Grace in Difficult Times
It’s really been a powerful year that’s changed me as a therapist...
I’m Dr. Thea Gallagher. I am the Clinical Director of COBALT, and the Director of the Outpatient Clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety here at the University Pennsylvania.
As an anxiety therapist, this past year plus has caused people who have anxiety to have more anxiety, and people who maybe never have experienced anxiety to experience anxiety. The definition of anxiety is really the intolerance of uncertainty, the fear of the unknown. I don’t think any other two phrases better capture what we’ve been experiencing.
During the pandemic, I had more contact with my patients than my friends and family in a lot of ways. It was almost like we were walking along the journey together. I think there's been this clinician-patient relationship that's been almost hierarchical. For me, during the pandemic, it was something that we could share in our humanity.
There were days, where patients would say “How's it going? How are you?” And some days I'd say “Oh, this is a tough week.” But I could relate to how they were feeling in maybe a different way, because I was living some of the same elements of the same journey. And so I think it’s really been a powerful year that’s changed me as a therapist.
My younger sister was diagnosed with cancer when she was 11 and I was 14. I think that just has a big impact on your view of the world, on your view of mortality, and the fleeting nature of life.
I had the opportunity to be her bone marrow donor, for her transplant. It was a really powerful, probably one of the most powerful, moments of my life to get to do that, because so many years of seeing her sick and kind of feeling helpless, other than being able to be her sister. It actually felt like I could do something.
My sister really only had about a year left to live and she really lived that life that year to the fullest, which was pretty amazing to watch. She was basically in hospice care for the last month in our home, and we had the opportunity to walk with her as she died. And I remember feeling very overwhelmed by that journey and not knowing what that was going to look like.
We had a psychologist from CHOP who was there. She said, “You can ask me anything.” I was like “How do you walk someone kind of to death?” She was like “You just hold them, and tell them you're with them, and it's going to be okay." Even just hearing about that I would feel very overwhelmed or scared, but it actually was kind of a beautiful peaceful journey. It was kind of amazing to walk with someone through that, and to almost have the opportunity to say “It’s okay, you can let go now, like you fought a really good fight.”
What stuck out to me was remembering that psychologist who so much helped us walk through the scariest moments of our lives. I remember thinking, "I want to do that for people, like I want to be the person that can help people walk through these dark moments and support them." Then I embarked on a journey of becoming a professional counselor and a licensed clinical psychologist.
One thing that has some real roots to my career trajectory was training to be a professional ballerina. Some of the main tenets of ballet is to have poise, balance, and discipline.
When I think of balance, I think that its you find it, and then you have to keep adjusting to maintain it. With regard to poise, it's showing that you can handle something, even if you feel like you can't. With discipline, it’s realizing when you’re tired and exhausted and in pain, getting out there and showing up with what you have.
There’s a lot of radical acceptance that many of us have had to do over this last year when we couldn't change a certain situation and we didn't know what was happening next. Where we really had to radically accept the present.
Watching my sister fight a seven year battle with cancer, it was really powerful to watch her walk through such intense suffering at such a young age. And speaking of poise and grace and presence, she stayed very present in her life, and that was something that I always found very inspiring.
That’s a great way to look at our lives, too. Like how do we have grace in difficult times? And how do we do the best with what we have, and continue to show up? At the end of the journey, I really love what I do. To be that person who walks with people through some of the toughest moments of their lives.
The Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. While the stories featured here aspire to uplift and empower, they may also describe experiences of trauma and suffering. We recognize that listening can be a vulnerable experience and offer resources at Penn Medicine and beyond through our website for those in need of support.
Tags: Compassionate Relationships