Tuesday, September 6, 2016


“I had a dream about all these disasters last night,” Jenny says. “It was frightening. There was one disaster after another. I mean I know there have been lots of disasters – floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados – but it was strange for me to be dreaming of them. I don’t know if I was in the disaster or watching the disaster or helping at the disaster. It was weird.”

Jenny‘s a young medical student. I wonder if, at a surface level, she’s anxious about how she will handle her responsibilities as a physician. I remain silent, waiting to see where Jenny’s thoughts will take her.

“My mother called last night. She was complaining about my step-father for a change, about this step-father, just like she complained about all the others. I don’t know why she keeps marrying them, always sure this one will be her most perfect love. I think I’ve even lost count of what number she’s up to. Ugh. I don’t think I ever want to get married. Or not until I’m really, really sure. I guess I see her as a disaster. That’s sad to say about your own mother. I joke with my friends that she’s my negative role model. I want to be everything she’s not and not be anything she is. Sad.”

“Did you feel that way as a child?” I ask.

“Maybe not as a small child, but before I became a teen-ager for sure. Our house was a revolving door. At least she was smart enough not to have any more kids, except that there were always the so-called Dad’s kids who revolved through and then disappeared forever.”

“Was that hard? Forming an attachment to these father figures or siblings and then having them disappear?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe I just learned to do my own thing, be involved with my schoolwork, with my friends. I liked being alone.”

Despite the matter-of-factness in Jenny’s tone, I find myself becoming sad. I wonder about her desire for aloneness as a defense against loss. And I think again about her dream, since disaster almost always involves loss.

“When did you last see your own Dad?”

“Who knows. He vanished a long time ago. Every so often he’ll make an appearance, but I certainly wouldn’t want to count on him.”

“I wonder if it’s possible for you not to feel sad about all these losses, Jenny?”

“I’m too busy.”

To avoid sadness, I think to myself. I ask, “What were the disaster survivors doing in your dream?”

“I was going to say they were doing what disaster survivors always do, dig through their houses looking for stuff, try to find things that are important to them. But I don’t think so. I don’t remember seeing people. It was like one of those apocalyptic novels. Maybe there were a few people, I don’t remember, but basically it was empty, barren.”

“Sounds really sad.”


“I just had a weird thought. I wonder if it wasn’t me in all those disasters, but you. Like I was the observer, but you were the one who was there. I wonder what that would mean,” she muses. “I could get it if you’re the one who’s trying to help in the disaster. But would that mean I’m the disaster? I don’t feel like a disaster. So am I trying to reduce you, to make you like me, so I don’t feel like so much of a disaster?” Pause. “I guess that’s possible.”

“Are you saying, Jenny, that it feels like a disaster to need people, to need help, to not want to be all alone in the world?”

“It is a disaster to need people. No one is ever there. You can’t count on anyone. Not your mother, not your father …” Her voice trails off.

“Were you going to say, ‘not your therapist’?”

“Yes,” Jenny says looking down. “I mean I know you’ve been there for me, but you’re only my therapist. Eventually this relationship will end. And then what? Then I’ll be alone. Again. Just like always.”

“It’s hard for you to imagine that even when we do end – which we certainly don’t have to do until you’re ready – that you will take me with you, as part of you, just as a part of you will remain with me.”

“I don’t know if I believe that,” she says. A moment letter, Jenny is crying. “And I’m not sure I even want to believe it,” she says between sobs. “What would that mean, that I would stay with you when my parents could discard me so easily?”

“It would mean that you are loveable and that it was your parent’s great loss that they weren’t able to cherish you as you needed and deserved to be cherished.”


Unknown said...

Interesting that you talk about a part of a client being left with you. Often wonder how much therapists feel for clients. Do they feel love, especially for long-term clients (the ethical, healthy kind of love, of course)?

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks for your comment, Annie.

I would say, without question, that I and many therapists feel love for their patients. My book, "Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment," addresses that very issue.

There is no way we are not impacted by our patients - to a greater or lesser degree - although not always in the same way that we impact our patients.

Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your reply Linda. It's very interesting - the contrast of a business relationship involving an openness on one only side yet with such intimacy, creating feelings on both sides. A unique relationship found no-where else...

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Most definitely, Annie, a unique relationship found nowhere else.

When patients sometimes say you're not my friend, I say, no, I'm more than your friend. There can be an intensity to a patient-therapist relationship that is indeed profound for both parties.

Siebolt Frieswyk PhD said...

Linda, As always you offer a wonderfully rich and evocative narrative. I wonder if your patient is conveying she fears she will be 'inundated',flooded with fantasies and fears and emotions she cannot contain. She is terrified at possibilities she cannot specify except in this vivid imagery. 'Psychic disintegration' is too experience distant to translate what it is that she fears will happen with you. Implicitly, she is asking you to feel what she feels and so 'metabolize' her dread and 'modulate' her fear of abandonment that seems to be rather powerfully conveyed. My sense of her is that she is a vulnerable borderline woman who is both needy and terrified what will happen if she stays. From her point of view, staying means she will drown. How to address that fear is the question, I think. Thanks again for a fascinating story. Sid

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks, Sid, for your insightful comment.

It wasn't my intention to paint Jenny as a borderline, but I think you are definitely correct in saying that she is fearful of being flooded with feelings she cannot contain, especially her own neediness.

Thanks again.

Siebolt Frieswyk PhD said...

Linda, Glad to see you and your post are still available. Rereading the narrative it seems to me that like all of our patients they see their 'interior' through obscure means that cloud the reality obscured in dramatic mode. She gives enough hints though that she is reminded of her mother as she begins with you. As a psychoanalyst I might wish to listen to hear how she listens and what she makes of the contiguity of an early childhood memory and the chaos of her disaster narrative. Extreme loss of safety seems to be prominent. Whether one wishes to regard that as a psychotic anxiety or not seems not to be so germane as recognizing that she fears the onslaught of an experience that could wash her away. Well, thank you again for such an evocative narrative. Best wishes, Sid

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

I agree with you completely, Sid.