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.”