I first met Michele Toomey as one of two referrals from my first therapist.
The first referral appointment was a disaster. The therapist’s office was furnished with glass furniture with chrome, a “professional” corporate look that felt cold and sterile.
The therapist gave me a questionnaire to complete that delegated my sexual orientation to sexual history, how many times, who with, what kind of sex.
Lesbian was not even a category on the questionnaire. Homosexual was the singular term for my sexual orientation. I wrote a paragraph about the German origin and definition of the term homosexual, left the appointment and never returned.
Clearly the woman was an uniformed professional in an age of feminist enlightenment that she was not connected with as a therapist. I questioned how my first therapist could have given me such a referral and scheduled my next appointment.
Moving on to Michele as my second referral was an anxious undertaking, soon relieved.
Michele had an office suite in an old Catholic school building - I remember thinking when I first walked into it how comfortable the space was…a golden yellow stained glass window in her office reverentially framed her casual appearance, where she sat dressed, in jeans and an L L Bean rugby shirt. My kind of therapist for the time in the 1980’s. And, Michele knew about feminism.
I came to embrace our professional work together using her model for psychology, the culmination of her years of development of her approach to therapy, in what she called Liberation Psychology.
Our first conversation ended in our agreement to partner in our relationship and in her absolute insistence that the Sisters of Mercy owed me an apology for their treatment of me in the 1960’s when I left their order. It took me a year to write my letter to them and when I did it and sent it to them they replied with an apology.
Our therapy relationship continued with planning my transition from my corporate job that was downsizing - they were then in their third round of downsizing - I needed to make a career change after twenty- seven years and Michele was my “life partner” in planning my life change.
Michele co-navigated my life change over the next three years as I worked to get into law school, was rejected two years in a row, then accepted by a law school out of state.
When I eventually moved out of state I lost contact with Michele, until ten years later, when I met my own in life “partner” and we both had therapy sessions together with Michele over the course of our first year together.
Another period of ten years went by and I returned to my therapy relationship with Michele, alone, after my partner’s death. I commuted from NYC to Michele’s office in Connecticut on a regular basis until this week.
Michele and I resumed our relationship in a time of deep grief. She journeyed with me through this period with compassionate understanding of my deep loss in her ever demanding insistence of claiming each of my stages of grief with integrity. I found her willingness to do this overwhelming - no experience of my grief over the past four years was unwelcome. When I finally came to a stage of “peace that passes all understanding” I was ready for it and moved into a joy in life I had not felt for some time. Michele and I had done my grief work together with integrity.
Integrity was the hallmark of Michele’s life’s work. She was unwavering of it in recognizing each opportunity to practice integrity, to improve conflicts with others, life experiences, personal goals, all with integrity as the underlying foundation through each experience.
This week as I prepared for an appointment with her I learned of her sudden and unexpected death. I am in denial of the reality of this news. I want to undo the message that Michele has died.
Michele framed each of my life’s challenges as “life is a journey, not a test” or her non- judgmental encouragement and therapeutic approach to continue life’s struggles without self blame but with an integrity of claiming life’s journey.
I claim my journey with Michele over these years as a gift I cannot repay except to continue with her model for integrity in my life in every relationship that I have with others.
I have, by grace and by chance, the legacy of her life to use for the last chapter of my own life.
I am hopeful that Michele will be watching over me to keep me on my journey with “integrity” going forward in life, as she encouraged me to do so, these oh, so many years!