I sensed we were both nervous the first day we met in June of 1995, my new therapist and I, and that homely human detail was endearing and oddly comforting. I was early and she was late, which would become a consistent inconsistency. She’d quite commonly run overtime on her previous appointment or even be altogether late when I was the first person on the schedule. I smile about it now, but I did not find it amusing at the time. Back then I was rigidly, obsessively 15 minutes early and she was unpredictably tardy, and this was like a glacier wearing down a mountain, for although my anxiety about abandonment was regularly triggered, she always showed up eventually, and that—beyond my conscious understanding—was teaching me to soften and trust.
We were both a little socially awkward in the beginning, Gail Lerner-Connaghan and I, and that was also endearing, but mildly disconcerting. We were each slightly gawky and bumbling, hesitant and off-footed in our conversational timing. Or maybe she was just an excellent mirror for my own perceived inadequacies and my overamped nervous system. Whatever the case, she was imperfectly perfect for me, enough to keep me coming back. Thank heaven.
And speaking of late, I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service on short notice last week. I’d only heard news of her death the night before and had several commitments for compassionate listening sessions at my peer support practice the next day, a priority I know she’d understand. I remember saying to her when I was nearing 40, “I guess I am a late bloomer” and she said, “That’s better than not blooming at all.” I did not truly bloom until almost 60, and that’s what I was doing during her funeral, blooming on my own belated schedule. Her death was unexpected—not on anyone’s schedule—her heart suddenly done with life. So much for schedules. Let us bloom while we may. And let us honor our love and grief with stories. This is mine.
Gail and I met at first in a bright room in an old bungalow in Kansas City’s Brookside district, and to this day my sense memory of that office iconically represents what a healing space should aim to be—cozy, embracing, lively, colorful, comforting, safe—and my arrangement of my peer support practice space at Insight, I just realized, is informed by that memorable first experience of entering into a healing relationship.
I was discomfited when Gail announced within the first year of our time together that she’d be moving to a different office, for although the new location was much more convenient to my home, the upheaval tapped into my core wound and initially produced a wall of inner resistance splashed with bright anxiety. I still felt fragile and uncertain, thinking the place itself had much to do with my sense of safety in doing the deep work required to uncover my wholeness, but again, as with her lateness, Gail’s tendency to move around and regularly rearrange her office spaces became part of my healing. I learned I could feel safe apart from outer circumstances. This I now identify as a core aspect of cultivating resilience.
She explained she was a nurse specializing in mental health and had worked for a time in various psychiatric facilities. Gail’s mix of credentials was immensely reassuring, for it seemed to promise practical, pragmatic support for me as a whole person, and indeed, she was attentive to me in a holistic way, with gentle awareness of how disintegrated I was in body, mind and spirit. Despite her background in more or less traditional psychiatric settings, however, she did not bring the trappings of “the system” into her practice. She didn’t use clinical language or labels. She never suggested medication. Her manner and language did not give me the impression she perceived me as ill or doomed to a diagnosis. If anything, she rather quickly gave me the feeling my maladaptive responses to my life circumstances were understandable and my current trajectory hopeful.
After enduring many years of wariness and judgment around my sexuality, I found Gail’s nonchalant acceptance completely disarming, and her authority as a medical professional gave instant credence to her blithe pronouncement that she thought all human beings are basically bisexual and we each have unique conditioning and preferences. That was it. We were done with that topic being even the least bit controversial. There was never so much as an iota of judgment or pathologizing, only deep compassion for how my sexuality was misunderstood and condemned elsewhere—but never in her presence.
Of all her traits, Gail’s ability to climb up to meet me in the intensely analytical and intellectual fortress in which I had taken refuge from my disowned feelings was absolutely essential. If she had not met my complex obsessions and perseverations with keen interest and bright curiosity—obviously seeming to follow my mental meanderings and even relish and be amused by them—I have no doubt I would never have stayed the course. I had often felt misunderstood, shamed, and dismissed for the way I saw the world and processed my experiences, and if she had given me the slightest hint of those old reaction patterns, I would have defaulted to my familiar flight mode. I understand now, almost twenty-five years later, that what she offered was the subtle but essential gift of authentic presence and attunement. Like a warm person in a safe car picking up a scared and shivering hitchhiker, she offered my nervous system a gentler ride than its usual herky-jerky dysregulation, and every week (and sometimes, in crisis, twice a week) for the next five years, I got to practice and relearn the lost magical arts of co-regulation and safe engagement.
