Thursday, February 28, 2013

Born to Suffer

While seeing a patient today I thought, not for the first time, about my aunt. They’re both elderly, originally from New York, long widowed, and burdened by the loss of their only child. Despite being anxious, perfectionistic worriers they have, over the course of their long lives, shown great strength and a capacity to endure. 

Unfortunately, however, each sees herself as a person who has suffered greater hardship than any other human being; each sees herself as continually singled out by the powers that be to endure unimaginable pain.  Although both have suffered great pains and losses, their view of themselves as the one who suffers the most, makes it impossible for them to enjoy their day-to-day lives, makes it impossible for them to take joy from life’s simple pleasures.

In today’s session, for example, my patient Rose and I had the following interaction.

“They changed the place of my card game tonight. I don’t know why they had to do that. They’re always doing things that make my life more difficult,” she says anxiously. “We’ve always played at Barbara’s house. Now we’re playing at this new girl’s house. They said it’s easy to get to, but it’s dark and I’m afraid I won’t find it. I drove by to see where it was, but that’s in the daylight. What if I can’t find it at night?”

With my patient, I am understanding and empathetic.  She is, after all, not a young woman. She feels alone, vulnerable, unsure of herself.

“I understand that it’s scary to drive someplace new at night. Perhaps you could go with someone,” I add trying to be helpful.

“Phyllis did offer to drive. But she sometimes drinks too much. I wouldn’t want to be in a car with her if she was drinking. We could get in an accident.”

Fighting a bit of exasperation, I point out to Rose how she is spoiling her own pleasure. “You look forward to this game all week. You say what good players they are and how you always end up having a good conversation. I wonder if by worrying so much about finding the place or if Phyllis might get in an accident, you’re spoiling the whole evening for yourself.”

“I’m not spoiling it. They spoiled it by changing the place we’re playing. And now I have to suffer for it.”  

It is at this point I think about my aunt. At 93 my aunt who has emphysema and heart disease underwent abdominal surgery, choosing surgery over hospice when given only those two options, displaying the grit and determination she is so often capable of. She came through it beautifully. After a few days some fluid settled in her lungs making it more difficult for her to breathe. The problem was resolved relatively quickly. 

While she had the breathing problems, however, every time I saw her or spoke with her she bemoaned her fate. “Why does everything always happen to me?” Or, “Somebody up there doesn’t like me.” Or, “What did I do to deserve all this trouble?”

I finally lost all patience. “You’re 93! You just survived abdominal surgery! You should be celebrating, shouting for joy! This is just a blip along the road. You’ll be fine.”  

So the question is, why am I so much more accepting of my patient’s complaints and worries than my aunt’s? Yes, I can become a bit exasperated by my patient, but in general I am far more tolerant and understanding. I could say the answer is simple: when I’m wearing my therapist hat I’m expected to be more tolerant so I am. And there is probably some truth in that. But I think the answer is more complex.

This aunt is my father’s sister, the father I always hoped to change and make different. He had the same doomsday approach to life, the same conviction that he was marked to suffer, that life was all about suffering. So probably, although I don’t consciously think of my father when I’m with my aunt, his ghost stays with me as I continue trying to fix that which has always been and always will be unfixable.

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