Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Why Can’t I Leave?

“I’m such a mess,” Janette says. “And a coward. I hate myself. He does it again and again and I do nothing. I couldn’t believe it when I asked him last week where our tax returns were and he said he asked our accountant for an extension. My stomach dropped through the floor. He tried playing innocent, like he just didn’t have the time to get all the paperwork together and our tax guy was swamped anyway, etc., etc. But I knew better. I was so mad I started hitting him with my fists. He kept trying to worm out of it, but he knew I knew.

“So then he got all apologetic. Sorry! As if that could fix everything! I’m so mad. He goes to his Gamblers Anonymous meetings, he has a sponsor – supposedly anyway – but he keeps betting on those damn games and losing more and more of our money. It’s our money I remind him, but I’m just talking to myself. I know, he’s an addict, but that’s not an explanation. Besides, it doesn’t matter anymore why he does what he does, the problem is that I stay.”

I remain silent. Janette and I have been here many times and she indeed knows the problem.

She sighs. “I know, I’m reliving my childhood, my father an alcoholic, my mother a gambler. You would have thought I’d know better, but here I am, stuck in it all over again. I do hate myself. I’m furious at Joe, but I despise myself for my inability to get out. I know, I should feel more compassion for myself – that’s what you always say – but how can I feel compassionate when I’m so stupid.”

I feel Janette’s frustration, as well as my own, not so much at her inability to leave her husband, but at her unmerciless attacks on herself. “I doubt it’s that you’re stupid, Janette, but rather that you can’t give up hope. When you started this session you said you couldn’t believe it when you realized Joe had been gambling again. I think you couldn’t believe it because you keep hoping Joe will change, just as you hoped that your mother would change and your father would change.”

“Well,” Janette, asks defiantly, “Isn’t that proof that I’m stupid. If you keep hitting your head on the same brick wall, hoping that it will stop hurting, you must be stupid.”  

Janette’s response intrigues me. “That’s an interesting response, you didn’t say hoping the wall would break, you said hoping it would stop hurting.”

“So, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure, but can you talk about your anger at me?”

“I’m just mad. Mad at me. Mad at Joe. Mad at you. We’ve been going round and round on this for a long time, and I’m still here.”

I wonder whether the “here” means with me or with Joe, but I ask, “How does it feel to feel mad at me?”

“Pointless. Just as it feels with Joe. You’re not going to change.”

“How would you like me to change?”

“Tell me how to get out of this damn marriage.”

The response that goes through my head – hire an attorney, file for divorce and don’t go back – shows me I’m more annoyed than I realize. “And if I can’t tell you how to get out of your damn marriage, what do you feel?”


“I believe that you’re angry, but I wonder if you also feel scared and powerless?”

“I’m scared that he’s going to go through all our money. But I’m not powerless. All I have to do is be brave enough to leave.”   

“What about when you were a child, Janette, when your father was drinking and your mother had gambled away your school lunch money?”

Her eyes fill with tears. “Why’d you have to bring that up?” She pauses. “Yeah, I was powerless then and I hated it. But if I started “sniveling” – that’s what my father called it – he’d just start screaming at me for being such a baby.”

“So that’s what you’re doing, Janette, you’re screaming at yourself just like your father screamed at you. And you keep hoping, not only that Joe and your parents will change, but that you can endure their repeated disappointments without feeling any pain. It’s an impossible task. But if you can acknowledge your own powerlessness and mourn both the husband and the parents you never had, you’ll be more able to make the break.”

“Doesn’t sound easy.”

“No, it’s not. Definitely not easy.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


“I’m afraid I’m going to be fired,” Tricia says.

I’m surprised. I’ve worked with Tricia over a year and she has given me only glowing reports about her success as a graphic designer.

“They think I stole Charlotte’s idea.”

“Did you?” I ask. Tricia has never spoken well of Charlotte. My sense is that Tricia is envious of Charlotte - her senior status, her looks, her ease in social situations.    

“Of course not,” she replies indignantly. 

“Then why should they think you did?”

“I just do.”

I wait.

“What, you don’t believe me? You think I’m lying?”

I knit my brows and look at Tricia, both perplexed and concerned. There’s a paranoid feel to this discussion that is making me anxious. “What’s going on, Tricia?”

“What? What do you mean?” she asks, raising her voice.

“I don’t understand why you’d think I thought you were lying or why you’re afraid you’ll be accused of stealing Charlotte’s idea and be fired.”

She stares at me defiantly and then deflates before my ideas, dissolving into tears.

“I’m bad. I’m bad and I’m going to be punished.”

I feel as though I am in the room with a child who’s been caught … Caught doing what? What comes to mind is caught with her pants down.  I file away my internal meanderings and wait to hear what Tricia will say. But Tricia, looking frightened, says nothing. 

Very gently, I ask, “Can you say what makes you bad, Tricia?”

She shakes her head, still not speaking. 

Fantasies go through my head. She had sex with Charlotte. She beat Charlotte up.  She hit someone with her car. She molested a child. She … I bring myself back to reality. Tricia’s anxiety is obviously contagious, but these are fantasies, not realistic possibilities. 

“I had sex with Peter,” she blurts out.

Aha, I think, her boss - and Charlotte’s. She had sex with a male authority figure, a stand-in for her father and is afraid of the punishment from both inside her head and in the real world. Clearly she’s already punishing herself, branding herself as bad. She also fears retaliation from Charlotte, from me, from her mother, and from the powers that be at work.

