Inside/Outside

Friday, February 12, 2021

Being Vaccinated

 “So I know I’m locked in the house like everyone else and hating it and ready to strangle my husband, but I really need to talk to you about my daughter. She’s driving me crazy,” Paula says, barely stopping for a breath. “She just doesn’t stop. ‘Mom, did you get the vaccine? Have you tried getting the vaccine? Have you signed up through the Department of Health? Did you try your local grocery store? What about Dad?’ She doesn’t stop. You have to tell me what to do.”

Paula, who I’ve only ‘seen’ for a few sessions via the telephone, is a seemingly headstrong, stubborn, opinionated 67 year old woman. “What should you do about…? I ask.

“About her of course! What should I do about my daughter constantly bugging me?”

“What have you done?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? But what do you say to your daughter when she asks you about being vaccinated?”

“I just put her off, you know, like saying ‘not yet’ or ‘it’s not in the area yet.’”

“Do you plan to get the vaccine?”

“Not if I can help it!”

“Because…?”


“I’m not into being a guinea pig! Who knows what the government is putting into those vaccines? How do we know they’re safe? They’re so new. Maybe they’re giving it to all us old folks first because they think we’re disposable. Who cares if some old people die! I didn’t trust Trump and I don’t trust Biden any more.”

Although I knew that Paula was distrustful of others, I hadn’t recognized the extent of her suspiciousness. I tread carefully. “So why haven’t you told that to your daughter?”

She scoffs. “My daughter’s a doctor. She’ll laugh at me and tell me I’m crazy.”

Although I find myself agreeing with my patient’s daughter, I stall for time by asking an inane question. “What does your husband think?”

“He doesn’t care. He’ll do whatever I say. We’re both healthy. I mean I know we’re both over 65, but we’re in good health. Why take any chances?”

“And yet you’re comfortable taking your chances with Covid?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure what you mean.”

“How do we know the whole thing isn’t a hoax? Maybe there is no Covid. Maybe it’s all just a big scam.”

“And what would be the purpose of this scam?”

“I don’t know. Maybe to try out these experimental drugs for some future disease, some other virus that strikes 25, 100 years from now. Who knows.”

I sit with my anxiety for a moment until what I hope is an


inspiration strikes me. “You know, Paula, since you’re so reluctant to share your reservations about the Covid vaccines with your daughter, I’m impressed that you feel comfortable telling me about them.”

Silence. The silence continues.

“Paula, are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“Okay. Good.”

Silence.

“I’m supposed to tell the truth here, right?”

“Yes. That’s definitely helpful.”


“Well I know this sounds terrible, but I can tell you because you don’t matter. My daughter matters to me. What she thinks of me matters to me. What you think of me doesn’t matter because you don’t matter to me. I pay you to give me a service. Beyond that you’re irrelevant. Does that sound terrible?”

“Well,” I say cautiously, “it’s definitely honest.” I pause, trying to gather my thoughts and think of an appropriate response. Speaking softly, I say, “I wonder what it means that I don’t matter to you, that you can so easily dismiss me as irrelevant. I wonder who in your life has made you feel you don’t matter. I wonder if you yourself feel you don’t matter. And I wonder if one of the reasons you’re so suspicious about the virus or the vaccines is that it’s hard to believe that anyone could feel you’re important enough to care about.”

“Are you saying I should care about you?” Paula responds, understandably not able to take in what was a long, complicated interpretation.

“Only you can answer that.”

“Well, I don’t know if I can or if I should care about you.”

“I understand. I think perhaps our first questions should be whether you’re able to care about you and whether you’ve felt cared about by important people in your life.”

“You mean like my parents?”

“Yes. As well as others.”

“I told myself I wasn’t going back, that I wasn’t going to dredge


all that stuff up.”

“Yet you chose to see me, a psychoanalyst, so perhaps part of you wants to dredge all that stuff up.”

“Nonsense!”

“But we’re meeting again next week, right?”

