They Can’t Take That Away From Me

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Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note
Though by tomorrow you’re gone.
The song has ended, but as the songwriter wrote,
The melody lingers on.
They may take you from me
I’ll miss your fond caress,
But though they take you from me
I’ll still possess…

The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea.
The memory of all that,
No, no – they can’t take that away from me.

The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off-key,
The way you haunt my dreams,
No, no – they can’t take that way from me.

We may never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love,
But I’ll always, always
Keep the memory of…

The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced till three,
The way you’ve changed my life,
No, no – they can’t take that away from me,

No, they can’t take that away from me.

They Can’t Take That Away From Me, by George and Ira Gershwin, 1937

This song was written for the Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance, which premiered in 1937. Two months later, George Gershwin was gone. How ironic – the whole world could have sung this song to Gershwin, and “the memory of all that” – the prolific musical riches that were his legacy to us.  And no, they can’t take that away from us, thank goodness. He and his music will live forever, especially in the hearts of Americans, to whom he gave the greatest gift of all: the American persona, captured in song – glorious music that expressed perfectly the tumult, the variety, the brashness, and the sentiment of our country.

But beyond that, this song is really saying something pretty profound: that the meaning and impact of a person can be carried, and carried on, in the elements that we associate with them, and that the emotional impact of these elements survives the person himself, and transcends our actual physical contact with the person. “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on,” as Irving Berlin (the “songwriter” referenced in the verse above) wrote. A person is more than their physical presence, or the person-to-person contact we may have with him or her.

I once asked a patient, “So, who raised you?”

Without a second’s thought, he replied, “J.D. Salinger.”

He could just as easily have said Dickens, or Dr. Spock, or Gandhi, or John Wayne, or George Gershwin, or Vince Lombardi, or Jay Zee (well, maybe not Jay Zee).

We are all surrounded by ghosts. No, not “Woo! Woo!” ghosts, but the invisible filaments of those who went before – those whose actions, values, feelings and attitudes affected those who affect us, those who ‘schooled’ our teachers. I don’t really know exactly what I think about the idea of our souls being immortal, or of reincarnation, but I do know that we live on, in the hearts and minds of others. We are all standing on the shoulders of an infinite host of others, who gave their all to move things forward in some way.

Unfortunately, many, if not most, of us are carrying within us ghostly ‘voices’ that cripple and paralyze us, just as powerfully as if they were bullets or arrows. Without realizing it, we bring our emotional wounds and scars ‘to the table’ all day, every day. And because we are living subject to these internalized toxic beliefs and messages all day, they can ‘take that away from us’, by dulling our responses to things, by making us pull back from our liveliness, avoiding and evading true connection with life, with people, and with being alive itself. The ghosts of negativity and sabotage within us act like static on a radio, so that our ‘reception’ of the call of life is not sweet and clear, as it is meant to be, but thready and unreliable: we are not here, but merely orbiting somewhere above authentic experience and responsivity.

In one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Saboteur (1942), Nazi agents in wartime America are holding the protagonists, ‘Barry’ and ‘Patricia’, played by Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane, in a swanky mansion in New York City, where a huge formal dance party is in progress. At one point, the couple escapes momentarily to the dance floor, where the bad guys dare not grab them in plain sight of the other partygoers. Barry and Pat dance on desperately, clinging to each other, ‘free’ for the moment but acutely aware that these may well be their last moments of existence –  their last moments together. They reveal their love for one another openly for the first time, knowing full well they will probably never get the chance to fulfill their romance.

Suddenly and passionately, Barry says,

Pat – this moment belongs to me. No matter what happens, they can never take it away from me. (Watch it here, around 1.17)

Yes, the gesture is most probably futile, considering their circumstances, but here he is, putting a stake in the ground of time and space, claiming, and highlighting, the moment for himself. Seeing the movie for the first time, as a kid, I remember thinking,

Wow – you can do that?

