• 06/28/2017 3:14 AM | Anonymous

    It’s been a year since my wife died,” Andrew    Solomon begins. “She died of breast cancer. It    was a long process. Hard. She fought for as long    as she could, but she had an aggressive cancer.    She couldn’t beat it. Now, now I have the rest of    my life. I’m 65. I guess people consider that young  these days,” he adds with a slight smile. “I’m still working, thank goodness. It’s a great distraction. I’m an accountant. I have my own business so can pretty much make my own hours, except during tax season. But I cut down on my clients during my wife’s illness, so I do have more time on my hands.”

    Mr. Solomon is a good looking man with wavy white hair, intense brown eyes and a slight dimple in his chin. I wonder what has brought him into therapy at this point, but wait to see where his thoughts take us.

    He continues. “My friends tell me it’s time for me to start dating. That I’m young, secure financially, decent looking and that I’ll have women, younger women, flocking all over me. Maybe. But I don’t know. I don’t know that I feel ready.”

    “How do you feel about your wife’s death?” I ask.

    “Sad. Like there’s this big hole in my life. Don’t get me wrong, Bella – that’s her name, that was her name, hard for me to talk about her in the past tense – Bella and I didn’t have a perfect marriage. We had our fights. And I wasn’t always the ideal husband, especially when our kids were young. I had a couple of affairs. Never felt right about that. We got lots closer after our kids left. And actually we got even closer when she got sick. I guess I realized how much I was going to lose…” He trails off fighting back tears.  

    “Sounds like you’re still understandably very sad.”

    “But shouldn’t I be better after a year?”

    “What do you mean by better?”

    “Better, less sad, not so teary, ready to move on. Finished with grieving.”

    “Grieving the loss of a loved one is not something we ever finish.”

    Mr. Solomon looks startled. “No that can’t be. I can’t stay at this level of pain forever.”

    “It’s not that grief doesn’t diminish that, as you said, the level of pain remains as intense, but we certainly don’t stop loving or missing the person we’ve lost.”

    “But does that mean I shouldn’t start dating? Maybe I should start dating, maybe that would help with the pain.”

    “That’s certainly not a decision anyone but you can make. Some people start dating soon after their partner has died, others wait years, and still others never date at all. There’s not one right answer for everyone.”

    “I had a friend who got involved with the woman who eventually became his second wife, a month after his wife died. I thought that was awful. I lost respect for him.”

    I flash on what Mr. Solomon said about having affairs earlier in his marriage and wonder if guilt plays into his question about whether or not to start dating. “How would you feel about yourself if you decided to start dating?”

    “Bella told me it would be all right with her. I thought that was an amazing gift she gave me, especially since she knew about the affairs, or at least one of them.”

    “Sounds like you still feel guilty about your affairs.”

    “Yes, yes I do. I know it’s silly. It’s so many years ago. But especially when Bella got sick, I kept thinking how horrible I had been to her. How could I have even looked at another woman when I had Bella this amazingly strong, brave, good, beautiful woman?”

    “You know, Mr. Solomon…”

    “Please, call me Andrew.”

    “You know, Andrew, I wonder if your guilt about those affairs very much affects you in the present, both in terms of how you feel about Bella’s death and also about whether you feel comfortable dating.”

    “Why should that be?”

    “Well, our pasts always affect the present and we haven’t even talked about your past before Bella – your childhood, your young adulthood. I suspect that guilt may have played a role in your life then as well. And we haven’t talked about why you think you had those affairs. Were you angry with Bella? Were you angry with her attention to your children?”

    “Wow! I guess there is a lot there. I thought I was going to come in today, solve the problem of whether or not I should start dating and that would be that.”

    I smile. “Therapy is way more complicated than that. It opens lots of questions before you’re able to answer even one.”




  • 06/27/2017 2:51 PM | Anonymous

    An adopted patient again struggles with her feelings about her therapist not being her mother.

    “I’ve decided to really start looking for my biological mother,” Liz says at the beginning of our session.

    I have seen 27 year old Liz for a tumultuous five years, and although she has brought up trying to find her biological mother on previous occasions, today she does sound more determined.

    “Did something happen that reawakened your desire to find your biological mother?” I ask.

    She shrugs. “I’ve talked about it before. I just think it’s time. I know you don’t think it’s a good idea, but I want to know who she is.”

    “It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea, I just want you to be prepared if the reunion with your biological mother doesn’t prove as idyllic as you hope.” I think of all the adopted people I have known – both patients and friends – who have found their biological mother only to be horribly disappointed yet again, people who have been outright rejected, others whose mother wanted to take over their lives, still others who wanted to be financially supported. Finding the perfect fantasized mother is rarely the outcome.

    “What choice do I have?” she asks.

