Leslie, the patient who came in the previous session with her husband who had been diagnosed and treated for lung cancer, looks far happier today.
“Thank you so much, that was such a wonderful session last time – it was so helpful.”
“I’m glad and you’re most welcome,” I say smiling. “I gather that you and Harvey have been able to be closer?”
“He’s trying. I do think he’s still depressed, low energy, but he’s definitely trying to move closer, he feels more like his old self.”
“And have you talked about both your fears about his dying?” I ask.
“Were we supposed to?” Leslie asks, surprised.
“Well,” I say hesitantly, “It’s not that you’re supposed to, but I thought we talked about it being helpful for you both to be able to talk about what’s on your minds, as opposed to avoiding it.”
Leslie sighs. “It’s hard for him.”
“For him?” I ask. I am aware that I’m becoming a bit annoyed and try to understand what’s going on for me. I’ve known for some time that Leslie is an avoider, she prefers to see life through rose colored glasses, and to ignore the more unpleasant facets of life. Perhaps that contributed to her husband not wanting to “burden her” with his fears. But I suspect that my annoyance comes from a deeper source, from my mother’s strong tendency to be a similar Pollyanna. It served her well. She lived until almost 99, but as her daughter growing up, I resented her unwillingness to either see or deal with my father’s irrational attacks and rages.
“Yes, I wouldn’t want him to feel bad.”
“Perhaps you don’t want either of you to feel bad,” I say, hopefully keeping my annoyance out of my response.
“I suppose so. What’s wrong with that?”
Is that annoyance I now hear in Leslie’s voice? I ignore the feeling and say, “You and Harvey seemed really connected when you were here last time and I think that’s because you were dealing with real issues, with real feelings, with what you both fear. And, as you said, it helped bring you closer together.”
“But it’s so painful! I don’t like feeling that kind of pain.”
“No one likes feeling pain, Leslie, but as you know part of life is filled with painful experiences, with illness, with death.”
“You mean like your husband?”
I feel as though I’ve been slapped. I’m not sure why. I could have experienced Leslie’s statement as her way to try and feel connected to me. But it doesn’t. It feels hostile and I’m taken aback. So I fall into safe therapist mode.
“Do you have any idea why you asked that just then?” I say.
“Well, you brought it up last week.”
This is a side of Leslie I haven’t seen before. This is an angry Leslie. My picture of her alters. Perhaps Ms. Pollyanna is a defense against her hostility.
“And did you feel that I shouldn’t have done that, that I shouldn’t have brought my husband into the picture?” I ask, silently grateful that I hadn’t mentioned my book.
Leslie pouts. “It’s like my sister. Whatever is going on for me, her story is worse.”
“So you felt because my husband died, I had a worse story than you and you wouldn’t be allowed to have your own pain, your own sadnesses?”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes.”
“You know, Leslie, it’s interesting. You came in today telling me how wonderful last session was, how grateful you were to me, when really you were angry with me. I suspect you don’t do that only with me. You present as this “nice,” mostly cheerful, carefree person, when inside there’s a whole caldron of feelings. I always thought there were only sad feelings buried inside, but obviously there are plenty of angry feelings as well.”
How interesting, I think to myself, that was probably true of my mother as well, except she was in a marriage where my father got to express her anger for her. And how doubly interesting that in this session I had assumed that my feelings of annoyance were a result of my past, when actually, as usual, they were a result of the interaction of my feelings and those of the patient.