And now, all these years later, I teach people how do ‘do that’, and work with them to clear away the emotional underbrush, so that they can do that. The ‘Goon Squad’, as I call the inner voice of negativity, tries to infiltrate every single minute of existence, and they will hijack your whole life, if you give them a chance. What ‘they’ want is for you to be ever self-questioning, ever self-doubting, ever preoccupied with your own chatter, so that you never really ‘dock’ with life; if they can keep you absorbed in internal debates, and get you to hang back from involvement because of your self-doubts, then they have achieved their ugly mission in life, which is to keep you from your life. You find this pattern particularly in children of narcissistic parents, and as I have mentioned before in these pages, the book Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb, explains the ‘deal’ in more detail, for anyone who would care to pursue it further.

So, what I try to do is to help my patients, both within their therapy sessions and in their outside lives, do what Cortes, Pizarro and all the other explorers did: drive a stake into the ground and say, passionately,

I claim this land in the name of my own right to life.

Except the ‘land’ in question is the moments of your life, one after another. Just as a recovering alcoholic says, “I’m not going to drink, right now,” rather than “I’m never going to drink again,” a recovering child of narcissism says, “I’m going to be here for this moment, right now,” rather than “I have to work on being here all the time,” which is not being in the moment, but in your head (just what the Goon Squad ordered). This is hard to do – much harder than it looks, and it takes a special kind of help, from someone (a skilled psychotherapist) who knows how to ‘invite’ you into the moment, and keep you there, through the Goon Squad monsoons that rage in violent protest.

So, one part of our ‘They can’t take that away from me’ campaign is this anti-Goon Squad project we might call Operation Presence. But there is another front in this battle, too, that is maybe even more elusive, and this one I call Operation Selectivity.

You have an argument with your wife in the morning. Does it haunt you all day, depriving you of the ability to partake fully in the tasks of the day?

Your boss gives you the fisheye (you think) when you present your ideas for the big advertising campaign. Do you obsess about it all day, dwelling on how you might lose your job, and on how much you hate and resent him for withholding his approval of you like this? Morning, noon and night you think, think, think about what you should have done, what you did wrong, what you could do differently.

Some guy on a big Harley, with more tattoos than he has skin, cuts you off in traffic on your way to work,  forcing you to miss your exit. Do you fume, steaming at him all day, as you snap at coworkers and half-heartedly go through the motions of doing your job?

You haven’t filed your tax return on time. Imagining the IRS is after you, or soon will be, you lay awake at night in a sweat, dreading what might happen at any moment: wage garnishment, fines and penalties, shame and public disgrace. You stop answering your phone; deep in sequestration, you’re afraid to look at your mail.

Wounded because you caught your girlfriend with another guy, you go on a two-month drunk, get two DUI’s, and lose your driver’s license.

Worry, obsession, dwelling: this is another way that your mind can hijack your whole life.  I used to give out t-shirts to patients, that I got from some Buddhist outfit I can’t remember anymore. The slogan on the t-shirts was,

Worry is not preparation.

Bad things happen, then good things happen, then bad things, then good things. Get knocked down 7 times, get up 8. Don’t let the ‘bad things’ win. Don’t let them take over your mind, crowding out anything else in their way. If you have to, take action, but don’t let worry, obsession and negative thoughts spread out and engulf your life like some unchecked bubonic plague.

So you didn’t file your taxes? Don’t obsess about it – do something about it!

Had an argument with your wife? Decide what you can do, constructively, about it, then let it go and go to work and do your job well.

Afraid you’re going to get fired? Try your best to improve your performance, while you look for another job, if necessary.

Worry is not preparation: obsession is optional.

Obsession only ensures that what you’re obsessing about has top billing at all times, chasing all the other (good) things in life away.

Bad things are ever-present, and so is the fear of bad things. They take up enough space without your giving them a free pass to your whole mental kingdom. Work on choosing what thoughts and feelings are worth focusing on, and for how long, and in what way: do you want to pollute your consciousness with fears, victimhood, thoughts of revenge, hatred, and unreachable fantasies? Or do you want to take appropriate action, then let it go and allow ‘air time’ for the positive experiences that life has to offer? That is Operation Selectivity. Note, I am not talking about denial, or stuffing and ignoring your negative feelings and fears, just that there is a time and place for them, and a time and place for the rest of life as well: don’t miss it. Exercise your power to choose, to be selective about what you let in and what you keep out.

