He sits fidgeting in the chair, alternately looking down at his hands and staring at me. I don’t usually treat 17 year old boys, but his mother was frantic when she called, convinced that her oldest son David was going to commit suicide.
After several minutes of silence I say, “Your mother was very worried about you. Have you been thinking of killing yourself?”
He wrings his hands, continuing to move jerkily in the chair. “It’s a lie,” he says, almost in a whisper.
“What’s a lie?”
He swallows. Tears brim in his eyes. “I don’t want to kill myself. I just made that up.” Pause. “Like always.” Pause. “I always lie. I don’t know if I can tell the truth. You know, like that guy Santos, the Congressman,” his words now coming out in a rush. “I wasn’t sure I could tell you the truth. I’m still not sure, but I’m going to try. I have to try. I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the country when I grow up. I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the school right now!”
I flash on a childhood friend when we were both in the third grade. She told the class she had three siblings, although she only had one. Since we lived in the same building the teacher asked me if it was true. I didn’t want to get my friend into trouble so I said I didn’t know. I felt compassion for my friend. I’d seen her mother scream at her and beat her with a belt. I feel a similar compassion for this young man who sits across from me. I’ve known compulsive liars, people who wanted to gain an advantage over others or who enjoyed the power of putting one over on someone. But my guess so far is that isn’t David.
“Have you always lied?” I ask David gently.
“It’s been worse since high school. But… but I guess I always lied at home. I lied to protect my Mom, to make her feel better. I’d tell her about my friends in school, about how well I did playing soccer. Those were all lies.” Pause. “I know I didn’t make her feel better by telling her I wanted to kill myself. I guess I do sometimes think I would be better off not being here, but I know I said it like I was going to do it any minute now.”
“Why did you want to give her that impression, David?”
“I guess I felt desperate, like I have to talk to someone, to someone I can tell the truth.”
“And what is the truth?”
“I’m a bad person. I hate so many people. I hate my Dad, my younger sister, the jocks in school. Sometimes I even hate my Mom and that makes me really bad.”
“Because she tries so hard. And I know how much she loves me.”
“She tries so hard to…?”
“To make everyone happy. To get along with my Dad. To keep him from yelling at me. But she can’t. And in the end she’ll say, ‘Well you know your Dad just wants what’s best for you’ or ‘You know your Dad’s under a lot of pressure.’”
“So in the end you feel she sides with him.”
He nods his head.
“And that feels pretty awful.”
“Yes. But I shouldn’t hate her for that. She’s just trying to do what’s best, what’s best for everyone.”
“But maybe doing what’s best for everyone isn’t what’s best for you.”
“What would you like her to do?”
“To tell my Dad to fucking lay off!! Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I apologize. I…”
“You don’t have to apologize, David. Here you get to say anything and everything you want.” Pause. “Has your Dad always picked on you, David?”
He nods. “He’s a college football coach. As you can see I’m not exactly made in his image. I’m this little, puny, ugly kid who’s sucked at sports all my life. He’s the life of the party. I’d rather go read a book. He can’t stand looking at me. So I make things up. I make myself more than I am.”
“I’m so sorry, David, sorry that your Dad can’t appreciate you for the caring, sensitive person you are.”
“Sensitive is the last thing my father wants me to be. He constantly accuses me of being too sensitive. And if I’m so caring, how come I just scared my Mom?”
“My guess is that you lie as a way of expressing your anger, as a way of fighting back and not being the puny, too-sensitive kid.”
“I’m not sure I get that.”
“That’s fine, David. It’s kind of a heavy statement to throw at you just as we’re ending this session. We can pick up from here next time.”
“So you will work with me?”
“Definitely. It would be my pleasure.”