Friday, March 10, 2023


He sits fidgeting in the chair, alternately looking down at his hands and staring at me. I don’t usually treat 17 year old boys, but his mother was frantic when she called, convinced that her oldest son David was going to commit suicide. 

After several minutes of silence I say, “Your mother was very worried about you. Have you been thinking of killing yourself?”

He wrings his hands, continuing to move jerkily in the chair. “It’s a lie,” he says, almost in a whisper. 

“What’s a lie?”

He swallows. Tears brim in his eyes. “I don’t want to kill myself. I just made that up.” Pause. “Like always.” Pause. “I always lie. I don’t know if I can tell the truth. You know, like that guy Santos, the Congressman,” his words now coming out in a rush. “I wasn’t sure I could tell you the truth. I’m still not sure, but I’m going to try. I have to try. I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the country when I grow up. I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the school right now!”

I flash on a childhood friend when we were both in the third grade. She told the class she had three siblings, although she only had one. Since we lived in the same building the teacher asked me if it was true. I didn’t want to get my friend into trouble so I said I didn’t know. I felt compassion for my friend. I’d seen her mother scream at her and beat her with a belt. I feel a similar compassion for this young man who sits across from me. I’ve known compulsive liars, people who wanted to gain an advantage over others or who enjoyed the power of putting one over on someone. But my guess so far is that isn’t David. 

“Have you always lied?” I ask David gently.

“It’s been worse since high school. But… but I guess I always lied at home. I lied to protect my Mom, to make her feel better. I’d tell her about my friends in school, about how well I did playing soccer. Those were all lies.” Pause. “I know I didn’t make her feel better by telling her I wanted to kill myself. I guess I do sometimes think I would be better off not being here, but I know I said it like I was going to do it any minute now.”

“Why did you want to give her that impression, David?”

“I guess I felt desperate, like I have to talk to someone, to someone I can tell the truth.”

“And what is the truth?”

“I’m a bad person. I hate so many people. I hate my Dad, my younger sister, the jocks in school. Sometimes I even hate my Mom and that makes me really bad.”


“Because she tries so hard. And I know how much she loves me.”

“She tries so hard to…?”

“To make everyone happy. To get along with my Dad. To keep him from yelling at me. But she can’t. And in the end she’ll say, ‘Well you know your Dad just wants what’s best for you’ or ‘You know your Dad’s under a lot of pressure.’”

“So in the end you feel she sides with him.”

He nods his head. 

“And that feels pretty awful.”

“Yes. But I shouldn’t hate her for that. She’s just trying to do what’s best, what’s best for everyone.”

“But maybe doing what’s best for everyone isn’t what’s best for you.”

“I guess.”

“What would you like her to do?” 

“To tell my Dad to fucking lay off!! Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I apologize. I…”

“You don’t have to apologize, David. Here you get to say anything and everything you want.” Pause. “Has your Dad always picked on you, David?”

He nods. “He’s a college football coach. As you can see I’m not exactly made in his image. I’m this little, puny, ugly kid who’s sucked at sports all my life. He’s the life of the party. I’d rather go read a book. He can’t stand looking at me. So I make things up. I make myself more than I am.”

“I’m so sorry, David, sorry that your Dad can’t appreciate you for the caring, sensitive person you are.”

“Sensitive is the last thing my father wants me to be. He constantly accuses me of being too sensitive. And if I’m so caring, how come I just scared my Mom?”

“My guess is that you lie as a way of expressing your anger, as a way of fighting back and not being the puny, too-sensitive kid.”  

“I’m not sure I get that.”

“That’s fine, David. It’s kind of a heavy statement to throw at you just as we’re ending this session. We can pick up from here next time.”

“So you will work with me?”

“Definitely. It would be my pleasure.”

Friday, February 10, 2023

Please Help Me

 “My name is Lisa Henry. I’m forty. And I’m desperate. If you can’t help me I don’t know what I’ll do,” says this clearly anxious woman whose appearance reminds me of the stereotypical 50s housewife, page boy hair style, pink dress gathered at the waist, flaring outward. “Can you help me?”

“I think you’ll first need to tell me what you need help with.”

“My son.”


“He… he just told me that he’s … that he’s gay,” she says taking a deep breath. “There, I said it!” 

“I gather that’s a problem for you?”

She looks startled. “Of course it’s a problem. How could it not be!”

“Is it a problem for your son?”

“He says it isn’t, but that’s impossible. He was a normal boy. He played baseball. He was always popular.” Pause. “And he grew up in our family.”

“And what was it like growing up in your family?”