And that brings us to complexity. Consider this scene in Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum, our protagonist, is a private eye who is hired by evil Kirk Douglas to find Douglas’ girlfriend, who has run off after plugging Douglas with a .38. Mitchum ends up falling for the girl himself, runs off with her, and finally, after hiding out, lying, and a murder, she runs off.

Years later, he has reinvented himself as a nice, quiet service station operator, with a nice, quiet girlfriend and a nice, quiet fishing lake nearby. Sounds nice and quiet, huh? But oops – Kirk never forgets, see? He reaches out and finds Mitchum, and has him brought to his palatial estate on the shores of Lake Tahoe, to be ensnared in Kirk’s complicated two-birds-with-one stone scheme that is supposed to end with Kirk not only cheating the government out of the million dollars he owes in taxes, but with Mitchum framed for a murder that one of Kirk’s henchmen committed.

Mitchum knows he’s going down, but he doesn’t yet know when, or how. He only knows why, because, you see, Kirk never forgets – or did I already say that? So the scene opens with Kirk and Mitchum exchanging bogus pleasantries as they size one another up, all smiles, while Mitchum gets a tour of this lakefront Xanadu. Then they go out to the terrace, with a sweeping vista of Lake Tahoe.

In a movie jam-packed with crackerjack dialogue, this is the least of it, but listen in, and I’ll explain, later, why it’s a big deal to me:

Mitchum: Am I here to admire the view?

Kirk: Not exactly – I need your help.

Mitchum: (Fatalistic smile) Like old times.

Kirk: I always liked you.

Mitchum: You liked me because you could use me. You could use me because I was smart. I’m not smart anymore – I run a gas station. (Pause) I like the view.

So, what’s the big whoop about this? That a man who knows he’s screwed, knows he may be at death’s door, who’s standing there with the man who’s going to kick that door open, still has the presence to say, “I like the view.” Sure, he’s sick with fear, his mind is spinning with how he’s going to counteract Douglas’ schemes, and survive this enforced walk on the gangplank, but he still notices the view, and appreciates it.

Nice job of being in the moment and maintaining complexity there, Mitch! Nice job of remembering that more than one thing may be happening at the same time: to let the negatives suck up all the energy is to miss out on some of life’s sweetest moments.

And that leads us to the Memphis Moment. Years ago, I had a patient who had to travel for work. She hated flying, hated hotel rooms, hated the kind of work she did on these trips, and hated all the changes, and logistical complications, that come with travel. Oh yes, she hated travel, too. So, these trips, to her, were basically five days flushed down the toilet of life. After a few months of hearing her lambaste her job, the deadliness of hotels, the miserable food and so on and so forth, I stopped her cold and asked,

What could you do in Memphis, that would be fun?

She stopped breathing and glared at me like I was an imbecile.

What the hell are you talking about?

But I don’t throw in the towel that easily. I said,

I’m talking about taking some time out during your trip, to enjoy something about Memphis, or whatever town you’re in. After all, Memphis can’t be all bad. Why should you allow these business trips to ruin your life for days and weeks at a time, when lots of people go to Memphis to have a good time? 

(I was on pretty safe ground there. I had lived in Memphis for a summer, when I did an internship at the Memphis V.A. Hospital, and therefore knew firsthand that Memphis wasn’t all bad.)

Oh yeah? Like what?

Like Sun Records Studios, like Beale Street, like the Peabody Hotel, like even Graceland.

Graceland?  (Said with  dripping sarcasm and a withering sneer.)

Yeah – Graceland.

Well, eventually she did take my suggestion under advisement, judiciously, and though she never visited Graceland, she did make an effort to try and do something she liked in every city she visited. She even manged to have a good time in San Antonio, seeing the River Walk and the Alamo – corny, but fun. And later on, we expanded the concept to her life here – and every time she would stop and find something, or someone, fun or interesting, in the midst of the ‘obligatory’ things she was doing, we came to call it a Memphis Moment.

