Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Tall, thin, with neatly coifed grey hair, Estelle Harrison, fidgets in the chair, looking decidedly uncomfortable. “I’ve never done this before. I’m almost 80 years old. I can’t believe I’m coming to a psychologist. But I have to talk to someone. My husband has lung cancer and he won’t let me tell anyone. Another secret. I’ve been the keeper of secrets my entire life.”

“Why is your husband’s cancer a secret?” I ask, thinking how unimaginable it would have been for me to keep my late husband’s cancer secret, how more impossible it all would have been without the support of friends and family. 

“He feels ashamed of being sick, like it’s a weakness.”

“So you’ve told no one?”

“Our daughters know. They call. But they have their own lives. And truthfully,” she says sighing, “I’m not sure how much they’d care anyway. Dave wasn’t a very good father. In fact, he was a terrible father. He used to beat them. That was another secret I kept. He’d take down their pants and beat them with a belt.”

For a reason I cannot completely explain, I think, “Did he get off on it?” What I ask is, “How old were they?”

“I can’t remember how old they were when he started. Young. Too young.”

“Until …?” I ask.

“They both left the house pretty early, so I’d say until they were seventeen. Actually after Maureen left – she’s the oldest – Liz got it worse.”   

Finding this difficult to listen to, I say nothing. My mother didn’t protect me from my father’s rages, but he wasn’t beating me and his rage wasn’t fueled by a perverse sexual desire as seems to be true for Dave Harrison.  

As if reading my thoughts, Mrs. Harrison says, “You think I’m terrible don’t you?”

“I don’t think you’re terrible, but I’m not sure why you didn’t try to intervene, to protect your daughters.”

“I was afraid he’d get physical with me too.”

“And did he?”

“He slapped me across the face a couple of time.”

I am again silent.

“You younger generation, you all think I should have left him. But it wasn’t so easy back then. I was a housewife. I had no way to support myself. I wouldn’t have known what to do,” she says starting to cry.

Feeling more compassion, I say, “It sounds like your daughters are angry with you for staying, for not protecting them. That must make it harder for them to be available to you; that must make you feel all the more alone.”

She nods her head, still crying.

“This might seem like a foolish question, but why haven’t you told whomever you want about your husband’s illness, regardless of what he wants?”

She looks at me, startled. “I can’t do that. It’s his illness. If he doesn’t want me to tell, I just can’t.”

I feel myself getting angry at Mrs. Harrison’s passivity. Is that reasonable? Or is my anger at my mother seeping into this therapy session? Or, yet another possibility, am I feeling Mrs. Harrison’s own anger? 

“Are you angry with your husband, Mrs. Harrison?” I ask.

“I can’t be angry at him. He’s sick.”

“You can still feel angry with him. You can feel angry for his mistreating you and your daughters. You can be angry that he won’t allow you to speak, to tell people who could be supportive of you.” Suddenly I wonder, “Does your husband know you came here today?”

“Oh no, I could never tell him that. He’d be furious at me for telling our secrets.”

I again feel annoyed. Now I wonder if I am feeling angry like her husband, angry that she is so passive, angry that she presents as a martyr just waiting to be beaten. Does she carry within her both the beaten child and the angry parent, with the angry parent projected outward so she doesn’t have to feel the rage herself?  Way too complicated for a first session but I do ask, “What about your own childhood, Mrs. Harrison? Were you beaten?”

“Oh no. I was the good one. My brother and sister got my mother’s rage, but I always did what she wanted and I never talked about what went on at home.”

“Just as you did with your husband. But were you angry with your mother?”

“I couldn’t be. I was too afraid I’d give her some sassy answer one day and then I’d get it too.”

“Sounds like you might have lots of angry stored up inside.”

She shrugs. “I guess.”

Unsurprisingly, another passive response.” 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Mask

Elaine, burying her head in her hands, begins sobbing as soon as she sits down. Struggling to speak she says, “Baxter has cancer. That’s why he hasn’t been eating. I may have to put him down. I can’t believe I’m carrying on like this! I didn’t even shed a tear when my grandparents died.”

Sadness floods me as I feel for both Elaine and myself, thinking immediately of Pippin, the regal black and white cat my late husband and I adopted shortly after we moved to Florida. Putting her down two years after my husband’s death was beyond painful.  “I’m so sorry, Elaine, I know how attached you are to Baxter, how much he’s meant to you.” 

“And this is supposed to be good? Feeling like a wreck, feeling like my heart will break?” she says sarcastically.

I know what Elaine is referring to. I remember when she first walked into my office four years ago. Although attractive with tasteful make-up, Elaine looked like a doll, her face mask-like. Her mother died when she was three, her father when she was seven. She lived with her step-mother until their conflicts became unbearable, then moved to her paternal grandparents, who saw her as an unavoidable inconvenience. Listening to Elaine’s story I felt overwhelmed by sadness, while Elaine seemed devoid of feeling. 