“We’re a Christian family. My husband is always praying and reading the Bible. And of course we pray as a family before every meal. We eat together. There are seven of us. My son – the one I’m talking about – he’s my eldest. My husband will never, ever accept this. I’m afraid he’d disown my son, but that’s not going to be necessary because you’re going to help me, right?”

“Mrs. Henry, exactly what do you want me to help you with?”

“Telling me how to convince my son he’s not gay.”

“I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can do that. I can’t convince anyone that he isn’t gay and I can’t help anyone to change in any way who isn’t in my office and who doesn’t want to change.”

“That’s the first thing we need to do. We need to convince him he does want to change, that he isn’t gay and if he needs to see you that’s fine.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Henry. I can’t do that. I can help you try to come to terms with your son being gay…”

“No way,” she interrupts. “You have no idea what you’re saying! I could never accept such a thing. And even if I could … could … I don’t know, … pretend it’s not happening, my husband would never, ever be able to even look at my son again.”

I realize I have been so taken aback by this woman’s request, that I have been debating with her, rather than dealing with her underlying feelings. “That’s really sad, Mrs. Henry. You must be feeling very sad and scared that there’s going to be this tremendous breach in your family and that you might even lose your son.”

“No, no, no. That’s not going to happen. It can’t happen again. It can’t,” she says, starting to cry.

“I’m sorry, what do you mean it can’t happen again?”

“That’s what happened to me.”

I look at her, totally bewildered.

“I lost my family,” she says in a whisper. “My family were orthodox Jews. When I married outside the religion my family sat shiva for me. I haven’t seen any of them since.”

“I’m so sorry. That must be terribly painful.”

She nods, as tears fall down her face. “But I thought I put it behind me. I made my own family. And I was always going to have that family, the family I have now. You see, that’s why you have to help me, you have to help me not lose another family.”

“I understand why you feel so desperate, but there are some things I can help you with and some things I can’t help you with. I can help you to grieve the family you lost, your family of origin. I can perhaps help you to accept your son’s gayness. And I might even be able to help you find a way to talk with your husband about your son…”

She shakes her head vigorously.

“I understand that seems impossible to you now and it may be impossible, but I can help you to maintain a relationship with your son regardless of how your husband feels…”

“No, that’s not possible either. He would never allow it.”

“Do you love your husband, Mrs. Henry?”

“Yes, of course, what kind of question is that?”

“Does he love you?”

She hesitates for a moment but says, “Yes, yes of course.”

“So your relationship is important to both of you. Perhaps that means you could talk, negotiate…”

“No. My husband makes all the decisions.”

“And did your father make all the decisions?”

“Yes, yes he did. How did you know that?” 

“Different religion, but similar way of being in the world.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Mrs. Henry, our time is almost up for today and I don’t know if you want to continue working with me or not. I can’t help your son be not gay. I can help you deal with the very painful situation you’re in now, which also brings up a very painful loss in the past. But you’ll have to decide if that’s the kind of work you want to do before you decide whether or not to work with me.”

“I don’t know.” Pause. “Can I think about it?” 

“Of course. Just call and let me know what you decide. And know that regardless I wish you the best.”  

Friday, January 13, 2023

Another Year


“I’m here because of my wife,” Kevin begins. He’s a good-looking man who I judge to be in his early 50s, wavy brown hair beginning to be streaked with just a hint of gray. “She gave me a really nice Christmas present – a trip to St. Barts, just the two of us. Our kids decided they wanted to spend the holidays with their boyfriends’ families, so we were on our own, two lovebirds.” Pause. “But turns out she had an agenda.” He sighs. “It was all a plot to get me into therapy. Said it was a new year, time to press the reset key. She says I’m uptight and angry all the time. And of course as soon as she said that I got angry which only proved her point.”

“So do you see yourself as angry and uptight?”

“I can get angry, but I always think I have a good reason.”

“Like when your wife said you were uptight and angry all the time?”

“Yeah,” he says, with an edge to his voice. “Like you’re telling me that’s not a good reason to get angry! She blind-sided me. Here I think we’re going on this romantic trip and actually she just wants to get me into therapy. It’s not right!”

I feel as though Kevin is daring me to prove his anger isn’t legitimate and I struggle to not engage with him on that level. “So what do you feel right now, right at this moment?”

“That’s a typical therapist question, at least from what I see on TV, not from personal knowledge.”


“Oh yeah, that’s another therapist trick, silence.”

I again struggle to not pick up the gauntlet he’s thrown down. “I’m wondering why you decided to come into therapy, to do as your wife asked.”

“I just told her I’d try it out.”

“So is this a trial session?”

“I suppose.”

