Friday, June 23, 2017

After a Year

“It’s been a year since my wife died,” Andrew Solomon begins. “She died of breast cancer. It was a long process. Hard. She fought for as long as she could, but she had an aggressive cancer. She couldn’t beat it. Now, now I have the rest of my life. I’m 65. I guess people consider that young these days,” he adds with a slight smile. “I’m still working, thank goodness. It’s a great distraction. I’m an accountant. I have my own business so can pretty much make my own hours, except during tax season. But I cut down on my clients during my wife’s illness, so I do have more time on my hands.”
Mr. Solomon is a good looking man with wavy white hair, intense brown eyes and a slight dimple in his chin. I wonder what has brought him into therapy at this point, but wait to see where his thoughts take us.
He continues. “My friends tell me it’s time for me to start dating. That I’m young, secure financially, decent looking and that I’ll have women, younger women, flocking all over me. Maybe. But I don’t know. I don’t know that I feel ready.”
“How do you feel about your wife’s death?” I ask.
“Sad. Like there’s this big hole in my life. Don’t get me wrong, Bella – that’s her name, that was her name, hard for me to talk about her in the past tense – Bella and I didn’t have a perfect marriage. We had our fights. And I wasn’t always the ideal husband, especially when our kids were young. I had a couple of affairs. Never felt right about that. We got lots closer after our kids left. And actually we got even closer when she got sick. I guess I realized how much I was going to lose…” He trails off fighting back tears.  
“Sounds like you’re still understandably very sad.”
“But shouldn’t I be better after a year?”
“What do you mean by better?”
“Better, less sad, not so teary, ready to move on. Finished with grieving.”
“Grieving the loss of a loved one is not something we ever finish.”
Mr. Solomon looks startled. “No that can’t be. I can’t stay at this level of pain forever.”
“It’s not that grief doesn’t diminish that, as you said, the level of pain remains as intense, but we certainly don’t stop loving or missing the person we’ve lost.”
“But does that mean I shouldn’t start dating? Maybe I should start dating, maybe that would help with the pain.”
“That’s certainly not a decision anyone but you can make. Some people start dating soon after their partner has died, others wait years, and still others never date at all. There’s not one right answer for everyone.”
“I had a friend who got involved with the woman who eventually became his second wife, a month after his wife died. I thought that was awful. I lost respect for him.”
I flash on what Mr. Solomon said about having affairs earlier in his marriage and wonder if guilt plays into his question about whether or not to start dating. “How would you feel about yourself if you decided to start dating?”
“Bella told me it would be all right with her. I thought that was an amazing gift she gave me, especially since she knew about the affairs, or at least one of them.”
“Sounds like you still feel guilty about your affairs.”
“Yes, yes I do. I know it’s silly. It’s so many years ago. But especially when Bella got sick, I kept thinking how horrible I had been to her. How could I have even looked at another woman when I had Bella this amazingly strong, brave, good, beautiful woman?”
“You know, Mr. Solomon…”
“Please, call me Andrew.”
“You know, Andrew, I wonder if your guilt about those affairs very much affects you in the present, both in terms of how you feel about Bella’s death and also about whether you feel comfortable dating.”
“Why should that be?”
“Well, our pasts always affect the present and we haven’t even talked about your past before Bella – your childhood, your young adulthood. I suspect that guilt may have played a role in your life then as well. And we haven’t talked about why you think you had those affairs. Were you angry with Bella? Were you angry with her attention to your children?”
“Wow! I guess there is a lot there. I thought I was going to come in today, solve the problem of whether or not I should start dating and that would be that.”

I smile. “Therapy is way more complicated than that. It opens lots of questions before you’re able to answer even one.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Searching for Mother

“I’ve decided to really start looking for my biological mother,” Liz says at the beginning of our session.
I have seen 27 year old Liz for a tumultuous five years, and although she has brought up trying to find her biological mother on previous occasions, today she does sound more determined.
“Did something happen that reawakened your desire to find your biological mother?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I’ve talked about it before. I just think it’s time. I know you don’t think it’s a good idea, but I want to know who she is.”
“It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea, I just want you to be prepared if the reunion with your biological mother doesn’t prove as idyllic as you hope.” I think of all the adopted people I have known – both patients and friends – who have found their biological mother only to be horribly disappointed yet again, people who have been outright rejected, others whose mother wanted to take over their lives, still others who wanted to be financially supported. Finding the perfect fantasized mother is rarely the outcome.
“What choice do I have?” she asks.
There’s a familiar edge to Liz’ voice, an underlying anger, an underlying demand. I look at her quizzically and remain silent.
“Don’t play dumb,” she says. I now definitely know that something is going on between us. “I have no mother. My so-called mother doesn’t give a shit about me. She was just thrilled when I finally moved out of the house so she could start redecorating and have my father all to herself. And then there’s you. You’re just never going to be more than my therapist. If I even move slightly towards wanting more from you, you run for the hills.”
This is a familiar refrain, one that has played out repeatedly over the time we have worked together. From the beginning, Liz wanted me to be her mother. She had fantasies of moving in with me, fantasies of traveling with me, fantasies of curling up next to me on a couch and watching a movie. Sometimes she presented these as poignant longings, at other times she lashed out at me in rage, furious at my refusal to satisfy her desire. I cared deeply about Liz, understood her longing and was able to hang in there with her during even the most difficult times. I think back on our last session and suddenly realize what has led Liz to experience me as pulling back and wanting to search for a more perfect mother.
“You were angry that I didn’t want you to take my picture,” I say.
“I don’t see what the big deal was. It was only a stupid picture! Everybody takes pictures these days, pictures of dogs, pictures of signs, pictures of themselves. So what was the big deal with taking your picture?”
“You tell me, Liz. What was the big deal about taking my picture? Obviously you have a lot of feelings about my asking you not to take my picture.”
“Yeah and you gave me some mumbo, jumbo about my needing to take you in and have a picture of you in my mind without needing to have an actual picture. So? I can do that. I have you in my mind. We worked on that for a long time and now I can do it.”
“That’s great, Liz. So the question remains, then why did you want an actual picture?”
Liz looks angry and then seems to deflate in front of my eyes. She sighs deeply and looks down at her hands. “I guess because people always have pictures of their family,” she says quietly.
“I know it’s very hard for you, Liz,” I say with compassion, “But the reality is that I will never be your mother. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, it doesn’t mean that I won’t be here for you, it doesn’t mean you’re not important to me, but it does mean that however much you may want it, I will never be your mother.”
“I hate when you say that,” Liz says, more sadly, than angrily.
“I know,” I reply.
“Can we still talk about my looking for my biological mother?”
“Of course. But as much as possible, you need to try and separate your wish to find your biological mother from your wish that I was your mother. And, as I’ve said, you also need to be prepared to be disappointed in your biological mother as well.”
“I hate when you say that, too.”

“I know.”