Like many of my posts, I can only take partial credit for this one. I can’t tell you where the lion’s share of the credit should go, because as I mentioned before I never talk about patients online. What I can say is that this post is one of the reasons I so enjoy working with gamers. Gamers are extremely creative, whether they believe it or not, and I learn so much about how to integrate gaming into my work from them!
World of Warcraft, especially when you begin to play, uses a lot of quests. A quest begins when you see a non-player (robot) character with a yellow “!” on her head. Upon clicking the NPC, a scroll appears giving you the option to accept the quest, telling you the backstory of it, and what your reward for completion will be. You complete the quest, and when you come back the “!” has become a “?” and you turn in the quest and get your reward.
There is a specific form of quest called the escort quest. To complete the escort quest you have to walk with the character a certain distance and protect them from whatever monsters may pop out. So for example you see a night-elf in a cage with a “!” and when you talk to her she says something like “thank you for freeing me, let’s get out of this cave!” You walk alongside her as she makes her way to safety, at which point she thanks you and rewards you with loot.
Therapy is an escort quest in many ways. We meet the patient where they are stuck, and we walk alongside them as they struggle through their life for a time. We try to help them face whatever monsters pop out on the way. And hopefully at some point, they get where they need to go, and we collect our loot. If the escort quest of therapy goes well, the patient ends up in a more rewarding place, and the therapist gets the reward of a job well-done and some money. If the escort quest does not go well, we try again, or the patient looks for another therapist better-geared to help them complete their quest.
The term non-player character is misleading, because it may give the therapist a false sense of importance and focus. It is the non-player character that is in the midst of their story, trapped in their history and circumstances. We are the interlopers, hopefully helpful interlopers, but interlopers nonetheless. The patient will one day leave our office and walk away from us back into their world with all it’s epic mythology. The fact that they disappear from our lives doesn’t mean that it was all about us, it means it is time for us to find another person with a “!” on their head.
Therapists can learn a lot from the concept of the escort quest, but patients can too. This concept can be extremely useful in couples therapy. Often we find that one member of a couple overfunctions and another underfunctions. The overfunctioning one may try to goad or encourage, cajol or threaten the underfunctioning one into change. The underfunctioning one may feel increased resentment and anxiety, and hunker down in their stuckness. Anyone who has ever been in couples therapy has probably seen this on either side of the therapy chair.
When one member of the couple brings up a problem, the therapist can ask them, “is this an escort quest?” In other words, who owns this problem, who has the agency to do something about it, and who doesn’t. Sometimes it is an escort quest, such as making plans to have a family. Sometimes it is not an escort quest, such as one person getting sober or finding a job. It is important to know when a quest is solo and act accordingly. Gamer couples can use this idea themselves and gently remind each other that this is or is not an escort quest.
Other examples can include overbearing parents who hover over their adolescents while they do their homework and call their teachers in a rage when their child gets a B in AP Science. Your child’s education is ultimately not an escort quest. And with adolescents, good parenting requires the acceptance that more and more quests are solo quests, however much we may wish they weren’t. Trust me, you’ll appreciate this later when you do not have your 37 year-old child living at home unemployed. And if they do end up in that situation, it still isn’t too late to remind them and yourself that their life is not an escort quest, and help them launch.
Lastly, there is the example of hospice. My experience working with death and dying has shown me that hospice work is in many ways an escort quest. A patient’s dying and death is their own, but we can walk alongside them on the way. This sort of escort quest is a very powerful one, and the feelings when that quest is completed and the patient goes onward alone can be extremely poignant. We are reminded that we were an important but minor participant in the patient’s life. One of the best analogies of this is embodied in the final clip of the Return of the King (I recommend you watch on mute, the song ruins it if you don’t):
Take a look at your life, your relationships, or your practice: What are escort quests? What aren’t? In a real sense, becoming able to distinguish between what is and isn’t an escort quest IS the reward.