So hungry was I for what Gail offered—compassionate listening—I came to each session with a written agenda of what I wanted to address. I did not have insurance that covered psychotherapy, so I was paying out of pocket and wanted to make sure to get my money’s worth. That makes me smile too. Bless my heart. I had such a backlog of untold stories and unfelt feelings, I was like an emotional impoundment reservoir in flood stage needing to be emptied one bucket at a time. It was damn hard labor for me, that much I know, and Gail was willing to meet each bucket with full attention, which is what I craved as urgently as food or water.
Incidentally, I went into debt for the sake of my emotional liberation, and it remains miraculous to consider I willingly made such an investment in myself in advance of actually feeling worthy. If I think of all the other ways I’ve allocated $22,000+ in my lifetime, there is now not a single doubt my years with Gail were by far the most beneficial investment of capital. It seems important to divulge that, because my self-esteem was so low and my insecurity so high at the time, paying for someone to listen to me afforded an essential measure of autonomy and dignity. I didn’t at first feel worthy of that kind of listening except by paying for it, but ultimately that quality of listening helped me heal enough to believe I and my stories and feelings mattered.
The closest I could ever come to pinning down any type of guiding framework she might be using in her practice turned out to be the first model I ever studied as a teenager trying to understand my family’s dynamics—transactional analysis—and that was a reassuring piece of common ground, but this was only ever a capacious container leaving lots of room for me to wander. In fact, I do not recall Gail ever being particularly directive, in large part, I suppose, because I was so driven in my own right. It did not take long for me to begin designing my own therapy homework, and she was gracious and secure enough to give me free rein up to a point, and even laud me for my initiative. At the same time, however, I imagine she was skillful enough to see how my shame-based perfectionism was flogging me onward, and she gently intervened at key junctures to assure that my recovery would not be simply a bright facade constructed overtop an unsafe structure.
In particular, I recall her persistence in repeatedly inviting me back to areas I’d try to bridge over or detour around. Healthy personal boundaries. Unacknowledged anger. Complicated grief. Rampant shame. Self-neglect. I don’t know how many times she must have asked me if I’d care to take part in an evening class she taught on codependency. Zillions of times. It wasn’t the topic so much as the idea of being part of a group that deterred me. A combination of introversion and chronic shame kept me wary and hesitant for over a year. I finally sighed and said a reluctant “yes.” And that changed so much in my self-image and world view, as I’m sure she knew it would.
Gail seemed the soul of patience on this and other topics. As often as necessary she assured me I was lovable, that I wouldn’t fall apart if I let myself feel my painful backlog of repressed emotions, that my injuries were legitimate and deep, that what had happened to me was a tragedy. She wept quietly at times as I told certain parts of my story. In fact, she cried over my losses before I could. She showed me what it was like to be freely connected to feelings. I watched with wariness and concern, fearing we would both get in some kind of trouble for making too much of my plight. And perhaps sensing that, she recommended Alice Miller’s classic book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” and there I read the news that true healing comes only when we are able to have compassion for our own dilemma. Gail showed me what empathy might look like long before I was capable on my own. She was trauma-informed decades before that became a buzzword.
Her professional boundaries seemed a bit strict and cold at times, but I think in retrospect that was only because I had practically none of my own. As a mental health support provider now myself, I note her tight-rope walking skill as exceptional, for she meted out a stabilizing mix of structure and warmth, limits and possibilities. I was embarrassed to admit I did not know the rudiments of social hugging and was afraid of doing it wrong. I told her I wasn’t sure if there was a rule or a signal for which shoulder you pointed your head toward. She met this admission with great sensitivity and offered me several hundred opportunities to practice, which were expanded exponentially in the group she enticed me to join.
