Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How Grown Up Am I?

“My house feels like a morgue,” 20 year old Chelsea says looking down at her hands. “I guess that’s a poor choice of words, since it sort of is, but not exactly. I mean, I’m not happy I had to have an abortion, but I also don’t think it will be the greatest tragedy of my life. And truthfully, I don’t think it’s the abortion that my parents are so upset about. They don’t like the idea that their ‘little girl’ was having sex. It’s not like I’m 14. And Brad and I have been going together for two years. He was pretty upset too. I think he feels guilty that he didn’t use a condom 100% of the time.”
I have been seeing Chelsea for several years now, watching her struggle between wanting to remain the child who is forever taken care of by her parents and striving towards adulthood with her own dreams and desires. We have a close bond although, not surprisingly, her internal struggle is often replayed with me in the consulting room.
“What are you going to use for birth control in the future?” I ask.
“We’re not. We’re not going to have sex.”
I knit my brows, puzzled and skeptical. “You mean you’re not going to have sex until you give yourself some time after the abortion?”
“No. We’re not going to have sex. Or at least not intercourse. Maybe we’ll fool around a little, maybe not.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Why, what?”
“Why did you decide not to have sex? Do you feel more guilty about the abortion than you’re saying? Is it a way to punish yourself?”
“No! For heaven’s sake, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about it. You sound like my parents!”
“In what way?”
“In making such a big deal about sex.”
“Wait. I’m getting confused. I thought your parents were making a big deal about your having sex. I’m questioning your saying that you’re not going to have sex.”
“You mean you don’t believe me? You don’t think I can give up sex?” Chelsea says angrily.
“I’m trying to understand why you’d want to give up sex.”
“Because I don’t want to risk getting pregnant again. That seems pretty simple.”
“I hear you’re angry with me but I’m not clear why.”
“Everyone thinks I’m doing something wrong and you’re just like everyone else,” Chelsea says, her voice cracking. “If I say I’m not going to have sex, I’m not going to have sex! End of discussion.”
“And how does Brad feel about that?”
Chelsea crosses her arms in front of her chest and glares at me. “Why should I care how Brad feels?”
Aware I’m feeling more and more confused, I suspect my feelings mirror Chelsea’s own confusion. “Chelsea, tell me what’s going on. What’s going on inside of you? What has you so distressed?”
“Brad wanted me to have the baby. He said we should get married, that we were old enough, that we could both work and go to school and take care of the baby.” She pauses. Tears fall silently from her eyes. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I’m not ready. I don’t want to be responsible for another person. I don’t want to leave my parent’s house and go off on my own. It’s way too scary. Brad’s really mad at me. I’m not even sure we’ll stay together.”
“I’m sorry, Chelsea. It’s like your parents are mad at you for being too adult and Brad’s mad at you for not being adult enough and each side represents your own conflict about how grown up you feel or want to be.”
“Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right.”
“And does my asking you about birth control feel like I’m pushing you towards the adult side?”
“I guess. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose it does.” She pauses. “So what about my deciding not to have sex? Is that my going towards the child side?”
“What do you think?” I ask, aware that my not answering her question could also be construed as my pushing her to be more adult.
“Yeah, I suppose it is,” she sighs. “But is that so bad? Can’t I take a little break here?”
“You can, but none of us can stop time. We keep growing older whether we like it or not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have conflicting feelings about growing up and it also doesn’t mean you have to push yourself to act or be more grown up than you feel.”

“Thanks. You gave me a lot to think about.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Risk

“It’s been a while,” says Delores. “I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”
“My pleasure,” I respond, truthfully. I always liked Delores, a spunky, vibrant woman who was in her late 60s when I last saw her.
“This time it’s actually not an emergency. Not like last time. I was such a mess. Losing Marvin so unexpectedly was devastating. I just wasn’t prepared. And having him be the third husband I lost, well, that was all way too much.” She sighs. “But I guess that is part of why I’m here. I’m trying to figure out if I dare do it again. After Marvin I said never again, no more men. And now, now I just don’t know.”
I certainly remember Delores’ trauma at losing Marvin. I myself was a relatively recent widow, Delores’ pain clearly reverberating with my own. And the fact that she had lived through two other such losses felt truly overwhelming. I can certainly understand her reluctance to take the risk again.
“Is there a specific man?” I ask.  
“Oh yes, Harry. A friend of mine kept asking me to go out with him. She said he was a widower, a friend of the man she dates, a good bridge player and an all-around nice guy. I said ‘no’ for quite a while. Then one day I felt lonely and they were going to a movie I wanted to see, so I said, why not, it’s just one date. That was three months ago. And now, well, it’s going to go one way or the other. I either have to stop seeing him or take the plunge.”
I certainly understand Delores’ conflict. Harry perhaps offers a more fulfilling, richer life, but certainly raises the specter of another devastating loss. I’ve lived my life believing that it’s “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” but perhaps there’s a limit to the number of excruciating losses any person can sustain. Fortunately I don’t have to make Delores’ decision for her.
“So, what are your thoughts?” I ask.
“Well, I’ve thought of all the obvious things – he’s older than me, although only by a couple of years; he has prostate cancer but they’ve been watching it for years and it’s never gotten worse; he’s also had a lot of skin cancer, but that seems under control as well; no heart disease, but Marvin supposedly didn’t have heart disease either, until he keeled over dead. I go round and around in my head about all that. But what’s really odd, is that I keep thinking about my father, dreaming about him too.”
I remain silent, giving Delores time to reflect.
“My father’s been dead for almost 50 years. It was very traumatic for me when he died. I felt like an orphan, even though I was in my 20s. My mother had been dead since I was 10, so it had been just me and my Dad for a while.” Pause. “But I don’t know why I’m particularly thinking of my Dad now. He didn’t come up for me when Marvin died, or any of my other husbands either if I remember correctly. No, that’s not true. John, my first, died not that long after my Dad. I wasn’t 30 yet and I remember then thinking of my Dad a lot. There were so many losses. I could cry just thinking about it.”
“I’m sure that’s true.”
“So do I want another one? I mean, I know no one ever knows, that I could drop dead tomorrow, especially since I don’t exactly have longevity in my family, but I guess my experience is always that the men go first.”
“Except not for your mother. She died first.”
“That’s true,” Delores says pensively. “I wonder what that meant for me. This is a crazy thought, but I wonder if I expected my Dad to live forever. I mean I knew he couldn’t, but still …”
“Was that a wish, Delores? As in you wanted your Dad to live forever because you couldn’t face another loss.”
“I’ve certainly faced lots of them.” She chuckles. “I wonder if I keep looking for the one who’ll live forever. Just kidding.”
“Maybe you’re not kidding. Maybe you keep looking for the man who won’t abandon you, who will live to be there for you, unlike either of your parents.”
“That’s deep. My unconscious would have to be real smart to think that one up.”
“Perhaps it’s that the child part of you is still yearning for the safety and security that was so absent in your childhood.”
“Perhaps. But I don’t know if that helps me figure out what to do about Harry. I’ll have to think about it during the week and see what my unconscious comes up with.”