    There’s a familiar edge to Liz’ voice, an underlying anger, an underlying demand. I look at her quizzically and remain silent.

    “Don’t play dumb,” she says. I now definitely know that something is going on between us. “I have no mother. My so-called mother doesn’t give a shit about me. She was just thrilled when I finally moved out of the house so she could start redecorating and have my father all to herself. And then there’s you. You’re just never going to be more than my therapist. If I even move slightly towards wanting more from you, you run for the hills.”

    This is a familiar refrain, one that has played out repeatedly over the time we have worked together. From the beginning, Liz wanted me to be her mother. She had fantasies of moving in with me, fantasies of traveling with me, fantasies of curling up next to me on a couch and watching a movie. Sometimes she presented these as poignant longings, at other times she lashed out at me in rage, furious at my refusal to satisfy her desire. I cared deeply about Liz, understood her longing and was able to hang in there with her during even the most difficult times. I think back on our last session and suddenly realize what has led Liz to experience me as pulling back and wanting to search for a more perfect mother.

    “You were angry that I didn’t want you to take my picture,” I say.

    “I don’t see what the big deal was. It was only a stupid picture! Everybody takes pictures these days, pictures of dogs, pictures of signs, pictures of themselves. So what was the big deal with taking your picture?”

    “You tell me, Liz. What was the big deal about taking my picture? Obviously you have a lot of feelings about my asking you not to take my picture.”

    “Yeah and you gave me some mumbo, jumbo about my needing to take you in and have a picture of you in my mind without needing to have an actual picture. So? I can do that. I have you in my mind. We worked on that for a long time and now I can do it.”

    “That’s great, Liz. So the question remains, then why did you want an actual picture?”

    Liz looks angry and then seems to deflate in front of my eyes. She sighs deeply and looks down at her hands. “I guess because people always have pictures of their family,” she says quietly.

    “I know it’s very hard for you, Liz,” I say with compassion, “But the reality is that I will never be your mother. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, it doesn’t mean that I won’t be here for you, it doesn’t mean you’re not important to me, but it does mean that however much you may want it, I will never be your mother.”

    “I hate when you say that,” Liz says, more sadly, than angrily.

    “I know,” I reply.

    “Can we still talk about my looking for my biological mother?”

    “Of course. But as much as possible, you need to try and separate your wish to find your biological mother from your wish that I was your mother. And, as I’ve said, you also need to be prepared to be disappointed in your biological mother as well.”

    “I hate when you say that, too.”

    “I know.”    

  • 06/27/2017 2:41 PM | Anonymous

    A situation in which a therapist begins working with a twin who is used to being devalued in her family.

    Bethany squirms uncomfortably in the chair across from me. She’s a slender, attractive woman, her blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail accentuating her high cheek bones and large blue eyes. I’d guess her to be in her late twenties to early thirties.

    “It’s hard to start,” she says. “I guess that’s because I feel guilty. My sister, Heather just got engaged. He’s a great guy. An attorney, sweet, caring. He’s crazy about her. But all I can think of is, why her, why her and not me. I forgot to say, we’re twins. Identical. I mean we look identical. But that’s where it ends. She’s smarter than me or at least she did better in school. She was way more popular. She always got the cool guys. I just stumble along through life.”

    “Sounds hard to always be comparing yourself negatively to your sister.”

    “I come by it honestly. My whole family does it, especially my mother.”

    I flash on the memory of patient who years ago told me about giving birth to identical twins and feeling an immediate connection to the first twin that she didn’t experience with the second. Did Bethany’s mother have a similar experience with her twins that has shaped Bethany and Heather’s experience in the world? An unanswerable question, but an interesting one nonetheless.

    “That must be painful.”

    “I guess, but I suppose I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve always been shier than Heather, more introverted. I like to draw. I like art. That’s sort of what I do. I work in a design studio that sells lots of art. Although I work mainly in the back. I’m not the greatest sales person. I try, but it’s hard for me.”

    “And do you show your own work?”

    She shakes her head. “People tell me I’m good enough. But it feels so exposing. And the idea of marketing myself feels overwhelming.”

    “Tell me about your family, Bethany.”

    “Well, I have an older brother who’s been out of the house for a long time. And then there’s me and my sister and my parents. They’re all very social, outgoing people. They have lots of friends, go to parties, invite people over. I have friends too. I don’t want you to think I’m a total recluse. But we’re different. We sit around and talk, go to the movies, sometimes go to museums.”

    “Sounds pretty rewarding. Why is what you do with your friends less valuable than what your parents or sister do?”

    She shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess because my mother always seems so disapproving of me. I don’t have enough fun. I don’t wear make-up. I don’t get my hair done. She always wants me to be doing something different than what I’m doing.”

