Friday, December 9, 2022

Family Visits


“I can’t believe my wife and I actually arranged to see both set of parents in the space of a month,” Harvey begins, a good-looking man in his forties. “Thanksgiving with her family was bad enough, people trying to be polite and pretend that they care about each other and that they care about our kids. I was surprised they even remembered the kids’ names. That’s how often they talk to them. I guess they do occasionally connect on Facebook, but of course my kids aren’t on Facebook that often – for old people they say. My 13 year old kept rolling her eyes when they tried to engage her around soccer.” He sighs. “And in a few weeks we go to my family. That will be different.”

“Different how?” I ask.

“Different in every way possible. I’ve told you about my family, screamers. No one is polite. No one cares about anything but hearing themselves talk. Except my mother. She’s different. Of course my brother will be there. If he and I don’t get into it I’d be shocked.”

“What do you imagine that looking like?”

“I wouldn’t rule out his throwing a swing at me.”

“Like when you were kids?”


“You told me he was always jealous of you.”

“Definitely. Even though he was my father’s favorite. But that didn’t count for much since my father was such a loser. IS such a loser. In fact, it’s worse – if that’s possible – since he “retired.” Now he doesn’t even pretend he’s looking for work. Sits at home all day, drinking no doubt, getting into fights with my mother and watching Fox News all day.”

“You sound very contemptuous of your father.”

“You got that right.”

“How does it feel to be contemptuous of your father?”

“Familiar. I don’t think I was ever NOT contemptuous of him. Of course, I wouldn’t have said contemptuous as a kid.”

“What would you have said?”

“That he was … Wow! I was about to say that he was a scary jackass. I sort of forgot how scary he was. He was. He was big and blustery and would scream at the drop of a hat. And he was often screaming at me which would delight my brother to no end.”

“Where was your mother in all this?”

“Silent. I knew she felt bad for me, but she was totally cowed by him. She’d say she didn’t want to take ‘sides.’”

“Did you feel angry with her about that?”

“No. I guess I needed one good parent and she was definitely the good parent.” He smiles. “I still love her a lot. She wasn’t perfect but she’s a good person and she’s a great grandma. My kids love her to death even though we don’t visit very often for obvious reasons.”

“Do you ever invite her to visit you?” 

“All the time. But she won’t come without him and I’m not inviting that chaos into my home.”

“I wonder if you’re still afraid of your father.”

“Now? No, what could he do to me? I could knock him out in a heartbeat.”

“And how would you feel about that, about knocking him out?”

Harvey opens his mouth to respond and then closes it. “I was about to say great, but that’s not really true. I guess a part of me would feel great about it, but then he is my father. I guess I’d feel guilty. Yeah, you’re not supposed to be slugging your father.”

“I just had a thought. I wonder if you feel sad and disappointed that you don’t have a Dad you can look up to, one you’d enjoy visiting.”

“I never thought of that, but yes. Even as a kid I was disappointed that my Dad wasn’t more of… I guess that he wasn’t more. That he wasn’t more educated, smarter, more of a role model.”

“So maybe what else bothers you about visiting your parents is that every time you can’t escape feeling that disappointment. And maybe you’re disappointed in more than your Dad. Maybe you’re disappointed that your brother isn’t more of a friend and that your Mom wasn’t more actively on your side.”

“I don’t know about that part about my Mom, but I certainly agree with you about my father and brother. I wonder if knowing that will make the visit any easier.”

“Well, if you could accept that your father and brother are going to be the same as they’ve always been, maybe you can avoid having even the smallest of expectations and therefore be less hurt and less angry.”

“Maybe. I guess we’ll see if a few weeks.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A White Lie

 “It was my birthday this past Saturday,” MaryAnn begins smiling, combing her fingers through her long, silky hair.

“Congratulations,” I respond enthusiastically, “Twenty, right?”

MaryAnn pauses, drops her head, then raises it again to look
directly at me. “Not exactly. I turned 18.”

I stare at her, startled. “But we’ve been working together for two years. You told me you were 18 when we started.” 

“Yes, I did. I lied. But that’s the only thing I’ve lied about.”

“But you were a minor when we began working together,” I say, quite distressed. “I would have needed your parents’ permission to see you.”

“Exactly! That’s why I told you I was 18. Could you imagine my parents allowing me to see you and air all their dirty secrets. It’s no big deal, just a little white lie.”

I’m stunned. MaryAnn and I had what I thought was a close, intense bond, with a heated transference/countertransference relationship. I quickly became the mother she wished she had, not the socialite who left her daughter to be raised by a series of nannies while she spent her husband’s money throwing elaborate parties or meeting a series of lovers somewhere in the world. For my part, I usually felt motherly and protective towards her, unless her excessive demands made me pull back in either anger or self-defense. Her “little white lie” feels like a betrayal and I struggle to make sense of it.