And the moral? Don’t allow yourself to become a drone: no matter how much you have to do, no matter how much you may hate your job, or your boss, or some aspect of your life, don’t let that one thing dominate it; consciously work to find, and mix in, things that are fun, that are creative, that are challenging, enjoyable, or even crazy, in a good way. It’s not impossible: finding a Memphis Moment just takes intentional effort and willingness.

Life holds untold riches – even in the midst of tragedy, or boredom, or worry – for those who are willing to look for them. Don’t surrender all of your ‘bandwidth’ to negativity, fear and doubt: if you  work at presence, at complexity, at mental selectivity, then they truly ‘can’t take that away from you’.

So, plant your flag squarely in the moment, and remember the Alamo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Man Oh Manhood

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What is it to Be A Man? It seems to me there are so many competing versions of this puzzle that men (and boys) end up having no idea how to attain the mythical status of Manhood.

Here are just some of the examples that have been held up for emulation in my lifetime:

A real man is a guy who goes down into his basement workshop for hours at a time, to build things, invent things, fix things, and well, just be alone with his tools and his thoughts. Sure, he may not be that emotionally involved with his wife, or in raising the kids, but he’s there, isn’t he? A real man doesn’t need ‘intimacy’, other than sex, right? He takes a quiet joy in noodling around in his ‘man cave’: it’s enough for him, and it oughta be enough for his family, too. He may not be able to remember his anniversary, but dammit, his tools are all organized and properly cared for.

A real man is someone who hangs out with his male friends a lot, drinking beer and watching sports. He can name every Super Bowl champion, in order, and who should have won the Heisman Trophy every year since 1986, in his humble opinion. He and his buds laugh together, have a lot of arcane in-jokes, and practice the male art of teasing each other constantly – all in fun, of course. He is competitive, probably played high school sports until he sprained his damn knee (he still limps around dramatically a couple times a year, to remind everyone). He wants to win. In his mind, he’s the guy in all the pickup truck and beer commercials: though he’s never pitched a hay bale in anger or ridden an actual horse, he considers himself a brother under the skin to every cowboy and rancher depicted wiping the sweat off his brow after another rugged day of taming the elements.

A real man is ‘successful’ – an achiever: a borderline workaholic, he has pushed his way to the top of the business world by being aggressive and understanding the ‘game’. He’s one of the boys, but also his own man. When it comes to choosing between emotion and productivity, well, he knows where he stands: after all, “It’s just business.” He handles his own investments and has an uncanny way of anticipating the market. He’s a great guy, but don’t kid yourself: if you go up against him in a business deal, you might end up with only your underwear to your name.

A real man is a lady killer: he is slick with the chicks and knows his way around a bedroom. He doesn’t allow himself to really get ‘involved’ because there’s always someone else waiting to fall for his charms, and why have one meal when there’s a banquet waiting for you? Sure, he gets along with other men when he needs to, and can talk politics or sports when he needs to, but his main sport requires the opposite sex, and three’s a crowd.

A real man takes care of his family. Sure, he earns good money and takes care of business at work, but he’s also a team player at home who’s there for his wife in every way. He’s also there for his kids: their games, their graduations, their triumphs and their tragedies. He coaches the teams, drives his SUV so everyone gets where they need to be, and is there for those special late-night talks about life. He’s dependable, solid and responsible. His other specialties are lawn care, home improvements and the barbecue. What a guy.

A real man is a loner, and an expert at what he does:The Marlboro Man; Indiana Jones; Sam Spade. Cowboys, secret agents, loggers, truckers, oil riggers, cops, private eyes, bounty hunters, fishermen and hunting guides. He’s in and out of civilization – he can take it or leave it. If he works outdoors, he masters it: he can build a fire from a piece of lint, keep himself warm at 50 below, and dry in a monsoon. He can find water in a cactus, and survive on weeds, herb and berries indefinitely, unless he decides to snare a rabbit using only his shoelace and a bent twig. If he’s in a truck, he can drive straight on through for three days on just strong coffee and unfiltered cigarettes. If he’s an explosives expert, he can make nitroglycerine dance. He can talk when he needs to, but mostly, he thrives on silence, and on his own. Oh sure, he “grabs himself a dizzy blonde once in a while”, like Detective Mark Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course women like him, but he lives by his own rules, understands his own kind, and moves to his own beat. He’s not a joiner, not really a rebel – just likes going his own way, in his own way.