    “Has that always been true?”

    “Always. I remember when I was little. My friends and I would sit around the house drawing, or playing school, or making up stories and my mother would be telling me to go outside, to ride my bike, to go swimming. Whatever I was doing she wanted me to do something else.”

    “Did that ever make you angry, Bethany?”

    “Sometimes. But mostly it just made me feel bad about myself. Like what’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I more like Heather?”  

    “Did your mother ever praise you for your art? Did she ever listen to the stories you and your friends made up?”

    “Never. Or at least not that I remember.”

    “What just happened there, Bethany? First you said ‘never’ and then you quickly changed it to ‘not that I remember.’”

    “Well, I was only a kid. I could have forgotten.”

    “Or maybe it’s hard for you to think anything negative about your mother, like it wasn’t fair of her not to praise you for your strengths, just as she praised Heather for hers.”

    “I was about to say, I didn’t have any strengths, but I know that’s not true. I really am a good artist. But my strengths weren’t important in my family.”

    “You know, Bethany, when children aren’t valued, it’s very hard for them to think that it’s their parent’s problem for being unable to cherish them. They’re much more likely to feel it’s their fault and if only they could change, then their mother or father would love them.”

    “I definitely feel that. I always wanted to be like Heather.”

    “Well, I’ve only just met you, but it seems to me you have lots of wonderful qualities, qualities that would be loved and valued in many families. Maybe we can help you to learn to value yourself and give up on trying to win the approval of a mother who can’t seem to appreciate you for who you are. It’s really her loss, but I know you’re a long way from feeling that.”    

    “A long way.”

    “I know. But we’ve just begun our work.”

  • 06/27/2017 2:36 PM | Anonymous

    A therapist must deal with both her own feelings and those of her patient when confronting a prejudiced father with the patient's interracial relationship

    “Well, I started World War III,” Patrick says sighing deeply, as he settles into the chair across from me. “I knew Vi wouldn’t go down easily with my parents, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. My mother literally gasped and my father’s rage permeated the entire dinner. He didn’t say a word to her the whole time, but he had a lot to say to me afterwards. I guess I shouldn’t have just sprung her on them, but she surprised me by coming down for the weekend and I was supposed to go to my parents for dinner so, I guess I just decided to bring her along.”

    “Wait, Patrick. You mean you hadn’t told your parents that Vi is African American? And then you just showed up with her for dinner?”

    “Yeah. You know, she teaches law at Columbia University in New York, I’m down here in Florida, I knew my parents, particularly my father is very prejudiced, so I guess I kind of avoided the whole thing until I couldn’t anymore. Vi wasn’t very happy with me either. Obviously the dinner was awkward for her.”

    Internally I find myself yelling at Patrick, ‘Awkward? That’s an understatement! She must have been consumed by anger she had to swallow. How could you have allowed this to happen? To everyone.”

    Wondering if I’m feeling not only my anger, but Patrick’s as well, I ask, “Who are you feeling angry at Patrick?”

    “Angry? Well, I’m angry at my parents, particularly my father. He really let me have it. He guessed no nice white woman would want me since I was such a loser; had to go looking in the gutter for some black chick.”

    “And you felt and said what?”

    “I hung up on him.”

    “And felt?”

    “Angry. Disgusted. Vi is this incredibly accomplished, smart, beautiful woman. I’m honored that she’d want me. And all he can see is her black skin. Except I don’t know if she still wants me. She’s pretty angry with me too. She didn’t know I hadn’t told my parents she was African American. She kept saying we’re not children, we’re in our 30s, what gives them the right to think they can decide our lives.”

    “And can they? Can they decide your lives?”

    Patrick hesitates before saying, “No, not exactly.”

    “What do you mean, not exactly?”

    “Well, I couldn’t figure out the long distant part of Vi and my relationship anyway. I mean, it would hard for me to start all over again as a financial planner in New York and to say that there are no law schools down here equivalent to Columbia would be putting it mildly.”

    “You’re confusing me Patrick. Are you thinking of breaking up with Vi? Were you thinking of breaking up before the dinner with your parents? Is your parent’s reaction influencing your decision about breaking up?”

    “I don’t know. I love Vi, but I can’t figure out the logistics. I couldn’t figure out the logistics before the dinner and I can’t figure it out now.”

    “Have you talked to Vi about your concerns? I know you hadn’t talked with me about it.”


    “Did you set Vi up, Patrick?” Realizing my anger is seeping through, I try to temper my question. “I mean, did a part of you think taking Vi to dinner with your parents would precipitate World War III, as you said, and might lead to her breaking up with you?”

    “I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but now that you mention it … I mean, she’s such a perfect woman for me, I can’t see how I could break up with her. Except she lives in New York and I don’t see how that’s workable.”