Elaine came into therapy because she couldn’t maintain a relationship. She had no difficulty finding men but the relationships never lasted. The men said she was unconnected, unavailable, that there was no passion. Sex wasn’t the problem, it was something else, but she didn’t know what. I suspected I knew. It’s impossible to connect to a doll. Our job would be getting behind the mask. It wouldn’t be easy. She had spent years fending off the pain of all her losses. The mask would have to be peeled off slowly.

“I have no memory of my mother or my father,” she told me. “Just pictures I’ve seen and what my step-mother was willing to tell me, which wasn’t much since she preferred not to talk to me. Of course my grandparents didn’t like to talk to me much either. Besides, they were old, they didn’t want to be reminded of their son’s death. I can imagine that would be painful for them.”

“And you don’t think it would be painful for a three year old, for a six year old?”

“I can’t feel what I can’t remember.”

Finding Elaine’s memories would be crucial to her growth. 

While we focused mostly on Elaine’s difficulties with relationships in both her personal and professional life, over the years I asked questions about the past: “Do you remember your first day of school? Who took you? Do you have an image of the house you lived in with your father? Do you remember moving from your step-mother’s to your grandparent’s? Did you have to change schools? Leave friends?”

One session when Elaine came in she looked different. There was a crack in the mask. “I had a dream,” she began. “There was a child standing in an empty field. She was holding someone’s hand, a man’s. They were looking down. When I woke up I felt incredibly sad. I didn’t think the child was me. But then I wondered if it was me with my father standing at my mother’s grave. Could I possibly remember that? I was only three.”  

“Let’s stay with your feeling, Elaine,” I say softly. “What is it like to feel that sadness? What does it bring up for you?” 

“I don’t know,” she says starting to cry. “I guess I’m sad for that little girl. Standing by her mother’s grave, not knowing that in three more years her father will be dead too. It’s really awful. I guess I never thought of it like that. I guess I never thought about it at all.”

“You didn’t want to think of it, Elaine. You didn’t want to deal with your pent up sadness. But today you’ve taken a big step forward.”

Two years separates the session of Elaine’s dream and her telling me she might need to put down Baxter.   

Returning to the present session I say, “I know you’re feeling tremendous pain, Elaine, not only for your beloved Baxter, but for all the losses you’ve endured in your life.”

She sobs. “Please tell me this pain is worth it.”

“It’s worth it, Elaine. If you can’t allow yourself to feel your sadness, you can’t feel joy either and, most importantly, you can’t be truly alive.” 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Twenty-seven year old Carla sits crying in my office, her eyes red, shredded tissues in her lap. “I can’t believe it happened again,” she says. “I thought Martin was different – kind, sensitive. I couldn’t imagine him being unfaithful. I don’t understand why this keeps happening to me!”

And that, I think to myself, is exactly the question. Carla is tall, attractive, shapely, smart, articulate, funny and yet Martin is the third man who’s been unfaithful to her. For the moment, however, Carla needs to deal with the immediacy of her pain.

“I thought I’d surprise him,” she continues. “Bring us Thai food for lunch. I knew he’d be writing. Or I thought he’d be writing. I didn’t even register the strange car in his driveway. Until he didn’t answer the door. I rang and rang. My stomach started to get all queasy. He finally answered in a bathrobe, tried to make some feeble excuse, but I’m not stupid. I threw the food at him and ran. I wanted to key the girl’s car as I went, but I knew that would be dumb. So here I am, betrayed again. What’s wrong with me?” she asks, beseechingly. 

Odd, I muse, I had a similar experience with a man I dated 40 years ago, showing up at his door only to find him with another woman. I was both devastated and enraged. But that was a long time ago, those feelings long gone, not distracting me from my role as therapist.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, Carla. But I do think it’s important to understand why this scenario does keep repeating. What are your thoughts?”

“I don’t know!” she responds, crying. “My parents have been together for over 40 years. I’d be shocked if my father ever cheated on my mother.”

“And your mother?” I ask.

“What!?” she says, furrowing her brow. “You’re asking if my mother ever cheated on my father?” she asks, incredulously.

I nod. 

“That’s impossible. My mother was the least sexual person around.”

“Is that because she’s your mother or …?”

“My mother pulled away when my father tried to be affectionate. And sometimes I could hear them arguing. He was frustrated.”

“So why are you so sure he was never unfaithful?”

“Because he wasn’t that type.”

“Obviously, Carla, I’m not saying that your father was unfaithful. I have no idea. But I do think it’s interesting that you’re so convinced he wasn’t.”

Shaking her head, she says, “My father stressed the importance of good moral values, insisted we go to church, lectured us on being good people. He’s a wonderful man.”

I’m surprised by Carla’s naiveté. I think of the people I’ve known – both men and women - who were unfaithful to their partners. Many of them were good people.    

“Two questions. Do you think only “bad” men are unfaithful? And are there similarities between the men you’ve dated and your father?”