“Do you feel invested in not having it work? Because it feels like we’re almost in a fencing match. Or maybe there’s a part of you that really wants to be here.”

He sighs. “Actually my sister saw you. She said you were really good, that you helped her a lot.”

“Wait, I saw your sister?”

“Yes, Alison Bentley. Different last name. Quite a long time ago. You helped her deal with the sudden death of her husband.”

“If I’d known you were related to someone I’d seen, I would have referred you to someone else.”

“Why? Allison’s fine with it. She doesn’t even live here anymore, moved to Texas with her new husband. She’s good.”

“I’m glad to hear Allison is good. But it strikes me as really interesting that first you come in today and are unsure whether you want to be here and then you tell me I saw your sister and now I’m unsure of whether we can work together.”

“But why? You have a head start on me. You know the backstory, my insane family of origin, which should make our work quicker.”

“I’m just taking a stab here, but is it your experience that if someone moves closer to you, you pull away and if they move away, you move closer? Sort of like the fencing match I mentioned.”

“Definitely! You are good! How’d you come up with that?”

“Well, first you’re angry at being here and only doing it for your wife, but when I express reservations, you suddenly want to be here. Seems like you want to create distance, unless the other person – in this instance, me – pulls back.”

“I get it.”

“But I don’t know where that leaves us. I’m truly not sure I’d be the best therapist for you even though, yes, I know some about your family of origin. But I know about it from your sister’s perspective, not from yours. That’s not always helpful. Your subjective experience has to be different than her subjective experience.”

“That sounds like psychobabble.”

“Are you getting angry right now?”

“A little.”

“So this time I’m backing away and you’re still getting angry. Is it that you’re not getting what at least a part of you wants, namely me?”

“Yeah. I hate not to get what I want. Makes me mad and frustrated and all around pissed. Just like my father. And it especially makes me mad if the reason I’m being rejected … I mean the reason I’m not getting what I want makes no sense.”

“I don’t know about you, Kevin, but I found this to be a complicated session. I’m not sure what I think would be best for you and I’m not really sure what you want. Our time is almost up, but what if we agree to make another appointment and each think about it during the week and discuss it next session?”

“I guess.”

“You still sound pissed off.”

“I just don’t get what the big deal would be your seeing me after you saw my sister.”

“Well maybe during the week you can think about what you’d like to get out of therapy and we can talk some more about it.”

“Okay,” he says, half-heartedly. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Family Visits


“I can’t believe my wife and I actually arranged to see both set of parents in the space of a month,” Harvey begins, a good-looking man in his forties. “Thanksgiving with her family was bad enough, people trying to be polite and pretend that they care about each other and that they care about our kids. I was surprised they even remembered the kids’ names. That’s how often they talk to them. I guess they do occasionally connect on Facebook, but of course my kids aren’t on Facebook that often – for old people they say. My 13 year old kept rolling her eyes when they tried to engage her around soccer.” He sighs. “And in a few weeks we go to my family. That will be different.”

“Different how?” I ask.

“Different in every way possible. I’ve told you about my family, screamers. No one is polite. No one cares about anything but hearing themselves talk. Except my mother. She’s different. Of course my brother will be there. If he and I don’t get into it I’d be shocked.”

“What do you imagine that looking like?”

“I wouldn’t rule out his throwing a swing at me.”

“Like when you were kids?”


“You told me he was always jealous of you.”

“Definitely. Even though he was my father’s favorite. But that didn’t count for much since my father was such a loser. IS such a loser. In fact, it’s worse – if that’s possible – since he “retired.” Now he doesn’t even pretend he’s looking for work. Sits at home all day, drinking no doubt, getting into fights with my mother and watching Fox News all day.”

“You sound very contemptuous of your father.”

“You got that right.”

“How does it feel to be contemptuous of your father?”

“Familiar. I don’t think I was ever NOT contemptuous of him. Of course, I wouldn’t have said contemptuous as a kid.”

“What would you have said?”

“That he was … Wow! I was about to say that he was a scary jackass. I sort of forgot how scary he was. He was. He was big and blustery and would scream at the drop of a hat. And he was often screaming at me which would delight my brother to no end.”

“Where was your mother in all this?”

“Silent. I knew she felt bad for me, but she was totally cowed by him. She’d say she didn’t want to take ‘sides.’”

“Did you feel angry with her about that?”

“No. I guess I needed one good parent and she was definitely the good parent.” He smiles. “I still love her a lot. She wasn’t perfect but she’s a good person and she’s a great grandma. My kids love her to death even though we don’t visit very often for obvious reasons.”

