Can You Hear Me Now? Therapy from Abroad
When most people envision going to therapy, the image that comes to mind is one of a tastefully decorated, if plain, room in an office suite, with a bookshelf, a couch, and a white noise machine. Somehow, my therapy journey led me to the corrugated tin room of a Spanish language school in Guatemala, struggling to hang on to a fleeting wifi signal as I talked through my feelings around new social scenarios and the humility of learning a new language in my late twenties.
Let me back up. A few weeks ago, I told my therapist about my upcoming travel plans -- two and a half weeks in a large Guatemalan city taking five hours of one-on-one Spanish classes a day. She asked, “When you're gone, what would we do?”
My therapist tends towards the relational, but this question was purely logistical. We tossed around a few ideas and landed on this: we'd have long distance therapy for the three Wednesdays I was gone. At the time, I wasn't sure what my Spanish school schedule would be like, or how easy it would be to call back to the US. But I told her I'd email her early in the week to figure it out.
Which led me here, to the roof of the language school. I had been studying Spanish by day and eating tortillas and beans with a host family by night, plus I had just wrapped up my first year of graduate school, was set to start a new internship upon my return, and was searching for part-time work. I had lots of feelings and wanted a trained professional to help me navigate them. I wanted the person who had gotten to know me so well over the last nine months and would understand what I was going through without me having to explain all the exposition. The only problem was, that person was three thousand miles away.
The first phone call we had, I filled her in on my trip and updated her on my last few days in New York -- an emotional time that included my last official day at my first year field placement and the completion of my last two final papers. She asked how I felt talking through this relatively new form of communication (we'd talked on the phone once before, during a snowstorm and after I'd chickened out of Skyping) and I told her I didn't feel like we were missing anything, except it was hard to know whether the pauses in our conversation were intentional -- a tool inserted in to hurl us into the present moment and invite us to reflect -- or whether they were an issue with the wifi signal.
The second week, the technology issues created more of a barrier, forcing me to take our conversation downstairs, into a more public part of the school. When two of the other students I'd become friendly with walked by and, not realizing I was on the phone, began telling me about a trip they'd just come back from, my therapist said, “You're making friends.” It was, I realized, the first time she'd ever heard me interact with another person beside her. By the third week,
I was surprised that little felt lost, but I chalked it up to her knowing me and also, less but still significant, to me knowing her. I was able to see the patterns I was enacting the way she would see them, to anticipate the rhetorical questions she'd pose just as she could anticipate the way I might respond. An example: I was feeling conflicted about my own privilege in my trip and my larger quest to learn Spanish. I expected that others would judge me, when in fact, I was only judging myself. As it turns out, this wasn't the first time I'd felt this self-doubt, and not the first time we'd discussed it. With that backdrop, we had done some of the work already.
Though we did not have the ability to read the other’s body language or the certainty that the other person was, in fact, still on the line, we cherished an earned familiarity.
Therapy isn't always about getting information across. It's an exercise in expressing yourself, being able to be heard, and being able to unearth the patterns your mind creates. Together.
So there we were -- her in her office, with a bookshelf, a couch, and a white noise machine, and me on a Guatemalan rooftop -- unearthing my patterns. Together.