“Actually, Martin reminded me of my father. He even looks a bit like him.” She smiles uncomfortably. “You think I have an Oedipal thing going with my father?”

“What do you think?”

Carla looks out the window. After a pause she says, “My father put up with a lot from my mother. She’s difficult, demanding, cold, particularly to him. He dotes on me. I love him a lot so, yes, maybe I’m kind of in love with my father.”

Well, I think to myself, that opens up lots of possibilities. Does Carla choose unavailable men so that she can remain faithful to her father? Is her father more of a womanizer than she thinks and is she choosing men who are like her father? And if they’re like her father does the relationship feel incestuous so that she unconsciously does something to subvert it? If her mother is cold, is she choosing men like her mother to try to win in the present that which she lost in the past? Does she try to be not her mother and end up being too smothering and intense? Lots of questions, none of which will be answered today.

“How do you feel, Carla, about being kind of in love with your father and how does it affect your relationships?”

“I don’t know. Right now, all I know is that I’m sad. I’ve lost again.”

“As in you’ve lost Martin and lost your father again?”

“I haven’t lost my father,” Carla declares emphatically.

“Except that he’s with your mother, not you,” I respond gently.

“Oh, I get it. I don’t know. This has gotten too Freudian.”

“It’s time for us to stop for today, but you opened up lots of things today and I’m sure we’ll get back to them.” 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Echoes of the Past

“This has been a bad week,” says 44 year old Jennifer, her straight brown hair pulled into a bun, jeans and a pale yellow shirt covering her slim frame.

“Madison moved out,” she continues.

I’m surprised. Her daughter Madison is only 16. 

“She had one of her to-dos with her father. I don’t know why this happens again and again.”

Although I say nothing, I think: Because your husband is a narcissistic control freak who your daughter rebels against.

“Frank was driving Madison and her friend Amy back from the movies. He started to speed and she asked him to slow down. She says he just looked at her and went faster. She says she was getting scared and started to scream at him to stop. He says she was getting fresh and that if she wanted him to stop, he’d stop. So he screeched to a halt and told them to get out of the car. By this time I guess they were both crying, but they got out and stood there. Of course he came back for them and then he says that Madison called him an asshole and that he pulled over and slapped her across the mouth screaming telling her not to talk to him that way.

“When they got home Madison and Amy went straight to her room. Next thing I know she’s packed a suitcase and tells me she’s moving in with Amy, that Amy’s Mom said it was okay.  So now Frank is screaming that she’s not going anywhere and I’m trying to figure out what happened.”

As Jennifer relays her story, I feel my stomach tighten and realize that I’m clenching my hands, a familiar reaction for me when Jennifer describes these scenarios between Madison and her father. Although my father was never physical, he had a hair-trigger explosive temper. I was always afraid of him, but I always fought back. And I know what’s coming next in her story, the dynamics in my patient’s family being an uncanny duplicate of mine.    

“I told Madison she was too young to go anywhere and that she had to be more understanding of her father, that he was under a lot of pressure and that he just needed to let off steam, that he didn’t mean anything by it.”

I knew it, I think, just what my mother said to me. I feel my anger rise and wonder how I am going to respond to Jennifer as my patient, rather than as my mother.

She continues. “So she left. I’ve spoken to her each day, but she’s determined not to come home. I’m going to have to talk to Amy’s mother. It’s embarrassing. Meanwhile Frank’s being a bear. He says he doesn’t care and that she can stay where she is, but you can tell he’s hurting.

“How can you tell?” I ask, immediately regretting my question that’s coming from an angry place in me.

“Well, he’s angry, barely talking to me, going around slamming doors, grumbling around the house.”

“And how do you feel when he does that?” I ask, wondering if my question wasn’t so off base.

“I understand,” she says. “He’s upset.”

I want to scream. Instead I ask, “But how do you feel?”

She shrugs. “Nothing, I guess. I’m just worried about Madison.”

This isn’t getting us anywhere. “And how do you think Madison feels?”

She shrugs again, “I don’t know. She says she’s all right.”

“Do you think she might feel hurt or scared?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Although my mother was an incredible denier, she wasn’t as out of touch with her feelings. My mother and Jennifer feel different now, making it easier for me to remain in my role as therapist. “You know, Jennifer, it occurs to me that it’s difficult for you to know much about feelings – your own or others – except for Frank’s. His feelings are so out there, although they’re usually expressed as anger, you can’t help but be aware of them.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

“Do you think that’s one of the reasons your relationship with Frank works for you. He expresses the feelings you can’t.”

“That makes sense,” she says nodding.

“I wonder what would happen, Jennifer, if you started to get more in touch with your own feelings, if you could know when you’re angry or scared or hurt.”  

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. That seems like I’d have to be a different person. And right now I have to figure out what to do about Madison.”  

“I understand, Jennifer,” I say, realizing both that she’s frightened and that the present crisis takes precedence. “Let’s talk more about the situation with Madison, but perhaps we can also keep in mind looking at how you feel.”