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Empathy Walk
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A Personal Account of Change

By Julie Thompson, LPC
Idaho Falls, Idaho

I am a licensed professional counselor working for a university that provides me ongoing access to educational pursuits. A couple of years ago, I enrolled in a class called “Change Strategies” towards an advanced degree in Higher Education Administration. Though intended for university administrators, the class had a core element that felt deeply relevant for the counseling profession, as so much of what counseling provides is founded in the potential for change. 

When I learned that the class required me to do an “empathy walk,” my reaction was one of ease and excitement. I am a counselor—empathy is to counseling as water is to hydrology. I quickly discovered, however, that trying to find someone who fit the requirements of this assignment who was not already a client (or had the potential to become one) limited my pool of prospects.

A Stranger Close to Home

Then in February 2011, my husband and I were 

Editor’s Note

Last month AMHCA marked National Mental Health Counseling Week. For a visual dip into empathy, one of the hallmarks of successful clinical mental health counseling, check out the short video on empathy produced by the Cleveland Clinic and recommended by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, a past AMHCA conference keynoter, that asks:

“If you could stand in someone else’s shoes ... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?”

driving down the highway when we saw a stranger walking along the side of the road, drenched by the cold rain, carrying an empty gas can. We offered him a ride, which he happily accepted. Turns out “Lloyd” had been our neighbor for the last four years, living in a camper trailer as the camp-host of a nearby campground. He told us he had been born here in Idaho, but moved to California with his family as a young boy. He eventually joined the Army and served in Vietnam. His lean, disheveled appearance and his quiet, tentative nature fit my idea of the Vietnam vet profile. He admitted that he knew few people in our area, despite having lived in the campground for several years. 

After we dropped him off at the campground with a full can of gas, I suggested to my husband that we make an effort to befriend Lloyd. A couple of weeks later, as the temperature dropped below zero, I had stirred together some of my legendary chicken noodle soup, and my husband had baked fresh bread. I suggested we run some of the soup and bread over to Lloyd’s tiny trailer, halfway fantasizing that he would ask us in and share with us the rest of his story. 

Well, since Lloyd didn’t expect us and had no obligation to entertain our well-intended efforts to befriend him, the plan quickly jumped the tracks. Standing outside Lloyd’s dark trailer that evening, my husband’s enthusiastic knocking—and his announcement that, “Lloyd, it’s Jeff and Julie! We brought you some soup!—brought no answer. So we took our soup and bread and goodwill back to our car, and proceeded to get stuck backing out of our parking spot. 

At that moment Lloyd emerged from the dark shadows of the wooded campground. Seeing Lloyd, my husband, still buoyed by the spirit of giving, said, “Hey Lloyd, Julie and I brought you some soup and bread!” (In retrospect, I am pretty sure that Lloyd had no idea who “Jeff and Julie” were.) Though confused, Lloyd took the proffered soup and bread, saying, “Oh, thanks.” We hoped he might be interested in helping us un-mire our car, but instead, he backed away, mumbled something about having gotten stuck there before, and left!

Trapped by the slush, snow, and mud, we accepted the glaringly obvious fact that he was not coming back to help us, and we walked back to our house to fetch our other car. We had to laugh, realizing that Lloyd was not as interested in us as we were in him, and we chose to respect this. 

The Limits of Empathy

Since my initial empathetic endeavor had been effectively stalled, I was still trying to formulate a Plan B when my mom was admitted to a local hospital to have her gallbladder removed. Despite her long history as a smoker and intermittent years of alcoholism, my mom is incredibly sound of body and mind. In the 1980s and 1990s, she had experienced a lengthy period of sobriety, during which she earned a degree as a social worker, specializing in drug and alcohol counseling. She overcame many challenges, and she became my inspiration. 

But for many reasons, my mom lost her grip on sobriety. In the last decade, I have worked through many stages of grief, as I have come to terms with the fact that my mom may never find recovery again. During this time I have experienced shock, denial, and anger. I have found myself bargaining with God, my mother, and anyone who I thought might have the key to my mom regaining her recovery. The hardest part was being in the presence of this intelligent, resilient, beautiful woman who had evolved so miraculously with her recovery … and watching, helplessly, as she slowly faded away, back into the alcohol-infused fog where no one could reach her. 

As a counselor, I pride myself in my natural ability toward empathetic and compassionate regard for another human being. And yet, as powerful as empathy can be on behalf of others, it was not enough to save my mom from her addiction. My anger took the place of empathy; disengaging was easier than sitting with her in her pain. I felt like a failure as her daughter, and spending time with her reminded me how inadequate I was to help her find her way back from her chosen abyss. 

Some people assume that differences get in the way of connection, understanding, and mutual regard, and my mom and I are very different people. But it was not the differences that created obstacles in my ability to express empathy for her. It was, rather, the intimacy of my relationship with her. I can honestly say, regardless of the differences that exist between my clients and myself, I never struggle to experience empathy for them. 

I believe that empathy requires a willingness to understand, and perhaps it was my grief that kept getting in the way of the potential to understand my mom’s choice to drink. I really believed relapse was not possible. When that possibility became a reality, I dealt with it by settling into a comfortable estrangement from my mom, which brings us back to March of 2011, and my class assignment.

When my mom’s “routine” surgery that month left her in intensive care, I suddenly had to face the very real fact that I might lose her. Since she was on a ventilator for two weeks, we couldn’t connect through words. In a way, this liberated me from trying to find the right words to say, or from figuring out what questions I might ask to help me understand what she was going through. She no longer needed to try to find a response that would leave me feeling more comfortable with her uncomfortable situation. I just held her hand and hoped she knew how much I loved her. I have always known how much she loved me.

It was at this moment of suffering that I realized that my mom did not need me to save her from herself. In fact, my mom did not need me. As painful as this experience was, it awakened me. I may not ever have the capacity to understand my mom’s choice to drink. I do, though, understand loneliness, fear, regret, and all of those difficult human emotions that can compromise our ability to make constructive choices. A complete understanding of a person’s life is not necessary for feelings of mutual respect, regard, and compassion. I honestly can say that I better appreciate that my mom has done the best she can. 

I am a runner. On a sunny April morning in 2011, I went on a run before going back to the hospital to sit with my mom. I ran my usual route, into the camping area where our camp-host neighbor, Lloyd, had been living. That morning, I noticed his little trailer was gone, and with it the opportunity to reach out to him, even if just to extend a neighborly gesture or a friendly smile. How often do we fail to recognize the value of human connection and miss the opportunities that surround us to reach out to another? 

Later that day, I sat by my mom’s bed. As I held her hand and kissed her head, I told her I loved her. Nothing else needed to be said; I felt she understood that I understood it was enough. 

As the counseling coordinator for Idaho State University’s Counseling, Testing, and Career Services, Julie Thompson, LPC, provides personal, couples, and career counseling for both traditional and nontraditional students, and she teaches a variety of classes on the Idaho Falls and Pocatello campuses. A past president of the Idaho Mental Health Counseling Association, she has worked with a variety of clientele in private practice, state agencies, and acute hospital inpatient settings.