Mindfulness in the Waiting Room

How one question from my son's therapist helped me make crucial decisions about the course of my child’s treatment and my own mental health.

Voyagerix/Dollar Photo Club

A few months ago, my son’s therapist asked me an unusual question at the end of our parent check-in.

“So what’s it like, being in the waiting room, while he’s in here with me?”

The question caught me off guard. I had logged a lot of hours in waiting rooms by this time, on a quest to help my young child manage his anxiety. No doctor had ever asked me such a thing, or even how I was doing.

I stammered through a pat answer: I felt fine. He was in good hands. At seven, he was old enough to have his own relationship with a therapist.

In the back of my mind, I wondered what this question was really getting at. Curiosity, I guessed. Gabe was the patient, not me. Clearly this was not a question designed to lead me down some brambly path of self-analysis.

Yet that’s precisely what it did.

My answer to the therapist’s question had been breezy. The truth was, I had very mixed feelings about sitting in waiting rooms, week after week. But what were those feelings exactly? I couldn’t quite articulate them; I just knew they were complicated.

I took myself through a series of mindfulness exercises in attempt to answer the therapist’s question more honestly for myself. To my surprise, these exercises helped me to make crucial decisions about the course of my child’s treatment and my own mental health.

Waiting rooms are usually places where people are meant to check out. The best of them offer respite for the exhausted and anxious: comfortable couches, magazines, coffee. Yet over the subsequent appointments, I tried checking in instead. I took myself through a series of mindfulness exercises in attempt to answer the therapist’s question more honestly for myself. To my surprise, these exercises helped me to make crucial decisions about the course of my child’s treatment and my own mental health.

I started by registering details about the physical space: a mysterious stain on the floor, a painting of wilting flowers, the white noise machine hissing at me. All these weeks I’d thought it was an air conditioning duct in the wall that I heard, but now I spied the white disk beneath a chair. That sound, designed to mask office conversations, distanced me from my child. I noted my lower back pain in the stiff chair. My undercurrent of irritation at having to interrupt my work day, pull my son from school, and drive him to another town. My fatigue at having worked too late the night before. I rubbed my throbbing forehead. This “lower level” suite was a basement room. Were we really in a place for healing?

Registering my own physical discomfort, however, made me realize I might also be in need of healing myself. The endless driving to appointments and worrying over my son’s diagnoses was starting to take its toll. I began to take steps to improve my own physical and emotional health so that I could stay strong for Gabe.

Over the next few appointments, I became aware of a woman and her son in our orbit, their departures overlapping with our arrivals. We began to say hello, with the weary smiles of fellow travelers on long, uncertain journeys.

“He goes in there alone?” the woman remarked one day. She had watched my son walk into the office without me, just as I’d watched her exit that same office with her little boy.

I shrugged and smiled wryly.

“That’s great. Maybe my boy would do better without me in there.”

We laughed it off, our mutual cross-longing. But it wasn’t a laughing matter, for me. The waiting room was in fact a place of exile, to which I had been banished.

I became the focus of bizarre play scenarios as my son set me up for practical jokes and pratfalls, literally pulling chairs out from under me. He made embarrassing remarks, like how I probably had lice.

A few months earlier, during the intake process, I’d regularly accompanied Gabe into the office. While my son played and answered questions, I clarified references he made to events or people.  I provided context and translation for the therapist and, I hoped, emotional support.

About four or five sessions in to therapy, my role shifted. I became the focus of bizarre play scenarios as my son set me up for practical jokes and pratfalls, literally pulling chairs out from under me. He made embarrassing remarks, like how I probably had lice. One day, he declared, “My mom’s the one who needs therapy!”

The therapist assured me that these were normal expressions of his vulnerability, attempts to exercise some control. I got that. Still, it stung to be singled out, when all I wanted was to find him some help. Was my son’s emotional health going to come at the expense of mine?

About six sessions into therapy, my son picked up a broken toy phone and attempted to call the therapist. Frowning, he said the calls were not going through.

The therapist gently asked him if he wanted Mom to step outside.

Gabe nodded.

I left. I have not accompanied him into his sessions since. He is quick to close that door.

So initially, my waiting room exile came as a relief. I was happy to be out of the spotlight, happier still to outsource my son’s anxiety. For a while, I tried to relax and enjoy a rare hour to myself in the waiting room, to catch up on my own work. My thoughts drifted. I began to cultivate my own little weedy patch of anxieties. Will I make my next manuscript deadline? Will the Blue Cross claims go through for these appointments? What exactly am I paying for here? What is my son really doing in that office?  

I knew what he was doing. Play therapy. Some of the play therapy involved animal puppets. From the waiting room, if I paid close attention, I could sometimes hear the therapist speak in the falsetto voice of one character. Yet in waiting room exile, when I could no longer observe the play firsthand, the imprecision of that approach worried me too. Was my son really getting what he needed?

I had initially brought Gabe in to try cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). My husband and I wanted to give him tools to manage his anxiety, which was beginning to take a toll on him socially and academically. But after the intake caused him significant stress, and after early attempts at CBT proved unsuccessful—either because my son was too young or, paradoxically, too anxious—play therapy was determined to be the best strategy. This gentler, child-led approach would enable the therapist to see what was on my son’s mind. Yet the direction and pace for anxiety management remained less sure.

I had felt in the dark, in the waiting room, but at the parent check-ins, the therapist threw open windows, and I began to see my son in new light.

