Monday, November 11, 2013

The Mistake

I glance at the clock. It’s only a couple of minutes past two, but I wouldn’t have expected Emily to be even a couple of minutes late. I only saw her once before, a bright, articulate, 35 year old married woman with one child and a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy. Despite her obvious accomplishments and full, busy life, Emily described herself as a perfectionistic who always found herself lacking. In fact, she felt overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and shame. Not someone I would expect to be late.

By 2:05 I wonder if Emily forgot to press the buzzer in my waiting room. I go out to check. Sure enough, there she sits. Smiling, I say, “You forgot to press the button.”

Emily looks stricken. It is as though I have slapped her across the face. 

“Please come in,” I say, in what I hope is a warm, welcoming voice. 

Emily walks slowly into my office, glancing furtively at me out of the corner of her eyes.

“What just happened, Emily? You look terrified,” I begin as soon as we’re both seated.

“I…I… I made a mis…mistake,” she stammers. “I forgot to press the button.”

I vacillate between wanting to reassure her and wanting to understand what has created this degree of anxiety. “Yes, you made a mistake.” I say. “You’re human, like the rest of us. But you look so scared. In fact, you look like a scared little girl.”

Emily begins to cry. “I’m so stupid! I’m stupid for forgetting to push the button. I’m stupid for cheating myself of a full session. I’m just stupid!”

“Whose voice is that, Emily? Whose voice do you hear in your head telling you you’re stupid?” I ask.

“That’s easy, my mother’s. I think that’s all she ever said to me, along with you’re lazy, you won’t amount to anything, stuff like that. And that was before she got the strap.”

“So that’s why you looked so terrified, Emily. When you make what you see as a mistake, you’re afraid that both the other person - in this instance me – and that critical voice in your head will beat you mercilessly.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Do you know, Emily, at least intellectually – I know you don’t feel it – but do you know intellectually that you didn’t do anything so terrible by forgetting to press the button?”

“Now that I hear you say it, I can kind of get there, but before, no, I’m convinced that I’m bad and stupid and deserving of whatever punishment comes my way. Like I thought you might decide not to see me anymore.”

“Wow! You have a really harsh, critical voice up there. We’re going to have to work on helping you to take in a kinder, gentler voice. Let me ask you, though, did you ever feel angry with your mother? Do you feel angry with her now?”

“Sometimes I feel angry now. After I had my son, I realized I would never, ever do the things to Aaron that she did to me. But then, I just believed I was bad and kept trying and trying to be better so my mother would love me.”

“And what do you feel right this minute, Emily.”

“Sad. I can see what a scared little kid I was.”

“I imagine you’ll feel lots of sadness during our work together: sadness for what you didn’t get as a child, sadness about having to give up hope that you can ever go back and get what you missed, even sadness about having to give up the critical voice in your head, the one that still maintains your tie to your mother. But sadness may well feel better than the terror you walk around with, and I’ll be here to help you through.”    

Monday, November 4, 2013

Looking For Love

Ben is a shy, anxious, good looking man in his mid-thirties. Although we’ve working together for several months, Ben continues to feel uncomfortable around me, as he does around most women. He has difficulty looking at me directly, often staring out the window or at the floor. When I try to address his discomfort, he shakes his head, indicating his unwillingness to pursue this avenue of exploration.

Not surprisingly, Ben has never had a girlfriend, although he desperately longs for someone to be with. I’ve tried to ask if he’s ever kissed a girl, but even this feels too intrusive. I want to ask if he masturbates, but I can’t manage to get the question out of my mouth. I have, in fact, become as inhibited as Ben in our sessions – anxious, careful, not wanting to offend, not wanting to cross an unspoken boundary.

That this constrained interaction has developed between Ben and myself is not all that surprising. Ben’s parents divorced when he was five. His father, always a womanizer, saw Ben only occasionally, leaving him to the welcoming embrace of his mother, who turned to Ben for solace after the divorce. Ben became her “little man.” She hovered over him, over-protected him, and preferred that he never leave her side. She interrogated him whenever he left the house, even to go to school, particularly interested in whether he talked to or was interested in a girl. She drank more and more heavily, Ben increasingly becoming her caregiver. She died when he was in his twenties, leaving him bereft, relieved and guilt-ridden.     

“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Ben says. “I go to strip clubs.”

Of course, I think, not a surprise; a “safe” way to meet women who are not easily confused with mother.

“I met this girl, Crystal,” Ben continues. “She’s different. She has kind eyes. She’s sweet, not harsh or loud like a lot of them. And she likes me. She told me she likes me. I think she even implied that she’d meet me outside the club. But I’m kind of scared to do that. I mean, I’m not sure what I’d do, what she’d expect me to do. Like would I need to pay her? I’d rather not pay her. I’d rather we went out like on a regular date. Do you think she’d do that?”

“I don’t know, Ben. I don’t know what she’d do. Can you tell me what you and Crystal have done so far?”

“What do you mean? I’ve watched her dance. She has a beautiful body, but I try not to look too much. I’ve bought her some drinks. She’s sat and talked to me. She’d had a sad life. She’s been an orphan since she was a baby and grew up in foster homes.”

I’m aware that I want to push. I want to ask Ben if he’s taken her into the back room, if he’s had sex with her, if he knows she has sex with men all the time and that she plays men like him every minute of every night. And then I’m surprised at myself, at the obvious cruelty and sadism of these unasked questions.  I would be being with Ben as his mother was with him. What’s going on here?

For my part, I’m angry at Ben’s presentation of himself as a victim. Although I have tremendous compassion for the scared, vulnerable child he carries within him, I have a hard time with victims. I prefer that someone fight for themselves, fight against the odds, fight as I fought against the tyranny of my father. So that’s the part I bring to the interaction. But I think that by presenting himself as the victim, Ben is also eliciting this sadistic response from me, from his mother, from Crystal. It’s as though he’s saying, beat me, take advantage of me. It’s the only way he knew love in the past and it’s the only way he understands love today.  

Too complicated for an interpretation. I say nothing. I wait.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Ben finally asks.

“How do you feel about my not saying anything?”

“I don’t know.”

I have a glimmer. “How do you feel about my not saying anything?” I repeat.

“I already said, I don’t know,” Ben says slightly raising his voice.

“It sounds like you feel angry.”

He shrugs. “Annoyed, maybe, not angry.”

So this is part of Ben’s contribution to the interaction. He plays the victim so that others will feel the anger he cannot allow himself to feel. He will be the victim, the suffering child who feels nothing but kindness and compassion while others, like myself, feel angry at his passivity.

We haven’t solved Ben’s difficulties, but I understand more and have a better handle on myself.