Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Moving Forward

Crystal greets me with a big smile as I open my waiting room door. A slender, 35 year old woman, dressed in casual black clothes, her hair pulled up in a bun, she looks like the yoga instructor she is.

“It’s been quite a week,” she begins. “We’re going into the New Year and, hopefully, I’m going into my new life.” She laughs. “Maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But I feel I’ve suddenly shed my old self. I was totally miserable when I left here last week. I couldn’t stop crying. I even canceled my classes. I know you’ve been saying it for years, but I never really got it, not really. But last week I really felt for me as that little girl, that little girl whose parents were so wrapped up in each other they didn’t even know I existed. It always felt so unfair. It was unfair. It’s not that they were struggling to make ends meet. It’s not that they couldn’t pay attention, they just couldn’t be bothered. And I kept hoping, hoping that I could make them be different. As a kid. As an adult. But I couldn’t. And I got angrier and angrier. And the angrier I got, the more I messed up my life. I was valedictorian of my high school class and I never even graduated from college. How sad is that? I guess I figured if they didn’t care, why should I?”

I’m pleased. This is one of those moments therapists wait a long time to experience. “Wow, Crystal. I’m impressed. It certainly sounds like something coalesced for you in a very different way last week.” 

“It’s what you said about mourning – not that you haven’t said that a million times before too. And you brought up that movie again, “Inside/Out.” So I watched it again. Especially that scene about the elephant. I sobbed my way through it and then I realized that letting go of the elephant as an imaginary friend was a metaphor for letting go of childhood, letting go of the past and that even though it’s very sad, there’s really no other choice if you want to move forward in your life. I can be mad at my parents forever. I can long for their love and attention, but it’s just never going happen. So I have to stop being a baby, let go and move on.”

“I was feeling so pleased for you, Crystal, but that last sentence raised a red flag for me. When you say ‘I have to stop being a baby,’ you’re now rejecting the hurt, vulnerable child in you just as your parents did.”

“Hmm,” she says thoughtfully. “What should I have said?”

“It’s not a question of what you should have said, but rather what you do feel for that child part of yourself.”

“I guess I don’t like her a lot. At least not this week. I want her gone.” She pauses. “You know, I don’t think I get how I could like that part of me and still move forward. I decided after my epiphany this week that I’m going to go back to college and then on to graduate school, although I don’t know if that would be in business or film or dance. I know, I’m covering the spectrum there.”

Although I wonder if Crystal is pushing herself into activity to get away from her internal sadness, I say, “That’s great, but you raise a very important issue when you say you’re not sure how to be kind to the sad, vulnerable part of yourself while going on with your life.” 
“I don’t.”

“Well, you sometimes talk about your neighbor’s little girl. Suppose one day you saw her crying because a friend of hers hurt her feelings or because someone pushed her and she fell. What would you do?”

“I guess I’d hold her and reassure her until she stopped crying and felt comfortable to go back to playing.”

I smile. “Well?” I say. 

Crystal smiles back at me. “I guess you’re saying I should treat myself like I’d treat her.” Pause. “You know, that’s not so easy. It’s like either I have to push myself forward and forget about the sadness or get stuck wallowing in it.” Another pause. “Well, I guess you don’t get rid of me yet. We still have work to do.”

I’m startled as I realize the meaning behind Crystal’s statement. “Crystal, allowing yourself to move forward, to do the things you want to do in your life, doesn’t mean you have to stop seeing me. There isn’t this strict demarcation between childhood and adulthood where adults don’t need love and caring and connection. You can go out into the world and see me for as long as you want or need.”

Crystal’s eyes fill with tears. “You’re amazing. I’m afraid I’ll never want to leave you.”

“That might be a fear of yours,” I say. “And we’ll deal with it.”    

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Jennifer Holland sighs deeply as she settles into the chair. “Well, another holiday season is upon us and I’m alone.”

“I thought both your sons were coming with their families,” I say too quickly and concretely.

She sighs again. “It’s not the same.”

“You mean your husband Dave isn’t here?”

Her eyes fill with tears as she nods. “It’s been five years since he passed. Five years of being alone.” 

“I understand that no one can replace Dave, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone.” 

“It’s not the same,” she repeats.

I’m back in a familiar place with Jennifer. I do understand her feelings. As a widow myself, I know all too well that the holidays bring one’s sense of loss and loneliness to the foreground. But Jennifer’s inability to appreciate what she does have, to take in anything positive from anyone – including me – leaves me feeling angry and frustrated.

“I know it’s not the same, but I wonder how your sons would feel if they heard you discounting their love and caring.”     

“They can’t understand. I know they lost their father, but they have their own families, their own lives.”

Feeling my anger rise, I wonder if I am feeling not only my own anger, but Jennifer’s as well. “Are you angry that your sons have their own lives, that they’re not here with you?”

“I’d prefer they were here. But boys don’t stay with their mothers. I have friends who are widows whose daughters live nearby. I get jealous whenever they bring up spending time with them. But me, I’m alone.”

“You just said you have friends,” I say, immediately aware that I am fruitlessly attempting to change Jennifer’s mind. 

“Yes. But they’re just friends.”

I try to get beyond my frustration and my wish for Jennifer to be different and say, “Do you hear yourself reject anything positive you might receive from anyone: friends, your sons, me?”

“But it doesn’t feel positive.”

Stymied again.

“What would be positive?” I ask.

“Having Dave back,” she says, crying.

From most patients, I would experience such a statement with great empathy. With Jennifer, I feel only anger. “I’m sure that’s true,” I say, trying to conceal my anger, “But you can’t have Dave back.”

