Becoming a Listener
|I should have known that I was destined to be a listener when I found myself
on a Greyhound bus at age 19, and heard the harrowing story of a fellow passenger's
escape with her three children from the clutches of an abusive husband. More
recently, a conversation with a stranger on a San Francisco sidewalk yielded
the fellow's employment and marital history, honeymoon itinerary, and proud
parenting tales. This was, at most, a ten-minute conversation. Sometimes I
wonder if I've got a perpetual name tag over my heart that says "Talk
to me" rather than "Hi, My Name is Martha."
I tried to resist the hard-wiring to
be a listener. I taught aerobics. I was an office manager.
I relished the linear, there's-a-right-answer of bookkeeping.
As a health and fitness program director for the YMCA,
I kept finding myself counseling members and volunteers
on topics ranging from weight-loss to smoking cessation
to substance abuse to reducing risk factors for heart
disease. Eventually, I realized I was acting like a therapist
but lacking the professional training so I went back
Soon I found myself listening to stories
of family dysfunction, addiction, abuse, grief, heartbreak,
and despair. Sadly, my own life paralleled my clients'.
My family's medical challenges had not disappeared after
those high school years. At the age of 33, my brother
was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and given six months
to live. A heart transplant saved his life but the drugs
needed to prevent his body from rejecting a foreign organ
destroyed Nick's kidneys. More than 10 years after his
first transplant and a couple of other surgeries, renal
failure threatened Nick's life again. My sister successfully
donated her kidney and Nick enjoyed about six weeks of
exhilarating good health … only to be felled by
a devastating disease, cytomegalovirus, which ultimately
killed him one month shy of his 45th birthday.
By this time a full-fledged psychotherapist,
I met the challenge of continuing to listen to others
while suffering a complicated grief inside. Writing,
journaling, e-mailing, gardening and collaging became
my saviors. (See Feel Better...) The loss of Nick -- at times
a teasing or clowning brother, a second father, a counselor,
an embittered divorcé, and a wise teacher -- necessitated
a profound search for grace, wisdom and resolution.
No graduate program
in counseling adequately teaches the necessity
of self-care; I had to figure that out for myself.
To re-charge my batteries, I listen to myself,
I treat my schedule like a sacred goddess who must
be respected, and I seek solace and serenity by
spending time in solitude or with my husband, pets,
loved ones, the ocean, books, my garden, movies,
and sports (especially baseball).