Early in our work together Gail asked me a pivotal question: “What is your support network like?” I had no idea what she was even talking about. In my insecurity, mistrust and careful self-containment, I had largely avoided the vulnerability of seeking out close friends. Her question initially aroused frustration and fear, and I made some kind of sarcastic retort about needing the name and address of the store where one could acquire a support system. She laughed. She had a laugh like a non-toxic spiritual solvent. She’d chuckle, her eyes sparkling, and my wariness or resistance would tend to dissolve. She never shamed or scolded, although she could be stern or even fierce. With regard to joining a group, she gently nudged, guided, and invited until I was ready to begin a long and still ongoing journey out of isolation and into interdependence.
Often I read to her from my journal, and there is no greater gift she could have given me than this steady and healing attention to my innermost thoughts. She tilted her head, adjusted her gaze, and leaned slightly toward me with avid absorption. This was the purest antidote to what had caused my wounding. I didn’t have these words for it at the time, but one of the most staggering dimensions of grief surrounding my mother’s early dying was the loss of a dependably attuned listener, someone who kept the bond of loving attention from being broken, who found me interesting, valid, even delightful. Gail returned that lost treasure to me. Of all her legacies, this is the one that brings me the greatest joy to pass on to others, for I know exactly how powerful an offering it is.
I found her open-minded and innovative. I believe she was one of the first certified practitioners of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), an early tool in the emerging field of somatic processing for traumatic memories. Whether it was the technique that worked or the fact I trusted her enough to reveal distressing and painful recollections, I can attest to the fact I began to experience gradual relief from my crippling post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Anger was my last frontier, and Gail knew it. I believe she had to be more persistent in getting me to face this forbidden emotion than any other. I was a fan of forgiveness and she stood firm in her stance that forgiving isn’t always the answer, and certainly not before a person is able to genuinely experience their own outrage. I was terrified of my suppressed anger for so many reasons, yet it was, I now understand, a key to protection and restoration, and I will be forever grateful to Gail for her wisdom and dogged insistence on me confronting this perceived enemy and learning anger is instead a valuable ally.
The day I finally said yes to her unflagging invitations to feel my anger is seared in my memory more deeply than any other aspect of my therapeutic experience. This, above all other risky emotional adventures, is the one that depended most on her ability to hold a safe container for me. I have no idea if this kind of work is orthodox or controversial. I only know the day I finally agreed to go into a tucked-away back room and get down on my knees with a mat and bataka—safe tools designed for cathartic anger release—was exhaustingly transformational. She knelt next to me in comforting proximity, and when I had finished spending my painful pennies of saved-up rage, she put her arms around my shaking shoulders and didn’t seem to care that I was sobbing and sniffling all over her good blouse. To do this emotional work, I had to release my rigid control and elaborate defenses, and that was only possible after hours and hours—and years—of patient bond formation and trust cultivation.
I keep wanting to say “the most healing thing was…” and name some particular gift or quality. The reality is, everything Gail offered me was, in its day and time, the absolutely most healing thing.
As I began to delve into the wrenching, long-deferred, and complicated grief of losing my mom at age 3, Gail beautifully honored the validity of my unpredictable and painful process, despite it being more than thirty years delayed. She introduced me to the beautiful Jewish mourning ritual—yahrzeit, meaning “year time”—as a way to honor my grief anniversary on June 4 each year. She introduced me to the Mourner’s Kaddish and was an active participant in many of my creative grief rituals, including helping me start an annual Motherless Daughters Day Circle of Remembrance in Kansas City and even continuing it after I moved away; encouraging me to launch a self-help group for motherless daughters; and connecting me to supportive resources for honoring and processing grief.
At some point it started becoming more clear we were cohorts learning from one another. Gail’s mother Patricia, who had the same name as my dead mom, was still alive at the time, but since Pat was a motherless daughter, Gail began describing herself at our gatherings as the daughter of a motherless daughter. I have a hunch the evident impact of my early mother loss deepened Gail’s understanding and compassion for her own mom’s struggles—some of which were similar to mine—as well as greater insight and compassion into how generational trauma may have impacted her own challenges.