Need I go on? Do all these guys have anything in common? Hmmm – maybe confidence, and competence? I don’t think any representative sample of Americans would say a real man is weak, or emotional, or needy, or unsure of himself, or bad at what he does. Look at the male movie stars of the classic era: John Wayne, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston – not a bumbler, not a boob, not a whiner among them. Oh yeah, maybe Jimmy Stewart got away with some stammering, but even he only really cemented his male image when he did a series of tough westerns in the early Fifties.

And today? Well, it still behooves any actor aspiring to superstar status to establish himself as a tough guy once or more: Matt Damon in the Bourne series, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossibles.  Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe – all have donned the cape, the mantle, the muscle, the gun or the jock at some point. Even Tom Hanks (today’s Jimmy Stewart) didn’t do himself any harm by playing the title role in Captain Phillips recently.

As a (male) patient of mine once said, rather succinctly,

Women have to be pretty; men have to be strong – that about sums it up.

Does that sum it up? Are we men still basically operating with sex roles from back in the 1940’s, or have men (not just women) “Come a long way, baby”?

Well, what I’m seeing from being in the trenches, doing therapy with modern men, is that they seem to be MUCH less concerned with the “Am I a man?” question, in general, than they used to be – or at least the question as posed that bluntly. Of course men are still, as ever, concerned with achieving success, with making money, with being ‘strong’, but even young men nowadays don’t seem to be attaching those things to yes/no questions about “being a man”, as they used to. But they do wonder what kind of a man they’re supposed to be, and they do wonder if they’ll ever get there.

As a young man I see in therapy recently asked, “Doc, how did you make it through, and do you have any tips for me?”

Well, here’s a brief primer on “How I made it through”, though as the ads say, “Your results may vary”:

My god, I remember when I was young we were bombarded with the question of “Am I a man?” in films and TV constantly: it seemed like every episode of Bonanza, Trackdown, Gunsmoke, or Combat, was about the desperation of some poor slob trying to ‘prove himself’, or failing to prove himself, to a male authority (his father, a superior officer, an employer, or just the ‘guys’), or to a woman. Even the types of TV shows we watched were a dead giveaway as to the male societal imperatives of the time: westerns, detectives, wars, more detectives, more westerns.

So, what changed, and how?

Well, believe it or not, one reason it changed was Humphrey Bogart, and this is why he still stands alone as a special cultural icon among the male stars of the Forties: he was, if not the first, then certainly the best, at portraying a male hero who was flawed, smart, humorous, and most of all, human. He was clearly tough, but that was only part of him: he displayed a kind of wised-up, world-weary, self-deprecating, “Post-War” cynicism in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, High Sierra, and other films, but he was doing it before the Post-War era. Perhaps it took a guy who was from money (his father was a prominent doctor, his mother a famous book illustrator), but who was at heart just a ‘regular guy’, to have the confidence to be smart but to play it down, resulting in a unique “above us, but of us” persona that still clicks with both men and women. As an actor, it takes confidence to not ‘play’ confident, but to just let your own inherent self-confidence (i.e. as a man) flow through the part, conveying that confidence directly (“show, don’t tell”), connecting to the audience on a deeper level than any dialogue or posturing could accomplish.

So, the Bogart persona was already part of our cultural currency by the Fifties – but who took the baton from there?

Well, James Garner, for one. I remember it was a HUGE deal when Garner portrayed the title character in the TV Western, Maverick. Why? Because, significantly (for the time) he used HUMOR occasionally, he acknowledged his own fallibility, and he backed down discreetly when the situation demanded it. Network poohbahs fretted and stewed mightily about whether the American public would, or could, possibly accept such a ‘weakling’ as the lead in a major show: well, they underestimated the American public (no surprise there), because it was a big hit, and forever changed the rules about what a male was supposed to be. And amazingly, he was still basically a ‘tough guy’, and, more amazingly, he still got the girl! And don’t think we little boys weren’t watching and (unconsciously) taking notes: imagine that – now you could be funny, you could be smart, you could even have a questionable occupation (gambler, in this case), and still be a real man! This laid the groundwork for our generation later accepting and appreciating more complex, more layered, and softer ‘tough guys’, including Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and countless others in music, films and other aspects of pop culture.