    Now I feel more sad for Patrick than angry. “You know, Patrick, it’s difficult for you to take charge of your life, to decide what you want for you and make it happen. You don’t talk with Vi about your concern about living in two different cities and whether that can be worked out. I suspect you haven’t even looked at the possibility of becoming a financial planner in New York. You don’t confront your father about your feelings about what he said to you.”

    “I guess I always take the coward’s way out. I run.”

    Now that I am no longer angry with Patrick, I realize that I had been reacting to him much as his father did. “I wonder, Patrick, if you’ve heard your father call you a loser your whole life and if you’ve come to identify yourself as a loser, despite your obvious success and accomplishments. You feel you can’t do it, whatever it is, and so you don’t, you opt out.”

    “I think that’s true. But it’s a hard pattern to break.”

    “Yes, it’s a hard pattern to break, but we’ll work on it.”  
  • 06/27/2017 2:31 PM | Anonymous

    A patient turns her pain and anger on herself.

    “Bill broke up with me Saturday night,” says 28 year old Chelsea in her Monday session, looking as though she may not have slept or bathed since then.

    “I’m so sorry…” I begin.

    “You didn’t call me back. I called and called and called.”

    “I’m sorry, Chelsea, but when I called on Sunday I explained I was at a very long play, didn’t check my phone and got home way too late to call. Did you get my message?”

    “It was too late,” Chelsea says, rolling up the left hand sleeve of her blouse.

    Always a bit queasy, I resist the urge to look away, her left arm filled with red gashes from what I assume are self-inflicted cuts from a razor blade. “Oh, Chelsea,” I say, “It’s been years since you felt the need to cut yourself. I guess you were mad at both Bill and me.”

    “You abandoned me. I couldn’t stand the pain.”

    “What made the pain so unbearable?”

    “What?” she asks, becoming angry. “That’s a stupid question. The two most important people in my life abandon me and you ask what made the pain so unbearable?”

    “You’re definitely angry with me.”


    “But why did you need to turn the anger on yourself, why cut yourself, why not be angry at me, at Bill?”

    “What was I supposed to do, go to your house and kill your dog?”

    “Was that a fantasy you had on Saturday night?” I ask, hoping I sound calmer than I feel internally.  

    “What if it was?”

    “You know, Chelsea, it’s always all right to have whatever fantasy you have, as long as it stays a fantasy.”

    “Hah! Scared you, didn’t I?”

    “It’s a scary fantasy, but the pleasure you took in scaring me indicates just how angry you are at me. I guess what you’re saying is that you felt afraid you couldn’t contain your rage, so had to turn in on yourself.”

    “I wanted to kill you! I wanted to kill Bill. I did start swinging at him, but he just pushed me away and told me that’s why he had to get away from me and literally ran out the door.”

    “I am sorry, Chelsea. I know you loved Bill and really wanted this relationship to work out.”

    “Why don’t they? Why don’t any of my relationships work out?” Chelsea says, starting to cry.

    Although we have dealt with the responses to those questions many times over the years – because you’re demanding and needy, because one moment you love the person and the next you hate him, because you can’t tolerate even brief separations without feeling enraged or terrified or both  - I also know this is not the time to revisit them.

    “When I didn’t call you back on Saturday, what did you think? Why did you think I didn’t call? And what did you think when I called on Sunday?”

    “I felt you were just like Bill. That you didn’t care about me, that you were sick of me just like him, that you wanted to be rid of me.”

    “I understand that’s what you felt, Chelsea, but I was asking something a little different. I was asking what you thought. If you thought there might have been a reason I didn’t call you back that might have had nothing to do with you, like maybe I lost my phone or forgot it.”

    “But you didn’t. You chose not to call me back.”

    “So it would have felt better for you if I’d called after midnight?”

    “It would have felt better, but it still would have been too late.”

    Only Chelsea’s feelings exist for her at this moment. “You’re caught up in so many painful feelings, Chelsea - hurt, loss, rage, abandonment – that from this place it’s impossible for you to step outside your feelings and try to reflect on them. So maybe it would be better if we focused on helping you not to turn all those feelings on yourself and hurt yourself. Can we do that?”

    “I kinda liked doing it, it was like going back to an old friend.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that. So are you saying that you think you’re going to start cutting again?”

    Chelsea smirks. “That made you angry, didn’t it?”

    “You know, I wasn’t aware of feeling angry, but you’ve always been incredibly sensitive and now that you mention it, perhaps that’s true.”

    “And that’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about you, your honesty and your willingness to own your own shit.”

    “Thank you. So maybe from there we can work on repairing our relationship and move forward.”

    “Maybe,” Chelsea says with considerable hesitation.

    “I understand. Right now repair feels difficult.”

