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  • The Reflective Doc

Piecing Together Your Beautiful Life

My maternal grandmother was a consistent and loving presence in my childhood. Though I knew her as the woman with the soft voice and handmade cardigans, her life story reflected her unshakable strength and resilience. After losing her mother to tuberculosis at age 12, she and her younger siblings were separated and sent to live with relatives throughout the upper Midwest. She later completed her nursing degree at Cook County Hospital in 1930s Chicago, before becoming famous for her “painless shots” in my grandfather’s rural North Dakota medical practice. Living into her 90s, she was a titan, a storyteller, the donut maker, my hero.

She was also a quilter. On a weekly basis, she and her quilting group would come together to create beautiful works of fabric art, while discussing life, love and loss. Gathered around an enormous wooden frame in an empty office building backroom, as many as 16 women labored together, taking breaks only for coffee or a sack lunch. This group created hundreds of handmade works of art, including the lovely quilt I received as a young woman. It is now resting in my grandparents’ cedar chest at the foot of my bed, offering comfort and memories.

Recently, while promoting the benefit of psychotherapy to a psychiatry trainee, I recalled my grandmother’s quilt. Rather than one continuous piece of fabric, scraps of various colors were sewn together to produce a repeated mosaic pattern. From an eclectic pile of textiles, she and her quilting circle created a singular gift to share throughout generations. I realized there was no clearer way to describe the lasting effects of psychotherapy.

When you begin the journey with your therapist, you introduce accumulated experiences, memories and challenges. The details of your singular life may feel jumbled, confusing, or hinting at a truth you cannot quite grasp. With the therapist’s guidance, you begin to piece together your pain and triumphs into a slowly emerging, comprehensive pattern. Long-held thoughts and beliefs are brought into the light and examined for verity. In the psychological safety of a trusted therapist’s office, you begin to identify changes that create hope and relief.

Let’s challenge the assumption that therapy is only warranted when something is broken. We all struggle to piece together our past, or forgive our missteps. We cannot live without experiencing pain, fear or loss. However, just as the scraps of cloth gain strength and resilience when linked together in a finished quilt, a thoughtful exploration of our most emotional moments can empower us to face the future.

As I view the growth in my patients from week to week, I am grateful for the kind and insightful therapists throughout my own life. They have made me laugh, forced me to think, and given me permission to forgive myself and others. I can picture them gathering around a large wooden frame with my family and friends, stitching together my life with insightful care. The patterns of my past, sewn together through a deeper understanding, form a poignant reminder of my ongoing journey. Can you imagine allowing yourself the same exploration? Like my grandmother’s quilt, the results may be breathtaking.

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