“Come on!” MaryAnn says. “You look like I’ve committed some terrible sin! Why is it such a big deal?”

“Well, first you made me complicit in breaking the law – seeing you without parental consent.”

“But you didn’t know!!” she interrupts.

“Second, this is a tremendous breach of trust, of what I assumed was a good faith relationship between us.”

“It is.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about it. I lied so I could see you. What’s wrong with that?”

“How did you pay me every month?” I ask.

“You know money isn’t an issue. There are huge amounts of cash lying around, or signed checks. Neither of my parents cares how much money I spend. They never check up on me.”

“So you were stealing money to pay me?”

“I wasn’t stealing. I told you. I can spend money on whatever I want. They never ask.”

Through what feels like my foggy mind, some thoughts vaguely occur to me. “You know, MaryAnn, one of your complaints about your parents is that they’ve always had relationships with other people, while continuing on with what feels to you like their sham marriage.” 

“That’s not the same thing!”

“You’ve grown up in a household where lying and deceit was second nature. It’s not so hard to imagine you’d also lie to get what you want.”

“I told you, I had no choice!”

“Perhaps your parents would say the same thing. And, besides, if your parents are so indifferent to what you do or don’t do, how do you know they wouldn’t be fine about your being in therapy.”

“I told you, because they don’t want all their secrets out there! Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Maybe I should have just said yes, I’m 20.”

“So that brings me to another issue, MaryAnn, maybe the most important issue in terms of our relationship.”

She sighs, exasperatedly. 

I continue. “A lie keeps distance. Your lie kept distance between us, just as your parents’ lies keeps distance between them and between the three of you. Maybe, unconsciously, it was important that you keep a distance between us, maybe you couldn’t risk being closer to me than to your parents.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. I’ve always wanted more from you, wanted you to take care of me, had fantasies of your being at my wedding one day, meeting my children, all that.”

“That’s what you’ve wanted consciously, but I wonder if unconsciously it would have felt very risky to be closer to me than to your parents, maybe it would have felt like I was replacing them, doing away with them. However not ideal they’ve been as parents, they’re the only parents you’ve ever had or will have.”

“I don’t know, maybe. But what now? What happens between us?”

“What would you like to happen?”

“I’d like you to forgive me and for us to go on as before.”

“Now that I have what feels to me like a psychological understanding of what prompted your lying, I’m no longer so shocked or angry. As far as us going on as before, if that means do I still care about you and want us to continue working together, the answer is certainly yes. But relationships always change, MaryAnn, and this relationship will definitely be impacted by what occurred between us today. For sure I’ll be looking to see if there are other ways you create distance in our relationship.” 

“I am sorry. But I’m still not sure I would have done anything differently.”

“I hear you.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Beyond Afraid II

Frank rushes into my office, words tumbling out of his mouth as he walks. “The doctors keep telling my Mom she’s going to be all right. But she’s still scared. I am too. How do we know fibroids can’t turn into cancer? But now I’m scared about something else, I’m scared you’re going to take my Mom away from me, like you said in our last session.”

“Stop a moment, Frank. Take a breath. I remember saying I have neither the power nor the wish to take your Mom away from you,” I say, feeling as though I’m talking to a young child rather than a 36 year old man.

“But you said we’re too close!”

“And what do you think? It’s way more important what you think than what I think.” 

“That’s impossible. You’re the professional.”

“And you’re a person who gets to think for himself.”

Frank looks at me confusedly. 

I continue. “I think you said last week that your Mom didn’t want you to think differently from her. Is that correct?”

He nods.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Well, I do usually think the same as my Mom.”

“Can you tell me some of the things you agree on?”

“We both like funny movies, not sad ones. We like Italian food but not Indian food.” Pause. “We believe in being good to people.” Pause. “We wish my sister would come home from India.”

“Can you think of anything you don’t agree on?”


Frank fidgets in his chair. “Aren’t you going to say something? I don’t like just sitting here. Makes me even more nervous.”

“Can you say what you feel nervous about?”

“The silence.”

“What about the silence.”

“I don’t know what you’re thinking.” Pause. “I’m afraid I’m not being a good patient. I’m afraid you won’t like me.”

“You know, Frank, right now I find myself feeling really sad for you, sad that you’re so afraid of not being liked or accepted, that you’ll turn yourself into a pretzel trying to please.”

“And that makes you sad for me?” he asks incredulously.

“It does. Why does that surprise you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone ever said they were sad for me. Except maybe when my father died.” 