Suddenly I flash on a patient I saw many years ago. She had been a teacher, but could no longer work. She had an affair with a married principal and felt so guilty that she became convinced everyone in the school system talked about her. She was tormented by her thoughts, but unable to move beyond them. I don’t work well with paranoid people. They remind me too much of my father, I’m too easily sucked into unfruitful and untherapeutic attempts to convince them of the wrongness of their thinking. I must tread lightly with Tricia.

“Sounds like you feel pretty guilty.”

“How could I be so stupid?” she asks, hitting her thigh with her fist. “Not only my boss, but Charlotte’s too. And I know Charlotte has a crush on him. Besides, he’s only toying with me. He tries to get in every woman’s pants. Now he’ll want to get rid of me.”   

“So you feel you ‘stole’ Charlotte’s ‘man’ and that now he’ll get rid of you and choose Charlotte instead. That, you feel, would be your just punishment.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tricia says loudly.

“Tricia, why do you feel what you did was bad? And why are you so frightened?”

“I told you! It was stupid!!”

“Let’s say you decide it was stupid, that doesn’t seem enough of a reason to conclude that you’re bad and that you’re going to get fired. I do believe you do feel terribly guilty, but I suspect the origin of that guilt stems a lot further back.”

“You mean some dumb Oedipal thing? I never wanted to sleep with my father!”

“But I suspect you did want your father to prefer you to your sisters and perhaps even your mother.”

“He did prefer me,” Tricia says quietly looking down. “That’s why my mother hated me so much.” 

I don’t know if Tricia’s assessment is accurate, but I suspect it is why Tricia feels so guilty and also why she’s convinced retribution must follow. 

“It’s important that we try to understand your feelings about the relationship between you and your parents, but right now I wonder what you’re thinking about being fired.”

“It still think Peter might try and get rid of me and that Charlotte hates me, but I’m not feeling quite as scared as before.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re not beating up on yourself quite as much.” 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Diana beams at me as I open the door to the waiting room, walks rapidly to my consulting room, and starts talking before I have a chance to sit.

“I couldn’t wait to tell you,” she says excitedly. “I left my apartment today without checking the door three times to see if it was locked.”

“Wow! That’s great,” I reply. “Quite an accomplishment.”

“I know. I’m proud of myself. But that doesn’t mean I’ll do it next time,” she adds, wanting to be sure that neither she nor I expect too much of her.

“But you did it this time. Any idea what made it possible?”

“Well, we’ve been talking about it a lot. I’ve been trying to tell myself what you always say, that checking the doors or the windows or whatever, doesn’t make me safe, it only gives me the illusion of safety.”

“So by telling yourself what I tell you, it’s like having me with you, which might also make you feel safer.”

“That’s definitely true. I always feel safe when I’m here.”

Twenty-seven year old Diana and I have been working together for several years. She’s very attached to me and does often see me as a safe haven in an otherwise unsafe world. 

Diana has good reason to feel unsafe. The youngest of six children in a strict, religious household, Diana became her mother’s scapegoat, enduring vicious beatings and days of frigid silence. Her father was mostly absent and certainly not a protector.  She couldn’t wait to leave for college but, much to her surprise, she felt frightened being away from home, became riddled with almost paralyzing obsessions and returned to the unsafe safety of her abusive family. She stayed at home through her Master’s degree in Marketing, performed at the top of her class, got an excellent job and moved into her own apartment. It was then she began treatment with me. We formed an almost instantaneous connection, I as the good mother, and she as the seemingly competent, capable adult, hiding a scared, vulnerable child underneath, a combination that invariably hooks me.    

“I know you’d never hurt me,” Diana continues. “There’s no one else I can say that about.”

“There’s your black and white thinking again,” I admonish. “You know that I have hurt you, Diana, like when I misunderstand you or, worse still, when I go on vacation.”

“That’s for sure!”

“And there are other people you trust Diana, your brother Thomas, some of your friends.”

“You’re right. But now that you reminded me for the umpteenth time that the world is not all black and white, I feel scared that I didn’t check my door, like I need to rush home and check or someone will break in and be waiting for me.”

“I wonder if you’re saying that if I’m not all good, then I can’t magically protect you from the bad in the world and that makes you feel both angry with me for reminding you of that reality, as well as more vulnerable, like there is no magic that can keep you safe, that neither you nor I are omnipotent.”

Diana sighs. “It’s always about that, isn’t it, anger and vulnerability. I’m scared of everyone’s anger – including my own – and I’m afraid if there’s no magical protection I’m going to be hurt.”

“I’d say you summed that up very well.”

“So what do I do about it?”

“You try to remember that just because you’re not omnipotent – that checking the doors three times isn’t magic – doesn’t mean that you’re powerless. It doesn’t mean you’re the helpless, dependent child at the mercy of your mother. It means that your power is limited, just like every other person in the world.”

Diana continues for me. “And just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I’m so powerful that my anger can destroy.”

I nod.

After a brief pause Diana says, “I’m trying to decide how I feel about not checking my door.”

I remain silent.

“I guess I’d say I feel sort of in the middle, not as happy as I was when I first came in, but not as scared as I was a few minutes ago. I think I can go to work rather than rushing home, but I might feel more scared going home tonight.”

“What might you do to help yourself be less scared?”

She smiles. “Think about being here. Or even better, imagine you’re coming to see my apartment.” She pauses. “But maybe I’ll ask Barb to come over. She doesn’t have your magic, but she’s a more likely visitor.”