Some time ago, one of my patients turned the tables on me. At the end of a group, she looked at me and asked, “Dr. Beck, if someone granted you any 3 wishes, what would you wish for?”
This particular question is one that child psychiatrists (and others) often ask as part of the assessment of a child or youth. Being asked this question myself was so thought-provoking, however, that I might begin to ask adult patients the same thing. I have a feeling it would be just as revealing.
I began by saying that I’d love to have more time to think about the answer and several heads in the group bobbed.
“Yeah,” said another patient, somewhat sarcastically, “but that’s not allowed.”.
Mimicking me almost perfectly – although I don’t think my voice is really that high-pitched – another individual said, “The answer that you’d say first, before you have time to think about it, will be the most authentic.”
“Okay,” I said, “I wish I could have a mental GPS that would let me know when I’m trying to figure out the best treatment plans or therapies for you that I’m headed in the right direction.”
There were a lot of puzzled looks.
The mimic rejoined, “Could you give us an example?”
“Well,” I said (I say well a lot), “When I decide on a treatment plan with you, I’d like to have some way of knowing that this plan will really help.”
There were no more puzzled looks and another person said, “Oh, yeah, that would be good.”
I considered a moment and realized (of course) that I had forgotten the most important people and said for my second wish, “I’d like my family to have just enough happiness.”
“Just enough?” This was my imitator, seeking clarification like all the therapists he’d ever met.
I answered, “Well, I worry that too much happiness might not be a good thing.”
I should have realized what the response to that would be: “There’s probably an app that can help with your mindfulness practice to manage that anxiety.”
Then I told them my final wish, “I wish that I were not so emotional.”
It was a great surprise to this group that I am emotional, but I am. Sometimes, when I hear people’s difficult stories, I can feel myself tearing up inside. There are some stories that I’d love to retell because they are so helpful to people struggling, but I can never tell those stories without becoming emotional and almost crying.
The girl who had asked the original question asked me another question, “Does that happen often?”
“Every day,” I answered. No one said anything.
“No one should have to go through that pain,” someone finally said softly.
A difficulty for most people who have suffered from a mental illness is that they are, or become, so sensitive, so empathic.
“No,” I answered, hoping that the catch in my voice was not evident, “You shouldn’t.”
(Note: This is a story from many years ago, told using composite patients, individuals who comprise combinations of the characteristics the people I’ve seen, but people regularly ask me for my 3 wishes and these were the original 3 answers. I am now more prepared to be asked my own questions, but I still get very emotional about this one. I’m also still hoping someone develops that mental GPS. And I do wish someone would ask me what my Superpower is – I’m ready for that question.)