This is a true story based on interviews with a memoir client. Names and details have been masked on the web version for privacy.
There were many events that changed the course of my life; the war, leaving Romania, the revolution in Hungary, and coming to America. But what truly transformed me was a process, not an event. It was my journey through psychoanalysis and fulfilling my dream to become a professional therapist.
It started when I was plunged into a deep sadness upon the death of my Mother. I realize I’d already been unhappy, very dissatisfied, but her death triggered a depression. I was still able to function, but felt I could go no further without some sort of help.
Living in Hungary under communism, it wasn’t common to seek therapy. There were few practicing therapists and because of that very few people had access to mental health counseling. The profession simply wasn’t compatible with the Marxist/Leninist philosophy where the collective took precedence over the needs of the individual. Under communism, too, everything in our lives was about survival. We didn’t have a concept of individual growth and development. It was all about groups working together through life’s difficulties.
Don’t get me wrong, psychotherapy was by no means shameful, especially in our circle of friends. Among the educated, the theories and observations of Freud and Jung were greatly admired. These men were considered intellectual giants.
It was almost like going underground to find a therapist. You had to know someone who knew someone. A friend recommended my analyst. After a while, G. began seeing him as well. This is something that’s not done in the U.S. – married people separately seeing the same person – but in Hungary at the time a couple would never see a therapist together. There was no such thing as marriage counseling.
In four years of intensive psychoanalytic therapy I learned a lot about myself and changed as a person, a mother, and as a wife. Therapy is like an addiction. The moment you start, there’s no going back. I started out as a patient in need, but over time realized I wanted to become a therapist myself. I brought it up with my analyst, and he encouraged me. He began to teach me about psychoanalysis and I experienced a shift as he recognized and nurtured my intellectual capabilities.
I was in my mid-40s, and in Hungary returning to school as an adult was nearly unheard of. This was also the time we began thinking about defecting. For me, leaving Hungary not only meant freedom, it was an opportunity to pursue my dream. And even though I would be leaving my analyst, I soon realized that once you’ve been in therapy it’s always with you. In fact, when you stop going, or take a break, therapy starts working. You start making observations and connections that would have never happened before.
We were overwhelmed when we arrived in the U.S.! The first time I heard the phrase “culture shock,” I knew it was the perfect way to describe our feelings. So many things we didn’t know. What was a mortgage? Could I really just pick up a phone at the phone store, take it home, and plug it in? Still, the moment we arrived in the Seattle, I wanted to find a place to study counseling.
We’d left Budapest in October of 1979 and it was six months before we landed in the U.S. For much of that time we had no idea where we’d end up. By the time we settled in Seattle the following April, the University of Washington had closed their applications for the fall. Someone suggested I look into a private university. This was another thing I didn’t understand. There is such a thing? A university that’s not run by the government?
I inquired at Seattle Pacific University and found I could get into their program right away. When I look back on it now, it seems remarkable. We arrived in Seattle in April and by September I was starting graduate school.
Education in the United States was very different from Hungary. I already had a Master’s degree in Hungarian and Romanian Language and Literature from a university in Budapest. When you enter college in a communist country, they tell you exactly what you must study. It was a very rigid system. At Seattle Pacific I could choose classes based on my interests. I was free to study what I wanted.
As soon as I got to campus, I realized my therapy – the hard work I’d been doing with my analyst – didn’t end when I went back to school. The master’s program was a kind of therapy. I didn’t have weekly one-on-one sessions, but everything we were learning was about therapy, and we would think about how it relates to our own life experiences. In fact, I learned that students’ marriages often suffer because they start looking at relationships through the lens of what they learned about marriage therapy.
I remember my first paper was on child behavior. The assignment was to observe a child and write about what we saw. My English was fluent, but my vocabulary was not very sophisticated, so I decided to write the first draft of the paper in Hungarian. I then translated it myself into English. After that I took it to my new friend, E., who cleaned up the English to make it sound more natural. I had met E. at the YMCA where I’d attended a conversation class to practice my English. She’s still a friend today, 37 years later.
I had many excellent teachers at Seattle Pacific, but D.A. was truly exceptional, and a great help to me. He was a minister and I believe he sensed how difficult things were for an immigrant returning to school in a new country. Most of the teachers talked so fast, I was exhausted at the end of the day trying to concentrate and absorb it all. But this man – he was such a gentle person – he planted himself right in front of my desk and made a point to speak very slowly and clearly. I took all the classes he taught during the four years I was in that program and learned so much from him. He is also part of my life to this day.
Becoming a practicing therapist was not the end of my education, it was a new chapter. I learned so much listening to my clients. The whole journey began with the loss of my Mother, then four years in therapy, four years in graduate school, and more than 20 years working as a therapist – it changed me profoundly. Sometimes I tell my daughter I’m not the same mother she had when she was six years old. I transformed from someone in need of help to someone able to help others.
Copyright 2017 Liz Behlke