 “Do you ever feel sad for you?”

“No. Except when my father died. But even then I felt more sorry for my mother.”

“When you do feel sad, for yourself or whomever, do you feel less anxious?”

“Gosh, I’d have to think about that. Should I feel less anxious?”

“I can’t tell you how you should feel. Your feelings are all yours and you get to feel however you feel.”

“That’s not what my Mom says. She says there are right and wrong ways to feel and that I should always feel the right way.”

“So would that mean if you didn’t feel the so-called right way you were being bad?”


“I imagine that always trying to feel the supposedly right way could make you really anxious since you’d be constantly worried about trying to control feelings you can’t control. There are no right or wrong feelings. We feel whatever we feel. So it’s like you’re trying to do the impossible, trying to make sure you don’t feel anything you think you’re not supposed to.”

“You don’t believe there are good or bad feelings?!” he asks, shocked.

“No, I don’t.”

“What if I … if I … if I felt I wanted to scream at you right now?”

“You can scream at me whenever you like. But that’s not a feeling. Maybe you’re saying what if you felt really, really angry with me.”

“I can’t be angry.”

“So that’s one of those bad feelings according to your mother.”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Well, I disagree. I think you can feel as angry as you feel, as long as you don’t put those feelings into an action that hurts me, like slapping me.”

“I would never, never do anything like that!!”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. And because you wouldn’t you’ve just said why feelings aren’t bad. They’re your internal feelings, inside you. No one ever has to know they exist unless you choose to tell them.”

“I feel really nervous right now.”

“I believe you and I apologize for making you so anxious. I’ve said a lot of things today that are very different from what you’re used to hearing and thinking, and that can certainly threaten your sense of both yourself and the world. That can be pretty scary.”

“Thank you.”


“For understanding. For not getting mad at me for being anxious.”

“Here, Frank, you get to feel whatever you feel – sad, angry, anxious. I hope we can help you to feel less anxious and I believe that will happen as you become more comfortable with all your other feelings. But change doesn’t happen overnight, so neither of us should expect more from you than you’re comfortable with.”

 “Thanks again. I do feel a little better.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Beyond Afraid

 I open my waiting room door to a mid-thirtyish man pacing back and forth in front of the couch. “Frank?” I ask.

He startles and turns to face me. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Did I frighten you? I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just can’t sit still. I’m so jittery. I just…”

I note that he’s afraid of having frightened me when he’s clearly the one who’s terrified. “It’s all right,” I interrupt. “Why don’t we go into my office and sit down.” 

He sits, but perches at the edge of the chair, as though posed for flight.

“What has you so frightened?” I ask.

“My, my, mother,” he stammers. “I’m afraid she’s going to die. My father died a year ago. He was fine, came home from work, went upstairs and died. Doctors said something about his heart. I couldn’t understand it. My Mom started screaming and screaming. I guess I did too. It still all a blur. But now I’m worried about my Mom. They say she has something in her uterus. I’m afraid she’s going to die. I couldn’t make it if she died. I couldn’t make it,” he says starting to cry. 

“What does she have in her uterus? Are her doctors concerned? Is she concerned?”

“She’s a wreck. Her doctors say it’s nothing, just something to watch. I don’t know, fibrosus?”

“Fibroids?” I ask.

“That’s it! Can that kill you?”

“I’m not a medical doctor, but my understanding is that fibroids aren’t usually a problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“Frank, do you think anyone can sufficiently reassure you?”

Still crying, he says, “I’ve always been this way. Everything scares me. Mom’s like that too. Dad was also kind of anxious. Only my sister isn’t. She’s the opposite. She’s in something like the Peace Corps. In India. My parents flipped out when she joined. But she was determined. And now she married an Indian guy so I guess she’s never coming home. I worry about her dying too, but it’s not as bad as with my Mom.”

“Can you tell me a little about your growing up, Frank. What was it like being a kid in your family?”

“It was great. I didn’t worry about anyone dying then.” Pause. “But I was always afraid. Hard not to be. My Mom worried about everything, about us being kidnapped, about us driving. I didn’t drive ‘til I was 20 or something. She’d take us to the doctor for the least little sniffle. Make us stay home from school.” Pause. “That was okay with me. I didn’t like school. I mean it wasn’t school I minded. I just didn’t like being away from home. I always felt scared being away from home. The other kids made fun of me, called me a Momma’s boy. I guess I was. Guess I still am.”

“Have you ever lived away from home?”

