May 23, 2024
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May 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Planting Seeds

It’s interesting what stays with us over the years. When I attended NCSY as a high school student over 25 years ago, I heard a motivational speaker at one of the youth events deliver a talk about outreach. He stressed the importance of helping others, and sagely commented that we often don’t know just how impactful we are in another person’s life. We may talk to someone for only a couple hours and, during that time, have touched the person so profoundly that it will influence their life for years to come.

One evening recently, I was talking with our children’s pediatrician and family friend, Steven Schuss. He shared an incident that once happened to him in the Bronx that I think illustrates this idea very beautifully.

Dr. Schuss was in his car, stopped at a light, when a boy came up to his car and tried to get his attention. Assuming the boy wanted money for washing his windows, and not needing his windows washed, he paid little attention to him. The boy was persistent, however, and surprised him by eventually yelling out, “Dr. Schuss.” It turns out the boy had very briefly been a patient of his at an area hospital a few years earlier and still remembered him. The delighted reaction of the boy to seeing his old pediatrician showed that Dr. Schuss had made a strong, positive impression on him.

Sometimes, you know you’ve helped someone. Other times, you’re not quite sure. Many years ago, when I was working in a New Jersey State prison in Rahway, I treated a young man who was housed in the Administrative Segregation unit (this is where inmates are sent if they’ve broken prison rules; it’s not a pleasant place to be).

This particular inmate (let’s call him the Hulk) was very irritable, impulsive, angry and given to behavioral outbursts in which things frequently got broken and people got hurt. I had the “good” fortune of being assigned to him right after he had been treated by a young, attractive female clinician. You can imagine the inmate was not too thrilled about the change in therapists (I was definitely not a young, attractive female at the time…and that hasn’t changed much in the years since).

In the end, I only met with the young man for 4-5 brief sessions, but it was enough for him to be rather resentful that I was his therapist and to have concluded that I was less than useless to him. Eventually, I transferred to a prison in Newark where I spent the next handful of years.

In the New Jersey prison system, inmates get moved around a lot. Years later, one of my colleagues referred this very same inmate to a weekly therapy group I was conducting for men with addiction.

I hadn’t heard about the Hulk in a long time, but didn’t expect he would want to join my group based on his attitude toward me at the other prison (inmates have very long memories). To my surprise, he agreed to join the group.

For the first few sessions, he was very quiet and contributed little. In fact, he often appeared to be sleeping. It wasn’t terribly encouraging (it certainly wasn’t good for my ego) and I didn’t expect he would stay long. Over time, though, he gradually opened up, became a very active member in the group, and I had the opportunity to see him grow and mature.

Fast-forward to several weeks ago. In the immortal words of Don Corleone, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse and I recently accepted the position of Director of Mental Health at Essex County jail. I broke the news to my therapy group that I would be leaving the prison soon and that the group would be ending as a result. I wasn’t expecting the guys to have a difficult time with the news, but they did. It turns out, they had grown pretty attached to the weekly meetings and were feeling abandoned by me.

We processed my departure and what it meant to each of the men in the group. When the Hulk shared his reaction, he told the others about our not-so-auspicious first encounter.

I was curious to know why he had stayed with the therapy group given his dislike of me and he explained that that was only part of the picture. With admirable humility, he admitted I had made a positive (if small) impression on him all those years before. Despite himself, he had taken away something positive from the few encounters we had in AdSeg and that was enough for him to give the group a chance years later. We were both happy he did so because he would have otherwise missed out on all that he had gained in the group over the last eight months.

Sometimes, the effect we have on someone’s life is immediate and it is clear as day. Other times, we plant seeds that bear fruit many years later. You just never know.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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