    “Yes, it does.”

  • 06/27/2017 2:28 PM | Anonymous

    A therapist hopes she can help a very defended woman dare to connect and relate

    I smile at my new patient, Eileen, as I greet her in the waiting room, extending my hand in introduction. She doesn’t return my smile, but does warily shake my hand. Settling herself stiffly in the chair across from me, she looks slowly around the room.

    Oh oh, I think, seems like a pretty disturbed woman, at best distanced and removed, perhaps paranoid, maybe a trauma survivor.  

    “I like your office,” she says. “All the windows. Feels free, like floating in space.”

    “Thank you,” I say, not sure how to take her comment. An attempt to relate to me? A fear of being confined? A desire for freedom? Hopefully not a wish to jump.

    A few moments pass in silence.

    “What brings you here?” I ask in traditional therapist mode.

    “I have no friends.”

    “Can you say more?” I ask, while thinking that her demeanor would certainly make having friends difficult.

    “I’m 36 years old. I live alone. I work at home. I’m an IT person, a computer geek.” She shrugs. “There’s no one in my life.”

    “Sounds sad.”

    “I guess.”

    “How do you feel about not having friends?”

    “It doesn’t seem normal. People are supposed to have friends.”

    “Eileen, what made you decide to come into therapy right now?”

    “I found you online. You had a kind face. I liked your website.”

    “Like maybe you hoped I’d be your friend?”


    “Eileen, can you tell me a little about your background, your childhood, your family.”

    “It was messed up. My parents divorced when I was two. They’re both alcoholics, drug addicts, both with so many different partners I lost count. And a ridiculous number of so-called siblings. I’d go from one household to the other. Sometimes there would be six, eight of us in a small apartment. I hated it. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone. And basically they did.”

    “So you learned to put up a wall that said ‘stay away.’”

    “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” she says nodding. I have the sense she’s pleased by my understanding, although there’s no obvious change in her demeanor.

    “Have any idea what’s behind that wall?”  

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, when you construct a wall, there’s usually something behind it, something you’re wanting to protect, perhaps something that feels vulnerable or scared.”

    “I don’t do vulnerable or scared.”

    “So it feels pretty scary to be vulnerable or scared,” I say smiling compassionately. I find myself liking Eileen, feeling sad for the deprived, needy child who must exist behind what feels like an impenetrable barrier.

    “I didn’t say that,” she says, stiffening.

    “Sorry,” I say, backing off. This is going to be slow, slow going. I need to be careful not to push to glimpse behind that wall too quickly. Her defenses are there for many reasons. They need to be respected, not ripped away.

    “You said earlier that there’s no one in your life. Do you see your parents?”

    “Not if I can help it. Maybe once or twice a year. Christmas time, Easter. Maybe not.” She shrugs. Doesn’t much matter to me.”

    “Was there anyone in your life who did matter to you when you were a child?”

    “Like who?”

    “A grandparent, a teacher.”

    “A math teacher in middle school. She thought I was more than a dumb oaf. She encouraged me. Maybe she was like my friend, except she was my teacher so she couldn’t be my friend. But she’s the one who helped me make something of myself. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for her. Probably just like my parents. Except without the drugs. I’ve never touched drugs in my life. Swore I never would and I haven’t.”

    “That’s pretty amazing determination, Eileen, given where you came from and what you’ve been through.”

    “Mrs. H – that’s the teacher – she’d say things like that.”

    “And when she or I say things like that, you feel a sense of warmth, of being understood and appreciated.”

    She looks down. “Yeah, I guess that’s right.” She pauses. “So are you going to help me learn how to make friends?”

    “Yes, Eileen, I am. But we have a lot of work to do before finding friends becomes our focus. First we have to help you find you. We have to find the person behind your wall and that’s going to take time. You’ve been hiding from that person for a long time and a sledge hammer isn’t going to work here. And I suspect it’s going to be painful and scary for you. I’ll be here with you and hopefully that will make it easier, but I’m sure there are times it will be tough going.”

    “I’ve been through tough before.”

    “Yes, I’m sure you have.”

  • 06/27/2017 2:26 PM | Anonymous

    A patient, seeing the world in black and white, makes impossible "Demands," hoping to find the "perfect" person who will always put her first and repair the neglect and damage of her past.

    Beverly rushes into my office and throws herself into the chair across from me. “You know,” she begins, “this is just too hard for me. All this running around. I have too many things on my schedule. I mean I know I don’t work – I have no idea how people who work ever manage to get here – but between golf and tennis and bridge and painting – it’s just too much. I need to come on a Saturday. That would work better for me.”

    Although I am more than a little annoyed at both Beverly’s demand and at being relegated to the bottom of her list, I decide on an initial non-confrontational approach. “I’m sorry, but I don’t work on Saturdays.”

