During my post-doctoral training I was fortunate enough to be educated at a prestigious hospital in upstate New York. My office overlooked an executive golf course and lots of small, rolling hills and greenery. Albeit slightly pretentious, the whole campus smacked of top-shelf, brand name mental health riches.
On the grounds of the hospital were lots of groundhogs who seemed to patrol the campus, almost like sentinels. My fellow students and I called them Land Monsters . We often tried to pet them – despite the potential diseases they carried – but they would never allow us to get too close before scurrying off to safer pastures. But when you saw them from your office chewing on leaves or grass, you felt at peace. Top notch training, a killer office, wild beasts running amok. This is what it’s all about.
One day I received a call from a client who was an avid animal lover. Her cat had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had only a short time to live. She lived at least an hour away and since I only had a small number of open therapy slots that day it seemed prudent to have a telephone session right then and there.
As we talked about loss, grief and human attachment to pets, I glanced out the window. On the grass was one of the Land Monsters who was whittling about on a twig. In the distance, a bus approached, one that usually carried patients who were receiving partial hospitalization treatment . As my patient was crying, practically wailing into the phone about how she would miss her cat, the Land Monster started to work his way toward the road that twirled its way through the hospital grounds. It crossed my mind at that point that tragedy might ensue but since the driver was too far away to hear me my focus needed to stay on the conversation.
As the client continued and my eyes fixed upon the scene developing outside, the Land Monster moved into the street just as the bus cross his path. Pow! While the driver had attempted to turn at the last second, the Land Monster was struck by however many tons of steel and could barely move away as the bus continued on. It shuddered on the pavement for a few moments, then suddenly lay still. Dead.
I couldn’t believe what I had seen and stared out the window, mouth agape. Meanwhile, the client was moaning into the phone about her impending loss. As blood trickled away from the dead Land Monster into the grass – an image that is as fresh in my head today as it was seven years ago- I completely lost focus.
“I’m sorry, I…I can’t concentrate right now.”
My client and I had worked together for many months and she knew I wouldn’t pull some psychological hamstring injury on her for no good reason. “What’s wrong,” she sniffled into the phone.
Knowing her passion for animals (what she called “critters”) I paused. “I don’t think I should tell you. Trust me, it’s for the best.”
“Well, alright,” she said. “Can we talk later?”
“Yes yes, I promise. I will call you later this evening and we can talk more.”
I’m a huge believer that shrinks need to check their problems at the door when they start working. That’s part of the contact with the client. She is paying me for my time and attention to focus on her problems, not mine. But how do you keep your focus on the client when you are both traumatized at the same time? In this case, you can’t. Or at least I couldn’t. Normally I would suppress whatever I was feeling for the eight hours or so that I am at the office and deal with things later. But in this case I got off the phone, sat in my chair and rocked back and forth, freaking out that I just watched a small animal get crushed by a bus. I actually considered sucking my thumb or falling to the floor so I could enter the fetal position, but there’s only so much drama that’s acceptable for one afternoon.
To this day, when I see a groundhog, I feel a sense of grief for his brethren, guilt at bailing out on my client, and anger toward the bus driver for not paying closer fucking attention. I never did tell my client what happened. I just simply apologized for needing to hang up so abruptly. Given her passion for animals and her current state of mind, I think she would have responded even more emotionally than I did.
 We actually stole this name from an obscure Simpsons episode in which Homer refers to a groundhog in his presence during his stint in the Garden of Eden.
 This is a very intense form of treatment where patients spend the majority of the day at the hospital, engaging in group and individual therapy, then return to their homes in the evening.