Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Failure to Thrive

“I’ve decided to write a book,” Karen announces at the beginning of her of session. Dressed in casual jeans, no make-up with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Karen looks younger than her 48 years.
Although her declaration leads me to think, ‘Oh no, not another idea that goes nowhere,’ I take a more supportive approach. “In art history?” I ask, Karen’s area of specialty.
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. I have to do something. I can’t go on just being Dr. Thomas Hartfield’s wife. It’s too boring. I don’t want to have to get all dressed up and hang out at the club playing bridge, gossiping with the women.”
“Weren’t you recently talking about wanting to open an art gallery?”
“Yes. I still think that’s a good idea, but I don’t know, there’d have to be so many people involved, people I’d have to manage. It seems overwhelming. Writing is something I can do on my own, at my own time, in my own space.
“Of course, I haven’t written anything since I was in college. I was pretty good back then. I think I considered majoring in English. But then again I thought about majoring in lots of things. I’m not even sure how I ended up with a major in art history. I guess because I hung around college for so long and had so many credits, they told me it was time for me to graduate and art history was it.”
“So it seems, Karen, we’re back to talking about how difficult it is for you to make a decision and to carry a plan through to fruition.”
She sighs. “You don’t think I’d write that book do you?”
“Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, but when you say that you don’t  know what you want to write about, it seems you could get stuck right there. I’d be concerned you could think endlessly about what you did or didn’t want to write and never be able to move beyond that point.”
“How did you know what you wanted to write?” Karen asks me.
I don’t introduce my book into my therapy sessions, but many patients Google me and find it online. Now I wonder if there’s some relationship between my book and Karen’s sudden interest in writing. “Before I answer that question, Karen, can I ask you how you feel about my having written a book?”
“Envious. You were able to follow through and do it. But maybe also inspired, like if you can write a book maybe I can too.” She hesitates.
“What just happened there?”
“Nothing. I guess I got anxious. There are so many choices. I don’t know how anyone ever decides on one path over another. I don’t know how you pick. I don’t know how you pick one and give up the others. So how did you decide what to write about?”
I wonder about Karen’s anxiety. Does she worry I’d feel angry or vindictive if she wrote a book? Does making one choice over others bring up fear of loss? Keeping these questions in mind, I answer Karen. “I felt compelled to write about my relationship with my late husband. I think there’s often an emotional press in writing; you have something you have to say. It’s like being in therapy. It’s sharing a vital part of yourself that you want to be known.”    
“Do you think I don’t want to be known?”
“That’s a very interesting question. What do you think?”
“Well declaring myself, taking path A rather than path B would be a way of being more known.”
I’m silent, intrigued by Karen’s train of thought.
“But why wouldn’t I want to be known?”
“I was just asking myself the same thing.”
“Weird. The words, ‘You’re a moving target’ just went through my head.” Pause. “Who did I think would shoot me?”
I wonder if it’s me, but I remain silent.
“My oldest sister for sure. She was horribly jealous of me. I was the pretty one, although I made myself as unattractive as possible until she left for college. She’d cut up my clothes, steal all my panties. One time she even cut off part of my hair in the middle of the night.”
“That’s called abuse, Karen,” I say, surprised by this revelation I had not previously heard.
“You think?”
“Definitely. What did your parents do?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember telling them. Maybe I did. Maybe they said we had to work it out. That part of my childhood is a bit fuzzy.” Pause. “Do you think this is relevant?”
“I definitely think this is relevant, Karen. We have to stop now, but we definitely need to spend more time understanding how your sister affected your life.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The March

“I finally went to dinner at my parent’s,” 19 year old Bethany says dejectedly. “It was pretty bad. They just won’t let up. ‘I can’t believe you lied to us, going to the Women’s March on Washington without even telling us. If we hadn’t called and talked to your roommate we would never have known. What if something had happened to you? We didn’t even know you were gone.’ Blah, blah, blah. As if that was the issue. I bet if I went to the Trump Inaugural they would have been thrilled – even if I hadn’t told them. It’s such bullshit. They did do a bit of, ‘How could you be our child and believe those people have a right to marry.’ Or, ‘Didn’t we teach you that every life is sacred, especially the unborn, those most vulnerable?’ I thought I’d puke. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” Pause. “I suppose you’re thinking, ‘I told you you should have told them.’”
“I don’t remember telling you you should have told them,” I say, surprised.
“You asked me why I didn’t tell them, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but that was a question meant to help you look at why you do or don’t do whatever.”
“Well, the answer’s pretty obvious. If I tell them I get all this shit. Just like I did.”
“And what did you say when you got all this shit?”
“Yeah. What am I going to say? You can’t argue with them. I just sit there, trying to tune them out, hoping they’ll stop sooner than later.”
“And why do you feel you can’t argue with them?”
She raises her eyebrows and snorts. “I don’t mean to be nasty, but how long has it been since you were 19?”
I smile inwardly. Although it’s been quite a while since I was 19, I do clearly remember the arguments I had with my parents, most especially my father. Not about politics. There are values were pretty similar, but often about psychology and science. My father was angry, dogmatic and unrelenting. For years, I argued and argued with him about dreams, about the cause of mental illness, about the unconscious, until I finally gave up. Then I was like Bethany, sitting at the table saying nothing, hoping he’d stop sooner than later. On the other hand, I never, ever stopped battling my father’s vicious temper, trying to put a clear limit how he could treat me. I bring myself back to my patient. “I get that it can be difficult to argue with your parents when you’re 19, but I’d like to understand specifically why YOU can’t argue with your parents, even at 19.”
She sighs. “First, they have the money. If they get mad enough, there goes college, plus whatever else.”
“Would they do that? They sound pretty determined for you to get an education, pretty invested in it.”
“They are.” Pause. “Especially my Dad. But sometimes I think my Mom believes I’m being corrupted by college, too liberal you know. And, I don’t know. This may sound weird, but I’m not sure that my Mom really wants me to succeed, like maybe she’s jealous or something. Like she never went to college, so why should I.”
“So are you saying you’re afraid your mother might undermine you?”
“I never thought of it that way, but I guess so. If I gave her any ammunition. Like the Women’s March.”
She pauses.
“I need to ask you something. What did you think about the Women’s March?”
“I’ll answer that in a minute, Bethany, but first I want to ask you something. Why did you ask that question right at this moment?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it and just felt I had to ask.”
“Well, I have a thought as to why you had to ask right then. You were talking about your mother feeling threatening, dangerous and I wonder if you suddenly felt I might be dangerous too and had to check that out.”
“Are you?” she says quietly.

“No, Bethany, I’m not dangerous.” I could tell Bethany I was at the Women’s March too, but decide that might too greatly diminish the tension around the issue of whether difference between two people, perhaps especially two women, is inherently dangerous. “I suspect that our politics might be pretty similar, but even if it wasn’t, I’d still be on your side, still wanting you to have your own voice and make your own way in the world.”