“I suppose,” Paula responds grudgingly.

“I’m glad to hear that. I’ll talk to you then.”





Friday, January 15, 2021

What's the Big Deal

 “I don’t get it,” Marlene begins, her face appearing tense and puzzled on my screen. “Every time I talk to one of my friends or even exchange an email, they’re talking about how devastated they still feel about the storming of the Capitol. I agree, go along with it, so they don’t think I’m some sort of a weirdo, but I don’t get it. It was a building for God’s sake. Yes, 5 people died and I’m sorry about that, but I see people dying of Covid every day in the hospital, people who are scared and alone and broken. We’ve lost way more than 300,000 people to Covid and people are so distressed about a building! What’s the big deal?”



I’ve had many patients who were very distressed by the events of January 6, others who, not surprisingly to me, didn’t even mention it. But I am surprised by Marlene’s lack of emotional response. As a nurse she has been on the front line of the pandemic, so perhaps, I think to myself, she can’t allow herself to feel any more pain. Still, politics matters to her. She usually has very definite opinions, often accompanied by intense affect.

“It sounds as though you’re uncomfortable with your not experiencing it as a big deal,” I suggest.

“I suppose. I don’t know, it just makes me feel different. Which is certainly not a new feeling for me.” She sighs. “Poor white trash, daring to want to make something different of myself. That got me beaten at home for thinking I was better than them and bullied at school because those kids sure as hell didn’t think I was as good as them. Shitty beginning.”


“And you’ve taken yourself far from those beginnings.”

“Yes. And I haven’t told you, but I’ve been thinking of applying to school to be a Physicians’ Assistant.”

 “That’s wonderful, Marlene. I’m so pleased for you.”

“You don’t think it’s crazy? I’m already over 40. And PA school is very competitive.”

“You know, Marlene, I think you just asked me if I think you’re being too uppity, going too far from ‘home,’” I say.

She chuckles. “I think you’re right.”

“So do you think it’s weird that I don’t feel more about the storming of the Capitol?”

“I don’t think it’s weird, Marlene, but I do think it’s unlike you.”

“So you had strong feelings about it.”

“I did. But I’m wondering right now why you are asking me all these questions rather than telling me more about what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.”

“I guess I’m feeling weird, which takes me back to my childhood.”

“What specifically in your childhood?”

“All of us living in that three room house. All the screaming. All the violence. My Dad beating the shit out of me if he found me reading a book. All the kids at school circling me, jeering at my clothes.” Marlene’s eyes fill with tears. “Will those images ever go away? I want them to go away.”

“Let me ask you something, what brought those images back so vividly?”

Marlene’s eyes widen. “Oh my God, seeing those people storm the Capitol! That’s what brought those images back. Those were quote, unquote, ‘my people.’ Oh my God,” Marlene says sobbing. “Oh my God! It’s so awful! Of course I couldn’t take it in. It’s way too close, way too close. It makes me sick. I don’t want to be like them, I don’t, I don’t.”

“You’re not like them, Marlene. You’ve grown a long way from there.”

Marlene continues crying, tears streaming down her face as she stares at me on the screen. “I wish I was in your office right now. I wish I could feel your presence, like your presence would erase the awfulness of those images.”

“I wish that too, Marlene. But I do hope you can feel that I’m here for you.”

She nods. Grabbing a tissue, she blows her nose and wipes her eyes.

“So I couldn’t take in the horror of the mob attacking the Capitol because it brought me too close to my childhood experience? So I did what, I shut down, and didn’t allow the horror to penetrate?”

“I’d say that’s exactly what you did, Marlene. At first I thought you’d shut down because of all the months of dealing with the stress of Covid meant you couldn’t take in one more horror. But I’d say, you got way closer to the real reason you shut down, the need to distance yourself from the horrors of your childhood.”

Tag words: Psychotherapy, mental health, defense, patient-therapist relationship, childhood, violence, growth, ambition, numbness, shutting down.