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."   Photo by Bill Scala

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 to school.

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.

Photo by Bill Scala  

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).





Martha Clark Scala, MFT • 721 Colorado Ave., Suite 201, Palo Alto, CA 94303 •