Thursday, October 26, 2017

Anger: Expressed and Repressed (Part II)

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Jacquelyn begins. “I’ve been thinking I should take a break from therapy for a while.”
Internally, I scream, ‘What!? I thought you said you were going to think about your anger?’ To Jacquelyn I say, “And why is that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for over a year, seems like it’s time for a vacation.”
“Does your desire for a vacation seem connected to last week’s session when you realized you were angry at your mother for not protecting you as a child?” I ask.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Not exactly, but you did want the woman in the TV show who reminded you of your mother to be killed by the serial killer.”
“I didn’t say that either.”
Disappointed that Jacquelyn has moved so far away from her more open, insightful stance of last week, I ask, “What’s your sense of what’s going on between us right now?”
“Nothing special.”
Feeling increasingly exasperated, I ask, “Can you say what you think is going on between us even if it’s not anything special.”
“You’re mad at me. You’re mad at me because I want to stop therapy.”
“I am annoyed with you, Jacquelyn, because I felt so hopeful last week, hopeful that we’d made a breakthrough, that you experienced your anger at your mother and that although you were scared of the repercussions, you went away wanting to think about it.”
“It was too scary.”
“I do understand that, Jacquelyn,” I say, thinking that perhaps she’s put one toe back in the water.
“But why were you angry at me if you understood?”
Hmm, I think to myself, I wonder if Jacquelyn wanted me to feel angry so that I could feel what she feels – angry but thwarted in its expression. I decide to keep that thought to myself. “I can understand and still be angry. Anger is a feeling. We can’t control what we feel, although we can control what we say or what we do.”
“So you don’t feel scared when you feel angry?”
“No, I don’t feel scared when I feel angry. Except some times.”
“Like when?”
Although repeatedly answering a patient’s questions is unusual for me, I feel that in Jacquelyn’s case it is a helpful form of modeling, perhaps making her own anger less frightening. “Well, I guess like in that TV show you talked about last week, I’d probably be scared if I got angry at the serial killer because I’d be afraid if my anger showed he might immediately kill me.”
“That’s it!” Jacquelyn says staring at me, her eyes wide open. A second later she’s sobbing, pulling at her hair.
“It’s ok, Jacquelyn,” I say quietly. “There’s no serial killer here and your father is long dead.”
She continues crying, but seems calmer. Through her tears she haltingly says, “I never even knew I was afraid he’d kill me. Like he could read my mind. Like he’d know I hated him. I was always so scared, so scared, so scared,” she says cradling her body in her arms and rocking in the chair.
“I’m so sorry, Jacquelyn. I’m so sorry that you had to go through all that. You were only a powerless, dependent little girl. You were so scared.”
I can see Jacquelyn bristle. She stops crying and lifts her head. I went too far.
“I’m sorry, Jacquelyn,” I say, “I know it’s very hard for you to be aware of how powerless you were as a child. It makes you feel all the more frightened.  It’s more than you can bear.  
“Maybe it is time to take a break from therapy.”
I look at Jacquelyn tenderly. “No, it isn’t,” I say. “I know I went too far. You were back there being that little girl and I so terrified you that you had to come back to your adult self, had to go back into a defensive mode. Will you forgive me?”

She is again crying. “I don’t think in my entire life anyone asked me to forgive them. I used to dream about that. I used to dream that one day both my mother and father would take me aside and apologize for all the bad things they’d done to me. But of course that was ridiculous. Except it’s kind of like you made my dream come true, even though you didn’t do anything nearly as bad as they did.” Pause. “Yes, I’ll forgive you,” she says crossing both her hands on her lap and staring directly at me.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Anger: Repressed and Expressed

