Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lost and Perhaps Found

I’ve been working with Marvin, a 72 year old depressed widower for nine months. His sessions – like his life - are boring and repetitive. He refuses to discuss the past – says he’s too old for that – and complains bitterly about the emptiness in his life. “Nothing’s better,” he says today. “I still sit alone in my apartment staring at the beautiful weather and wondering why I can’t get myself out there, even to take a walk. There’s no place to go. I’m just lost. When Esther was around, even if we did fight all the time, at least there was someone there. Now there’s nothing.”

I ask myself, not for the first time, why I don’t feel more empathy for this man. After all, I too am a widow. I know the pain of loss, the feeling of aloneness. It’s his passivity that I find difficult. I want to shake him, tell him to find some hobby, some activity, a friend, a girl-friend. But I do none of that, knowing full well that he would find reason to rebuff any suggestion I might make. Today, I take a different track.

“How do you feel about coming here?” I ask.

“I come,” he says, averting his eyes.

Although his answer is the typical passive, uninvolved response, I sense a certain discomfort and wonder if more is going on than he’s saying.

“But how do you feel about coming?” I ask again, more persistently.

“What do you mean?” he says, even more flustered.

“How does it feel for you to come here?” I repeat. “To see me?”

“I…I don’t know,” he says, squirming in the chair.

I remain silent.

“Maybe I shouldn’t come. Is that what you’re telling me?” he says petulantly.

“I didn’t hear myself say that.” 

He sighs. “Everyone gets tired of me. Even my children tell me if I don’t stop complaining they won’t call any more. Not that they call that much.” He pauses. “You think I complain too much, don’t you?” 

“Well,” I say, trying to be diplomatic, “I understand you’re feeling miserable and unhappy and wanting to talk about your feelings. But you don’t really talk about your feelings. Instead you present as a forlorn, helpless person stuck in your misery. Yes, Esther died and you’re alone and you can’t bring her back. But you can try, ever so slowly to make a life for yourself.”

“I love you,” he blurts out.

I’m stunned. And speechless. I flash on the story a well-known psychoanalyst, Dr. Glen Gabbard, told about himself when he was first starting out in the field. When a female patient told him she loved him, he responded first by saying, “No you don’t” and then by trying to convince her that what she felt was not “real” love, but transference from earlier loved figures in her life. I knew what not to do. What to do was more difficult.

“I’m flattered…” I say.

He interrupts, more animated than I’ve ever seen him. “You mean you love me too?” he asks hopefully.

Oh dear, I think. “I’m flattered that you think that much of me,” I continue. “And I’m really glad you’re able to feel so alive.”

“You don’t love me,” he says, immediately deflated.

“I care about you, but I don’t love you as you want and need to be loved.”

“Nobody ever loved me,” he says. “What a fool to think someone like you could love me.”

“I don’t think you’re a fool at all. I’m glad you’re able to engage in life sufficiently to feel love for me. Now we have to help you find someone who can love you back.”

He shakes his head. “That’s impossible. No one ever loved me, no one ever will.”

“I would really like to understand why you feel so unlovable.”

“Why don’t you love me?” he asks challengingly. 

“I’m impressed,” I say truthfully. “You can be assertive when you want to be. But by looking to me for love, which I suspect you know wouldn’t be appropriate, I’d guess that you tend to look for love from people who can’t love you back, probably like the people who couldn’t love you in the past.”

Marvin slumps further down in the chair.

“You know,” I say, “now that I know you can have that spark, I’m going to be more insistent that you engage with me in therapy. We need to talk about the past. We need to talk about how you feel right this minute. We need to reintroduce you to life or perhaps introduce you to life for the first time.”

“You think that’s possible?” he asks.

“I detected a bit a hope in that question. I say we go with that hope.”


Anonymous said...

Excellent story, and a great way of addressing the matter! Congratulations!

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks for the positive feedback, Anita. I greatly appreciate it.

Cheryl Arutt PsyD said...

Beautiful handling of a delicate and pivotal moment in psychotherapy. Thank you so much for sharing this!

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

And thank you for your comment, Cheryl.