“You understand why they sent you here, right?” asked the counselor. I was sitting in a dim and depressing feeling office at the VA medical center. If I wasn’t depressed when I came in the door to psychological services the decor alone would put me in a funk.
“Because I was given a bad prognosis?” I guessed.
“That’s right. Tell me, how do you feel about what the doctor told you?” she asked me.
Holy crap. “Are you kidding me? A doctor tells you that you’re not going to survive the year you’re not going to be doing handsprings. How do you think I feel?”
“I can sense some hostility. What part of this makes you angry?”
“Being asked ridiculous questions. I’m unhappy about being sick, I’m unhappy about being told it’s going to kill me. But you’re pissing me off because you’re following some kind of script or something that obviously no one with a brain has played devil’s advocate with. Let me ask you something. What’s the point of asking me how I feel? Isn’t it pretty obvious? How would you feel in my place?”
“I imagine I would feel unhappy. I’[d feel sadness and depression, …”
“Oh, jeez. Listen to yourself. Stop trying to be a psychologist for a minute and think about it. How would you feel?” I snapped at her.
“Scared, I think. Angry and frustrated. I wouldn’t be happy about it.”
“There you go. So knowing that, why on earth would you ask me a question like how I feel about croaking?”
“We try to build a rapport. You know, break the ice and start the path to a relationship.”
“I’ve just shown you that you asked a moronic question. How do you expect to build a rapport,” I made quote marks in the air, “with someone who thinks you’re an idiot?”
“There’s no need to be hostile about it.”
“I’m not being hostile, I’m asking you a question. I’m trying to work you through my point.” I said. ”I mean, really. Don’t you agree that asking me how I feel about being given a fatal prognosis is a pretty dumb question? Don’t you think it’s the kind of question that would be annoying?”
“Well, yes. I guess I can see your point. But I have to start somewhere.” she said.
“Well, how about asking me if I want to talk about the prognosis. If I do want to talk about it, chances are pretty good that I’m going to get into how I feel about it, or give you openings to inquire. Don’t take this the wrong way, but how long have you been doing this? What’s your training level?”
“I took a course in grief counselling if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, psychology was one of my minors in college and I’ve worked as a Guardian ad Litem for the Superior Court for a few years. I’ve had a lot of contact with Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and therapists and, honestly speaking, I can’t imagine any of them approaching a grieving client the way you did. So, could you tell me a little about this course you took and how long you’ve been a practicing grief counselor?”
“It was a two week seminar. Three hours each weekday night. And, truth be told, you’re my first …I mean, I’ve spoken with people who’ve recently lost someone but you’re the first person I’ve been assigned to who’s going to -uh, pass away.” She mumbled the last part.
The VA has had a difficult time keeping up with the demands for psychological services. Delayed stress, severe depression, suicidal orientation are at an all time high. Obviously the VA was trying to use lesser trained people to do psychological triage. No doubt my counselor was attempting to prioritize my needs “Let me see if I can help YOU.” I said. “I’m not feeling suicidal. I am very unhappy about my situation but I haven’t really assessed how I feel about it yet. I was only given the prognosis a couple of weeks ago. I’m not here at my own instance, my primary provider referred me, I think, as a matter of course for situations like this.”
She looked relieved. “I am supposed to ask if you have thoughts of harming yourself or others.”
“That seems to be the most commonly asked question at the beginning of any appointments, no matter the situation.” I laughed. “They even asked me at an eye exam at the vision center two months ago.”
She smiled. “The VA is pretty concerned about suicides and also assaults against employees. There’s been way too much of both.”
I nodded somberly. “That’s why they shouldn’t take such a bureaucratic position on psych triage. No offense, but we need really qualified people who can begin the healing process as quickly as possible. ”
She did take it well. A lotta poise in her. “I take your point and it’s a good one. Is there anything I can do to help you? Referral to the chaplain? Maybe something to help reduce your stress?”
“Naw, I got this.” said.
By the way,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I can’t imagine how you feel but I know it must be difficult for you.”
“It points out a lot of things I need to take care of while I have time. Wills, insurance. Survivor benefits and ll.”
“Well, if we can help, we’re here.” she said. She hugged me. “Thanks for your service –and your gift.”
I was feeling better as I left. I hadn’t expected that. But finding people that care about you, even as a stranger is uplifting.