I paid attention to my uncertainty. On my phone, I read up on play therapy theory during some of my waiting room sessions. I noted questions that were coming to mind. Then, every few weeks, I had my turn in the office for a parent check-in and a chance to ask those very questions. I learned about the themes emerging in my son’s play: power imbalances, winning and losing, humiliation, being left out. I learned of the hunger my son had for more time with his dad. I had felt in the dark, in the waiting room, but at the parent check-ins, the therapist threw open windows, and I began to see my son in new light.

Armed with new insights, I returned to the waiting room and tuned in to my surroundings again. Over the white noise machine, I could hear the well-modulated tone of the therapist’s voice. Empathy curled out from under the door, like secondhand smoke, and I breathed it in. I paid attention not to words, which were muted, but to the voices. I could pick up on my son’s emotional expressions and the therapist’s responses. By focusing on tone of voice rather than words, I learned how you can validate someone’s emotions by saying very little. I learned how you can stay with someone during an intense mood without getting pulled into it. And I learned how you can express curiosity without criticism.

One day, I was in the waiting room when a sound traveled through the thick wood door, across the hush of white noise. It made me think of a happy child playing in the surf. I stood up fast, pressed my ear to the door. Gabe, laughing. I grinned. My child, once so uncomfortable in this office that he had hidden beneath a blanket and refused to speak, was now relaxed enough to laugh.

Inspired, I tried to take my mindfulness out of the waiting room and back home. With my son, I expressed more curiosity. I used a calmer voice. I made conscious efforts to set aside my phone, reading material, and other distractions. In turn, my son began to open up more with me, to talk about what was on his mind rather than to act out.

As we all journeyed further into the therapeutic process, I found other unexpected uses for my waiting room time, like learning the art of empathy. I had always thought I had responded empathically to my son, but when I heard the therapist interact with him—even when the noise machine muted his words–I realized how far I still had to go. My son needed mega doses of empathy, not teaspoons at a time.

I watched carefully as the therapist greeted Gabe in the waiting room and how he said goodbye. I noted how he turned his full attention onto my child, conveying kindness and acceptance. In fact, the therapist seemed to be the very model of mindfulness, completely tuned into Gabe, and always expressing interested curiosity. Inspired, I tried to take my mindfulness out of the waiting room and back home. With my son, I expressed more curiosity. I used a calmer voice. I made conscious efforts to set aside my phone, reading material, and other distractions. In turn, my son began to open up more with me, to talk about what was on his mind rather than to act out.

Before long, as if that broken phone connection had been restored, Gabe and I began to reconnect, and the words came fast. Early for an appointment one day, Gabe unloaded, to me, everything that was on his mind: worries about a best friend losing interest in him. Fears of doing poorly in math. Anger at a girl whose words often sting. And more.

I fought the temptation to bang on the office door and bring the therapist out to help me manage my child’s flood of emotions. Instead, I found a place of calm inside myself. I paraphrased his feelings and helped him to label emotions. Mostly, though, I just listened, using my voice—not words—to express empathy. When the therapist finally opened the door, Gabe ran into the office to play.

I must admit to a flash of discomfort. Why did the therapist now get to enjoy a playful hour with my son, when I had just done the heavy lifting?

In the next moment, however, that thought gave way to relief. That emotional squall, and how we got through it, is exactly what I wanted. A meaningful and productive connection with my son. And I am more capable of helping my child deal with his intense emotions than I had first thought.

I initially took my son to a child psychologist to help transform his thoughts and behavior. Yet my own thoughts and behavior have changed, partly because of the therapist’s work which I can emulate, and partly because of the mindful waiting room hours I’ve logged there. Seeing my son more clearly, and developing my powers of empathy and communication, enables more effective responses. My responses help lower his anxiety, which in turns lowers my anxiety, and so it goes.

The waiting room, in whatever office I may visit, becomes a sacred space, a domain in which I renew my commitment, every week, to helping my child. I can choose to see my time there as a gift, not a burden.

So what is it like to be in the waiting room? It’s not unlike when I had to learn to leave Gabe in his crib. I used to press my ear to the door, hoping to hear him breathe. He had contracted sepsis in the hospital, as an infant, and nearly died. In his first months at home I spent many nights with my ear to the door, listening, waiting. Eventually I learned to step back and trust that he was all right. Eventually I even learned to get my own sleep. Eventually, I learned that though we slept in separate rooms, we were always connected by love.

Sitting in the waiting room is many things. Isolating. Frustrating. Boring.

The very name “waiting room” implies a state of passivity, even limbo. I think it is absolutely fine to use the waiting room for whatever we need the space to provide. Sometimes we need to flip through outdated copies of People magazine, or doze, or flip through a Facebook feed, and take a mental break. I often do those very things, guilt-free, as part of my self-care regime.

Yet thanks to the deceptively simple question I was asked one day, and the self-analysis it sparked, I try to use the time and space in waiting rooms at least once a week for “active waiting.” Reflecting, listening, studying, strategizing. In this way, the waiting room, in whatever office I may visit, becomes a sacred space, a domain in which I renew my commitment, every week, to helping my child. I can choose to see my time there as a gift, not a burden.

So what’s it like? Empowering. I can help my son from the waiting room because I myself have been helped. I was wrong to assume this process was only about him. Technically, I may not be the patient, but I am the invisible partner. I am in an active collaboration with both my child and his therapist. We may be physically separated at times, but I am intricately, and necessarily, involved in his treatment. It is tempting to outsource my child’s treatments to various professionals, and naive to think that I can. My mindful moments in the waiting room have taught me that I need to be in a collaborative partnership with every one on his team.

I don’t know for sure how much more therapy my son will need, or what particular alchemy of interventions and natural development will ultimately help him. I guess time will tell. But that’s okay. I can wait.

 

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