Tuesday, December 17, 2013


In the five years that I have been treating Patricia she has come a long way. Although professionally accomplished and successful, outside of work she had been withdrawn, isolated, and friendless. As she came to rely more on my consistency and trustworthiness, she was able to venture out of her cocoon, making friends and, recently, to begin living with Derrick, a man who seems both sensitive and loving. Still, there is a limit to her capacity for closeness. I experience it in the consulting room; Derrick complains about it at home; and she herself continues to be aware of her tendency to draw back. My understanding of Patricia’s reticence is that she both seeks to protect herself from further hurt, as well as trying to prevent unleashing the hungry, insatiable child within her.  

“I’ve been having a hard time lately,” Patricia says. “I know how fortunate I am. Derrick is such a kind man. And I love him. But, I don’t know, sometimes I just feel smothered. I feel I want to run away. I know you say it’s because I’m afraid of being too needy. And maybe that’s true because I’m also feeling those old feelings of emptiness, of being apart, of loneliness. I want to reach out to Derrick and sometimes I even do, but it doesn’t matter, the feelings don’t go away. I feel weary. I’m so tired of dealing with all this. It feels as though it never ends.”

“When did these feelings resurface, Patricia?”

“They’re always there at kind of a low level, but I guess maybe it was while Derrick was away on business.”

“And his being away came right after I had been away on vacation, right?”

“Yes, I thought of that. But I really don’t know if that matters or not. The feelings are the same I’ve always had. The ones I had as a child when I was afraid all the time, when I didn’t want to go to summer camp, when my parents argued, when they yelled at me for hiding out in my room or reading too much or never bringing friends home. There was never quiet. I wanted to hold myself very still so that nothing bad would happen.”

I have heard Patricia make similar statements over the years. Today as she speaks, however, I feel bereft. It is as though I have become her as that scared, isolated child. Then suddenly, totally unbidden, I think of being in my grandparent’s apartment, sitting with them at the kitchen table and my spirits lift. My grandparents and their apartment had always been a place of love, warmth, and safety for me. And suddenly I have a new insight.

“Patricia, it just occurred to me that there was no one in your early life who offered you a feeling of being cherished, of being safe and secure and loved. Not your parents, no grandparent, no aunt or uncle, no one,” I say, again feeling sad as I put into words this absence in Patricia’s life.

“That’s true,” she agrees.

“So perhaps that’s what your feelings of emptiness and loneliness are about. You don’t carry within you images of warm, caring people who help you to feel loved and not alone.”

Patricia starts to cry. “That’s true. There’s no one kind up there. No one at all. That makes me sad for me.”

I nod. “I’m glad you can feel sad for you.”

“But what do I do with that?” she asks. “How does it help?”

“Well, first it gives you greater understanding of your feelings so that they’re not as so overwhelming. And obviously it enables you to have compassion for yourself which is always a good thing. And from that place of greater understanding and compassion, it will hopefully be easier for you to take in warm, caring, loving people in the present – Derrick, me, your friends – so that you will have kind people to take with you in your mind.”

“But it can’t make up for what I didn’t get in the past.”

“No, it can’t. All we can do about what we didn’t get in the past is to mourn the absence and try to fill ourselves up with the people who can give to us in the present.”


Unknown said...

I think you were there for her in a meaningful and lovingly supportive way. Your inner associations of being loved connected with her feelings of isolation, emptiness, and loss -- helping you to intervene with very personal statements, , to which she responded emotionally . It was not just her who was feeling sad for her. I think you felt that way, too -- and I think she felt it.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thank you. I definitely felt her isolation and emptiness and my own associations helped me to communicate that awareness to her.