Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Election

“I came here to gloat,” Diane says, grinning ear to ear.
I feel as though I’ve been slapped, rendered immediately shocked and speechless. I know exactly what Diane is referring to, the election.
“It was worth it for me to pay you for the session, just to say, ‘You see, I told you so.’ You were entirely out of touch. Thought you understood the little people, but the little people never wanted your elite Obama. Now you’ll see what they want.”
Finding it difficult to regain my composure, I struggle to remind myself that I am the therapist here, that although I haven’t seen Diane for over two years, we had a lengthy therapeutic relationship. It is my responsibility to understand the intensity of her anger. Although it is not my usual practice to discuss my politics with patients, Diane made it impossible to avoid. She scoured the internet looking for information about me and soon knew my political leanings, taking great pleasure in baiting me into arguments. She was definitely capable of raising my ire, like the time she said, “When was the last time you were hired by a poor person?” I experienced most of those interactions as Diane’s attempt to maintain distance between us, emphasizing our differences, rather than our shared connection. But this feels like unadulterated rage.   
“Diane, if you feel you won, which you obviously do, why are you so angry? And why are you so angry at me in particular.”
“’Anger Trumps Love,’ to rephrase an expression being thrown around these days.”
I remain silent.
“All your goody, goody peace, love and compassion. It’s bullshit. It’s about anger. It’s about taking what you want. It’s about being able to win, regardless.”
As with the rise of hate crimes across our country, I hear Diane saying that Trump has given her permission to express the rage she has long bottled up. Is she suggesting that I didn’t allow her access to that rage? Perhaps that’s true. Is she angry with me about that? Perhaps.
“Do you hate me, Diane?”
Now she looks startled. “No, why would I hate you? As you said, my side won.”
“You feel to me as though you hate me. You come here to gloat, as you said, very angry and clearly wanting to say, take this, bitch, suffer, I won, you get to crawl. Yes, that’s how it feels to me, it feels as though you’re wanting to dominate over me and have me submit.” As I say this, I think that perhaps all our arguments over the years were about this issue, that it wasn’t about maintaining distance, but rather trying to attain dominance. Only one person could win and she was determined that it would be her.
“I definitely feel I finally won over you. But I don’t hate you. I’m just enjoying my victory and I want you to admit defeat.”
In my mind I say, no way. I definitely admit losing this battle and suffering the sadness and grief that comes with it. But admit defeat, no way. “So what would my admitting defeat mean for you?”
“I’d have won.”
“I understand that, but what would that mean for you?”
“That I was right.”
“And what does being right get you?”  
“You can’t dismiss me and look down on me and see me as stupid.”
“Diane, are you sure that it’s me you’re reacting to now or is it more your feelings about your family, your parents and elder brothers who you experienced as dismissive and contemptuous of your opinions and intellect.”
“But they all agree with me politically.”
“I understand that. And I understand that it may feel when you and I disagree that I am being dismissive of you and your ideas. But from my perspective, you and I have very different world views. That doesn’t mean I question your right to your opinion or that I think less of you.”
“Are you sure about that?” she asks, challengingly.
That stops me. “That’s a very difficult question, Diane. I certainly don’t think less of your intelligence. But as I’m sure you very well know, we live in an extremely polarized society where people spend more and more time with people they agree with, they read material that supports the positions they already hold. So may I think less of the people who disagree with me, perhaps, perhaps it’s sometimes hard for me to understand how you or whoever holds the position you do. But, and this is a very big but, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. My caring does – eh - override your politics.”
“You thought it didn’t you? You thought to say, ‘Love trumps hate,’ but decided against it.”
“Yes, I thought it, but decided against it. You see, you’re smart and insightful, as always.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

Alone Again

Cynthia collapses heavily in the chair across from me, as if she doesn’t have the strength to hold herself up. Sadness exudes from her every pore.

“My son told me yesterday he’s not coming for Thanksgiving,” she says, barely holding back tears.

Although I’m not surprised - Cynthia has been disappointed by her son many times before – I do feel badfor her. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “What happened?”

“He said it’s too expensive to bring the whole family.” Pause. “I know it is expensive to travel during the holidays. I wish I could help him, but I’m just not in a position to do so.” Pause. “I wonder if he was waiting for me to offer. But he should know my circumstances. He knows his father left me next to nothing. I’m not even 65. I have to be sure I have money to last my whole life.” Tears run down her cheeks. “I don’t want to spend Thanksgiving alone. It’s supposed to be a family holiday.”

I can feel myself wanting to go into “helper” mode – making suggestions, asking why she has to be
alone. It’s a place I have been many times before with Cynthia, usually ending in frustration for both of us. Her helplessness is hard for me. I want her to do something. She wants someone to do it for her, to take care of her.

“It is hard to be alone for the holidays,” I say, empathically.

“But what should I do?” she asks, crying harder. “What alternative do I have?”

Feeling as though she is unconsciously setting a trap for me I say, “It sounds, Cynthia, that you’re asking me for suggestions, but usually when I make suggestions you reject them, always finding a reason they’re undoable.”

“But there isn’t anything I can do. Paul isn’t coming. I can’t change that. I have no other family here. So I’m alone.”

“Sounds like you’re feeling angry at Paul.”

“Okay, so I’m angry. What does that get me?”

“Sounds like you’re angry with me too.”

“I just don’t see where this is getting me anyplace.”

I hear that almost as a positive statement, a desire for movement. “Where would you like to get, Cynthia?”

