Inside/Outside

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Untold

Peter is unusually quiet at the start his session. He looks down at his hands, then gazes out the window. I resist the temptation to ask him what is going on and remain silent with him. The silence grows more comfortable, the connection between us palpable.
“I know I’m going to tell you today. That doesn’t seem like such a problem. I guess the question is why I’ve never told you before. It’s been almost three years since I started seeing you. I know you’ll ask why I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m asking that myself.” Pause. “The answer isn’t obvious to me. If I hear myself say it never seemed like such a big deal, that seems ridiculous, even to me. If I say it was too hard to talk about, too embarrassing, too uncomfortable, I just don’t think that’s it.”
My discomfort increases as Peter continues speaking, trying to imagine what he might not have revealed. He’s talked about his rigid, explosive father; his removed, distanced mother; his bullying older brothers. I like Peter. Shy, reserved, anxious Peter has done well in his life. He’s a sociology professor at a local university, is married to a warm, accomplished woman, and thinking about having children. He worries about his anxiety, his tendency towards depression and his discomfort with the competition in the academic world.       
“I was molested by my Catholic priest,” he blurts out. “By my confessor. It’s like a joke. I wonder who he was confessing to.”
I’m shocked. Not by the revelation, but just as he’d anticipated, by his not having told me long before.
“I’m so sorry, Peter,” I say, “So sorry that you had to endure that experience.”
“And wonder why I didn’t tell you before.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Obviously the case in Pennsylvania brought it all back up. Not that I’d forgotten about it. Just brought it back to the forefront.”
“Leaving you feeling how?”
“Sad. Depressed. Disgusted. Angry. You name it. The feelings all victims describe.”
“And how do you feel telling me now?”
“I don’t know. Kind of numb I guess. It’s not like I thought about it every time I was in session. Occasionally it would go through my mind and I’d say, no, this isn’t a good time.”
“And when you thought it wasn’t a good time, why did you think you thought that?”
He shrugs. “Other things seemed more pressing? I really don’t know.”
Suddenly a thought comes to me. “Have you ever told anyone?”
“I told my wife. Before we got married. I thought she should know…”
“Can you finish that sentence?”
“See, this is exactly the problem. Once I tell, it all becomes about my having been abused by my priest.”
“What all becomes about your having been abused by your priest?” I ask, confused.
“Everything. My shyness. My depression. My anxiety. It’s not! It’s not only him. He didn’t cause everything,” he says angrily.
“Of course not,” I reply. “Being sexually abused – however significant - was one of the events that affected your life, along with many other things.”
Peter stares at me. “Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, of course.” I pause. “I just had a thought. That priest had so much power over you as a child, perhaps it’s that you don’t want to give him the power to have made you the adult you are, you don’t want him to control your adult self.”  
Tears run down Peter’s cheeks. “That’s right. That’s exactly right. I could never put it into words, but that’s what it is. The bastard manipulated me as a child. I didn’t want him to matter anymore,” he says burying his face in his hands, sobbing.
“I don’t think you’re going to like what I say next, but the problem is, that by not speaking about him, you have unconsciously given him the power to continue to silence you, to continue to hide as if you’ve done something wrong  - which you haven’t.”
“No! That can’t be! Oh my God, you’re right. I’ve let the bastard continue to control me!”
“Well, you’re now unsilenced. You’ve spoken. You told me. We have a lot of work to do around this Peter – and I don’t mean that he’s the only factor influencing your life – but he has been a significant force and it’s time for you to speak.”
“I’m so sorry, so sorry I never told you.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. As I always say, you can only do what you can do and you’ve now spoken.”



