Marlene glares at me as I open the door to the waiting room. My customary smile freezes on my face. I’ve been seeing Marlene for over three years now and her connection to me is quite intense. As we walk toward my office I ask myself if there was there anything notable about our last session. I didn’t announce an upcoming vacation. I don’t recall a therapeutic breach. We talked about her father, a man she has been loath to take off his pedestal.
Marlene drops into the chair, crosses her arms and legs and pointedly looks out the window, avoiding my eyes. She’s a tall, blonde woman in her mid-thirties who came into treatment because of repeatedly failed relationships she described as filled with betrayal and abandonment.
We sit in silence for several minutes as Marlene’s anger fills the room. I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Is that because I want to avoid getting caught in a power struggle? Or does Marlene’s anger feel too big to me, triggering my own discomfort with intense rage? I can’t tell. But I know I’m going to break the silence.
“You’re obviously really angry with me, Marlene. Can you tell me why?”
“I hate you!” Marlene spits at me.
Over the years, I’ve certainly had patients tell me they hate me. But the venom behind Marlene’s words is frightening to me, especially since I have no idea what’s fueling it. I do know her anger is triggering me, reminding me of the irrational, explosive rage of my father, but that awareness doesn’t assuage my anxiety.
“You’re just like my fucking mother! All you want to do is take him away from me. I can’t say you want him all to yourself, you’re too much of an old bag for Daddy, but you probably just want me to be as miserable as you.”
I’m getting a glimmer of what’s going on. That helps. But the paranoia behind Marlene’s words is still discomforting.
“So in our last session you felt I was trying to take your father away from you.”
“I didn’t ‘feel it,’ you were. Telling me he never loved me!”
I feel I’m walking through a land mine. If I dispute Marlene’s account of what I said, we’ll only end up arguing about who said what. Yet I’m not comfortable allowing what I see as Marlene’s distortion to exist as fact. I decide to try to go underneath the rage and paranoia.
“So if I was trying to take your father away from you I can certainly understand your feeling enraged at me. But what if in the course of our discussion you found yourself having some doubts about your father …”
“Never, bitch! You see. You’re doing it again.”
My anxiety is moving towards anger, just as Marlene’s anger covers her fear and vulnerability.
“Marlene,” I say with more determination. “There’s a lot going on here today. Even the intensity of your rage and your unwillingness to hear me out, speaks to your covering over lots of feelings. Something clearly got triggered in our last session. I’ve become the enemy. I wasn’t your enemy before and I’m not your enemy today. If you feel I was too harsh about your father, I apologize. But no father is perfect, no father can be 100% available and loving. And I think you got scared about losing your perfect father. Perhaps having him be less than perfect feels like he’s not there at all, sort of like with me going from friend to enemy, he went from being 100% there to being 100% absent and that was too painful to bear.”
Once again there is silence, but this silence feels more tolerable.
“I don’t know,” Marlene finally says in barely a whisper. “If I believe you, I lose him. If I stay with him… I don’t know. Does that mean I lose you?”
“The world isn’t so black and white, Marlene. You don’t have to choose between us, even though I know that is how it often felt with your parents. Neither your father nor I are perfect, but our lack of perfection doesn’t mean that you’re abandoned and alone. It means you get to take what you can from each of us imperfect people and that you can also look beyond us for close, meaningful relationships.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.”
“What is it that you feel right now?
“Kind of empty. It’s like I was filled with rage when I came in and now that rage is gone, but I’m not sure what’s there in its place.”
“I understand. We’ll continue to talk about it next time.”