And speaking of pop music, I distinctly remember being stopped in my tracks at hearing these lyrics in Six O’Clock, by the Lovin’ Spoonful:

And I could feel I could say what I want,
That I could nudge her and call her my confidant,
And now I’m back alone with just my shadow in front,
Six o’clock, six o’clock…

Wait a minute: did he just say,

I could nudge her and call her my confidant… ???

What the hell! First of all, you didn’t treat girls like that – they weren’t friends! They were the adversary in the eternal game of cat and mouse (i.e. sex), not friends! You didn’t ‘nudge’ them, you “got over on them”, and if you ever did use someone as a ‘confidant’ (which you wouldn’t), it certainly wouldn’t be a girl! And you certainly didn’t ever hear the word confidant in a rock song! Here was a purportedly normal guy, nudging girls, treating them as confidants, and wanting to talk about his feelings? Wow, just that one stanza in a popular song told you things were changing, and fast.

Speaking of women as confidants, how about this exchange on the subject of ‘being a man’:

In probably 1969 or so, I was attending UCLA, and somehow normal classes were cancelled on account of our protesting the war in Vietnam (yes, that really happened). So, instead of attending class, we met every so often in the teaching assistant’s apartment in Westwood, and discussed the fate of the world, or the world of fate, or whatever else came up, seeing as how most of the class was stoned anyway. Well, at one point it was decided that we would split up into teams of two and canvass houses in Westwood (actually, a rather tony suburb, totally unsuited to be a college town), and “educate” the local populace about the War and how terrible it was. I believe this was for actual course credit, though I have no memory of what class it was, or how talking to the good people of Westwood educated us about History, or French 2, or Modern Jazz Studies, but I digress. So this young, attractive female classmate and I set out one morning to change the course of world history, one mansion at a time, armed with a sheet of paper with talking points, if anyone actually opened a door.

Well, I’m pretty sure at the previous so-called ‘class meeting’ we had discussed gender roles, or some such thing. Anyway, as we walked, I got onto the grand topic of “Being A Man”, and began discussing with her quite openly (was I treating her as a confidant?) some of the issues I, personally, had been dealing with on this topic. I talked about what constituted being a man, how different I felt from a lot of the guys I knew, and what it all meant. Or something like that.

But what I do remember is this: at one point, as I rattled on, earnestly presenting my dilemma, she stopped abruptly, faced me, and said:

Do you have a penis?

My jaw dropped six inches. I tried to focus my mind, and square what I thought I had just heard with what I couldn’t have just heard. Finally, I managed to squeak:

Pardon me?

She repeated, very slowly, enunciating distinctly like a teacher in a special ed class:

I said, Do you have a penis?

Well, there was no way out of it now: she had actually said what I couldn’t have heard, but did. I licked my lips, looked down and sort of stammered, looking around like I might get caught:

Uh – yeah.

With that, she nodded confidently, and said:

Then you’re a man.

I suppose you’ve heard the phrase: Man proposes and God disposes? Well, this gal disposed. And having disposed, she immediately turned on her heel and started walking again. The conversation was over. Done. Finis.

There was nothing to do but catch up to her and go on with the day’s agenda. It never came up again, nor was there anything whatsoever in her manner to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened. She had spoken and it was over – that’s all. And I never forgot it again: I was a man – period. End of topic. Maybe my kind of man, but a man, like any other possessor of said organ. I had inalienable rights to manhood from that moment on, granted in perpetuity, and irreversibly, by some cute girl on my Vietnam-education-stroll team. Period.