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Underachiever

Tall and thin with a wiry red beard, Daron Wilson sits across from me looking lost and forlorn. “I’ve never done this before. Never thought I would.”
“How can I be of help to you?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I know you can’t make my wife come back to me.” He sighs, shaking his head. “I love her so much. Her and the kids. But she says she wants more, more for the kids, more for her, more for our family. I don’t know how to give that to her.”
“More in what way?”
“Easy answer would be financially, but I know that’s not what she means. Wants me home more? Yeah, that’s true. But that’s not it either. We were high school sweethearts, madly in love almost from the moment we met. I was valedictorian of my class. She wanted to be a psychologist. Like you. Me, I didn’t know what I wanted. We got pregnant, got married right after high school. She was determined to go to college and she did for a while. I became a long distance trucker. Good way to make money to support a family. And then we had two kids and she dropped out of college and I kept driving. Truthfully, I kind of like it. Feeling of freedom on the road. I drove for other people until I had enough money to get my own truck. Big financial commitment, but now I’m my own boss. It’s okay.” He shrugs. “But Chelsea wants more. And I get it. Our kids are nine and seven. Do we really want them to see that driving a truck is all there is to life?”  
“You sound so sad and lost.”
“Yeah, that’s about right. I don’t know what to do. It’s not like I can snap my fingers and suddenly have a college degree and be working as some hot shit IT guy.”
“You said you were valedictorian of your class. Was that important to you? Were you proud of yourself?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Were your parents proud of you?”
He scoffs. “My parents? My parents could have cared less. My father was too drunk to come to my graduation. My mother came, looking uncomfortable every minute. They raised five kids. I was the last. They didn’t have much left over for me.”
“That’s very sad.”
“I guess. After a while you just stop caring.”
“So what motivated you to put forth the effort to become valedictorian of your class?”
“I don’t know.”
“Had you met Chelsea by then?”
“Yeah. We met when we were Juniors.” Pause. “I might have wanted to do it for her.”  
“What have your siblings done with their lives?”
“Liz – the only girl - is a wife and mother. My brothers? One’s an alcoholic; one has serious mental problems, can’t hold down a job. Joe – he’s the oldest - has done okay. He worked for GM when you could still make a decent living that way. I guess they all have their problems.”
“So if you had gone to college when you graduated from high school, that would have been a radical departure from the rest of your family?”
“That’s for sure.”
“And did you have feelings about being that different from your family? Even being valedictorian?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel when you studied? How did you feel when you got good grades?”
“It’s too long ago to remember.”
“Daron, I think over the years you worked pretty hard – unknowingly of course – at trying not to know your feelings, your feelings of sadness and anger and disappointment and hurt. You turned yourself off so that now it’s very hard for you to know what you feel either now or in the past. I guess when you met Chelsea you were able to open yourself up to loving her which may have also opened you up to strive and succeed and do well. I’m not saying you don’t do well as a trucker - you obviously do - but it sounds as though a part of you died in the process.”
Daron’s eyes fill with tears. “That’s what Chelsea says. She says I feel dead.” Pause. “I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I like to drive. Always something new. Sort of escaping from myself.”
“That’s a great insight Daron. I guess the question is whether you’re ready to stop escaping and to look at all the painful feelings you have buried inside you.”
“First thing I thought? How long will it take? Can I do it before Chelsea leaves me?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, Daron. You’ve sat on your feelings for a long time. It won’t be a quick or painless fix.”

“But it’s a shot. I don’t have anything else.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Move

“Thank you for seeing me again on such short notice,” Joslyn begins hurriedly. Then she pauses and looks at me. “It’s good to see you again after so long. You haven’t changed at all. It must be 10 years.”
“It’s good to see you too, Joselyn. I’m pleased to be able to catch up on your life.”
"Yeah, well lots has happened since I've seen you - I have two sons, I'm a pretty successful elder care attorney - but the funny thing is I'm kind of coming back for the same reason I did before, except in reverse." Then I was miserable about having to leave Wisconsin to move to Boca Raton and now I’m miserable about having to leave Boca to move to Boston. Both times for my husband’s jobs! But I understand. I do. Then he was lucky to get a job teaching history at Florida Atlantic University, but he’s been languishing here and Harvard has offered him a tenure track position. It’s a great opportunity for him.” Pause. “But then there’s me. What about my practice? I’m doing so well here. And somehow I think there’s more of a demand for elder law here than there will be in Boston. And the cold! Brrr. I left the cold when I left Madison. I don’t want to go back to it!”
“So you’re feeling …?”
“Angry. And scared.” Pause. “And sad too. I have a life here. My kids have a life here. There’s a lot to lose.”
“You’re angry at…?”
“My husband. I don’t know why we always have to do what he wants to do. I mean, I shouldn’t say it that way. It’s not like we didn’t talk about it. As I said, I do understand. It’s such a great opportunity for him.”
Listening to Joslyn brings me back to the time I moved from Ann Arbor to Boca Raton 25 years ago, to all the pains of leaving – my friends, my practice and the house I so cherished. I try to shake my feelings and return to Joslyn who continues.
“I try to remind myself that the move to Boca turned out well. So why can’t I assume the same will be true of moving to Boston?”
“Are your parents still alive Joselyn?”
She sighs. “My father died three years ago. He had pancreatic cancer.”
“I’m sorry. And he was the good parent.”
“Yeah. My mother and I have continued to struggle. She needs me more now, so she’s been a little warmer. We were even talking about her moving down here. Obviously that isn’t going to happen.”
“And you feel how about that not happening?”
“Good question.” Pause. “Part of me is relieved, but part is … I don’t know. I guess I’m sad about it.”
“And what exactly are you sad about?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s like maybe the move would give us another chance. Like maybe it could be different this time. Maybe since she needs me more she’ll be warmer.”
“I notice, Joslyn, that you’re talking a lot about warm and cold. Wisconsin and Boston are cold. Florida is warm. Maybe your mother will be warmer when she’s in Florida. If I remember correctly a lot of your conflict about leaving Wisconsin was leaving your parents, your father because of his ‘warmth’ and your mother because you were afraid if you moved away you’d never, ever get the chance to somehow fix her and finally get the mother you wanted.”
“That’s right! Hmm. So you’re saying maybe that’s still true, maybe I don’t want to give up what will be my last chance to get the mother I want.”
“Yes. It’s like moving from the ‘warmth’ will mean you’ll have to give up forever the hope of getting the mother you never had. It’s again having to give up hope.”
Joslyn eyes fill with tears. “I thought I had already done that.”
“You certainly moved away from that hope when we worked together, but when confronted with lots of new losses, those feelings can resurface. And I’m not saying that all the feelings you’re having are about your mother. Obviously you’re facing real, present day losses – your practice, your friends, lots of things. But I suspect that the relationship with your mother is heightening all these other feelings.”
“I think I’d like to come back and see you for a while. Is that all right?”
“Of course. I imagine you want to say good-bye to me as well.”

