“I think I’m going to sell my house,” Marybeth says. “It’s just too much for me to handle on my own. I’m sixty-five. It’s enough. Every time I turn around there’s something else going wrong. Last month the air-conditioner went. This month there was a roof leak. I don’t have it in me to keep dealing with it all. When Phil was alive it was different, we could share the burden. Now it just feels overwhelming.”
Tell me about it, I think to myself. I just had carpets pulled out of my house because of water damage. Juggling adjusters, repair men and my work schedule was no mean feat. And, yes, it certainly would have been different if my husband was alive. George was a contractor who once could have done all the work himself and certainly could have expertly supervised everything that needed doing. His absence has felt particularly acute. But I’m not selling my house. No way. “How would it feel to sell your house?” I ask Marybeth.
“Sad,” she answers immediately. “It’s where Phil and I raised our kids. There are so many memories there.” She pauses. “I wish you hadn’t asked me that. I don’t want to feel sad. I don’t want to keep missing Phil. It’s been three years already. I should be over feeling sad.”
I smile inwardly. It’s been over seven years since George died and although I no longer cry every day, I never don’t miss him. “There’s no statute of limitation on feeling sad about the death of someone you love,” I say gently.
“But I don’t want to stay in my house anymore,” Marybeth says emphatically.
“Did you hear me telling you you should stay in your house?” I ask, furrowing my brow.
“You focused on my sadness, rather than on my relief, my moving forward.”
I’m taken aback by Marybeth’s response. Was I being too negative? Was I encouraging Marybeth to stay stuck in the past, rather than, as she said, moving forward? Was I putting my sadness onto her? Suddenly I flash on my overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair when I left my Michigan home for the last time. The pain felt almost unbearable, but I was still leaving. Yes, that’s the problem, Marybeth was confusing feeling and action.
“Well?” she says, impatiently.
“Well?” I think to myself. I had only been lost in thought for a few seconds.
“Can I ask you, Marybeth, what did you feel in the few moments that I was silent?”
“I thought you were pulling that silent therapist technique on me.”
“But what were you feeling?”
“I don’t know. Annoyed, I guess.”
“It’s hard for you to feel sad, Marybeth. It makes you feel “weak” and vulnerable and you want to get away from those feelings. So if I ask how you feel when you think about selling your house and you feel sad, you immediately think you can’t sell your house because you have to get away from your sadness. And if I’m silent for a bit, you feel I’ve left you alone with your sadness which feels intolerable to you, so you become annoyed with me instead. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, but don’t you think I’ve felt enough sadness?”
“I’m not saying you should feel sad, Marybeth. I’m not trying to torture you. I’m saying that when you do feel sad, you need to allow yourself to feel what you feel. You can still do things – such as selling your house – even if selling the house makes you sad. It may also make you feel relieved and content and free. It’s possible to feel more than one feeling at the same time and a feeling doesn’t mean you can’t act despite what you’ll feel.
Marybeth’s eyes fill with tears. “I’m so tired of feeling sad. I don’t want to sell my house. I don’t want Phil to be dead. I sound like a spoiled brat, wanting what I want.”
“You don’t have much compassion for yourself, Marybeth. You don’t sound like a spoiled brat. You sound like a grieving widow who is thinking about yet another loss, your home, and feeling understandably sad about it.”
“I hate it.”
Loretta Fischer has come into my office for the first time. She is an impeccably dressed, slender woman, who sits primly across from me, fidgeting slightly in the chair, staring at me expectantly.
I oblige. “What brings you here?” I ask.
“I’m just not happy,” she replies. “I’m alone. My husband died five years ago, my children are scattered all over the country. They call fairly regularly, but they’re not going to be keeping me busy on Saturday night. You know, I do the usual things women my age do, I play cards three days a week, go to the gym, go out to dinner and to the movies with friends.” She sighs. “It’s boring. I used to be an administrative secretary. My boss really relied on me. I was important. Now I’m nothing.”
“Now you’re nothing?” I say. “That’s a pretty dismal assessment of yourself.”
She shrugs. “That’s how I feel. I’m not a wife, not a mother, not a worker. I’m nothing.”
“What about your friends? The women you go out with?”
“They’re just women to go out with. They’re not really friends. Women my age don’t make friends.”
“How old are you?” I inquire.
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m unhappy.”
I’m startled. Loretta alludes to her age twice in a brief period of time and then refuses to tell me her age when I ask. Is she provoking me? “Is there a reason your age is a secret?” I ask.
“You know it’s not polite to ask a woman her age. How would you like it if I asked you your age?”
This is beginning to feel like a minefield. In a matter of minutes, what is usually the friendly getting to know you beginning of therapy has evolved into a confrontation. I suspect that Loretta is not only unhappy, but quite angry as well. “Well,” I respond gingerly, concerned that I’m moving too quickly, “I actually wouldn’t object if you asked me my age, but I think the more important question is whether your manner of responding reflects both your need to protect yourself and your anger at having to give anything of yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” Loretta says sternly, knitting her brows. Then she sighs and shakes her head. “They told me you were an excellent therapist, not like the others I’ve seen. They said you were more real. And here you are spouting the usual kind of nonsense. Your whole field is ridiculous.”
I feel scolded, diminished and angry. As these feelings wash over me, I realize that in very short order, Loretta has enabled me to feel exactly what she feels, “like nothing.” I’m torn about how to proceed. I wonder how many therapists she’s seen before me. I wonder if her age is a particularly sensitive issue or if she unconsciously needs to bate me. Regardless, I need to mend the breach in our relationship if this therapy is to have any chance of succeeding. “I’m sorry, Loretta,” I say. “I am getting way ahead of myself. But let me ask you something, you say you feel like nothing because you’re not a wife, a mother or a worker, what did you feel before you were wife, mother and worker? Did you feel like nothing then too?”
“Are you trying to get me to go back to my childhood? Another piece of nonsense. I suppose everything is my mother’s fault?”
I feel my anger rise. But maybe she does think everything is her mother’s fault. Her anger and criticalness and feeling like nothing have to come from somewhere. “Loretta, my sense is that you’re angry. I don’t know yet what or whom you’re angry at, but I do know that it took next to no time for us to be at odds with each other. I get that you’re unhappy and I’m sure it feels awful to feel like “nothing,” but I do think it’s important for you and for us to understand where that feeling comes from in both the past and the present.”
“So you’re assuming I’m coming back?” she says smugly.
“I don’t know if you’re coming back, Loretta. That’s something you’ll have to decide. But I do know that most everything you say feels like a provocation to me and I can’t imagine that would be helpful to you in your life.”
“I’ll make another appointment and we’ll see.”
I bite back the answer that comes to mind, “We’ll both see,” and settle for, “Seems fair. We’ll meet again and see what develops.”