I met Gail Montgomery on March 8, 1988, when I went to her home to attend my first counseling session with her. We went into her very crowded office and sat across from each other--she in a big chair and I on a sofa that I shared with several stacks of papers. I was just out of a relationship and felt that I needed to work through issues that kept producing the same results. A good friend of mine, Cynthia Bassett, recommended that I go to see Gail, who was a practicing psychotherapist. I found in Gail one of the most remarkable people I've known in my life.
Everything about Gail was large--her physique, her voice, her laugh, her beaming countenance, her personality, her wit, her knowledge, her intellect. She had been raised as a Southern Baptist in Alabama and spent time in the Philippines as a missionary (where she caught malaria), only to question the "truth" of her religious upbringing and then walk away from it. She became well-versed in many religions and would certainly have stood her own in a debate with any proselytiser. She knew the practices and sacred writings of those religions, not just Christianity.
Gail was at her best in combining compassion and truth-telling. Her philosophy as a psychotherapist was that the patient should see results in a short period of time--not just after years of therapy. I would say that she was incredibly intuitive, but that's not quite accurate. She was incredibly attentive and knowing. If you were prepared to hear the truth about yourself, she was prepared to tell you. She would address you directly and challenge you on anything you said that seemed unreasonable or false to her. I can hear her voice now, "Oh, well I have to tell you, Steve, you're wrong about what you just said." And then with a great deal of compassion and insight, she'd tell me why. I think she was right almost every time. One was immediately challenged when you engaged in conversation with Gail, and you had the choice of either walking away from the challenge or allowing yourself to be honest and vulnerable to learn something about yourself.
Gail was more than a psychotherapist--she was a healer, a shaman--and she employed many alternative healing methods in her counseling, if you were open to them. For years she had led vision quests for women and had explored and used the healing practices of different cultures, such as the Cherokee medicine wheel and dowsing pendulums. She discounted most New Age practices and remedies as gimmicks, preferring hundreds of her own "nutsy, cuckoo" means and remedies, as she referred to them. She could laugh at herself and share with you the most practical solutions to problems, but her healing powers, even regarding the mundane, were truly astounding.
More than once I was caught off-guard when Gail described something that had happened in my life--a specific event and the approximate date--that I had never mentioned to her! That was Gail and her magic. Then we would work on releasing the negative energy I still held surrounding the event. I learned that there is a difference between placing blame and recognizing responsibility; a person may have been responsible for hurting me, but I could choose to stop blaming them and thus let the event go, finally and forever. It sounds simple when I say it, but it was only a simple process because Gail made it that way. I had struggled with some of those things for many years.
One of the most amazing displays of Gail's power was an episode that I still remember vividly. When I would release all of my attachment to some negative event in my life, Gail would say something like, "Ooh, that was a big energy shift." So, I asked her once what she meant by "energy shift." She explained that there's an actual, physical energy release when we let go of attachments or change beliefs, and that she could see that energy wave and determine if it was a small (unimportant) or big (important) shift. After my dubious response to that, she asked if I'd like to see an energy shift for myself, and I answered, "Sure." She closed her eyes, concentrated intently for about twenty seconds, and then my entire field of vision began to quiver and move, as one might see heat waves rising from the sands in a desert. I closed my eyes, re-opened them, rubbed them and shook my head; the energy waves did not disappear but even increased in intensity. After a minute the waves suddenly disappeared, and then Gail immediately opened her eyes. When I told her what I'd seen, she nodded and said, "That's what I see." I never had to question Gail's powers after that. (I have since learned that "energy shifts" are fundamental to alternative healing practices, such as yoga and acupuncture, although it's rare that you see them.)
Gail and I explored a lot of things in five years. Much of the early exploration was focused on love relationships, since my original reason for seeing Gail was to get past a failed relationship. In the first three weeks of our work together, she totally surprised me by her insights and understanding, and I quickly got past the disappointment I'd felt from the break-up. Then I learned about the mistakes I'd been making for years. Probably the greatest lesson I learned from Gail was how to choose a woman who was good for me and "easy to live with," rather than someone who might "look good on paper" (my term), but needed rescuing from something or someone.
