“So I assume my father already vetted you,” Chelsea says, sarcasm dripping from her every word. I’m taken a back, put off both by her words and her appearance, tattoos covering her arms and upper chest, multiple piercings in her ears, lip and nose.
I also had lots of feelings about that phone call. I immediately experienced Chelsea’s father as domineering, take-charge, arrogant and self-important, a combination that immediately called forth memories my father, leading me to feel intimidated, defensive and angry all at once.
I respond to Chelsea, hopefully revealing none of my discomfort. “He did call me. I answered some of his questions about my credentials, but I told him what would be important is how you felt about me, if we felt we could work together, and that wasn’t anything he could decide.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve been through this many times. That’s what they all say. But he’s a bully. And he pays the bills.”
“I get that you’re angry at your father.”
Chelsea snorts. “That doesn’t take a genius!”
“No, it doesn’t. I also get that you’re angry, period. Are you angry about being here? Do you want to be in therapy?”
I’m too old for this, I think to myself. An angry resistant patient and an intrusive father that is going to push all my buttons. Maybe I don’t want to do this.
“You don’t have to be here, Chelsea. You don’t have to work with me.”
“Giving up on me already?” Chelsea says, contemptuously.
She caught me! I feel both embarrassed and impressed by her insightfulness.
I take a deep breath. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s start again. What brings you here, Chelsea?”
For a second, Chelsea’s eyes fill with tears. Like a child, she rubs them violently away with her knuckles.
My heart melts. She’s another one, a wounded bird who covers her pain with anger; whose demeanor screams, “Keep away,” when what she means is, “Please love me.” I’m always hooked by this combination of fragility covered by determination and grit. I think of Alyce, the disturbed young woman I worked with over thirty years ago whose treatment constantly intruded into my life. But I was much younger then. I was in a warm, loving marriage with an incredibly supportive husband. I don’t know if I’d be up to that kind drama at this point in my life. But I’m way ahead of myself. I still know nothing about Chelsea.
“I’m an orphan again,” Chelsea says.
“My asshole father divorced another one. I kind of liked this one. She was nice to me. It gets tiring, one house after another, mothers that come and go, brothers and sisters that come and go.”
“What about your biological mother?” I ask.
“She’s dead. She died when I was three. I hardly remember her. In fact, I don’t think I do remember her, just sort of from pictures.”
“Wow! You’ve had a lot of pain in your life.”
“I guess,” she says, shrugging.
“Sadness isn’t easy for you. You’re more comfortable with anger,” I say.
“So where are you living now? What’s going on in your life?” I realize I’m asking these questions for me. I need to know how stable or disturbed Chelsea is before I commit to working with her.
“I’m living with asshole. On the beach. Money sure as shit isn’t a problem, not even with all the alimony he’s always paying. And I’m going to school. I know you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m smart. And I like school. I want to be a doctor. And I will be.”
“I can tell you’re smart, Chelsea,” I say smiling. “And good at sizing people up. That should make you a good doctor.”
She brightens, surprised. “You think so?” she asks, suddenly more childlike.
“Yes, I think so,” I reply honestly.
“Thanks.” She pauses. I can see her struggling. “I think you’re okay,” she says. Then she immediately draws back, as if she’s revealed too much of herself, as if she’s taken too much of a risk. “I mean, I guess you’d be okay to work with.”
“It would be my pleasure to work with you, Chelsea,” I say honestly. I know this won’t be an easy treatment. I know her father will be a constant intrusion into both our work and my psyche. But this is a young woman who has known more than her share of pain and I think I can help her. I see her potential and I’m hoping to foster it.
For better or for worse, there’s always a new Chelsea. I’m fortunate that my life’s work brings fulfillment to me and, hopefully, growth for my patients.