Catherine Lieb – Listening to Stories of War

Psychotherapy, Veterans and Their Loved Ones

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A nonveteran client of mine, I’ll call her Susan, did three courses of therapy over about fifteen years. Each time we focused on resolving her presenting problem, while we worked on healing her deeper wounds from childhood. 

In one particularly lively session Susan told me about a difficult conversation in which she told her sister, Well, Cathy says … 

I chose my response carefully based on my intellectual understanding of how the trauma Susan witnessed in childhood taught her to feel helpless when she experienced interpersonal conflict. I said I say lots of things in our sessions. If you decide that something makes sense, it belongs to you. You don’t need to give me credit. 

She pushed back. What are you talking about? I often talk about our sessions. Sometimes my family even asks, what does Cathy think?

It was my turn to feel defensive, and anxious about the responsibility of being the wise old woman among people I had never met.

A smile broke out on my face when I realized that her rejecting my advice was evidence that she was developing a stronger sense of self. Her comeback was authentic, how she talked about our sessions with her loved ones seemed helpful and consistent with her kinship values.

Not only that, one of the core values I hold about my profession is that our work has ripple effects in families, communities, and society, whether our clients talk about us or not. 

At the VA, my clients were all veterans, but veterans’ families, friends, and communities all benefited when they got better. My belief in community mental health was one of the reasons why working in an excellent combat trauma therapy program at the VA was so rewarding, and why the VA shutting this program down was so devastating.

Although I’m writing this book for veterans, Listening’s readers are more likely to be veterans’ loved ones and others seeking information about the psychological wounds of war. I hope my book will answer their questions, ease their pain, and provide collateral benefit for the veterans in their lives.  

I was talking to a vet about my book. He was supportive, but said, I’m one of those infantry knuckleheads who denies PTSD. My dad’s a Vietnam vet and his advice is suck it up. My wife has a different opinion. She’d probably be interested in reading your book. I had to smile.  He sounded a lot like the veterans I had the honor to serve at the VA.

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