Thirty year old Jacquelyn looks unusually pensive as she settles herself into the chair across from me.
“A weird thing happened this week. Kind of disturbing ,” she begins. “You know how I tell you that I always watch those gruesome  shows like Criminal Minds or CSI, but that I have to cover my eyes during the particularly gory scenes?” she says grimacing.
I nod.
“Well, one of those gory scenes came on, and instead of covering my eyes I felt sort of compelled to watch it. And I – this is kind of embarrassing. I, umm, I actually felt kind of excited and found myself rooting for the serial killer. I wanted to watch him kill that, that, umm, that woman.”
“What did you first think of, Jacquelyn, before you said ‘woman?’”
Jacquelyn lowers her head. “First I thought to say ‘bitch,’ then ‘sniveling baby,’ or ‘coward’ or ‘idiot.’ But they sounded too negative, so I settled on woman.” Pause. “You know, you’re always telling me that I have lots of anger, but that I keep it buried inside me.” Pause. “I didn’t feel angry, not even when I was wanting him to kill her.” Pause. “That doesn’t make sense when I say it out loud.”
Jacquelyn’s last comment is encouraging. Although I’m sure she’s at least of average intelligence, she tends to be quite concrete, has difficulty with self-reflection, and is often unable to take in what seems to me the most obvious of connections.
“Was it that you wanted this particular man to kill the woman or did you want this particular woman dead?” I ask.
“Do you think I’m terrible for thinking about this?”
“Not at all. You weren’t killing anyone, you were watching a TV show.”
“I guess,” she replies dubiously.
“You want me to answer your question.”
“I wanted this woman dead.”
“And can you say more about that? Why did you want her dead? Who did she remind you of?”  
“I don’t know.”
“Well, how about thinking about it now.”
Silence. Jacquelyn squirms in her chair.
“Can’t she just be a woman?”
“If you think about a woman, what woman comes to mind?”
“She wasn’t like my mother.”
“Does that mean your mother was the first woman you thought of?”
She nods, looking down.
“And what’s the similarity between your mother and this woman in the TV show?”
Still not looking at me she says, “They were both housewives.” Pause. “They had children.” Pause. “Umm. Umm. They couldn’t stand up to their husbands.”
Thinking to myself, ‘now we’re getting somewhere,’ I ask, “How did the woman in the TV show not stand up to her husband?”
She looks up. I suspected that it would be easier for her to talk about the TV character than her mother.
“There’s this scene at the breakfast table where her husband is screaming his head off at both her and the kids. You know he’d be cursing in real life but of course they can’t show that on TV. He goes off on the little girl when she spills a glass of milk, calling her an idiot and worthless. The little girl starts to cry and the woman tells her husband to calm down and that does it, now he’s really off the wall, screaming at the woman and even looking as if he might hit her. She cowers and turns back to washing the dishes while the father starts screaming at the girl to stop crying and when she doesn’t he slaps her across the face. The woman doesn’t do anything.”
“Does that sound familiar, Jacquelyn?”
Tears roll down her face. “I didn’t want to kill my mother. Oh my God, I hope not. I hope I didn’t wish her gone, because then I would have been left with him.” Pause. “We were both such cowards,” she says now sobbing.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Both of us. Neither of us could stand up to him.”
“Jacquelyn, you were a little girl. How were you going to stand up to him?”
She shakes her head and continues sobbing. “Cowards. We were cowards. We should have done something.”
“You’re angry at both yourself and your mother for not being able to fight back.”
“We were cowards.”
“You can’t accept your own vulnerability, Jacquelyn.”
“No! I can’t!”
“So you wanted to kill the woman in the TV show because of her ‘weakness,’ because of her vulnerability.
“I didn’t want to kill her, I wanted her dead.”
I think Jacquelyn has had enough for today and decide to back off.
“You’ve done a lot of good work today,” I say. “I wonder how you’re feeling.”
“Scared of?”
“I’m not sure. Being slapped across the face like the girl in the TV show. That’s silly. I feel bad, like I did something wrong and I’m going to be punished.”
“I understand, Jacquelyn. You’ve gotten closer to your anger than you’ve ever been and I think that’s frightening you.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I do.”

“Okay. I’ll try to think about that.”