Roberta, an extremely anxious woman in her fifties, initially came to see me because of the tragic death of Carl, her twenty year old son. He was severely injured in an automobile accident, lingered in a coma for several months and then died. Her grief, despair, desperation, anxiety, rage and sadness overwhelmed her. She could think and talk of nothing else. Experiencing only minimal support from her also grief-stricken but busy husband, she sought treatment as a way to speak and discharge her feelings. Feeling tremendous empathy for Roberta’s grief, I was a more than willing listener. I offered mostly containment, with occasional insight and alternative ways of dealing with her overwhelming feelings.
Years passed. Her feelings about her son subsided. She still cried when she thought of him, but mostly she pushed thoughts and feelings of him away, feeling instead an overwhelming anxiety about anything and everything.
Her concern of the day is what she will wear to her husband’s upcoming Christmas party. Her husband is a successful, wealthy businessman who gives annual parties for his staff, bringing his sales people from all over the country to the Boca Raton Club and Resort.
“You don’t understand.” Roberta wails. “I’ve always had difficulty finding clothes that fit me and having to buy something that’s dressy and yet not too dressy. I have to look classy, to make my husband proud, but I don’t want to outshine the other women, that wouldn’t be politic. I keep going from one store to the other trying on gowns – too dressy, suits – too stuffy, dresses, skirts. I just can’t find anything that’s right. I’m getting exhausted. And time is running out. Not to mention that I’ll then have to find shoes to match and a purse. The whole thing is just too much.”
I find myself thinking of my recent trip, of the shacks some people lived in in Laos and Cambodia, of the barefoot, skinny children. They couldn’t conceive of Roberta’s problem, let alone wish to change places with her.
“Roberta, you’ve talked about these parties in the past. They always make you uncomfortable. All those people, and having to make social chit-chat. Are you putting some of your anxiety about the event itself onto your concern about what you’ll wear?” I ask, trying to bring myself back to a more compassionate place.
“I can’t even think about that yet. First I have to find something to wear. I have less than two weeks and I haven’t even found the dress!”
I can feel my annoyance increase. Why do I have such little tolerance for Roberta today? Is it the memories of my trip? Is it thinking of the too many people I’ve known who died this year? Is it thoughts of another holiday without my late husband?
“Roberta, when you get so anxious about what you’re going to wear, do you ever think about Carl’s death, the tragedy of his loss and the pain of your feelings around that loss? If you think about that loss, does it in anyway minimize your present feelings?” Without being too blunt, I’m trying to ask if she can put her present concerns into perspective.
“No. I know what you’re asking. But I don’t think about Carl now. All I can think about it how I’m going to find an appropriate dress. Besides, you know I try not to think about Carl anyway.”
Aha! I think. Maybe I have an inroad. “So perhaps you’re saying that one of the reasons you become so preoccupied with worrying about what you’re going to wear is that it keeps you from thinking about Carl.”
“You just don’t get it,” Roberta says angrily, “I’ve always had difficulty buying clothes and this party is less than two weeks away!”
Hearing Roberta’s anger is a relief. It rids me of the feelings of annoyance and anger I’ve been carrying all session. Maybe I’ve been feeling Roberta’s anger for her. Maybe it would be helpful to know who and what Roberta is really anger at.
“Roberta, I hear that you’re angry. And I understand that you’re feeling not heard and understood by me and I’m sorry. But I wonder if you’re also angry at someone else. Your husband? Carl?”
“Carl? How could I be angry at Carl? He’s dead. He’s the one who lost his life!”
“I understand that. But you always felt he was a reckless driver. Maybe you feel he could have been more careful that night. That perhaps then he wouldn’t have lost his life and you wouldn’t have to go through another holiday without him.”
Roberta bursts into tears. “I miss him so much,” she says. “I want him back.”
We sit in silence.
“I feel better,” Roberta says. “But I still have to buy a dress.”