“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.”
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.”