Tuesday, July 28, 2015


“You’re sure you don’t know my husband?” Francis Browning asks again.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I reply. “You made it very clear on the phone that your husband is a psychologist in town and I definitely wouldn’t have agreed to see you if I knew him in any way.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to trust anyone anymore. I can’t even believe I’m willing to see a psychologist myself, but I have to talk to someone or I’ll go crazy. Sometimes I can’t stop crying. Other times I walk around the house screaming. I can’t believe he’d do this. Why drag me all the way here only to dump me?” Francis digs her fingernails into her hands, her face contorted with rage.

I remain silent.

“I’m from Kansas,” she says. “A Kansas farm girl. People in south Florida laugh at me. They don’t think anyone lives in Kansas. And they don’t believe anyone works a farm. I don’t know where they think their meat and produce come from. Just magically appear in the grocery store I suppose. I hate it here. People are incredibly rude, unfriendly. I never wanted to come here. But Richard loved it when we vacationed here, the sun, the manicured lawns, year-round golf. He kept saying as soon as the girls went off to college we’d move. I thought he was just talking. I went on with my life. It wasn’t a very exciting life, but it was my life. I kept busy with my friends and volunteer work. I never finished college. I thought I was so lucky that someone like Richard would want me. Ha! Guess that’s a joke.”

As Francis talks, I think about how painful my move from Ann Arbor, Michigan to south Florida was, how gut-wrenching it felt to leave my friends, my practice and my home, how alien south Florida seemed. I, too, left because of my husband, but we had a warm, loving relationship and although I sometimes felt angry, I knew the move was necessary. Francis’ story obviously has a different trajectory.

“So the girls went off to college,” Francis continues, “and Richard started making plans to move. I kept asking him if he was sure he wanted to start over again in his fifties, but I

guess I never gave him much of an argument.”

“Did you tell him you didn’t want to move?”

“He knew. But I always did what he wanted. He didn’t expect much opposition from me. So we moved and I hated it as much as I thought I would. Moving into a country club community was my idea of a nightmare. I don’t play golf or tennis. I don’t play cards, which kind of eliminates everything women do in those places. Richard was happy as a clam – working hard, I have to give him that – involved in all kinds of stuff at the club. He started watching his weight, coloring his hair. Wanted me to do all that too. Said I looked dowdy. I should have known. I should have realized he’d start looking elsewhere. I should have tried harder, done what he said.”

“You seem to go from being really angry with your husband to blaming yourself.”

“Yeah. Maybe if I’d done the things he’d asked we’d still be together. But too late now. Moved in with another woman. In the same club of course. Talk about being laughed at. I keep asking myself why I don’t move back to Kansas.”

“That’s a good question. Why don’t you?”

“Partly it’s shame. Not too many people back home know what’s happened. The girls of course, but I haven’t wanted to tell my friends. And I don’t know. I guess it’s silly, but I like Richard to know I’m still around, still watching what he’s doing, like I’m here and you can’t get rid of me so easily.”

“You know, Francis, I’m left wondering what you want for your life. What you’ve ever wanted for your life. You’ve spent your life wrapped around your husband and what he wants. What about you?”

Francis glares at me. “Typical career woman! You sit there talking down to me and telling me about my choices.”

I’m taken aback by Francis’ venom. Am I a stand-in for her husband? For the other woman? 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just don’t know what to do with my rage.”

“You never have to apologize for your feelings here, Francis.”

“I never wanted to be a career woman. I wanted to be a wife and mother and look where that got me. I’m being punished for getting what I wanted. You’re not supposed to want. You’re just supposed to accept whatever God gives you.”

“It’s hard not to want, Francis.”

“Maybe. But wanting and getting burned is no better.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


“I didn’t want to come today,” Penny says quietly. “I knew I’d have to tell you what I did and I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure I can.”

Penny’s anxiety is palpable and mine rises along with hers. It’s difficult when patients introduce a topic this way. I always think of something dreadful – she attempted suicide, she started cutting herself, she killed her daughter. I remain silent.

Penny sits looking downward, her dark, straight hair partially covering her face. She makes no attempt to wipe away the tears that fall down her cheeks.

“I beat up Jennifer,” she finally says in a whisper.

Even though my internal list of dreadful possibilities did include Penny having killed her child, I didn’t really expect to hear that Penny had done anything violent, not this petite, delicate woman who sits across from me. And what does she mean by ‘beat up’?  

“I swore I’d never be like that,” she continues. “I swore I’d never be like my mother. I waited years to have a child because I was so afraid of being like her. And then I am. I’m just like her, just as out of control crazy,” says Penny between sobs.

Penny’s mother was an enraged woman with an explosive temper who beat Penny and her sister with straps and belts and anything else at her disposal. Did Penny indeed lose control like her mother? No longer able to contain my own anxiety, I say, “Can you tell me what happened, Penny.”
“Bill and I came home earlier than we expected and there was my 15 year old daughter on the couch making out with this… this boy I’ve told her to keep away from. He’s one of those bad boys. I bet he never even finishes high school. I just snapped. I started screaming and screaming. Bill told him to leave, Jennifer started to give her father an argument and I just went over and slapped her across the face. Twice. She looked at me shocked. I stopped. I couldn’t believe what I did. I couldn’t believe I was just like my mother.”

