“Well,” I say, aware that Fran and I have just finished our last session for the year, “I hope that next year will be a better one for you.”
“Yeah, right,” she says, as she gets up from the chair. “Except we both know it won’t be,” is her exit line.
I sigh. I feel sad for Fran. Sad and frustrated. I don’t seem able to help her. She’s an angry woman: angry at her husband Gary for dying, angry at her in-laws for having little to do with her since Gary’s death, angry with her brother-in-law for cheating her out of what she sees as her fair share of the business.
I get it. These are legitimate reasons to be angry. But Gary has now been dead for eight years. Is there no statute of limitation on anger? Of course I know that there isn’t. Some adult children remain angry with their parents forever. Some married couples can never forgive their spouse for a hurt suffered twenty years earlier. I even know why letting go of this anger is so difficult. To do so involves intense mourning, dealing with all the hurt of what one didn’t get, of the disappointment, unfairness, and sorrow involved in the loss. Without doubt, a very hard, painful process. I get it. But why can’t I help Fran to move towards that process of mourning? And why do I find her being stuck in her anger so difficult to tolerate? I reflect back on the session.
“So I spent another Christmas alone,” Fran said. “Big surprise, right? And of course I didn’t hear from you know whom! Like it would have killed them to send a card. And guess what? I’ll spend New Year’s Eve alone too.”
“But why, Fran?” I ask. “Why did you spend Christmas alone? And why will you spend New Year’s Eve alone? What about your siblings? Or the friends you’ve made over the past few years?”
“Did you call any of them? Can you call any of them?”
“I don’t see any of them calling me,” Fran replies.
I feel defeated, powerless. No matter what I say, Fran remains stuck in her anger. I think about her childhood. Her mother was angry and critical, her father passive and uninvolved. The house was overrun with six children and an insufficient amount of both emotional and financial support. Fran learned to capitulate, to surrender, to accept whatever was given to her. And then she met Gary, her knight in shining armor. He carried her away from the barrenness of her childhood home and showered her with more love than she could have ever imagined. Until he was diagnosed and dead of acute leukemia in four weeks. And then there was no one, again.
Fran was abandoned to the nothingness of the world she had known before Gary. What a sad and helpless place to be. Except that it was I who experienced the helplessness, while Fran experienced the anger. No, that wasn’t quite right. I did feel powerless to help Fran, but I also felt angry at her inability to move forward. Her mother was the angry parent, her father the passive victim. As a child Fran identified with her father, unable to fight for what she wanted. But her relationship with Gary had given her a sense of being valued, perhaps enough of a sense of being valued that she could allow herself to fight for what she wanted. No, that wasn’t quite right either. She didn’t fight for what she wanted, she fell back into the victim mode.
Fran’s inner world exists of only two ways of being – the angry parent or the helpless child – and she alternates between them in an instance. She’s angry with Gary for abandoning her, but helpless to make her life different, partly because the intensity of her anger is itself inhibiting. At any given time, I also experience one or the other of Fran’s self-states, that is, I feel powerless to help her or angry at her unwillingness to be different.
So where has all this self-reflection led me? Perhaps my New Year’s resolution in relation to Fran needs to be to stay focused on the way in which the feelings of powerlessness and anger are constantly switching, both inside Fran and between us. Perhaps that will help her to see how her anger defends against her feelings of loss, sadness and helplessness. Perhaps that will help her to see how her anger itself keeps her stuck. Perhaps it will help Fran to have a better New Year after all.