“Oh!” Joslyn exclaims. “I hadn’t thought of that. You were my good mother. And yes, I’ll have to say good-bye to you too. That makes me very sad.”   

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Forbidden

“I didn’t want to come today,” Marlene begins. “I don’t want to talk about what I know I have to talk about since it’s all I keep thinking about. I feel so ashamed.”
I’ve been seeing Marlene in therapy for a little over a year. She was concerned about being a good mother to her then six month old son, Dereck. She felt her own mother had never wanted children and that she remained cold and aloof until she died of cancer when Marlene was 12. Not surprisingly, Dereck’s vulnerability rekindled many of her own feelings of longing and loss, but nothing springs to my mind as something Marlene might do that would create this level of shame.
“I had this dream,” she begins hesitantly. “Dereck was cuddling in my lap.” Pause. “He was as cute as always,” she says, a brief smile flickering across her lips. She lowers her head. “He was naked. I was stroking his hair. He looked up at me and smiled. He reached up and grabbed my breast like he used to when he was nursing. Then he started stroking my breast. I could feel myself getting aroused.” Pause. “But… but this was the worst part. I stared stroking him back. First just his arms and shoulders. But then… but then I started stroking his penis and his penis started growing really big, almost like he was a grown man. What’s wrong with me?! That’s so disgusting!”
“I appreciate your being able to tell me the dream, Marlene. I realize how difficult it was for you. But you do need to remember it was a dream. You didn’t actually do anything to your son.”
“But it’s so perverted. How could I even think such a thing?”
“I would like us to try and understand the dream. Can you talk about it even though it’s difficult?”
“I guess.”
“You say you keep thinking about the dream, what do you think about?”
“It plays over and over in my mind. I’ve asked myself if I’ve ever done anything inappropriate to my son. Like when I’m changing his diaper. I don’t think I have. I mean I have to touch his penis to wash him, but that seems pretty normal. I thought it was cute, this little miniature penis. Is that all right?” she asks, panic rising in her voice. “Is it okay to think it’s cute?”
“Of course it is,” I say reassuringly. “Let me ask you, the tremendous feeling of shame you’re having, is the feeling familiar to you?”
“I don’t know.” Pause. “I was ashamed about how I thought my mother looked the last months of her life. The nurses would bathe her or change her in front of me, in front of any of us. She looked disgusting. I’d kind of look sideways at my Dad and he’d always have this gentle, loving look on his face and I’d wonder how he could not be disgusted too. They weren’t sleeping together at that point. She was in a hospital bed. But still…” Pause. “But that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my dream.”
I wait.
“You’re not thinking my father abused me, are you?” she asks, wide eyed.
“No. I wasn’t thinking that. What made you ask?”
“I don’t know. Like my having this disgusting dream about my son and now I’m talking about my Dad. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Sounds like you felt bad for your Dad.”
“I did.”
“Were you and your Dad close during the time your mother was dying?”
“Close? I wouldn’t say that. The only person he was ever close to was my mother. He really didn’t care for anyone else. I mean he must have cared a little about us… and about my stepmother, but my mother was really the only person he loved.”
“Did you ever try to comfort your Dad when he was sad?”
“I think I remember stroking his arm sometime, like maybe even at the cemetery when we buried my mother. I don’t think he even noticed.” Pause. “I was talking to my Dad the other night. They’re going to come visit. It was our usual non-conversation, conversation.”
“When was your dream in relation to your conversation with your Dad?”
“I think it was the same night. Maybe the night after. No, it was the same night.” Pause. “Do you think there’s a connection?”
I proceed cautiously. “Well, your son is certainly a lot warmer and more responsive to you than your father. You stroke Dereck and he gets an erection. You stroke your father and he doesn’t even notice.”
“But I didn’t want my father to get an erection!”
“You wanted your father to care about you, you wanted a relationship like the one you and Dereck have.”
“But it’s not sexual! My dream was so sexual.”
“Longing for closeness can take many forms – wanting to be cared about, wanting to be loved, wanting to be sexual. Especially in the unconscious those get all mixed up.”
“I don’t know. I still feel like a pervert.”

