I sat there quietly while she held a gun pointed directly at me. I have had clients express displeasure at a comment or suggestion. I have had clients call me unflattering names for various reasons, none due to professional impropriety, just projected anger. These I could handle. But a gun? That was never part of training. So, I sat and talked quietly, invoking all thoughts of Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order as she would talk people off the ledge. At that moment, I was kind of wishing for my own ledge to jump from. Most evenings, I was the last one in the clinic, a small cluster of offices housed in a large, out-of-use hospital in North Hollywood. No security guards, no under-the-desk emergency buttons. Just me, a drug addict and her gun.

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I had initially and officially met with her one time, when she was mandated to therapy to learn that her 3-year-old son, who had been in foster care since he was born, was soon to be adopted. While I was just an intern at the time, it was my legal responsibility to deliver the news in as benign a way as possible, but to make sure the information was delivered. It was my first and, I assumed, last time meeting this woman. She stormed out and that was that - or so I thought. She reappeared on the evening upon which her child was officially adopted, brandishing a weapon and blaming me for not stopping the process of placing her child. I talked and waited and talked and waited and then, just like on an episode of SVU (Special Victims Unit), some hours later she got lazy and put the gun on the desk. I immediately grabbed it, pushed her to the floor (note I had never held a gun in my life) and called 911. I was soon safe, and she was soon gone. I had subsequent contact with neither her nor her child, but took a firearms course shortly after this event. The clinic, now defunct, immediately hired a full-time security guard who was always close by.

Those of us who are in the business of caring for others do not often think that we will be placed in harm’s way for trying to help - and certainly not by way of gunpoint. While the client may be angry at the system, another person, or a circumstance, we do not think that beyond some verbal outrage they will take it out on us. Naïve! According to a 2016 survey, nearly three in four psychologists have been harassed at some point in their career, with over one in five threatened, and one in seven stalked (1). Now there is cyber-stalking, easily accomplished via a website, email, Facebook, or other avenues of social media. According to the National Association of Social Workers “therapists often deny or minimize feelings of risk to themselves” (2) and do not recognize the red flags of potential harm.

An early experience in which I was stalked emanated from a red flag that no professional, seasoned or otherwise, could have anticipated. I had been working with a gay client who had been raised by very devout Seventh Day Adventist parents who made her go to a church that clearly preached against her “blasphemous ways.” She was angry her entire life. She was angry towards a slew of therapists just because she was an angry woman. She was that much angrier by the time she got to me. On the night she threatened to end her life but described no specific means for doing so or timeline (so that I could report her), I suggested she take herself to a reputable Adventist Hospital.

It just never occurred to me that I said the ‘A’ word (Adventist). To say that she unloaded on me is an understatement. The sheer volume and intensity of threatening phone calls, emails and texts was unnerving, to say the very least. Until they finally and abruptly stopped. I deeply apologized for my lack of sensitivity (it seriously never crossed my mind) and gave her a way to find a new therapist. I must say that when she threatened my license for what I thought was an honest and caring attempt to help her, I did not exactly feel all warm and fuzzy. But I did assist and then blocked the client from further contact.

I am not an insensitive therapist. I am, in contrast, perhaps too sensitive and have been willing to take a chance with potentially dangerous clients even when my antennae are up. However, I have also increased my vigilance in conducting the initial phone consultation. I now request written consent to contact any prior therapist. As one who began this career working in drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics, I do not decline addicts but insist that they are sober when I see them and note in the therapy agreement that they sign that they will be terminated if I suspect otherwise. But I also have a private office where often there are no others around. I am not perfectly safe, and I know that. But I try to carefully assess the level of risk before taking certain clients; at least, as best as I possibly can. I know I will not always be correct in that initial assessment and may turn away clients who would never have done me harm. Like so many in our profession, I continue to feel drawn to take care of others before taking care of myself. But I have learned, and am no longer quite so trusting when considering red flags, be they great or small.


(1) Storey, J. E. (2016). Hurting the healers: Stalking and stalking-related behavior perpetrated against counselors. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 47(4), 261–270

(2) Lonner, R., & Licht, M. (2018). When a client threatens the therapist: Guidelines for mitigating risk. Retrieved from https://naswcanews.org/when-a-client-threatens-the-therapist-guidelines-for-mitigating-risk/

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist