Gabriele Marini is psychotherapist/field representative, CVT Uganda.
Frequently people all over the world ask: is counseling worth it? What can you really offer to a person who has practical problems? To help answer this question, let me tell a story:
Christine* is a mature woman: tall, skinny, slow and reflexive. Since the first session, I have admired her charisma and dignity in dealing with life’s overwhelming events. At CVT Uganda, we provide counseling exclusively without any material support; however, for this case I have wondered if due to her pressing needs a counseling service offers enough to respond to her huge practical problems.
Despite this doubt in my mind, I notice a sense of joy and sharing that emerges between us as we start the session. Instinctively I feel the impulse to hug her; however I know that it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate and would be clinically unhelpful. So I simply hold her hand and smile while we are greeting each another.
In the last two months, we couldn’t meet due to her medical condition, and I was worried for her. Nevertheless, today the client looks well dressed, clean, very relaxed and confident, although reasonably enough, not energetic. There is an easy atmosphere of intimacy even if we are only at the fourth session.
The problems she faces are serious: lack of financial resources, insecurity about permanence in the land or displacement from her house, and the toughest problem: suspected cancer in her kidney provoked (according to the doctors) by the prolonged use of the HIV drug known as ART.
Christine recounts the latest challenges and medical updates, with the constant feeling of our relationship, an ongoing awareness of being in the room together. As frequently happens at the beginning of psychotherapy, the problems outside take all the attention; clients tend to look at their problems as if watching from the window of their memories. The connection with the therapist generally starts later when the client has fulfilled the need to share his or her story. Only when the therapist recognizes the client’s implicit experience and unexpressed wishes, can openness appear in the relationship. This is what I call the “changing moment.”
It is an intense emotional connection between client and counselor. The client feels “touched” and aware of herself, of her feelings, as well feeling for the counselor, recognizing the counselor’s presence as another human being. In that moment, the “here and now” is realized – a time of full presence where what happens in the session is more significant than what is outside. This event has an immediate impact on the well-being of both individuals.
Christine looks around surprised; she moves her gaze from the internal images to the person in front of her. The emotional meeting becomes mutual and is immediately heart-nurturing for both human beings present. (This is what some authors call an “Existential Encounter.”)
Christine remarks how the counseling is helping her in dealing with her life. Some tears drop while she says that in some moments when she feels inclined to give up (even to stop her life), she remembers the words we exchanged, the sound of my voice, and she feels better. I’m in connection with her, and I feel my eyes wet; I can even taste the feeling of the calm fluidity of the moment. It is a very nice experience to let ourselves be touched by this very human moment.
While talking about her life, she expresses her position of witnessing herself dealing with her problems, telling herself to take courage. I’m not sure if is something new for her or simply something she learned from our work together. I already noticed this developed capacity of watching oneself from an “outside position” as one of the gifts of psychotherapy.
The session is pleasant, dense with emotions. She talks of herself and how she sees things around her with the confidence of being understood. I observe how the change is investing the relationship. She feels the moment and comments: “I feel so good now, while I’m in counseling! I wish to be able to feel this way always” and asks, “Is it the power of your words that makes me feel so good? Or is strength in me? I wish to stay so free of worries always like this.” I read in her words that she suspects of some magic supernatural power I may own. I answer honestly that I don’t know, but I think that is the natural nurturing experience of human beings when we are able to have an open-hearted relationship with one another.
It was a nurturing session, rich of feelings and emotional connection. Although the client’s problems outside are mountains, she was able to deeply experience what was happening in the room, like in the Zen parable: A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled with the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
We are all at the edge of a precipice, and we all have just this chance now to taste the strawberry. Will Christine resolve her medical and practical problems? I don’t know, I simply cannot predict it; however I am confident that through the counseling sessions, she has discovered inner resources which were hidden before. She feels more secure in herself, more able to cope with a very difficult situation. She has restored a sense of hope that was not present before. Is counseling worth it? I believe so.
*Name and some details have been changed for privacy and security.
CVT Uganda is supported by the Trust Fund for Victims. With the unique roles of implementing both Court-ordered reparations and general rehabilitation assistance to victims of crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction, the Trust Fund for victims offers key advantages for promoting lasting peace, reconciliation and well-being in war-torn societies.