“I know this has been hard for you. It would be helpful if we could continue talking about your longings and it would be especially helpful if you could be less judgmental about yourself.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

And Then There Were None

Mary Collins, a 49 year old woman who looks at least 10 tens older, sits across from me, tears streaming down her face, unable to speak. Although I have never seen or spoken to this woman before – her husband made the appointment - I feel the intensity of her pain and find myself similarly at a loss for words. Finally I decide on the most basic of human responses.
“I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine the depth of your suffering.”
Mrs. Collins shakes her head again and again, her straight brown hair falling forward over her face. “I can’t …,” she says, continuing to shake her head.
I wait.
“I can’t stand it. I can’t!” she says more loudly. “I can’t stand the pain. I have nothing left, nothing to live for.” Pause. “I know you’re going to say it will get better. My husband says that all the time. But this? How can this get better?”
“Can you tell me about your son, Mrs. Collins?”
“Mary,” she says, still shaking her head.
“Mary, can you tell me about your son?”
“Billy. He was a good boy. A little wild as a kid, but what boy isn’t? He always wanted to be a policeman. I don’t know why.” A blank, distracted look comes across her face. She repeats, “I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I don’t know why.”
“You don’t know why he shot himself?” I ask.
Wailing she beats her fists into her thighs. “Why? Why? Why?”
Without thinking I get up from my chair, kneel in front of her and take hold of her hands. “Hurting yourself won’t bring your son back,” I say softly.
She stops hitting herself and sobs.
After a few moments I return to my chair.
She hides her head in her hands and continues sobbing.
“He didn’t want a divorce. Til death do us part. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he saw in our family. But she, she didn’t want to be married to a policeman, although she knew that’s what he was when she married him.” Pause. “And maybe it was more the boys for Billy, two little boys. Tore Billy to pieces.”  


She pauses. I think about what she said and wonder what her words will trigger for her. I watch the awareness go across her face.
“No! Not both of them! God couldn’t be so cruel. How could he take both my boys? Blown to bits by one of those IEDs. Who cares about that godforsaken place? Why do we keep sending these children to Afghanistan? It’s all so senseless, senseless.”
“I imagine Billy was pretty broken up by his brother’s death.”
“Sure was. And angry. Like me, angry. Ron was his baby brother. Billy kept saying he should have gone first. And now they’re both gone. And I have nothing.”
“Can you say who you’re angry at Mary?”
“Everyone.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“God. The government. The universe. Sue. I’m definitely mad at Sue. That’s Billy’s wife.”
I suspect she’s also angry with Billy for killing himself, but know it’s way too early to broach that topic. “Are you going to maintain contact with Sue? I imagine you’ll need to in order to see your grandchildren.”
She shrugs. “Who knows what she’ll do.”
“You saw each other at the funeral?”
She nods. “But I didn’t know what was going on that day. I don’t think she brought the boys, although I think I saw them later at the house.” Knitting her brow, she pauses. “I don’t know. What difference does it make anyway? Nothing matters anymore.”
“Do your grandsons matter?”
“I guess.” Pause. “Yes, they matter. They carry part of Billy.” Pause. “They’re the only grandchildren I’ll ever have.”
I can see Mary’s despair and rage begin to build, her hands in fists.
“Remember,” I say quickly, “Hurting yourself won’t bring your sons back.”
“But it’s easier. The physical is easier, easier than thinking, easier than remembering.”
“I do understand, Mary. But I don’t want you to hurt yourself. And I’m sure your husband doesn’t want you to hurt yourself either. I know the pain often feels intolerable, but you can survive it. As awful as it is, you can survive it.”
Mary sobs.