“I hate when you say that!”

“Do you hate me?”

“No, I could never hate you. You’re trying to help me.”

“Are you saying you feel that you’re not allowed to hate me because I’m trying to help you?”

She nods.

“But you might hate me even if you feel you shouldn’t.”

“You’re confusing me. Besides, I don’t know why we’re talking about this. I want to know how to be less alone.”

I’m ready to scream. I try to step back and understand what’s going on between us. What I feel is that Jennifer is determined to spit me out. Well, I think, maybe that’s a starting place.

“Jennifer,” I say, “I know that your life has been unbearably sad and painful since Dave’s death, but my experience of the immediate right here and now, of this session right at this moment, is that you reject anything I offer that might help you to feel less alone, like you’re spitting me out.”

“But you haven’t said anything to make me feel less alone.”

“If you’re saying I haven’t said anything that’s going to bring Dave back, that’s true. If you’re saying you’re unwilling to take in anything that might make you feel better unless it’s bringing Dave back, I’d say you’re holding out for the impossible. And if you are saying you’re going to reject anything that isn’t going to bring Dave back, I’d say that’s what we need to work on.” Am I being too harsh, I wonder? Is my frustration turning into hostility?

“I don’t know what you want from me,” Jennifer says plaintively. 

Yes, I’m being too aggressive but Jennifer’s passivity and sense of entitlement is difficult for me to handle. I try to soften my tone. “Can you say what you’d like from me, Jennifer? Or what you think you might be able to do to help yourself to feel better.”

“I don’t know,” she laments. “I thought you were supposed to tell me that.”

“It’s so, so hard for you, Jennifer, to take in positives, to feel good about your sons coming, to feel pleased to have friends.”

“It’s not enough.”

“I understand they’re not Dave. But maybe you won’t be able to begin to take in the positives in your life until you’re able to accept that regardless of how much you might want it, Dave can’t come back.”

“I hate when you say that.”

“I know. It’s a reality you don’t want to accept.”

Friday, December 4, 2015



Mrs. Jackson sits across from me looking all of her 80 years. Speaking slowly and softly, I strain to hear her. “I know it’s ridiculous. My parents have been dead for years. I’ve had my own family, my own life and yet I can’t get past what they did to me. Or what they didn’t do, would probably be more accurate. I was invisible to them. They couldn’t have cared less about me. There were days I went hungry because they couldn’t be bothered to feed me. But my brother, he always got fed. The crown prince.”

“You sound angry,” I say.

“Oh yes,” she replies in barely a whisper, “I’m angry. But what I am supposed to do about it?”

“Do you always speak that softly when you’re angry?”

She smiles. “My husband always tells me I go around whispering.”

“Any idea why you speak so quietly?” I ask, thinking it’s both a way to keep herself invisible, as well as a way to force others to pay close attention to her.

She shrugs. After a pause she says, “I know it’s not unusual for parents to prefer the boy, I sometimes felt that with my own children, but it wasn’t only that. My mother would walk by me like I wasn’t in the room. She didn’t help me understand how to dress appropriately, how to make friends, couldn’t care less if I got myself to school. I did go to school. I couldn’t pay attention very well, but at least that was a time I didn’t have to deal with my mother’s rejection.”

Although I’m aware that Mrs. Jackson has ignored my question, possibly repeating the experience of being ignored herself, I opt for empathy at the moment rather than confrontation. “I’m sure being constantly ignored was extremely painful, but do you have any thoughts about why you decided to come into therapy at this particular moment.”

“I’ve been in and out of therapy my whole life. It never works. I try, but it never works.”

“What do you mean it never works?”

“I can’t let go, I can’t forget about how they treated me, despite what the therapists say.”

“And what do the therapists say?”

“They say I should forget about it. And I agree. But I can’t.”

“I don’t think the problem is that you can’t forget how they treated you, but rather that you can’t move beyond the feelings you had as a child. The pain of their rejection feels as though it happened yesterday as opposed to 70 plus years ago.”

“You’re absolutely right. I can’t get beyond the feelings.”

“Can you imagine what it would be like not to have those feelings?” I ask.

Mrs. Jackson mumbles a response.

“I’m sorry” I say, “I didn’t hear you.”

“Free,” she whispers, looking down at the floor.

“You sound so tentative. I wonder if it feels scary to imagine yourself as free.”

“Why would it be scary?”

“Well, for one thing, it’s very foreign to you. Being free means putting yourself out there, speaking up, feeling you’re valuable and worthwhile. You’ve spent your life making yourself as invisible as you were to your parents.”

“That’s true. But I’m 80 years old. I’m 80 years old and I still feel like a child.”

“It’s really hard to change a lifetime of how you feel about yourself, how you are in the world. Perhaps you hope that if you make yourself invisible enough, your parents will finally love you.”

“But my parents have been dead for years.”

“Yes, but we all walk around with parents in our heads and those parents never die. We still try to get those parents to love us, to notice us, to approve of us. To get beyond the hurt and angry feelings you carry inside you, you have to mourn those parents in your head. You have to come to a place where you know and feel that you can never, ever get the love and attention and caring you needed and deserved as a child, regardless of how invisible you make yourself.”

There’s another inaudible reply.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” I say. “I don’t have the greatest hearing, but I suspect it’s not only my hearing that’s the problem.”

“I said I’d try.”

“Do you want to try for you or are you trying to please me?”

She chuckles. “Perhaps a little of both.”

“It will be important for us to pay attention to who you’re trying to please – me, the parents in your head, or yourself. Hopefully you can get to a place where you’re doing what you want to be doing for you.”