    “You don’t work on Saturdays? How do the people who work get to see you? I suppose they just don’t, right?”

    “You’ve been coming for almost a year, Beverly, and you never seemed to have difficulty getting here before. Why do suppose it’s suddenly become an issue for you?”

    “I started taking painting lessons. I hadn’t been doing that before.”

    “And since you knew you had such a busy schedule, why do you think you decided to add something that might make it harder for you to get here?”

    “I didn’t think about it in terms of getting here. I just wanted to take painting lessons.”

    “It feels to me, Beverly, that you’re wanting to dismiss the importance of our work together, that you’re saying it doesn’t matter.”

    “That’s not fair. You’re the one who won’t see me on Saturday!”

    “I think we need to take a step back here. Was there something that happened in our last session that made you feel uncared about? Were you angry with me?”

    “You always do that. You always make it about you. It has nothing to do with you.”

    “Okay. Then tell me what it does have to do with other than with your schedule.”

    “My sister.”

    “I remember we talked about your sister last week, about how I saw her as being competitive with you, but that you thought that wasn’t true, that she loved you and always wanted the best for you. And I said both could be true, that she could love you and want the best for you and still be competitive with you.”

    “You took her away from me. No one in my family gave a damn about me except her. I was an extraneous being. But Joyce cared about me, looked out for me. And you just took her away.”

    “So you are angry with me.”

    “I guess. And at her. I’m furious at her. How could she take herself away from me when I relied on her so much? But I decided to show her. She’s the painter you see. I decided I’d become a better painter than her.”  

    “So I guess you’re saying you feel competitive with her.”

    “No. I’m just getting back at her.”

    “Beverly, I want to point out that nothing out there in the real world happened or changed between you and your sister. This is all happening in your mind. You came to see your sister differently. And although you’re entitled to have your feelings, it would be helpful to you if you could hold onto the love and stability your sister provided for you in your chaotic childhood.”

    “You’re taking it all back!”

    “No. We’ve talked a lot about your living in a black/white world, with no shades of gray. Right now you want your sister to be the perfect sister – whatever that might mean to you – and you want me to be the perfect therapist who would see you whenever you want to be seen. But there is no such thing as a perfect person. You can get a lot of good from one person, but you can’t get everything and that doesn’t make either that person or you bad. And you can feel competitive towards your sister or towards me and that doesn’t make you bad either.”

    “It doesn’t make sense to me. If she’s competitive with me how could she always be on my side? Sometimes she’d be on her side.”

    “Well I suppose that’s true. But if she wanted, just let’s say, to be a better painter than you, that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t want you to be a better golfer or to find a loving husband or to take great joy from your children. Because there was so much cruelty and rejection in your childhood, it’s difficult for you to believe that someone can be in your corner and still take care of themselves. That’s like me saying I’m here for you, but I don’t work on Saturdays.”

    “That makes me mad all over again.”

    “I believe you. We’ll keep working on it.”
  • 06/27/2017 2:15 PM | Anonymous

    A patient and therapist struggle to help the former realize her potential despite fears of envy and retaliation.

    “I’ve decided to write a book,” Karen announces at the beginning of her of session. Dressed in casual jeans, no make-up with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Karen looks younger than her 48 years.

    Although her declaration leads me to think, ‘Oh no, not another idea that goes nowhere,’ I take a more supportive approach. “In art history?” I ask, Karen’s area of specialty.

    “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. I have to do something. I can’t go on just being Dr. Thomas Hartfield’s wife. It’s too boring. I don’t want to have to get all dressed up and hang out at the club playing bridge, gossiping with the women.”

    “Weren’t you recently talking about wanting to open an art gallery?”

    “Yes. I still think that’s a good idea, but I don’t know, there’d have to be so many people involved, people I’d have to manage. It seems overwhelming. Writing is something I can do on my own, at my own time, in my own space.

    “Of course, I haven’t written anything since I was in college. I was pretty good back then. I think I considered majoring in English. But then again I thought about majoring in lots of things. I’m not even sure how I ended up with a major in art history. I guess because I hung around college for so long and had so many credits, they told me it was time for me to graduate and art history was it.”

    “So it seems, Karen, we’re back to talking about how difficult it is for you to make a decision and to carry a plan through to fruition.”

    She sighs. “You don’t think I’d write that book do you?”

    “Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, but when you say that you don’t  know what you want to write about, it seems you could get stuck right there. I’d be concerned you could think endlessly about what you did or didn’t want to write and never be able to move beyond that point.”

    “How did you know what you wanted to write?” Karen asks me.

    I don’t introduce my book into my therapy sessions, but many patients Google me and find it online. Now I wonder if there’s some relationship between my book and Karen’s sudden interest in writing. “Before I answer that question, Karen, can I ask you how you feel about my having written a book?”