One more incident further cemented my claim to manhood, and again, it had nothing to do with any manly behavior on my part, but rather a particular coincidence. During my days at UCLA, I had a job as a delivery boy for a printing business on Sunset Boulevard near Vermont (if you’re an LA kind of person). My job was to hustle finished jobs out to various business all over town, but mostly in Hollywood, then pick up new ones and hustle them back. I remember Petersen Publishing as one of the main clients – they’re the folks who published Car Craft, Motor Trend and most of the other high-class auto mags. I drove my own car, which was a requirement of the job – a red 68 VW bug, the one that stalled out at unpredictable times after I had run it for a while. Very unpredictable times, and the word ‘stalled’ doesn’t begin to measure the malignancy of this car’s engine and its appetite for fiendish torture. I suppose it goes without saying that, every time I brought it in to the German mechanic, he said, “Nein, I cannot help you – never once does it doing zis zing when I test-driving it.”

Scheiss.

This is the car I bought after the black Renault Dauphine gave out. The Renault was the sad little family car I ‘inherited’ after I lost my brand new, cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback four-speed. I lost it because my Dad and I had an agreement: if I lived at home while I went to UCLA, I got the Mustang. If I lived at the dorms, he got it. Well, I started out at the dorms. but the dorms didn’t agree with me, mostly because my roommate was some super-rich male bimbo from Lake Forest, Illinois who liked to brag all the live-long day about having gone to New Trier High School – supposedly some kind of swell dump that was the high school equivalent of Harvard. He and his sockless Weejuns were always off to Brooks Brothers, or the Beverly Hills Hotel, or some fabulous restaurant to stuff his fat face with caviar, or baked Alaska, or whatever rich people who go to New Trier eat. So, I ended up living back at home after that first gruesome quarter in the dorms, but it turned out my father interpreted our little agreement to mean that, once I left home, he kept the Mustang whether I moved back home or not. C’est la vie, or rather, “That’s life in the big city,” as he used to say.

Merde.

Well, anyway, this particular day the Beetle was actually running pretty steadily, as I sailed off down Wilshire, I think it was, to bring somebody’s precious Dead Sea Scrolls to them in a timely manner (everything was always “Rush”, which never seemed to bother Earl Van Wormzer, the head printer, who had a red, bulbous alcoholic face that looked like an enraged pin cushion, and always took his elaborate time about everything, except his fast-as-lightning surreptitious nips at the vodka bottle all day long).

Where was I? Oh yeah, zipping down Wilshire Boulevard with my cargo of print ads. Well, I was stopped at a red light somewhere around Fairfax, enjoying my luck at having a still-running vehicle, when I happened to glance to my left and saw something familiar – a cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback. With my father sitting at the wheel, grinning at me and nodding to himself. I know it sounds crazy, but somehow, I took it as a papal benediction of my manhood: here we were, the two Bernsteins – Men at Work in the big city. Like I say, it sounds crazy, but I truly think that, before that, he thought of my ‘life’ as something figurative, something that happened in a realm other than reality, a series of theoretical occurrences taking place mostly in unnamed classrooms, that produced A’s or B’s, but not substantive corporeality.

But now, I had been seen doing a Real Job, and even more, a Real Job that not only existed in the same physical work world as His Job, but that existed outside of his ken, and demonstrably in the Real World of Men.

Crazy, all right, but something changed after that: he couldn’t deny that I had somehow, behind his back, squeaked into being a Man:

I worked, therefore I was.

Childhood’s End.

So, how does somebody become a Man? I don’t know: mine involved listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful, a penis claimed on the streets of Westwood, and a chance meeting in traffic.  It happens in unpredictable, crazy bursts of events that, somehow, mean things, in ways you can’t know beforehand, but always know forever after.

One minute you’re a boy, stuck on the near bank of a wide and wild river, longing for the big time. The next minute you’ve made it across, and there’s no going back.

Well, I hope my story helps someone out there make sense of it all.

Just know this: at the right time, it’ll happen, and you’ll be ready for Life in the Big City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Blue Star

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Driving back from a fishing trip with my son, when he was maybe 10 or 11, I was playing some CDs I had made from my iTunes library. As usual, it included an eclectic mix of everything I like, from oldies to newies, from jazz to pop to rock, from Forties novelties (One Meatball), to the Weepies and Ray LaMontagne. He sat in the back quietly for the most part, probably rolling his eyes at most of it, although, having hung out a lot with me for most of his life, he does have an appreciation for my ‘old stuff’. I mean, how many kids can instantly recognize Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, or even Whit Bissell, for god’s sake?

