Beth smiles wanly at me as I open the waiting room door. I anticipate a long, dreary session.
“I’m still miserable,” she says, sitting down, immediately confirming my worst fears. I do understand that Beth has good reason to be miserable. Her husband divorced her after 20 years of marriage, leaving her with two teenagers, three dogs and a six bedroom house. It’s a lot to deal with. And we’ve been dealing with her misery for almost two years.
“Of course I had another problem this week. The kitchen sink started leaking. I freaked out. I went running around to my neighbors to ask if they knew a plumber. Luckily one of them did.”
Knowing I am about to make a futile statement, I say, “So that’s something that worked out well.”
“Not really. It took me days to reach the plumber and then more days before he could come. And in the meantime the kids and I had to eat out which certainly doesn’t help my budget.” She sighs. “It’s all so complicated. I don’t know why life has to be so difficult.”
I wonder how many times I have said things such as, ‘life can be difficult and you’ve certainly had a difficult time, but life can bring lots of joy as well.’ I remain silent.
“Well …?” she says.
My stomach tightens. I feel as though she is commanding me to respond.
“What is it that you want from me right now?” I ask. I hear my choice of words, the tone of my voice and realize that Beth is making me feel as she feels – burdened, put upon, ineffectual, despairing. Ineffectual. That’s an interesting word to flit through my mind. Perhaps that’s what Beth feels. Now alone, she feels unable to competently contend with life.
“I need you to reassure me, to tell me that it will all work out okay.”
“Would you believe me?”
Beth opens her mouth to speak and then stops. After a pause she says, “Well if you said it, it might reassure me.”
This time I don’t hear Beth’s words as a command to speak, but rather a wish that I take care of her. “I understand that you want reassurance, but you often hear that reassurance as empty words.”
“But I don’t know what to do. I have all these responsibilities. The kids. They’re certainly becoming more than a handful. How am I supposed to handle two teenagers by myself?” She takes a breath. “And what if I get sick? That’s all I’d need. How could I take care of all the things I need to take care of if I got sick? Who would take care of me?”
“I definitely hear how overwhelmed you feel, Beth. Like there are all these things that happen on a day to day basis and then there are all the things that might happen. How are you going to cope?”
“But I wonder, Beth, if it would be more helpful to you if you were able to see your own strength, if you were able to realize that you’re far more capable than you think you are.”
“But I’m not!”
“Do you really feel as though you’re not a competent, capable adult or are you afraid to let yourself know you’re a competent, capable adult?”
“They always said I wasn’t.”
“My parents, my sisters, my husband. Even my children. They say I’m a wreck, that I can’t do anything right, that I’m always running around in circles. And I am. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
“So what would it feel like to be competent?”
“How do I know? I’ve never felt it.”
“Would you like to?”
“Beth, can you think about that a bit more? I wonder two things: If feeling competent feels so foreign to you that it would be like you’re becoming another person and that in itself would feel pretty scary. And two, you’re not sure you want to be all grown up before you find someone who’ll take care of you.”
“My husband said he’d take care of me. But he never did. He just nagged at me for what I didn’t do right. Even my parents. I was the fifth girl. They’d had enough by that time. I was kind of an add-on.”
“I understand, Beth, that it’s very difficult to give up on wanting the love and caretaking you never had, but there’s no way to get that kind of caretaking as an adult. It doesn’t mean you can’t be loved and cherished, but you can’t go back to being the child and, in the end, it does feel much better to have confidence in your ability to take care of your adult self.”