“Sounds good.”  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

You're Back

“I’m really glad you’re back,” Christine says, her eyes filling with tears. “I know you were only gone a week, but it’s been a hard week. I thought I was more prepared, more ready to deal with my parents this time, but I don’t know, I guess it was the holidays. It was awful. I felt sorry for my girls. They were so looking forward to Nana and Poppy coming for Christmas and it was such a disaster. My parents never stopped fighting, my mother never stopped telling me what I was doing wrong, most particularly as a mother and, of course, as someone who couldn’t keep my husband from straying and my father just got more and more depressed.”
“I’m sorry, Christine. It does sound awful and so disappointing.”
“Yes, that’s exactly right, terribly disappointing. I guess I thought since we’d been working so much on my parents these days, I’d be able to handle them differently or be less affected by them or something.”
“So it sounds as though you’re saying that you’re disappointed in me too, in our work together.”
“No. I don’t think so. I was disappointed that you weren’t here to bounce things off of, to maybe give me some ideas of how to handle things differently.”
Although Christine’s denial doesn’t convince me, I let it go for the moment. “For example,” I say. “Can you give me an idea of what you thought you could have handled differently?”
“There are so many things. How I could have gotten them to stop fighting. How I could have stopped my mother from being so critical of me. How I could have stopped her from being critical of my girls.”
“All right, let’s look at those three things which don’t all strike me as the same. Could you have gotten them to stop fighting? If I’m not mistaken you’ve been trying unsuccessfully your whole life to get them to stop fighting.”
Christine looks startled. “Oh, right. One of the things I need to give up on. I forgot. I can’t keep hoping for what will never be. I need to accept my powerlessness. I knew you should have been here. But why did I forget? I feel ashamed of myself. Why couldn’t I hold onto that?”
“Seems like you said a lot there, Christine. First, I think you are angry with me for not being here. Then I think you got uncomfortable with your anger and felt ashamed instead. And, I agree we should look at why it’s easier for you to hold onto your feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness when I’m here.”
“I do feel ashamed of myself. We’ve talked and talked about my needing to give up hope with my parents and I just can’t seem to do it.”
“Well, it’s very painful. It means you can never have the parents you want or wanted either now or in the past. It involves mourning for what never was and never can be.”
“I know. I guess that’s why it’s harder to do when you’re not here. If you’re not here and I don’t have my parents – and I sure don’t have my ex any more – I feel all alone. Except for the girls of course, but that’s different.”
“That’s a great insight, Christine.”
“Thanks. But what about the other two things I mentioned, why did you feel they were different?”
“The second one might not be all that different, getting your mother not to be critical of you, but I guess I wondered what it is that you felt when your mother’s so critical.”
“I do feel angry, but I try to pretend it doesn’t bother me and just ignore her.”
“Confronting her only makes it worse.”
“And when she attacks your girls?”
“I guess I do about the same thing.”
I am annoyed by Christine’s passivity. I feel she is leaving her daughters unprotected, just as I felt unprotected by my mother in relation to my explosive father. I tread lightly. “I wonder what message you give your girls when you don’t stick up for them.”
“But I thought I’m supposed to give up hope of ever changing her,” she says plaintively.
“This could just be me, Christine, but I think there’s a difference between accepting there’s no way you’re ever going to change your mother and still giving your girls the message that it’s not okay with you for her to attack them, or you for that matter.”
“That’s confusing.”
“It’s like saying, you know you’re not going to change her behavior but you’re still going to let her – and your girls – know her behavior isn’t acceptable.”
“It scares me.”
“What scares you?”
“I guess her anger.”
“I get that. And perhaps your anger as well.”
“I don’t like all this talk about my anger.”

“I believe you.”