“Do you ever invite her to visit you?” 

“All the time. But she won’t come without him and I’m not inviting that chaos into my home.”

“I wonder if you’re still afraid of your father.”

“Now? No, what could he do to me? I could knock him out in a heartbeat.”

“And how would you feel about that, about knocking him out?”

Harvey opens his mouth to respond and then closes it. “I was about to say great, but that’s not really true. I guess a part of me would feel great about it, but then he is my father. I guess I’d feel guilty. Yeah, you’re not supposed to be slugging your father.”

“I just had a thought. I wonder if you feel sad and disappointed that you don’t have a Dad you can look up to, one you’d enjoy visiting.”

“I never thought of that, but yes. Even as a kid I was disappointed that my Dad wasn’t more of… I guess that he wasn’t more. That he wasn’t more educated, smarter, more of a role model.”

“So maybe what else bothers you about visiting your parents is that every time you can’t escape feeling that disappointment. And maybe you’re disappointed in more than your Dad. Maybe you’re disappointed that your brother isn’t more of a friend and that your Mom wasn’t more actively on your side.”

“I don’t know about that part about my Mom, but I certainly agree with you about my father and brother. I wonder if knowing that will make the visit any easier.”

“Well, if you could accept that your father and brother are going to be the same as they’ve always been, maybe you can avoid having even the smallest of expectations and therefore be less hurt and less angry.”

“Maybe. I guess we’ll see if a few weeks.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A White Lie

 “It was my birthday this past Saturday,” MaryAnn begins smiling, combing her fingers through her long, silky hair.

“Congratulations,” I respond enthusiastically, “Twenty, right?”

MaryAnn pauses, drops her head, then raises it again to look
directly at me. “Not exactly. I turned 18.”

I stare at her, startled. “But we’ve been working together for two years. You told me you were 18 when we started.” 

“Yes, I did. I lied. But that’s the only thing I’ve lied about.”

“But you were a minor when we began working together,” I say, quite distressed. “I would have needed your parents’ permission to see you.”

“Exactly! That’s why I told you I was 18. Could you imagine my parents allowing me to see you and air all their dirty secrets. It’s no big deal, just a little white lie.”

I’m stunned. MaryAnn and I had what I thought was a close, intense bond, with a heated transference/countertransference relationship. I quickly became the mother she wished she had, not the socialite who left her daughter to be raised by a series of nannies while she spent her husband’s money throwing elaborate parties or meeting a series of lovers somewhere in the world. For my part, I usually felt motherly and protective towards her, unless her excessive demands made me pull back in either anger or self-defense. Her “little white lie” feels like a betrayal and I struggle to make sense of it.

“Come on!” MaryAnn says. “You look like I’ve committed some terrible sin! Why is it such a big deal?”

“Well, first you made me complicit in breaking the law – seeing you without parental consent.”

“But you didn’t know!!” she interrupts.

“Second, this is a tremendous breach of trust, of what I assumed was a good faith relationship between us.”

“It is.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about it. I lied so I could see you. What’s wrong with that?”

“How did you pay me every month?” I ask.

“You know money isn’t an issue. There are huge amounts of cash lying around, or signed checks. Neither of my parents cares how much money I spend. They never check up on me.”

“So you were stealing money to pay me?”

“I wasn’t stealing. I told you. I can spend money on whatever I want. They never ask.”

Through what feels like my foggy mind, some thoughts vaguely occur to me. “You know, MaryAnn, one of your complaints about your parents is that they’ve always had relationships with other people, while continuing on with what feels to you like their sham marriage.” 

“That’s not the same thing!”

“You’ve grown up in a household where lying and deceit was second nature. It’s not so hard to imagine you’d also lie to get what you want.”

“I told you, I had no choice!”

“Perhaps your parents would say the same thing. And, besides, if your parents are so indifferent to what you do or don’t do, how do you know they wouldn’t be fine about your being in therapy.”

“I told you, because they don’t want all their secrets out there! Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Maybe I should have just said yes, I’m 20.”

“So that brings me to another issue, MaryAnn, maybe the most important issue in terms of our relationship.”

She sighs, exasperatedly. 

I continue. “A lie keeps distance. Your lie kept distance between us, just as your parents’ lies keeps distance between them and between the three of you. Maybe, unconsciously, it was important that you keep a distance between us, maybe you couldn’t risk being closer to me than to your parents.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. I’ve always wanted more from you, wanted you to take care of me, had fantasies of your being at my wedding one day, meeting my children, all that.”

