Tuesday, March 29, 2016


“So,” Philip begins, “There’s something I’ve been thinking about and after all these years I certainly know I’m supposed to talk about everything I’m thinking about. So, here goes,” he says, inhaling deeply. “We have two weeks, six sessions left and for our last session I’d like to take you out to dinner.”

Many thoughts and feelings flit through my mind. I’m surprised. Philip is a 55 year old obsessive man who despite years of therapy is still fairly rule-bound. Taking me out to dinner would definitely be bending those rules. So should I consider his request an indication of progress? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, I know I’m not going accept. To do so would be stepping way outside the bounds of our relationship. I have gone to lunch or dinner with patients who have been out of treatment for long time, but then I know that the treatment is definitely over and it’s more like catching up with an old friend. Last sessions and, in fact, the entire process of termination is fraught with many intense and conflicting feelings. A restaurant is definitely not the place to deal with them.

“What makes you ask? Why do you want to take me to dinner for our last session?”

He looks instantly deflated. “You’re not going to do it.”

I smile inwardly. My apparently neutral question wasn’t so neutral after all.  “No, Philip, I’m not going to accept. I’ll explain why, but first I’d be interested in knowing why you want to.”

“Is it because I’m a man? I mean I know we dealt with some of my, uhmm, feelings about you along the way, but this has nothing to do with that. I just want to say thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

“And when you say ‘thank you for all you’ve done for me,’ you’ve given me more than enough, a gift. You’ve been able to put your feelings into words. And your warm feelings at that. That’s a major accomplishment for you.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m sorry. No, it’s not because you’re a man. Did I hear a hint of anger in there?”

“No one likes to be rejected.”

“Whoa. Let’s go back a minute. You say that you want to take me out to dinner to thank me for what I’ve done for you. What do you imagine you might be feelings that last day? Or the last week? Or what are you feeling today about ending?”

“Hard to separate out what I’m feeling about ending and what I’m feeling about your turning me down.”

“Okay. Just say what you feel right now.”

“Hmm. I feel disappointed. And hurt. And a little angry. And confused. I don’t understand why.”

“So let’s say we were at a restaurant right now. Would you like to be dealing with all those feelings at the restaurant?”

“I wouldn’t be having these feelings if we were at a restaurant.”

“Ah ha! So perhaps you’ve just told us another reason why you might want to take me to dinner for our last session. Maybe it’s so you won’t feel all the feelings you might be having during that session.”


“Last sessions can be pretty emotional. I know there’s some excitement about leaving, a feeling of accomplishment. Some people describe it as feeling like graduation. But even graduation has sadness mixed with it, ending a chapter in your life, ending your relationship with me. We’re known each other a long time. It’s always sad to say good-bye. Sad for me too. I’m happy for you and your progress, but your leaving is a loss for me as well as for you.”

Philip stares at me. “You’re so dear to me,” he says softly. “You will always have a special place in my heart. You’ll be with me always and I’ll miss you more than I can say.”

“That’s so beautiful, Philip. Thank you. That means so much to me. I think about how you couldn’t even identify what you were feeling when we first started working together, let alone express it. And to be able to express such deep, caring feelings warms me all over.”  

He smiles. “I was just going to say, ‘So how about dinner?’ and then I realized I was just running from all the feelings in the room. I guess we’ll be meeting here for the remainder of our sessions. Five more to go. Makes me sad.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

You Didn’t Do Anything Wrong

“The most awful thing happened to me last week,” Francis begins. “I was walking out of Macy’s and a security guard stopped me. He asked me to open my purse. I looked at him like he was crazy and asked why. I even wondered if he was a security guard or if he was just wearing the uniform and wanted to steal my wallet or something. He kept insisting. I asked him if he thought I stole something which mortified me and he just kept asking me to open my purse. I finally did and he looked through everything. I felt like a thief. And then he said, ‘Thank you, ma’am, I guess there was a mistake.’ I was shaking. I ran out of the mall. When I got into my car I burst into tears. It was awful. And now I can’t stop thinking about it. I replay it over and over in my head.” 

Francis is a conventional woman nearing fifty who came into therapy when the last of her children left for college, wondering what was next for her in life. “It sounds awful. Can you say a bit more about what you felt?” I ask.

“Humiliated. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. How could anyone think I’m a thief? And I felt scared. Like I said I wondered if the security guard was an imposter and if he’d rob me. I know how crazy that sounds, but it didn’t seem any crazier than me stealing something.” 

Francis was the “good girl” who evolved into the “good wife and mother.” It is hard to imagine her doing anything rebellious, let alone illegal. “Did you feel angry as being unjustly accused?”

“I guess I did. You know I don’t do anger very well.”

“And since the incident, what is it that you feel when you replay it in your head?”

“The same thing, humiliated and scared. I don’t feel the anger all that much.”

“Does the incident remind you of anything in your past?”

“No! I never stole anything in my life, if that’s what you mean.”

“No. That wasn’t what I meant. What made you think I was suggesting that?”

“I don’t know,” she says, starting to cry. “I just feel so awful. I feel like a criminal. I feel dirty. I know it’s crazy. It was a mistake. I need to let it go.”

“So you understand that what you’re feeling is an overreaction, but we need to figure out what’s causing that overreaction. I’d say it was something from your past, something that made you feel guilty or ashamed or both. That doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. You could feel you did something wrong even if you didn’t.”

“When you just said I didn’t do anything wrong, I felt this tremendous relief, like a burden was taken from me. But I have no idea why. What do I feel so guilty about? What did I do that was so bad? I was always the good kid.”

Various of my childhood and adolescent transgressions flit through my mind: blaming a friend’s sister for my mischief, wearing make-up when I wasn’t allowed to, lying about having a boyfriend. I don’t carry guilt for any of these infractions, but I’m sure far more serious “sins” exist in the cauldron of both my and my patient’s unconscious. “It doesn’t have to be anything you did, Francis. It could be something you wished for or dreamt about. It could be a fleeting thought, like ‘I wish you were dead.’”

“I killed my younger sister’s turtle,” Francis blurts out. “It was an accident. The turtle got out of its little house and I accidentally crushed it with my rocking chair. My sister was really mad. She said I was a murderer. My mother was mad too. I kept saying it was an accident, but they didn’t believe me.”

“Another example of being blamed when you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Francis hesitates then quietly says, “I didn’t like that turtle. It smelled bad. And I don’t like things that crawl around like that. But it was an accident. I didn’t deliberately kill it.”

I wonder if the turtle is a stand-in for Francis’ childhood feelings about her sister – something that smells bad and crawls around – but I decide to leave that interpretation for another day. “But it sounds like you still felt guilty, both because you might have wished the turtle dead and because your sister and mother were so angry.”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she has almost plaintively.

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong,” I say. I suspect this “good girl” has many forbidden thoughts and feelings, but that too is for another day.