Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Family Connections

“I’m kind of in a state of shock,” Sheila begins. “My sister was arrested for shoplifting. A lipstick for heaven sakes! She could have bought a million lipsticks! I don’t get it. And she doesn’t seem to be able to explain it. At least not to me.”

“You’ve never talked much about your sister,” I say to Sheila. “What’s your relationship like?”

Sheila sighs. “Pat’s two years younger than me, 36. I guess we’ve never been close. Not as kids, not now when we live less than a half hour apart. She was always difficult, always getting into trouble, creating some drama in the house. She’s very pretty. My father liked that. I guess I was jealous of her. I was the good girl, the one who always did well in school, the one who obeyed the rules. I got points for that, but her looks made her popular with the “in” girls and always got her dates with the most desirable boys. And then she married Cliff, married into all that wealth. She calmed down after that. I thought she was happy. Who knew?”

“Do you still feel jealous of your sister?”

“I guess. It seemed she was always creating problems, but still got everyone to love her. But I don’t know about this time. My parents are definitely not happy. And I can only imagine how Cliff’s family will react.”

“Does that bring you some satisfaction?”

“I wouldn’t say that to anyone but you, but yes, it does. Except she’ll probably get out of this too. And I really shouldn’t complain. I have a great career, a wonderful husband and a lovely daughter. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

“Do you feel less than your sister?”

“That’s a good question. It’s like if I think about my adult self and my adult life, I have absolutely no reason to feel less than Pat – except for her money, but that’s really not the issue for me. It’s these feelings from the past that creep in and suddenly I’m the one who gets to stay home on Saturday night, who watches my father look adoringly at my sister and, yes, I feel less than. Silly, right?”

“Not silly at all, Sheila. Our unconscious is timeless and the experiences and feelings we had at five and ten and fifteen, are as much with us, as our present day experiences and feelings.”

“Makes sense.”

“You haven’t talked at all about your mother’s feelings about you or your sister.”

“I guess that’s because I never knew how my mother felt. About anything. She was always efficient and proper and did the things she needed to do, including taking care of us, and I suppose loving us, but there was a shallowness to her feelings. Or maybe it’s that feelings were too messy. She did what she needed to do, her feelings on the shelf.”    

“So in relation to your mother, your sister and you were equal, neither of you getting very much.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I mean we may have been equal, but it’s not that we didn’t get very much.”


“Are you saying you think we were emotionally deprived?”

“You were the good girl, your sister acted out. Maybe you were both trying to get more love and attention.”


“I wonder if that’s why I sometimes get depressed out of the blue. It’s like everything is going along fine and suddenly there’s this black cloud.”

“That a great insight, Sheila. What you’re saying is that those childhood feelings we were talking about earlier catch up with you and suddenly you’re a kid again feeling needy and ungiven to and depressed.”

“That’s exactly right!” She pauses. “You know, that also makes me feel more sympathy towards my sister. I like that. It’s a new feeling.” Another pause.  “Do you think she shoplifted because she felt needy and thought the lipstick would make her feel better?”

“You’re saying she was trying to nurture herself with a material object, because she didn’t feel given to emotionally. That’s certainly a possibility. And I imagine there’s some anger thrown in there as well. Probably for both of you.”

“Hmm. I’ve never seen myself as an angry person, but I guess we’ll have to talk about that next time.”

“Okay. We will.”  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Welcome Back

Annette smiles wanly when I open the waiting room door, walks slowly into my office, and lowers herself gently into her usual chair.

“Welcome back,” she says with little enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” I reply, surprised by Annette’s distance and reserve. Although this was the Annette who began therapy with me many years ago, our close enduring relationship had allowed her to deal with her childhood sexual abuse and to transform into a warm, open, engaged woman. Now forty-five, she worked as a para-legal and had a full, satisfying life. Although she never married, she had several long-term relationships and a network of close friends. She was usually especially glad to see me after my return from vacation, eager to catch me up on her life.

After a brief silence I ask, “What’s wrong, Annette?”

“I have some really bad news,” she says, her voice barely audible. “I have metastatic colon cancer.”

My eyes widen, tears immediately filling them. “Oh Annette,” I say. “I’m so, so sorry. When did you find out?” I was only gone two weeks I think to myself, aware that I feel guilty I wasn’t here for her.

“Just yesterday. I guess I’m still in shock. I wasn’t feeling well, had some bloating, discomfort. I wasn’t hungry which, as you know, is unusual for me. I thought maybe it was just my usual stomach stuff, but I went to my GI doctor. He examined me and suggested a colonoscopy and a CAT Scan. I was too happy about that. And then the diagnosis, cancer. They want to start chemo. I don’t know. I don’t know what my chances are and if I’m going to die anyway, I’d rather not prolong the agony.”

I’m overwhelmed by sadness, sad for this woman who fought so hard in her therapy to get through the pain of her past, only to now be forced to confront a dire illness and the possibility of death. My own losses flash in front of me as well, my husband to metastatic prostate cancer, numerous friends to pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer. The list seems unending.

“I’m sorry, Annette,” I say. “I know I’m not being helpful to you.”

There again is her wan smile. “No, you are. I can see how much you’re affected by my news. That means a lot to me. I know you care for me. I know I’m not just one in a long line of patients.”

“We’ve worked together a time long, Annette. Of course I care about you. And I’ll help you through this however best I can.”

“Will you support whatever decision I make about whether or not to get chemo?”

“I will, but there’s a “but” to that statement. I want you to be sure you’ve explored all your options and know what the doctors think of your chances.”

“I am going to see an oncologist.”

“Good. I’m glad. And I also think you need to give yourself some time. You just found this out yesterday. It’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming to me, it must be more than overwhelming for you.”

“You’re the first person I told.”

“You didn’t call any of your friends?” I ask, surprised.

“No. I knew I’d see you today. I was afraid if I told anyone I’d totally fall apart. I called in sick to work. I couldn’t bear telling everyone there and I didn’t know if I could fake it. They know I haven’t been feeling well.”

“Do you feel you can tell your friends now?”

“I don’t know. I’ll see.”

“Annette, does this feel like part of the abuse all over again? Like an unwanted, foreign thing invading your body?”

“Oh my God, I hadn’t thought of that! But it’s true. I mean I know it’s not the same thing, but it does kind of feel that way. How did you think of that?”

“I guess because today you’re more like the self I knew when we first started seeing each other – removed, defended, isolating. I know it could be shock, but for you I thought it might be more. And it’s not only the cancer itself, but all the tests you had to take and will continue to have to take. So we’ll need to be sure that your decision about treatment isn’t contaminated by your desire to avoid what might feel like more abuse.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t want that bastard to destroy me in the end.”

“I wouldn’t want that either. Go see the oncologist, tell some of your friends and hopefully you’ll have  time to decide what to do.”

“See you Thursday.”

“See you Thursday,” I repeat, aware of the now increasing importance of time.