“That’s what you’ve wanted consciously, but I wonder if unconsciously it would have felt very risky to be closer to me than to your parents, maybe it would have felt like I was replacing them, doing away with them. However not ideal they’ve been as parents, they’re the only parents you’ve ever had or will have.”

“I don’t know, maybe. But what now? What happens between us?”

“What would you like to happen?”

“I’d like you to forgive me and for us to go on as before.”

“Now that I have what feels to me like a psychological understanding of what prompted your lying, I’m no longer so shocked or angry. As far as us going on as before, if that means do I still care about you and want us to continue working together, the answer is certainly yes. But relationships always change, MaryAnn, and this relationship will definitely be impacted by what occurred between us today. For sure I’ll be looking to see if there are other ways you create distance in our relationship.” 

“I am sorry. But I’m still not sure I would have done anything differently.”

“I hear you.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Beyond Afraid II

Frank rushes into my office, words tumbling out of his mouth as he walks. “The doctors keep telling my Mom she’s going to be all right. But she’s still scared. I am too. How do we know fibroids can’t turn into cancer? But now I’m scared about something else, I’m scared you’re going to take my Mom away from me, like you said in our last session.”

“Stop a moment, Frank. Take a breath. I remember saying I have neither the power nor the wish to take your Mom away from you,” I say, feeling as though I’m talking to a young child rather than a 36 year old man.

“But you said we’re too close!”

“And what do you think? It’s way more important what you think than what I think.” 

“That’s impossible. You’re the professional.”

“And you’re a person who gets to think for himself.”

Frank looks at me confusedly. 

I continue. “I think you said last week that your Mom didn’t want you to think differently from her. Is that correct?”

He nods.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Well, I do usually think the same as my Mom.”

“Can you tell me some of the things you agree on?”

“We both like funny movies, not sad ones. We like Italian food but not Indian food.” Pause. “We believe in being good to people.” Pause. “We wish my sister would come home from India.”

“Can you think of anything you don’t agree on?”


Frank fidgets in his chair. “Aren’t you going to say something? I don’t like just sitting here. Makes me even more nervous.”

“Can you say what you feel nervous about?”

“The silence.”

“What about the silence.”

“I don’t know what you’re thinking.” Pause. “I’m afraid I’m not being a good patient. I’m afraid you won’t like me.”

“You know, Frank, right now I find myself feeling really sad for you, sad that you’re so afraid of not being liked or accepted, that you’ll turn yourself into a pretzel trying to please.”

“And that makes you sad for me?” he asks incredulously.

“It does. Why does that surprise you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone ever said they were sad for me. Except maybe when my father died.” 

 “Do you ever feel sad for you?”

“No. Except when my father died. But even then I felt more sorry for my mother.”

“When you do feel sad, for yourself or whomever, do you feel less anxious?”

“Gosh, I’d have to think about that. Should I feel less anxious?”

“I can’t tell you how you should feel. Your feelings are all yours and you get to feel however you feel.”

“That’s not what my Mom says. She says there are right and wrong ways to feel and that I should always feel the right way.”

“So would that mean if you didn’t feel the so-called right way you were being bad?”


“I imagine that always trying to feel the supposedly right way could make you really anxious since you’d be constantly worried about trying to control feelings you can’t control. There are no right or wrong feelings. We feel whatever we feel. So it’s like you’re trying to do the impossible, trying to make sure you don’t feel anything you think you’re not supposed to.”

“You don’t believe there are good or bad feelings?!” he asks, shocked.

“No, I don’t.”

“What if I … if I … if I felt I wanted to scream at you right now?”

“You can scream at me whenever you like. But that’s not a feeling. Maybe you’re saying what if you felt really, really angry with me.”

“I can’t be angry.”

“So that’s one of those bad feelings according to your mother.”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Well, I disagree. I think you can feel as angry as you feel, as long as you don’t put those feelings into an action that hurts me, like slapping me.”

“I would never, never do anything like that!!”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. And because you wouldn’t you’ve just said why feelings aren’t bad. They’re your internal feelings, inside you. No one ever has to know they exist unless you choose to tell them.”

“I feel really nervous right now.”

“I believe you and I apologize for making you so anxious. I’ve said a lot of things today that are very different from what you’re used to hearing and thinking, and that can certainly threaten your sense of both yourself and the world. That can be pretty scary.”

“Thank you.”


“For understanding. For not getting mad at me for being anxious.”

“Here, Frank, you get to feel whatever you feel – sad, angry, anxious. I hope we can help you to feel less anxious and I believe that will happen as you become more comfortable with all your other feelings. But change doesn’t happen overnight, so neither of us should expect more from you than you’re comfortable with.”

 “Thanks again. I do feel a little better.”