“I tried. Went away to college, but didn’t last a semester.  I came home, got a degree in accounting. Dad was an accountant. But I’m an assistant accountant. I didn’t want all that responsibility. I didn’t want the work to kill me like it killed Dad. I work mostly from home, especially since Covid, and especially since my Dad died. I want to be around for my Mom. She’s my responsibility now that he’s gone.”

“Have you been in therapy before?”

“I may have gone awhile when I was a little kid. But not really, no, not since I’m grown.”

“How do you feel about being in therapy? And how do you feel being with me?” 

“I guess I need it. I’d like to not be so scared all the time.” Pause. “And I like you. You’re nice. Sort of like my Mom, except not as nervous.” Pause. “Can you help me be less scared?”

“I certainly hope so. But I do want to say, Frank, that you may not always think I’m so nice. There are times therapy can be hard and painful. Like one of the things I suspect you and I are going to look at is your relationship with your mother.”

“Why? I have a great relationship with my mother.”

“Except it’s hard for you to have a life apart from her.”

“Are you going to take Mom away from me?” Frank asks, panic seeping into his voice.

“No, Frank. I don’t have the power to do that nor would I want to. But having part of your life be separate from your mother seems like something an adult child might want.”

“I guess.”

“You can always disagree with me, Frank. My saying something doesn’t make it so.”

“That’s not like my mother! She always wants me to think the same way as her.”

“Well, maybe that’s one thing we’ll get to look at together, how you feel about always needing to think like your Mom.”

Friday, August 19, 2022

Fearing the Past

Katie barely smiles as I greet her in the waiting room. She walks slowly to my office and gingerly lowers herself into the chair. Oh no, I think to myself, did something happen with her pregnancy?  Just last week she was radiant, bubbling with joy, thrilled that she’d be giving birth to a little girl.

“What’s wrong, Katie?” I ask.

Silent tears stream down her face.

“Did something happen to the baby?”

She shakes her head, cradling her stomach. “On Monday,” she says hesitantly, “Patrick woke up and right away he seemed different. He didn’t kiss my stomach and listen for the baby as he usually does. He just got up and started getting ready for work. I asked what was wrong, but he said he was just tired. I tried to connect with him, but he just ate breakfast and left. He texted me a couple of times during the day so I thought maybe everything was fine. But when he came home he was still distant, preoccupied. I told him he had to talk to me, that we weren’t having dinner until I knew what was bothering him.

“And then he asked me, he asked me if I was ever afraid I’d hurt our baby. I couldn’t believe it. I felt as though he’d slapped me. I started crying. He said he’d had a dream that I was shaking our baby and screaming at her. He said I must have thought about it, that I couldn’t have not thought about it given my history. I couldn’t stop crying. I just couldn’t stop. Like I can’t stop now.”

“I understand you’re in a tremendous amount of pain,” I say softly, “And this might seem like a ridiculous question, but can you say what you are crying about? Is seems like there’s many things you could be crying about right now and maybe it would be helpful if we tried to understand them.”

“I’m crying about Patrick even questioning that I could possibly, possibly ever hurt our child.” 

“I understand that Katie. But you’ve questioned yourself too. We spent many sessions talking about your fears about your past, about whether you’d repeat your history.”

“And you told me not everyone who’s abused becomes an abuser!” Katie says, practically yelling at me.

“That’s absolutely true.”


“And did my saying that take away all your fears?”

Katie covers her face with her hands, sobbing and shaking her head. “Why couldn’t he have faith in me? Why does he have to doubt me?”

“So you feel abandoned by Patrick.”

“Yes, yes!! He’s always been my biggest champion. He was always the one who said I could overcome anything, do anything.” Pause. “I would never, ever have agreed to have a child if I thought he didn’t believe in me!”

“I wonder if you’re saying that if Patrick doesn’t believe in you, you can’t believe in you either.”

Katie stops crying and looks at me. “That’s right. That’s absolutely right! That’s why Patrick’s question devastated me. I can’t lose my biggest champion just as I’m about to undertake the scariest step of my life.”

“So you do know it’s scary, scary for you and scary for Patrick. It’s sound like it would help if both of you talked about your fears, not to make accusations, but to provide each other with support and understanding.”


“Where did you go, Katie?”

“Ever since Monday I’ve been re-living the horrible things my mother did to me, how she’d slap me around, take a belt to me, drag me around the floor by my hair, make me eat dog food, spit at me. She hated me. I know she wanted me dead.” Katie’s voice gets flatter and flatter as she recounts the abuse.

“Katie, you can feel about all these horrible things your mother did to you. You don’t have to shut down. You can hate her back.”

“I don’t want to hate her back. I just don’t want her to affect my life in any way.”