“And we can talk about your pain, Mary, your pain and your anger. I know that won’t bring your sons back either, but talking does help. And maybe us talking together will make it easier to bear the pain.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tradition

Art sits dejectedly in my office, his elbows on his thighs, his head, shaking side to side, cradled by his hands. “I told you it would never work. She’s unrelenting. Tradition is everything to her. But it’s ridiculous! I’ve been in this country most of my life. How can she expect me to accept an arranged marriage? Go back to India and marry the girl her sister finds for me? It’s crazy.”
“I’m so sorry, Art. I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you.”
Lifting his head, he says, “And that’s another thing. She said she absolutely forbid me to have anyone call me anything but my given name, Arjun. She repeated it, yelling, ‘Arjun, Arjun, Arjun. That’s your name and I don’t expect to hear you called anything else.’ Of course I’m not about to do that. My friends haven’t called me Arjun since the first or second grade. And they made fun of me even then. She has no idea what it’s like, how difficult it is for a kid to fit into this culture. And particularly today. Even my brown skin can bring those looks – are you one of those?; are you illegal?; are you stealing our jobs?” He covers his face with one hand. “But there’s no point discussing all that.” Pause. “What am I going to do?” he asks beseechingly?
“I was just going to ask you the same thing.”
“I don’t know. I love Jessica. I want to marry her. We like the same things – hiking, kayaking, watching old movies. We think the same way, have the same values, love kids. My mother just doesn’t get it. We don’t have to be from the same culture, although we basically are. I’m probably more American than Indian.”
“Is that true? I mean you have grown up here most of your life, educated here, working here, but is it true that your Indian culture means so little to you?”
“Right now I just wish I could disown the whole culture.”
“But that’s your anger speaking, right?”
“I don’t know,” he says dismissively.
“I remember how joyfully you’ve described the Hindu weddings you’ve attended, how you know all about your gods, how you say you sometimes pray to one god or another.”
“But that’s just habit. It’s all a bunch of superstition. I don’t believe any of that stuff.”
I realize I’m pushing too hard to have Art take ownership of the Indian part of himself and wonder if that’s because he’s projecting those feelings onto me rather than feeling them himself. I need to step back.
“What are your thoughts?”
“I know I’m not going let my mother bully me. And I also know she won’t retreat. She said Jessica – no, actually she said ‘that girl’ – would never be welcome in her house, that she would never see our children. That hurts. And I know she’ll stick to it. There’s not going to be any Hollywood ending like in The Big Sick.”
Silence.
“I wish my father would say something.”
Is he also wishing I’d say something? I wonder.
“I know my father agrees with me. Or at least he’d accept my decision. But he always bows to her.” Pause. “And that’s another thing she said, ‘Your father and I had an arranged marriage. It turned out well for us.’ I had to bite my tongue there. It turned out well for her. She got to move to the US, be a doctor’s wife and stay enclosed in the Indian community. I don’t think that’s what my father would have wanted, but he’d never say.”
“So you’re angry at your mother for being too dominant and at your father for being too passive.”
“Exactly!”
Silence.
“I was thinking about Jessica and my relationship. Wondering who’s the more dominant one.” Pause. “I guess I’d say she is.” Pause. “I wonder how I feel about that.”
“Good question.”
“Not so good actually.”
“So are you implying that you were raised by a dominant woman and that perhaps now you’re attracted to a similarly dominant women?”
“Oh no! I came in here thinking I had one problem – how to deal with my mother – and now I have two problems – how to deal with my mother and Jessica.”
“Perhaps it’s not so much how you deal with either of them, but how you deal with yourself, the person you want to be, the person you are now given the family and the culture you were raised in. Is there a place between complying and rebelling? Are you unwittingly driven to repeat patterns from your past that you may not consciously want to repeat?”
“Stop! Too much. It’s giving me a headache.”

“There is a lot , but I was just trying to say that we humans are very complex beings and that it’s helpful for us to try and understand ourselves as best as possible.”