Here again, Gail’s open-mindedness, flexibility, security, and willingness to innovate allowed expansion of the container of our relationship so I could grow into fuller stature and gradually into a more collegial relationship. We spoke at times of collaborating on a workbook based on my creative therapy homework and healing rituals. We agreed together—after I’d successfully made a major transition out of a difficult relationship in 2000—that I was ready for something like a therapy graduation. That, too, was a skillful movement in my ongoing work, for it gave me practice in internalizing my newfound sense of self apart from her stabilizing influence. I still needed to learn to trust my instincts and intuition more fully, and I could not functionally accomplish that while dependent on her for approval and validation each week.
If memory serves, I did need to call on her for support during a couple periods of discombobulation in the first year or two after the transition, but otherwise we became fond acquaintances who met for coffee or lunch every so often, even a few times after I moved out of the Kansas City area. In recent years our contact dwindled to sporadic email updates every few years, and I was especially proud to let her know about my new certification as a peer specialist and the launch of my private practice in 2015—my proudest blooming. We were warmly supportive and encouraging of one another, and I was blessed with deeper glimpses into her vulnerabilities and challenges as well. By knowing her better outside our earlier therapeutic connection, I understood that a confidante does not need to fix or save, be super-human or perfect to practice offering life-altering supportive listening, and this is an awareness I carry forward into my peer support relationships.
Every time I wrote to share an update, I thanked Gail for facilitating my healing. In one reply she offered this tender validation: “what i love about you—one thing—is that you keep going. i was an important catalyst, yes. you, my dear, are an inspiration.”
As shocking and temporarily destabilizing as it has been to my inner firmament to learn of Gail’s sudden death, her unexpected departure cracked open a treasure chest containing a surprisingly balanced mix of grief and gratitude. There is so much to miss—her solid, reassuring presence in the world, whether I saw her or not—and so much to celebrate of what she made possible for me. Her departure somehow shines a brighter spotlight on the exponential impact of her gifts. She helped me begin recovering my selfhood, my belonging, and my vitality. No accounting method in the universe can measure the worth of that.
There is, in my estimation, no other relationship in the world quite like a well-matched, firmly-founded therapeutic connection. It is disciplined, yet deep, and immensely sacred in its way. It has a dependable rhythm, offering consistency and fostering trust. It is not equal or balanced, per se, but perhaps that is what is most needed for someone like me who was well-defended and accomplished at hiding behind a shield of competency and self-containment—I needed the initial one-sidedness to overcome my hesitancy and reveal my enormous hunger to be heard without judgment. The pace and intensity of change and growth I experienced in over five years of therapy is unmatched elsewhere in my life, and the disconcerting hocus-pocus of my radical metamorphosis required an excellent interpretive guide, regular reorientation, and stable grounding. I needed someone to care enough to want to know who I was so I could learn to know and love myself. I can think of no more precious gift.
I like the word “grok” from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” to describe the essence of what Gail offered me. It’s a fictional Martian word with many nuances that can be summarized as “to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with.” Definitions of “grok” in the book include “to drink” and “to love” and “to understand.” Gail actively grokked me—seemingly imbibed and digested my story and my essence—and I had never before felt that known and accepted, except perhaps as a little girl by my mom. I thrived like an autumn gentian in the hospitable sun of Gail’s curiosity and compassion. I dared to reveal myself despite my pervasive and paralyzing fears and misgivings, and the more she accurately and lovingly reflected me back to myself, the more I beheld and believed my true eternal wholeness hidden beneath a cloak of temporal brokenness.
This late-blooming flower of myself and my ongoing growth, these sweet blossoms of love and remembrance, dear Gail, are for you and because of you. Thank you. I love you.
Gail helped keep the Motherless Daughters Day ritual alive for almost a decade after I moved away. In 2008 she officially became a motherless daughter herself. (Photo, 2012)