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