tank? What if the fish died?!?!

Breathing deeply, I called on my two psychotherapy spirit guides. They’re not dead, so I don’t really call on their spirits, but I call on the spirit in which they have conducted psychotherapy throughout their illustrious careers. One is a dear mentor and professor, Dr. Sid Berkowitz, and the other is the existential psychologist Irvin Yalom. Both believe that the relationship between client and therapist is the most powerful tool of healing available in psychotherapy.

“What would Sid do”? I asked myself, contemplating the fish in the baggy. I had no doubt that he would accept the fish with open arms (or open tank in this case).

“What would Yalom do?” This one was simple. He would accept the fish, and then engage in a discussion of what sharing the care of the fish said about the relationship between the two of them.

When my inner-Sid and my inner-Yalom agree, I take heed, so I accepted the fish, and we talked about what it meant for our relationship.

Fast forward to a voice mail from my office, on my day off, telling me the angel fish had died, and had been disposed of, (reverently, of course). When the client arrived, s/he noticed right away, and we talked briefly about it at the beginning of the session.

At the end of the session, I checked in again, saying:

“I try never to say ‘how did that make you feel’ because it’s so darn corny, but I’m going to now – how does it make you feel that the fish you entrusted me with died under my care?” The client insisted that s/he was not troubled by it. I persisted. “You said it was quite old, and had lived a long time in your tank. Then, you bring it to my tank, and it dies.”

The client replied, “Yeah, but it lived under great stress in my tank, it was pretty toxic in there. It probably didn’t know how to survive in a healthy environme…. Oh… I just described myself…”

I got goosebumps, which is always an indication of “a good moment in therapy”.

The hour was over and the client went home pondering an insight that I had been trying to facilitate for a long long time.

This is the magic of psychotherapy that keeps me coming back. It can’t be created, it can only be recognized when it arrives in the hallowed-here-and-now.

Sometimes, it’s disguised as a dead fish.

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