    “Envious. You were able to follow through and do it. But maybe also inspired, like if you can write a book maybe I can too.” She hesitates.

    “What just happened there?”

    “Nothing. I guess I got anxious. There are so many choices. I don’t know how anyone ever decides on one path over another. I don’t know how you pick. I don’t know how you pick one and give up the others. So how did you decide what to write about?”

    I wonder about Karen’s anxiety. Does she worry I’d feel angry or vindictive if she wrote a book? Does making one choice over others bring up fear of loss? Keeping these questions in mind, I answer Karen. “I felt compelled to write about my relationship with my late husband. I think there’s often an emotional press in writing; you have something you have to say. It’s like being in therapy. It’s sharing a vital part of yourself that you want to be known.”    

    “Do you think I don’t want to be known?”

    “That’s a very interesting question. What do you think?”

    “Well declaring myself, taking path A rather than path B would be a way of being more known.”

    I’m silent, intrigued by Karen’s train of thought.

    “But why wouldn’t I want to be known?”

    “I was just asking myself the same thing.”


    “Weird. The words, ‘You’re a moving target’ just went through my head.” Pause. “Who did I think would shoot me?”

    I wonder if it’s me, but I remain silent.

    “My oldest sister for sure. She was horribly jealous of me. I was the pretty one, although I made myself as unattractive as possible until she left for college. She’d cut up my clothes, steal all my panties. One time she even cut off part of my hair in the middle of the night.”

    “That’s called abuse, Karen,” I say, surprised by this revelation I had not previously heard.

    “You think?”

    “Definitely. What did your parents do?”

    “I don’t know. I don’t remember telling them. Maybe I did. Maybe they said we had to work it out. That part of my childhood is a bit fuzzy.” Pause. “Do you think this is relevant?”

    “I definitely think this is relevant, Karen. We have to stop now, but we definitely need to spend more time understanding how your sister affected your life.”

  • 06/27/2017 2:09 PM | Anonymous

    A young patient who finds herself at odds with her parent's political views and then assumes, via the transference, that her therapist aligns herself more with the parents than the patient herself.

    “I finally went to dinner at my parent’s,” 19 year old Bethany says dejectedly. “It was pretty bad. They just won’t let up. ‘I can’t believe you lied to us, going to the Women’s March on Washington without even telling us. If we hadn’t called and talked to your roommate we would never have known. What if something had happened to you? We didn’t even know you were gone.’ Blah, blah, blah. As if that was the issue. I bet if I went to the Trump Inaugural they would have been thrilled – even if I hadn’t told them. It’s such bullshit. They did do a bit of, ‘How could you be our child and believe those people have a right to marry.’ Or, ‘Didn’t we teach you that every life is sacred, especially the unborn, those most vulnerable?’ I thought I’d puke. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” Pause. “I suppose you’re thinking, ‘I told you you should have told them.’”

    “I don’t remember telling you you should have told them,” I say, surprised.

    “You asked me why I didn’t tell them, didn’t you?”

    “Yes, but that was a question meant to help you look at why you do or don’t do whatever.”

    “Well, the answer’s pretty obvious. If I tell them I get all this shit. Just like I did.”

    “And what did you say when you got all this shit?”



    “Yeah. What am I going to say? You can’t argue with them. I just sit there, trying to tune them out, hoping they’ll stop sooner than later.”

    “And why do you feel you can’t argue with them?”

    She raises her eyebrows and snorts. “I don’t mean to be nasty, but how long has it been since you were 19?”

    I smile inwardly. Although it’s been quite a while since I was 19, I do clearly remember the arguments I had with my parents, most especially my father. Not about politics. There are values were pretty similar, but often about psychology and science. My father was angry, dogmatic and unrelenting. For years, I argued and argued with him about dreams, about the cause of mental illness, about the unconscious, until I finally gave up. Then I was like Bethany, sitting at the table saying nothing, hoping he’d stop sooner than later. On the other hand, I never, ever stopped battling my father’s vicious temper, trying to put a clear limit how he could treat me. I bring myself back to my patient. “I get that it can be difficult to argue with your parents when you’re 19, but I’d like to understand specifically why YOU can’t argue with your parents, even at 19.”

    She sighs. “First, they have the money. If they get mad enough, there goes college, plus whatever else.”

    “Would they do that? They sound pretty determined for you to get an education, pretty invested in it.”

    “They are.” Pause. “Especially my Dad. But sometimes I think my Mom believes I’m being corrupted by college, too liberal you know. And, I don’t know. This may sound weird, but I’m not sure that my Mom really wants me to succeed, like maybe she’s jealous or something. Like she never went to college, so why should I.”