I can feel myself breath again. Although Penny was briefly out of control her behavior was a far cry from her mother’s. In fact, I can remember a time in a somewhat similar situation when I was about Penny’s age when my mother slapped me for the first and only time of my life. It didn’t scare me. Just made me mad, even though I knew I’d been out of line. But Penny is now frightened of herself, beating up on herself not with a belt, but with self-recrimination and guilt.

“I can’t even look at Jennifer without bursting into tears. And yet I’m still mad at her. She knew she shouldn’t bring that boy into the house. I don’t want her near him anyplace let alone in my home. But I shouldn’t have snapped like that. Bill tells me I’m being too hard on myself, but he doesn’t understand.”

Remembering my own musings before Penny told me what actually happened, I ask, “Is it what you did that’s bothering you so much or what you felt?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if we just look at what happened: You come home and find Jennifer with a boy you don’t approve of. You get angry and yell and slap her twice across the face. The facts themselves aren’t so terrible. Maybe that’s what Bill means when he says you’re being too hard on yourself. 
But the question might be, what did you feel? Did you feel so out-of-control with rage that you might even have wanted to kill Jennifer? And even if you consciously didn’t feel that, was it the extent of your rage that frightened you so much, made you feel like your mother.”

“I didn’t want to kill her!”  Pause. “At least I don’t think so. But I’ve never been so angry in my life.”

“You know, Penny, you present as this gentle, almost meek, little person who would never want to hurt a fly, who could never, ever feel angry at anyone. And maybe that’s the problem. You’ve been so intent on not being like your mother, in keeping any possible similarity to your mother buried far, far away that when that anger was unleashed it burst out like a volcano.”

“That makes sense. But I don’t know what to do with that.”

“Well, it’s too intellectual right now. But I suspect we’re going to need to spend more time looking back at your childhood and finding the anger you needed to keep buried back then, anger that’s still buried and looking for a way to get out.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

No Sadness

“I saw the stupidest movie this past weekend, ‘Inside Out,’’ says Stu, a patient who came into therapy at his wife’s insistence. “It’s supposed to be a kid’s movie so we took my five year old son. He thought some of it was funny, but I thought it was just dumb. These ridiculous Feelings running around in the brain controlling this girl, Riley I think her name was. Even her name. What kind of name is Riley? Anyway, of course my wife loved it and we got into a huge argument over the stupid thing.”

I loved the movie too, seeing it as an incredibly clever animated film that captured the need for humans to integrate all of their feelings in order to avoid becoming removed from themselves and others. I am not, however, surprised by Stu’s aversion to the movie. I remain silent.

“She just got so upset that I didn’t, as she said, ‘get’ the movie. She saw that as the root of ‘our problems,’ by which she meant ‘my problems.’”

“Can I ask you what you didn’t like about the movie, Stu?”

“It was just dumb.”

“Maybe it would be helpful though if we could figure out what about the movie you thought was ‘dumb.’

“Did you see it?”

I suspected that Stu would ask this question and knew that I would answer. “Yes, I did.”

“You liked it. I can tell.”

“Yes, I liked the movie, but my opinion really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you didn’t like it and that you thought it was important enough to bring it up here.”

“That’s because Brenda and I got into this big thing about it.”

“Okay. So can we look at what you thought was dumb about the movie?”

“It was just silly. All those Feeling characters running around telling the girl how to feel and making her act one way or another.”

“Was there a particular Feeling character you liked more than the others or one you disliked more?”

“Yeah. I hated that fat, blue Sadness, always moping around, seeing the worst in everything, having to be dragged around by Joy. But Joy was kind of stupid too, constantly seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. I didn’t like Fear because he was too much of a nerd and Disgust didn’t make any sense to me. So I guess I liked Anger the best, at least he was willing to do something.”

Stu has beautifully captured his own personality in his reaction to the various Feeling characters. But I need to be cautious in my response so that I don’t further heighten his defensiveness.

After a brief pause I say, “Anger was very helpful when he burned a hole in the glass and allowed Joy and Sadness back into the control tower to help Riley. That struck me as a good illustration of how anger or assertion can be used to motivate a person to take necessary action, to impel them forward in life. It’s one of the things you’ve definitely been able to do, use your aggression to become a successful businessman.”

“I didn’t think of that, but yeah, that makes sense,” Stu replies more thoughtfully than he’s been all session.

“But Anger could also have gotten Riley in lots of trouble,” I continue.

“You mean when she starts to run away?”

I nod. “And when she starts to run away, did you notice how she was shutting down? To leave, she has to remove herself from her feelings, to not care, for example, that she’s leaving her parents.”

“I get what you’re saying. Anger alone can spell trouble.” 

“Yes. And you notice what Joy does when she and Sadness get back in the control tower, she has Sadness take over. Riley needs to get back in touch with her sadness in order to feel that she’ll miss her parents, that she doesn’t want to leave them.”

“Good point.” Pause. “I guess the movie was deeper than I thought.”

Now that Stu seems less defensive, I’m comfortable being more direct. “Sadness – or fear for that matter – aren’t emotions you’re comfortable with. They make you feel vulnerable, weak. But unless you can feel the whole range of emotions, it’s hard to live a full life, with meaningful connections to others. You notice in the movie, it’s also Sadness who’s the most empathic character.”  

“Are you saying I have no empathy?” Stu asks, more harshly.

“I think you’re starting to put Anger back up, Stu, because even thinking about feeling sad or scared is in itself pretty scary.”

“Maybe,” he says. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Okay,” I reply, as the hour ends. Stu and I still have lots of work to do.