Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What If You Died?

Tall and thin, with long, straight brown hair, Alicia fidgets in the chair. “I have a new obsession,” she says hesitantly. “I keep worrying about your dying. I feel funny talking about it, but who else can I talk to about something like that?”

I’ve been seeing Alicia for almost five years now. She began when she was 20, when she was so paralyzed by anxiety and by magical, obsessional thoughts that she had to drop out of college. She’s much better now. She’s gone back to school and should graduate in a little over a year.  

She continues. “I know we’ve talked about my being afraid of my parents dying in some horrible accident when they left to go out when I was little. And you said that was because part of me wished they were dead because I was mad that they were leaving me. But I don’t feel mad at you. At least I don’t think I do. Do you think I’m mad at you?”

“I think only you know how you feel, Alicia.”

She pouts. “You could help me.”

There is a childlike quality to Alicia. She looks to me to protect her, to save her, to give her the magical answer. I feel the pull to oblige, but think it best that Alicia find her own strength, her own voice, her own answers. Her mother was overly protective and although both parents pushed Alicia to succeed, there was the contrary message that she stay close to the protection of home.

“I will help you, but I can’t tell you how you feel.”

“All right. All right. Be that way.” She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at me.

I remain silent, but present in the room with her.

“Well now I feel angry. A little. No, not really. I know you can’t tell me what I feel. The problem is that I don’t know what I feel myself.” She pauses. “Scared. I feel scared. I feel scared if I think about your dying. And it’s not like I imagine your dying in some gruesome accident. I just think what if you got sick and died? I mean I know you’re not old. But you’re not young either. Would I even know if you were sick? And how would I know if you died? I wouldn’t want to read it online somewhere.” 

“Do you have any thoughts about what triggered your fears of my dying?” When I look in the mirror I certainly know I’m not getting younger, but I suspect Alicia’s fears have more to do with what’s going on for her internally than with my actual age. 

“I just thought of something. My father’s been talking to me about graduate school. I keep telling him I’m not ready, that I still haven’t finished undergrad, that I have to take one step at a time. I can’t think about graduate school. It scares me. It was after that I started worrying about your dying.”

“So talking about graduate school means growing up, leaving home and that brings up fears about loss, including the loss of me.”

“You didn’t have to put it that bluntly. Now I’m terrified.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to increase your anxiety, but we do need to know what the issue is before we can work on it.”

“I could never leave you! I’m not even sure I could leave my parents. Oh my God, what happens when they die?” 

“Alicia, let’s put the question of death to the side for a moment. What feels so scary about leaving home?”

“I can’t. I don’t think I could make it.”

“It feels as though you’d die?”

“It kind of does. But when you put it that way, I don’t know, that doesn’t really make sense.”

“So the idea of leaving home feels terrifying, feels like you couldn’t survive. But when you think about it rationally it’s not so clear what you’re afraid of.”

“Yeah. That’s right. That actually makes me feel a little better.”

“You know, Alicia, although leaving home does involve loss, it also involves gains: growth, independence, freedom. It’s about adding to your life, not just taking from it.”

“Yeah. I can see that.”

“On the other hand, I don’t want us to ignore your underlying feelings, including your fear of my dying. I do hear that you feel terrified and we need to talk about those feelings again and again until you’re more sure of your adult competence and your ability to cope.”  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Until Death Do Us Part

Bob Samuels looks as though he would once have been a handsome man. Now his disheveled white hair, creased brown pants and too small plaid shirt, along with his sad eyes and almost shuffling gait, gives him the appearance of a man who has grown old before his time.

“I read your book,” he begins. “I thought maybe you could help me. You know about loss. But I worry that you don’t know about regret. You don’t mention it much.”

I immediately flash on some of the regrets I have regarding my husband’s treatment of prostate cancer and heart disease: Should we have chosen surgery rather than radiation? Why did no doctor ever tell us about the possible false negatives from chemical stress tests? Yes, I have regrets, but they don’t plague me. I accept that no one is infallible; no one can anticipate or control everything. I say nothing and wait for Mr. Samuels to continue.

“My wife died of ovarian cancer five years ago. She was diagnosed five years before that. In the beginning she put up a valiant fight, although I always wanted her to pursue more alternative treatments in addition to the chemo. I don’t mean anything way out there. Stuff like nutrition. I thought she should become a vegan, try juicing, stuff like that. But she couldn’t deal with it. And then in the end, when the cancer came back again and then again, she called it quits. Said she had enough. She stopped all treatment and just died. I wanted us to go to Europe and try some of the experimental treatments that aren’t available in the States. But she said she couldn’t, said she was done.”

I think about my husband’s words when he too decided to stop treatment: “It’s enough already.” He had fought for years to stay alive. But he reached his limit. Although I was grief stricken, I understood his decision.

“Sounds like you’re angry at your wife for giving up,” I say to Bob.

He startles. “No, no,” he says. “I could never be angry at her. I’m angry at myself for not being able to convince her, for not being able to make a good enough argument. I’m inadequate. I couldn’t make her see.”

“You couldn’t make her see what?” 

“That there was a chance. That there were still things we could do.”

I believe that Bob is angry at his wife for letting go. I also believe that he can’t let himself feel that anger, that he blames himself rather than her. And he can’t tolerate the helplessness we must all deal with in the face of death. But these interpretations are all too premature.

“It sounds as though you miss your wife tremendously,” I say instead.

He sobs. Reaching for the tissues he tries to control of himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice breaking.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I reply.

“It’s five years. I shouldn’t be like this anymore. But I keep tormenting myself. What if I’d done X? What if I’d say Y? What if I was enough of a husband for her that she wanted to stay?”  

“You think if she loved you enough she would have fought harder?” I ask, wondering if his wife’s decision to stop treatment felt like a narcissistic injury to him.

He cocks his head and puts a finger to his lips, pondering my question. “I think I always loved my wife more than she loved me. I mean, she did love me, but I adored her. She was the only woman who really ever mattered to me. So do I think if she loved me more she would have continued to fight? Maybe I do. I don’t like to hear myself say that. It sounds so selfish, so much about me.”

“You know Bob, in the end, none of us can defeat death, no matter how much we might love or how much we might want to stay.”

“I know.”

“I wonder if you do. I mean I’m sure you know intellectually that we all die, but I wonder if on a gut level you feel that if only we do enough, if only we try harder, somehow we’ll be able to continue on.”

“I don’t know.”

“Bob, my sense is that we jumped right into this very painful, difficult topic because you’ve obviously been struggling with these feelings for quite some time. But I wonder if we could go back a bit so I can get some sense of you, of your life, of who you are.”

He takes a deep breath. “Where would you like me to start?”

“Wherever you’d like.”