Monday, August 21, 2017

The Consultation

Rebecca Whitman rises from the waiting room chair extending her hand to greet me. She is dressed in a pale lavender suit and matching high heeled shoes which are surprisingly flattering with her flowing dyed red hair. I wonder at her age. Mid-forties? Hard to know how much plastic surgery she’s had.
“This is a consultation, right?” she begins immediately . “I’ve had lots of them. You get to decide if you want to work with me and – never to be forgotten - I get to decide if I want to work with you. So what do you want to know?”
Feeling as though she has just thrown out her opening salvo, I say, “That’s quite a beginning.”
She sighs. “I believe in getting to the point. Why waste time. It is my money after all.”
“Do you want to be here, Ms. Whitman?” I ask, noticing that I have automatically called her by her last name.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, we’ve never met before and yet it feels to me that you’re already angry with me. That doesn’t make much sense unless you’re angry at being here.”
“I’m always angry. I’m angry at being here. I’m angry that I have to pay you to listen to me. I’m angry that I’ve seen I don’t know how many therapists. I’m angry they’ve either thrown me out or been completely incompetent or both. I’m angry that even though I’m one of the best real estate agents in the area, I eventually get shown the door. No biggie, I’m good enough I always find another agency. I’m angry that I’ve had three failed marriages and heaven knows how many other relationships that failed. Any questions?”
I feel torn. A part of me wants to join all the others who have gone before me and stop this consultation immediately.  But another part, perhaps the grandiose part, wants to give it a shot. I do know if I’m going to try, I want to do something other than taking her anger on directly.
“What would you be feeling if you weren’t feeling all that anger?” I ask.
She laughs. “I’ve heard that one many times before. You think a simple question is going to have me dissolve into tears. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
So much for not taking her anger on directly. “Do you like being angry? Do you like losing jobs and relationships and therapists? And why are you here? What do you want to accomplish?”
“Better,” she says.
I feel myself getting angry at her constant evaluation of me. I keep silent.  
The silence persists.
“I guess you want me to answer your questions.” Pause. “Ok, Ok, I’ll answer the questions. Sometimes I like being angry and sometimes I don’t. And, no, of course I don’t like losing job or relationships.” Pause. “I’m not sure why I’m here. I guess I’m hoping someone doesn’t throw me out.”
Her last statement sounds so sad that I find myself fighting back tears.
“Someone I can have respect for, that is,” she adds with her typical bravado.
My sadness shuts down immediately. Rebecca Whitman has told me a lot about her defensive need for anger.
“If I ask you who was the most significant person in your life who threw you out, who would you say?”
She shrugs, “My mother.”
“Ok, Rebecca, so I do think you’re afraid if you let down your anger you’d be left with lots and lots of tears, tears of loss, abandonment, worthlessness and, of course, rage.”
“Think you’re smart, huh?”
“Rebecca this isn’t a contest. I’m not here to beat you in a competition. I’m on your side. And I know you can’t simply put away your defensive angry. It’s been a part of you for a long time. But hopefully if you come to trust me, you can let it down little by little and together we can deal with the pain underneath.”
“Ok smarty-pants, guess why my mother threw me out.”
“There’s no way I could guess that, but I’d appreciate your telling me.”
“Because I told her my step-father – step-father number three, by the way – was doing it to me.”
“Oh, Rebecca, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah? Yeah? What the fuck good is your pity going to do for me? I was eleven years old. Eleven years old for God’s sake!”
“That’s more than reason enough to be angry. But you must also feel sorry for you as that eleven year old child.”
“I don’t believe in a pity party!”
“Compassion for a child is not a pity party.”
“So are you going to work with me?”
“Yes, Rebecca, I’m going to work with you. I’m not going to throw you out.”