    “So are you saying you’re afraid your mother might undermine you?”

    “I never thought of it that way, but I guess so. If I gave her any ammunition. Like the Women’s March.”

    She pauses.

    “I need to ask you something. What did you think about the Women’s March?”

    “I’ll answer that in a minute, Bethany, but first I want to ask you something. Why did you ask that question right at this moment?”

    She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it and just felt I had to ask.”

    “Well, I have a thought as to why you had to ask right then. You were talking about your mother feeling threatening, dangerous and I wonder if you suddenly felt I might be dangerous too and had to check that out.”

    “Are you?” she says quietly.

    “No, Bethany, I’m not dangerous.” I could tell Bethany I was at the Women’s March too, but decide that might too greatly diminish the tension around the issue of whether difference between two people, perhaps especially two women, is inherently dangerous. “I suspect that our politics might be pretty similar, but even if it wasn’t, I’d still be on your side, still wanting you to have your own voice and make your own way in the world.”

  • 06/27/2017 2:04 PM | Anonymous

    A young patient, dealing with the aftereffects of an abortion, struggles with her ambivalence about growing up and transfers her feelings about her parents onto her therapist.

    “My house feels like a morgue,” 20 year old Chelsea says looking down at her hands. “I guess that’s a poor choice of words, since it sort of is, but not exactly. I mean, I’m not happy I had to have an abortion, but I also don’t think it will be the greatest tragedy of my life. And truthfully, I don’t think it’s the abortion that my parents are so upset about. They don’t like the idea that their ‘little girl’ was having sex. It’s not like I’m 14. And Brad and I have been going together for two years. He was pretty upset too. I think he feels guilty that he didn’t use a condom 100% of the time.”

    I have been seeing Chelsea for several years now, watching her struggle between wanting to remain the child who is forever taken care of by her parents and striving towards adulthood with her own dreams and desires. We have a close bond although, not surprisingly, her internal struggle is often replayed with me in the consulting room.

    “What are you going to use for birth control in the future?” I ask.

    “We’re not. We’re not going to have sex.”

    I knit my brows, puzzled and skeptical. “You mean you’re not going to have sex until you give yourself some time after the abortion?”

    “No. We’re not going to have sex. Or at least not intercourse. Maybe we’ll fool around a little, maybe not.”

    “Why?” I ask.

    “Why, what?”

    “Why did you decide not to have sex? Do you feel more guilty about the abortion than you’re saying? Is it a way to punish yourself?”

    “No! For heaven’s sake, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about it. You sound like my parents!”

    “In what way?”

    “In making such a big deal about sex.”

    “Wait. I’m getting confused. I thought your parents were making a big deal about your having sex. I’m questioning your saying that you’re not going to have sex.”

    “You mean you don’t believe me? You don’t think I can give up sex?” Chelsea says angrily.

    “I’m trying to understand why you’d want to give up sex.”

    “Because I don’t want to risk getting pregnant again. That seems pretty simple.”

    “I hear you’re angry with me but I’m not clear why.”

    “Everyone thinks I’m doing something wrong and you’re just like everyone else,” Chelsea says, her voice cracking. “If I say I’m not going to have sex, I’m not going to have sex! End of discussion.”

    “And how does Brad feel about that?”

    Chelsea crosses her arms in front of her chest and glares at me. “Why should I care how Brad feels?”

    Aware I’m feeling more and more confused, I suspect my feelings mirror Chelsea’s own confusion. “Chelsea, tell me what’s going on. What’s going on inside of you? What has you so distressed?”

    “Brad wanted me to have the baby. He said we should get married, that we were old enough, that we could both work and go to school and take care of the baby.” She pauses. Tears fall silently from her eyes. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I’m not ready. I don’t want to be responsible for another person. I don’t want to leave my parent’s house and go off on my own. It’s way too scary. Brad’s really mad at me. I’m not even sure we’ll stay together.”

    “I’m sorry, Chelsea. It’s like your parents are mad at you for being too adult and Brad’s mad at you for not being adult enough and each side represents your own conflict about how grown up you feel or want to be.”

    “Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right.”

    “And does my asking you about birth control feel like I’m pushing you towards the adult side?”

    “I guess. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose it does.” She pauses. “So what about my deciding not to have sex? Is that my going towards the child side?”

    “What do you think?” I ask, aware that my not answering her question could also be construed as my pushing her to be more adult.

    “Yeah, I suppose it is,” she sighs. “But is that so bad? Can’t I take a little break here?”

    “You can, but none of us can stop time. We keep growing older whether we like it or not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have conflicting feelings about growing up and it also doesn’t mean you have to push yourself to act or be more grown up than you feel.”

    “Thanks. You gave me a lot to think about.”

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