I smile at my new patient, Eileen, as I greet her in the waiting room, extending my hand in introduction. She doesn’t return my smile, but does warily shake my hand. Settling herself stiffly in the chair across from me, she looks slowly around the room.
Oh oh, I think, seems like a pretty disturbed woman, at best distanced and removed, perhaps paranoid, maybe a trauma survivor.
“I like your office,” she says. “All the windows. Feels free, like floating in space.”
“Thank you,” I say, not sure how to take her comment. An attempt to relate to me? A fear of being confined? A desire for freedom? Hopefully not a wish to jump.
A few moments pass in silence.
“What brings you here?” I ask in traditional therapist mode.
“I have no friends.”
“Can you say more?” I ask, while thinking that her demeanor would certainly make having friends difficult.
“I’m 36 years old. I live alone. I work at home. I’m an IT person, a computer geek.” She shrugs. “There’s no one in my life.”
“How do you feel about not having friends?”
“It doesn’t seem normal. People are supposed to have friends.”
“Eileen, what made you decide to come into therapy right now?”
“I found you online. You had a kind face. I liked your website.”
“Like maybe you hoped I’d be your friend?”
“Eileen, can you tell me a little about your background, your childhood, your family.”
“It was messed up. My parents divorced when I was two. They’re both alcoholics, drug addicts, both with so many different partners I lost count. And a ridiculous number of so-called siblings. I’d go from one household to the other. Sometimes there would be six, eight of us in a small apartment. I hated it. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone. And basically they did.”
“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” she says nodding. I have the sense she’s pleased by my understanding, although there’s no obvious change in her demeanor.
“Have any idea what’s behind that wall?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when you construct a wall, there’s usually something behind it, something you’re wanting to protect, perhaps something that feels vulnerable or scared.”
“I don’t do vulnerable or scared.”
“So it feels pretty scary to be vulnerable or scared,” I say smiling compassionately. I find myself liking Eileen, feeling sad for the deprived, needy child who must exist behind what feels like an impenetrable barrier.
“I didn’t say that,” she says, stiffening.
“Sorry,” I say, backing off. This is going to be slow, slow going. I need to be careful not to push to glimpse behind that wall too quickly. Her defenses are there for many reasons. They need to be respected, not ripped away.
“You said earlier that there’s no one in your life. Do you see your parents?”
“Not if I can help it. Maybe once or twice a year. Christmas time, Easter. Maybe not.” She shrugs. Doesn’t much matter to me.”
“A grandparent, a teacher.”
“A math teacher in middle school. She thought I was more than a dumb oaf. She encouraged me. Maybe she was like my friend, except she was my teacher so she couldn’t be my friend. But she’s the one who helped me make something of myself. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for her. Probably just like my parents. Except without the drugs. I’ve never touched drugs in my life. Swore I never would and I haven’t.”
“That’s pretty amazing determination, Eileen, given where you came from and what you’ve been through.”
“Mrs. H – that’s the teacher – she’d say things like that.”
“And when she or I say things like that, you feel a sense of warmth, of being understood and appreciated.”
She looks down. “Yeah, I guess that’s right.” She pauses. “So are you going to help me learn how to make friends?”
“Yes, Eileen, I am. But we have a lot of work to do before finding friends becomes our focus. First we have to help you find you. We have to find the person behind your wall and that’s going to take time. You’ve been hiding from that person for a long time and a sledge hammer isn’t going to work here. And I suspect it’s going to be painful and scary for you. I’ll be here with you and hopefully that will make it easier, but I’m sure there are times it will be tough going.”
“I’ve been through tough before.”
“Yes, I’m sure you have.”