“Ok,” Rebecca says as she sprints towards the door.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

Maxine sits comfortably in my chair, runs her hand through her curly brown hair and begins. “I came to therapy because I keep having fantasies about killing my daughter.”
Oh oh, I think, remaining silent and neutral. Maxine seems a bit taken aback by my silence. What she doesn’t know is that I am immediately on guard, unsure if I am about to hear a story that is truly every therapist’s nightmare, or one that is completely fabricated. A colleague told me she saw a new patient who told her a similar story and then admitted it was only a test for the therapist.
“I don’t know why I’m having these fantasies,” Maxine continues. “I love my daughter. We’ve always been close.”   
Not wanting to accuse a truly troubled person of lying, I decide to go along and see what develops. Of course, a woman who goes from therapist to therapist fabricating a story, must be pretty troubled as well. “What’s your guess?” I ask. “Why do you think you have been having these fantasies? How long have you been having them?”
“It was right after Barbara’s – that’s my daughter – right after her thirteenth birthday, about six months ago. I don’t know why I’m having the fantasies. If I knew I wouldn’t have come here. What do you think?”
I think this is a sham, but I’m still reluctant to confront Maxine.
“It’s pretty hard for me to have any idea since I know next to nothing about you.”
Maxine sighs, seeming exasperated.
I’m rather annoyed myself, but try to return to my more neutral tone. “Can you tell me about you?  What’s your present life like? Married? Other children? Working? And what was it like for you growing up?”
“I’m a stay at home Mom. My husband is an entrepreneur. He travels a lot. I was thinking I should probably go back to work. With Barbara growing up there’s not that much for me to do.”
“What are your feelings about Barbara growing up.”
“Mixed. I’d like my little girl back and I’m looking forward to seeing where my life takes me.”
“Where do you want it to take you?”
“I’m not sure yet. I think that’s one of the reasons I feel so dissatisfied with myself.”
I find myself liking Maxine more, yet feel entirely confused about what’s going on in the session or what’s real and what isn’t. I decide to take the plunge.
“Maxine, what of what you’ve told me today is true and what isn’t?”
“You figured it out! You’re the first one. Oh good, now you can be my therapist.”
“I had a rather big clue. One of my colleagues told me she’d seen a patient who told her a pretty similar story and that it was supposed to be a test for the therapist.”
“Oh! What a disappointment. Now I can’t tell if you’re really smart or not.”
“Maxine, you must by now know from therapists’ reactions that it’s quite insulting and infuriating to be tested by a series of lies. But I’d like to know the underlying reason you found it necessary to go through this charade.”
“I didn’t think I could trust someone who wasn’t smart enough to figure me out.”
“Well, I’d guess that you definitely feel you can’t trust people and I’d also guess that you see yourself as very troubled and in need of someone who can not only understand you but handle you as well.”
“You are smart. You can be my therapist.”
“But this is a two way contract. There’s the question of whether I feel I’m up to being your therapist.”
“Please, please, I’ll be good.”
“You sound like a scared little girl when you say that.”
Maxine starts to cry.
“Maxine, I know this is unusual for a first session, but this has been an unusual first session anyway. I want you to tell me what the secret is.”
“No, no, I can’t. Not yet.”
“I’m sorry. That’s my condition for us starting therapy. And if you tell me another lie you’ll only be hurting yourself. There’s something you’re terribly afraid of or guilty about, something you need to start dealing with even though you want to keep it hidden.”
“I killed my sister.”
“Is that another lie?”
“No, no, it isn’t. I wish it were. I didn’t do it deliberately.” Maxine’s next words are flat, expressionless. She stares straight ahead. “A group of us were playing soft ball. I was at bat. I swung. I lost control of the bat. It hit my sister in the head. She died. My parents sent me away.”
“I’m so sorry, Maxine. What a horrible accident. How traumatic. And then to be sent away on top of it. I’m really, really sorry.”
“So you’ll be my therapist?”

“Yes,” I say, although I realize that it will take me some time to totally trust what Maxine tells me.  Hmm, I think, Maxine has led me to feel the distrust she feels in the world.