I had always chosen women based on how similar we were, but Gail used a wonderful analogy to debunk that theory. I call it her "airplane and rope" analogy. Two people can be as different as a rope and an airplane, as long as the airplane is attached to the rope and the rope is anchored to the ground. The airplane teaches the rope to fly, while the rope keeps the airplane grounded. That can work very well in a relationship.
Another life lesson that I learned from Gail is the art of manipulating people in a good way. I made the statement to her once that I didn't like people who manipulated others, and she responded, "We all manipulate others. We just have to learn the difference between good and bad manipulation." She gave the example of parents manipulating their kids to do homework all the time, which is an example of good manipulation. It's a very useful tool for anyone to possess, and I learned it from Gail.
I chose to continue working with Gail once or twice a month until she and her husband, Ron Yukon, moved to Arkansas. Thereafter, we spoke a few times each year, mostly to catch up on each other's life. When I divorced from my first wife in early 1998, I immediately called Gail, and her compassion and comforting words were extraordinary. She was my "first responder," and she set me on the course I needed for recovery. I still give this advice to each friend who is going through an especially hard time:
- Choose five simple things you can do to nurture yourself every day, and do them. Those are your islands on which you feel safe. I chose things like having a cup of tea and taking a walk with my dog. I allowed myself to feel safe during those activities, and I allowed myself to hurt at other times.
- Allow yourself to hurt and cry as much as you want. Don't hold back for any reason.
- Form a "support team" of people with whom you can communicate as often and as much as you need. I found six people, including Gail, and they were my lifelines to normalcy. I talked with them a lot.
- Find a local psychotherapist you can work with face-to-face. I found a wonderful woman, Kathy Wilkins, through one of my support team people. When I asked Gail what I should say to Kathy, she told me to ask her to "be a witness to my grief." Kathy liked that phrase; no one had ever made that request.
Gail pushed me to be a happy person. Although Gail and I covered a lot of territory in my years of working with her, it consistently brought me to a better place in my life. After one especially probing session, I asked her what the purpose was of all the hard work I had been doing. Her direct, all-inclusive answer was "to be happy." I realized at about that time that I had changed from being a fundamentally unhappy person who had happy moments to a person who was fundamentally happy and had sad moments. That was a huge shift in my life.
In effect, Gail gave me a paradigm for being a happy person. Part of that paradigm was honestly facing events in my childhood. Part of it was in learning how to better choose relationships in my adult life. And a big part of it was in recognizing my own powers--what I could control and what I couldn't.
One of my fondest memories of Gail was when we parted after our last face-to-face session, almost five years after we'd begun. She hugged me and told me that she thought I'd changed more than any man she had ever worked with. That felt right to me, because I had really worked in becoming a happy person.
And finally.... Gail died of complications from diabetes on November 3, 2011. Her husband, Ron Yukon, called to tell me shortly after her death, and we talked and cried for an hour. A week later, Ron did an amazing thing--he hosted a memorial for Gail on the phone! Moderated by another close friend of his, the memorial allowed all of us to tell stories about Gail, and dozens of people phoned in from all over the country to take part.
Gail holds the distinction of being the last remarkable person in my life. Certainly I've known many people who were remarkable in their own right since then, but no one has had to reach out to change my life's path. Gail's push set me in my final right direction.
In my last telephone session with Gail in March, 1998, I voiced the fear that, after my divorce, I would never find another woman to marry. Gail immediately responded, "Oh, you'll find someone who you'll marry. In fact, you already know her and will meet her again next September." It was a few years later that Gail reminded me that she had told me that, and it had turned out to be true. Nine years after first meeting Suzanne, I met her a second time in September, 1998, and we married in April of 2002. Gail never ceased to amaze me.