Groundhog Day

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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18 Responses to “Groundhog Day”

  1. Amber says:

    On my honeymoon I saw a deer get hit by a semi, it spun around like a record on a record player then got up and ran off. My hubby was an animal health tech, I asked if he thought the deer would be ok. He said no, he probably was in shock and ran off to die. I told him to lie to me next time.

  2. Sili says:

    That is a little depressing. I cringe everytime I see roadkill and try not drive over it.

  3. Hannah says:

    On my last day of work in Japan as an English teacher, I noticed that some inconsiderate jerk littered the street with white plastic bags that then looked more like feather boas blowing in the wind. Only there was no wind. As we drew closer to the intersection, I realized they were kittens. The truck in front of us had hit two kittens that were now writhing. I watched one die and the other one had a broken paw and ran away. It was a very upsetting morning.
    How should people overcome traumatic roadkill incidents?

  4. Wayland says:

    I smacked a dog a couple of weeks ago but the dog deserved it. I slowed down to about 15 mph to avoid killing it with my Mustang. The dog doesn’t jump out to chase my car in the mornings anymore. It learned its lesson and the people still have a dog to love and whatnot.

  5. Sam says:

    It was just a damn groundhog I can’t believe it affected you that much. I was laughing at the story because I thought you were totally joking, but the fact that you were really that upset makes you a total pussy.

  6. We just saw a dog get hit on 95 today by an SUV, who kept on going, he didn’t even slow down. I often wonder about people who have no feelings towards animals; i just don’t trust them.
    ps. I recent wrote about issues of self-disclosure, which I think highlights your point about leaving your issues at the door.

    The Role of Self-Disclosure in Therapy

  7. Anonymous says:

    I used to shoot groundhogs (and other rodents) with my trusty pellet gun, all I had to do was wait for them to stick their heads out. Those things are annoying pests who loved to dig up my uncle’s yard. I find them to be among rats and other such vermin.

  8. Jimmy Dale says:

    I can’t tell if Sam’s making a hilarious joke or if he really thinks that a sense of empathy equates to being a pussy, but I disagree. Hits close to home. I’m prone to misanthropy but I have a lot sympathy for animals, at least the literal ones.

  9. Sam says:

    Jimmy Dale,
    The part about being a pussy was a total joke, but I was actually surprised at how much it seemed to affect Dr. Rob. I’d never wish for an animal to suffer, but seeing one die doesn’t bother me much. People consume so many products that require animals to die it surprises me sometimes how much they care about something as small as a groundhog dying, when in reality their consumption has probably lead to thousands of animals deaths in their lifetime. It could also be do to the fact that Dr. Rob lives in a large city and I live in a area where hunting and road kill is all around.

  10. Jimmy Dale says:

    I’m someone that can watch the endless “tragedy porn” that is mainstream news without feeling a thing, so I can’t knock anyone for a lack of empathy. Then I go and feel an intense amount of sorrow for a situation that’s really not that serious, so maybe I’m just weird like that. I was just curious; I suspected you were joking, but ya never know with the internet.

  11. Dr. Rob says:

    Quick thought on recent comments: there’s a certain denial involved when interacting with animals. To some degree you have to block out that many are used for food, clothing, testing, etc. But when you SEE the death, the blood, the final breaths, those coping skills are stripped away. There’s a reason they don’t take kids on field trips to slaughter houses…

  12. Nicole says:

    One day when I was in school my class was waiting on the sidewalk for a bus to go on a field trip. As the bus pulled over in front of us, we saw a cat jump over a fence onto the sidewalk. Some class mate tried to pet him but the car got scared and took refuge under the bus. The bus driver was manuvering very slowly because it was a tight turn. The cat got run over very slowly and we all watched as the insides of the cat were being squeezed out its butt. I also remember that as vividly now as I did then. I own a dog now, I’m paranoid about him getting lose and going near a car or a bus.

  13. Jianna says:

    God this reminds me of how traumatized I was at the prospect of having to trap a mouse that was living in my kitchen. Granted after it evaded me for weeks on end, I didn’t feel quite as bad, but it was a completely bizarre experience, seeing it there completely lifeless. I’m just glad the trap worked like it was supposed to and the mouse wasn’t just trapped, injured and doomed.

  14. Sam says:

    I think the coping skills you mentioned could be broken by exposure though. I think our culture creates the need to cope. In countries where families slaughter their own food the children see this their whole lives, and I think most are unaffected. What i’m getting at is I don’t think empathy for animals death (not suffering) is innate. I don’t know what i’m getting at I’m just saying there’s definitely a different perspective which I think is shared by most of the world and certainly was in the past.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Nice post. I’d rather not know about the dead land monster, though. Its sad.

  16. sandy,phd says:

    Poor little land monster.
    A good reminder that we shrinks are “only human” and need to give ourselves time-outs when significant distractions arise.

  17. Tippy says:

    I once saw a falcon attack a pigeon on the street. Though obviously injured, the pigeon managed to “hide” in the revolving doors of my office bldg.

    I couldn’t leave it there, so I took it and placed it under a shrub at the church yard next door. I figured maybe it would die w/out as much fear that way.

    Looked bad when I left, and the next day it was legs up.

    It was horrible.

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