Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Always Worried

“I really appreciate your seeing me again,” Estelle Peterson says wringing her hands. I had previously seen Mrs. Peterson for a number of years. Although we made some progress in curbing her anxiety, she remained a constant worrier.

“My daughter’s pregnant,” she says.

“Congratulations. I remember you were afraid you’d never have a grandchild.”

“Yes, yes, that’s true,” she says dismissively. “But she lives in Florida.”

“And that means?”


“Oh, you’re worried about her getting the Zika virus.” Concern about  Zika is certainly understandable, but I suspect it will only fuel Mrs. Peterson already considerable anxiety.

“And having a deformed child! I can’t imagine anything worse. I told her she has to leave Florida. Right now. Right away. She doesn’t have to worry about me, but she has to take care of her baby! I told her to go stay with her sister in Connecticut.”

“And she said?”

“That it wouldn’t be a practical. That she and Jonathon have jobs. That they just couldn’t pick up leave.”

“I told she could just quit her job and Jonathon can stay here, that she’d be all right with her sister. Then she got mad at me and told me to stop it. I told her I couldn’t stop it, that I couldn’t bear to spend the next six months worrying about her baby. They hadn’t even told me right away, so I’ll probably worry anyway, worry if one of those mosquitos got her early on. But she won’t listen to me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. How am I going to get through her pregnancy?”

 “How’s your daughter feeling about being pregnant?”

“What? Oh, she’s pretty good. She said that some of her morning sickness was pretty bad, but I told her not to worry about that, that was to be expected. I remember when I was pregnant with her and her sister. I thought I would die. But I didn’t. And she won’t die either. But I might die of a heart attack if I have to worry about the baby for six months.”   

I remember now. It wasn’t only Estelle’s constant worrying that was so difficult, but also her need to make everything about herself. Everyone’s pain becomes her pain. She sees herself as being constantly worried about others, but really she’s concerned about dealing with her own anxiety and discomfort.

“So how can we help you to survive the next six months?”

“No, you have to help me convince Diana. Tell me what I can say to her to make her leave?”

“Even if I could do that, which I can’t, it seems to me we both need to respect your daughter as an adult, to respect her decisions and to try to be as supportive of her as you can.”

“How can I respect her decision when it’s endangering her child, when it will leave me, her mother, a nervous wreck until the baby is born?”

“Do you generally respect your daughter’s decisions? Did you respect her decision to marry her husband, to become a teacher, to move to Florida?”

“I definitely wanted her to move to Florida. I wanted to keep an eye on her. Becoming a teacher was okay, although I wondered if she couldn’t do better. I guess that was true of Jonathon too, but he worked out pretty good.”

Knowing that I am most likely talking to myself, I continue on, “Mrs. Peterson, respecting your daughter’s decisions means recognizing that she’s an adult apart from you who has a right to make a decision even if it is different from the one you’d make.”

“Even if it endangers her child? No, I can’t respect her decision.”

And I don’t respect Mrs. Peterson’s way of being in the world, making it difficult for me to espouse respect when I don’t feel it myself. Perhaps I can try to accept Mrs. Peterson for who she is, and thereby move us both towards a more tolerant view of others. 

“Mrs. Peterson. I suspect that you’re not going to change your daughter’s mind about not leaving Florida. Perhaps I can help you to accept that fact and perhaps we can work on managing your anxiety.”

“You’re not being helpful.”

“Sorry. I can only do what I can do.”

“You used to say that to me all the time, that I had to accept my limitations, that I couldn’t control everything, that I could only do what I could do.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“But maybe this time I can do more.”

“I guess we’ll continue this discussion next week.” 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


“What brings you here?” I ask Peter, a handsome young man I am seeing for the first time.

“My father.”

I wait for further elaboration. He offers none.

“Can you say more?” I ask.

“Nothing more to say. I’m here because of my father.” 

“So I gather you don’t want to be here.”

“You got that right.”

“And you don’t feel you need to be in therapy.”

“Right again.”

“And you’re angry that your father insisted you come.”

“You’re batting a thousand.”

Ignoring his sarcasm, I ask, “So why did you feel you had to do what your father wanted?”

He snickers. “You don’t know my father.”

“That’s true. Why don’t you tell me about him?”

He snickers again. “Sneaky. You’re going to get me to talk. Okay, might as well. My father’s paying for it. My father pays for everything. He’s rich. Developed his own company. Made a fortune. And never lets anyone forget it. He’s smart, a good businessman. My brother works with him. Me, I can’t imagine sitting in an office all day. Just like I can’t sit in class all day. I’m 24 and still bouncing from one college to another. I guess that’s why my father wants me in therapy. He wants you to motivate me.”

“Are you angry with your father?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that. He’s always on my case. Always wants something more from me. Always bugging me to make something of my life.”

“And what do you want for your life, Peter?”

He shrugs.   “Don’t know. Don’t know why I have to want anything. I like hanging out with my friends, surfing, hand gliding, sitting around getting high. Why should I have to work? Daddy will leave me more than enough money.”

I find myself empathizing more with my patient’s father than with Peter himself, making me uncertain how to respond, concerned that I will sound critical, like his father. I decide further exploration is preferable to any comment about the patient’s current life. “Did you always feel this way, Peter? What about in grade school or even before?”

Peter sits silently, but exudes less defiance. “My Dad was my hero,” he finally says. “He played baseball with us, took us to games. And even when he stared making money, and wasn’t around as much, I knew that he was doing it for us. And then he started making more money. And there were stories about him, interviews with him, he was making a big name for himself. And there was me. My brother was a straight A student. I couldn’t measure up. I never liked to read. I was lousy in math. There was nothing I was good at. Except baseball. And I wasn’t good enough at that. My father climbed up and up and I went nowhere but down. So I gave up. Why bother.”

“Sounds pretty sad.”

“I guess,” he says, shrugging, his defensive tone returned.

“Where was your mother in all this?”

“That’s another story. Nothing was ever enough for my mother. She criticized all of us – especially my father. I never understood why he took it, why he didn’t get out. I thought he probably had women on the side – who could blame him – but I don’t know that for sure. I once asked him. He slapped me across the face.”

“Was that typical of him? To hit you?”

“I wouldn’t say that. He hit me a few times. But that time was a surprise. I didn’t get why my question made him so angry. But I never asked again. And I guess I stopped caring.”

“So when you feel angry, you turn yourself off, you ‘stop caring.’”

“I guess.”

“I wonder if the problem with that Peter is that without being able to tap into your anger, your aggression, it’s very hard to find your competitive spirit, your desire to win, perhaps even your desire to beat your father.” 

 “I could never beat my father. I could never even come close.”

“The problem, Peter, is that you gave up trying. You were so sure you’d lose, that you’d never come close, that you were defeated before you began.” 

“But I couldn’t come close.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I wonder what you might be able to accomplish if you didn’t feel so defeated, so shut down. I hope you’ll give yourself and us the chance to find out.”