“It would be good to be indifferent to your mother, but it’s impossible that she not affect your life. She’s your mother. And she was your mother when you were a helpless, vulnerable, dependent child. But your life doesn’t have to be determined by her.”

“So you don’t think I’ll abuse my child?”

“No, I don’t think you’ll abuse your child. You’re a great aunt to your brother’s kids. You love your animals.”

“My brother’s kids are boys. Will that make a difference?”

“It sounds like that’s something you’re concerned about.”

Katie nods. “It crossed my mind when I knew I’d be having a girl. But I also thought, good, I get to do a do-over with my little girl. I just know it will be different.”

“You mean you and Patrick will make it different.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And Patrick and I are going to be doing some heavy talking. Thank you so much. Helpful, as always.”

“My pleasure,” I say smiling.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022


I feel ridiculous going into therapy because I can’t decide whether or not to get married,” Nina, a slender young woman with shiny dark hair and large brown eyes, begins. “I mean I’ve been in therapy before, lots of times. It’s been a lifesaver sometimes, but going into therapy because I can’t decide whether or not to marry Sam seems silly. Either I want to marry Sam or I don’t. I don’t know what makes it so hard to decide.”

“What does make it so hard to decide?”

“I guess because I don’t know if I love him. But is it even necessary that I love him? I’ve loved other guys and they all turned out like shit. I don’t know. I keep going round and around in my head.”

“Nina, I hear that you feel a lot of pressure to decide right now, but it would be helpful if you told me something about you, your background, why you’ve been in therapy before, maybe something about the shit guys.”

Nina sighs. “I knew I’d have to go through the whole thing again. It’s so tedious. Okay, here goes. When I was a kid, my life was pretty normal until I was six. Then my mother was hit by a car. She lived on a ventilator for a year or so until my Dad won the court battle with my Mom’s parents and had her disconnected. My Dad didn’t let me see my grandparents for quite a while, but then I got to see them and that was hard too because they talked such shit about my Dad. That’s when therapy was really helpful. Things got better after that until my Dad started dating and dating and dating. I guess he was trying to drown his sorrow in women, at least that’s what my therapist said. Fast forward, I now have my fourth step-mother except of course I don’t live at home any more so I don’t really care who he’s with. End of story.”

“That’s an overwhelming story, Nina, yet you told it like you were reading from a book, like it happened to someone else.”

“I just can’t feel about it anymore. I don’t want to feel about it anymore. I want it over.”

“But maybe it isn’t over.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, that’s a tremendous amount of loss and trauma for anyone to go through, let alone a young child. You lost your Mom, your grandparents and your Dad.”

“My Dad’s not dead.”

“No, but it sounds as though once he started dating you felt as though you’d lost him.”

“Yep! But that was just me being jealous. That was another therapist’s opinion.”

“And what’s your opinion?”

“I don’t know. It felt too soon. It felt like he forgot about my Mom. It made me wonder if my grandparents weren’t right about him. It made me sad. I missed him. I missed them all,” Nina says, her voice breaking a bit.

“I’m sorry Nina.”

Her eyes fill with tears which she blinks back. “But what does this have to do with my not being able to decide whether or not to marry Sam?”

“First tell me whether the previous guys you loved were unfaithful to you or otherwise unavailable.”

She snorts. “You mean like married? Yeah, I had my share of those. And my share of womanizers too. So you think I have an Oedipal thing, right? You think I want my father just for me.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Maybe. I just don’t know any more.” Pause. “For sure Sam isn’t anything like my father. He’s kind and generous and faithful. I know he loves me. I just don’t know if I love him.” Pause. “So you’d say I have to give up on my Dad in order to allow a different kind of man into my life.”

I smile. “You’re certainly no stranger to therapy.”

She nods. “Too true.”

“But I wonder if, as you said, it’s only an ‘Oedipal thing.’ You’ve had so many early losses, Nina, losses that had to have a huge affect on your life. I wonder if you’ve walled yourself off from ever allowing yourself to be really close to anyone for fear that the pain of losing them would be too much. If you choose unavailable guys, they maintain the distance. If you choose a guy who is available, maybe that’s just too scary. What if you come to rely on him like you did your Mom or your Dad? What if he leaves or is in an accident? What if he dies? Maybe your six year old self doesn’t feel like she could cope with that.”

“But I’m not six.”

“The unconscious is timeless, Nina. We’re all whatever age we are today as well as six and ten and fifteen. That’s how we’re made.”

“But what do I do?”

“I’d say we have to go back so that you can feel the tremendous pain and loss and fear you felt as a child and help that child mourn and grow so that you can allow yourself to love and to know that however painful it might be you could again survive loss.”

“Sounds charming.” Pause. “When do we start?”