August 21st, 2010

Bridges

When our hospital closed in April, we lost our internship and, with it, a long list of practices, rituals and ceremonies that had come to mark the seasons of a year dedicated to learning the skills of our craft as clinical psychologists. Every year as the New England winter gave way to spring, we talked about “termination” – that most peculiar of all words meant to give scientific respectability or at least provide safe emotional distance from the simply human act of saying goodbye.

That discussion prepared our interns to leave their patients, stopping or interrupting their treatment, while processing the emotions on both sides of the room and highlighting the gains made and the challenges still to come. A few months later, on the threshold of summer, it was our turn to say goodbye, to throw ourselves heart and soul into what our seminar scheduled called “the Termination Experience.”

The process is simple. With enough blank paper, crayons to share, a lined tablet and pens for everyone, we each draw a picture of something about the year that we expect or want to stand out in our memories. As we are accustomed to telling our patients, this is not a drawing test, a fact for which most of us are grateful. Nevertheless, we try to focus on the particulars of our experience, capturing the uniqueness of a person’s facial expression or habitual style of dress or the oddity of an old hospital building with a spindly miniature pine tree growing out of its chimney.

It’s not the time for diagrams or visual aids. No matter how much or little experience we have had in psychology, we know that the essence of anything lives in its details and that nobody makes memories from pie charts. After drawing, we take 15 or 20 minutes to write about our drawings and then share our words and pictures with one another. Over the years we have been doing this exercise, we have shared stories about one another, our patients, buildings, keys, rooms, group therapy sessions, meetings and the landscape of fields and trees beside the large pond where the past year unfolded.

This year we swapped tales of loss, change and transition. What else would we draw and write about as we watched the home of our internship close with three months left in the training year? Relocated to another state hospital 10 miles west of our starting point, we were fortunate to be taken in by a group of psychologists who gave generously of their space, time, knowledge and understanding so that we might finish what we started. It is an interesting fact of geography that our two hospitals are separated by one straight road that gains sharply in elevation before leveling out on the approach to a lake big enough to define the character of the region.

Lakeside restaurants, marinas, shopping malls, and Lake Street itself leave no doubt that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

I drew the lake then the old hospital, the new hospital and the connecting highway from our origin to the eastern shore, finishing with the stretch from our destination to the western shore. Curiously, I had omitted the bridge and the road crossing it from one side of the lake to the other. Perfectly at home in a place I had worked for nearly two decades and quickly settling into a new organization, I left out the hardest part of the process, the day-to-day experience containing all of the uncertainty, fear and discomfort of severing more connections to familiar routines than I knew that I had. A colleague who had come with us to the new hospital shared a similar experience as she explained that the hardest part of the change was the commute, a mere 15 minutes longer in her case, but nevertheless plagued by the bumpy ride over the uneven pavement of the bridge.

Not long into my new assignment, I learned why it is a mistake to leave out the bridge no matter how hard it is to cross. Although we have of necessity dissolved our internship, we have started an advanced practicum similar to programs with which I was involved during an earlier period of my career. The process of recruiting students for the new program has given me the opportunity to visit graduate schools and spend time with other psychologists involved in the training enterprise. To my great surprise and delight, a few of them are former students who have mentored some of our new recruits. My own mentors tell me I have entered the grandfather phase of my career as a teacher and so far, it promises to be deeply satisfying. Reminiscing about the early days, seeing the professional growth of former students, hearing about and from others who pass on their greetings – this explains why we need bridges.

The Romans burned their bridges behind their advancing armies to discourage deserters. Once you crossed the bridge and threw yourself into the fray, there was no going back. There never is. Now our bridges are conduits of memory and communication. We keep them in good repair, not to plan our retreat, but to affirm our essential connection to the experiences and the people who made us who we are.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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