Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I’m Late!

Marcy comes rushing into my office 15 minutes late, throws herself in my chair, and sighs with exasperation.

“I don’t get it,” proclaims my attractive, 29 year old patient, carefully attired in a grey business suit, looking like the lawyer that she is. “No matter what I tell myself I’m always late. I’m late here, to work, to meet friends! Well, you know!  We’ve been through this a million times. The only thing I’m not late for is court, thank goodness. That’s all I’d need. Get my ass in contempt!” 

Marcy and I have indeed discussed her problem with lateness many times. And it’s not just lateness, but all kinds of procrastination. She wrote college papers the night before they were due, never felt prepared for exams, let mail pile up in her apartment, and now often feels ill-prepared for court.

We have discussed her difficulty with separating, with pulling herself away from one activity or one person to go to another. We have explored procrastination as an expression of her anger, as in, you can’t make me be on time or write this paper or pay this bill. We have set up tasks for her to fulfill – next time you come to see me you will be able to tell me that for one day this past week you were on time for every appointment. She is never able to fulfill these agreements.

I like Marcy. She is warm, engaging, and smart. I’ve gotten used to her lateness and don’t have much feeling about it. I’m sorry that her sessions are abbreviated, but I’ve accommodated to the shorter time. Marcy leaves promptly at the designated time, never objects, never tries to extend the hour. 

Marcy was the second of three daughters, her parents both busy lawyers who expected their children to be good, do well in school, and pretty much raise themselves. Marcy always had difficulty getting to school or turning in assignments on time. Her parents would talk to her, lecture her, encourage her, but basically leave her to deal with the consequences of her problem. Obviously, now an attorney, Marcy was able to do more than well enough to get by.    

“My Dad was asking me again last night if I didn’t think I should try to get into a big firm, make a lot more money.  But I love being a legal aid lawyer! I love being able to help people who really need my help. Besides, I’d never to be to meet all the deadlines of a big firm. My Dad doesn’t bug me about it, just brings it up from time to time.” 

“Right now,” Marcy continues, “I’m trying to get this kid off. He’s kind of slow, was with a bunch of kids when they snatched a woman’s purse. I don’t think he had a clue what was going on. But I have a real hard-ass judge. I don’t know what will happen. But I’m trying my best.” Marcy pauses, knitting her brow. “I just realized that I have no problem with deadlines on this case, no problem getting to appointments, no problem filing the motions. I don’t even have to try. I just do it.”

“Do you think that’s because you like the kid, feel sorry for him, want to help him?” I ask.

“Well, I do, but I feel that way about lots of cases and that usually doesn’t help.”

A series of thoughts flash through my mind: She’s not late to court because she’s afraid of being in contempt, she has a hard-ass judge for this case, her father doesn’t bug her, I don’t have strong feelings about her lateness. 

“I wonder, Marcy, if the reason you do things on time for this case is that you have a hard-ass judge.”

She looks at me quizzically.  

“I wonder if you’ve always wanted someone to care enough about you to be a hard-ass, to say this behavior isn’t okay, to care that you’re not getting someplace on time, to care that you’re getting a B rather than an A because your paper’s late. It’s even true for me. Why don’t I take a tougher stand about your lateness? Why don’t I insist that you get here on time? Why don’t I feel more about your cheating yourself of a third of your session?”

“Why don’t you?” Marcy asks quietly, dropping her head.

“I think part of it is who I am as a person – I’m not authoritarian, I’m not judgmental. But I also think it’s because you’ve never passionately been cared about and you’ve never passionately cared about yourself and that although you desperately want a “hard-ass judge,” you don’t expect much from the people in your life. And that’s the dynamic we unconsciously reenact here.”

“Wow! That’s heavy! It makes sense, but I’m not sure what to do with it.”

“I’m not sure either, Marcy, but I think it’s important for us to know about and to watch in terms of the interaction between us and between you and others as well. And maybe we’ll need to revisit your childhood and look at what more you wanted from your parents.”

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