“Not alone again.”

“So what might you do to not be alone again?”

“You think I have control over this, don’t you?”

“You know, Cynthia, you feel more angry than sad to me right at this moment and I wonder if that’s
helpful to you. Maybe it can give you the push to figure out what you might do to not be alone again.”

“You sit there so smug. You’re probably surrounded by family – kids, grandkids – all getting together and having a great time. You don’t care that I’m alone,” she says crossing her arms in front of her.

Although this is definitely not my reality, it is clearly Cynthia’s fantasy about me. “So you’re envious of the life you see me as having.”

“Yes!” she practically spits at me, with venom. “You’re just like all of them. You have it all. You gloat while I suffer!”

“All of whom, Cynthia?”

“My sisters, my mother. They were prettier, smarter, able to get it all, while I was the shmuck who
married an even bigger schmuck who left me in the position I’m in today.”

“So you felt lousy about yourself, felt you couldn’t compete, couldn’t do as well. You gave up. Also, and I’d really like you to think about what I’m going to say, I think you now unconsciously punish them – and me – but remaining the “schmuck,” as you say. It’s as though you’re getting back at them by saying, see what you did to me, I’m miserable and it’s all your fault.”

“So what do you think I should I do?”

“You could fight back. You could do things that would make you feel better, make your life more fulfilling.”

“A little late, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so. You said yourself you’re not yet 65. You still have a lot of living to do. And I’m not
talking about become a millionaire or discovering a cure for cancer, I’m talking about not needing to
keep yourself in a one down position.”

“What about Thanksgiving?” she asks.

“What about Thanksgiving?” I reply. “You still want me to make suggestions. But I know you can come up with your own suggestions, you could thrive, if you could allow yourself not to punish yourself as a way of getting back at the people who have hurt you.”

She shrugs. “We’ll see.”

“Yes,” I reply, “we’ll see.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


“I feel like such a loser. A loser and a whiner. I should be able to get over myself already. I’m reading Gloria Steinem’s “On the Road.” She’s 82 years old and still going strong. She’s made a huge contribution to women, to society. And her childhood was certainly no picnic.”

I’ve been seeing almost 60 year old Carol for several months now. She came into treatment because she was no longer able to paint, a creative outlet that had been important to her for many years. She said she was probably depressed, but could think of no particular reason to be depressed except that she was soon going to turn 60. “Old, old, old,” she said. “The big six zero.” 

“And me?” she continues. “My life has been a big nothing. Yes, I got married. I guess my marriage is okay, sort of so-so, maybe like all marriages. I have two children. They’ve had their own struggles but they’re decent people. And I used to paint. I’ve been wondering lately if I stopped painting because I really was never particularly good at it. How do I know if I’m good? Exhibiting every so often doesn’t mean you’re a good painter.” 

I’m aware of having conflicting feelings as I listen to Carol, vacillating between wanting to protect her from her own self-criticism to finding myself agreeing with her that she’s complaining about much of nothing. It’s as if I go from being the comforting parent to the critical parent and back again. I suspect Carol carries this critical parent inside her head, always ready to attack her.  

“You’re certainly very critical of yourself, Carol,” I say.

“That’s for sure. Always have been. I guess I figured if I was critical of myself I could make sure I did everything right and that way I’d ward off my father’s criticism. Never worked. He could always find something to be mad about, from not making my bed perfectly to having friends he, for some reason, didn’t like. It was impossible to please him.”  

“So now you carry your father around with you in your head.”

“Yup! You’d never know he was dead. It’s ironic you know. I thought I couldn’t wait for my father to die and now here I am keeping him alive inside my mind.”

“That’s a great insight.”


“My father used to paint too. Representational stuff. He was pretty good. Of course he hated what I painted. Said it looked like something a kindergartener would do. But that was the one place he couldn’t get at me. I painted what I wanted to paint. I would have liked his approval, but in my painting I accepted that I’d never get it.”

“And you felt how about that?”

“Sad, defeated.” Pause. “You know, I’m not sure that’s true. I feel sad and defeated when I talk about it now, but I’m not sure that’s how I used to feel. I think I felt a sense of pride that I could paint how and what I wanted to paint.”

“That’s interesting. I wonder if when you were able to give up seeking your father’s approval – at least as far as your painting went – you could paint. But now when you feel sad and defeated about not having his approval, you’re blocked, unable to paint.”

“That’s true.” 

“Any thoughts about what changed?”

“First thing that popped into my head is that I’m approaching 60.”

I remain silent, waiting to see where Carol’s thoughts will take her.

“My father had a heart attack at 60. Two years later his second heart attack killed him. I felt a lot worse about his death than I expected. Actually, I got depressed. I couldn’t paint then either.”

“When your father died you lost the chance of ever winning his approval.”


“So you felt helpless and defeated, like you feel now when you’re about to turn 60, the year he had his first heart attack.”

“So does turning 60 myself remind me of his mortality and therefore my mortality?”

“I’d say that’s a piece of it. But I wonder if it also brings you back to the time that you were so acutely aware that you had forever lost the chance of getting your father’s approval.”

“Makes sense.”

“And, when you were able to paint and not need your father’s approval, that was a victory for you. Now I wonder if you feel guilty about reclaiming that feeling of victory, of celebrating your being alive to still be able to paint and to paint as you wish. Perhaps it even feels as though you’re killing him off.”

“Wow! That’s pretty deep. I’ll have to give that some thought.”