Well, as I say, we were driving along on the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and a song came on that I threw in because I had been checking out doo wop groups at the time: Blue Star, by the Mystics.

As the song ended, I heard from the back seat, “I liked that one. Could you play it again?”

Hmmm, I wondered what was going on. I mean, I could always rely on a laugh from the funny stuff, like Spike Jones, or those crazy ones by Louis Jordan – like, Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?, or Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?, which we had heard, and loved, in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons we used to watch together.

But beyond a basic shared appreciation of good music, our tastes diverged greatly. I mean – rap, hip hop, metal, techno, emo, schmeemo?  I’d rather be beaten with a sharp shillelagh, thank you.

“Sure,” I said, and set it up to play again. This time, I listened more carefully to the lyrics, while shamelessly checking the rear view mirror a couple of times:

Blue star, blue star…
Blue star that shines above,
You are the star of love.
My love is far away,
With all my heart I pray:
Oh, blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

The other stars all know,
 Just why I love her so,
And I will surely die,
If you don’t hear my cry,
Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

In my dreams I see,
Her sweet lips are kissing me;
When I wake at home,
She is gone, and I’m alone…

Oh blue star, hear my plea,
And bring her back to me,
If you will tell me when,
Then I can live again,

Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

And here’s what I saw behind me: he was in a kind of faraway, dreamy trance, a look I recognized immediately, and remembered well – the “Will I ever find my true love?” trance. It exists in a teenage half-life, somewhere between hope and despair. I mean, we all want the Blue Star’s help in pointing out the right one for us, don’t we? Sure, the song was outdated, the chords mundane, but the subject matter, and appeal, were, and are, timeless.

And for me as his Dad, it told me this: my boy was growing up, and soon he would want and need lots of things that I could not give him. Of course, he would have hotly denied any of this, with a snort; he probably wasn’t even consciously aware of it. That’s why it was so moving and poignant to me – the innocent sweetness of that unselfconscious look, at the very dawning of a new era of life.

Ever since then, I can’t listen to Blue Star without the emotional memory of that moment welling up inside me: that’s the power of connection, of meaning through caring. A song that was mundane and trite, became special to me, because it touched something in him.

And this same process also happens, and frequently, in my therapy practice. I get to witness those magical, dawning moments – moments that, sometimes, only I am aware of. And then later, when the feelings and thoughts are more accessible, I get to share them with their authors – and I do mean authors, because I see the development of a self (consciously or not) as a beautiful, artistic act of creative courage.

Why courage? Because daring to care again hurts, when caring always ended in pain before.  And it hurts to want, when wanting always led to shame and frustration. And it hurts to grow, because leaving the familiar always invokes fear — and guilt. It hurts to need, when needing always meant ridicule, or emptiness. And it’s hard to wish, when wishing always meant a slap in the face, or failure.

In the series Band of Brothers, about paratroopers in World War II, their slogan is “Currahee”, which we are told is an American Indian word meaning “We stand alone, together.” That makes sense: When you are doing something frightening and new, whether it is jumping out of an airplane into the midst of the German army, or opening the emotional scabs that are crippling you, you need help: not to do it for you – because you have to do it yourself – but to ‘stand by’ you as you do it, to hold a safe space for you, to be an experienced ‘Sherpa’ to help you to trust the experience, let go of old ways, and take the plunge into the new.

So what are these Blue Star moments? They are turning points. To a layman, they might seem ordinary, but to one who knows what to look for, they are magical:

A young male patient had been holding me at arm’s length for several months. Finally, one day we had this conversation:

Me: You know, James – I don’t bite.
James: I know.
Me: Then what’s the problem?
James: They don’t call me that, you know.
Me: Call you what?
James: James.
Me: What do they call you?
James: Different things.
Me: You mean, like, it depends on . . .
James: Yeah.
Me: So, what do I get to call you?
James: I’m thinking about it.
Me: ‘Thinking About It’? Sounds like an Indian name.
James: Very funny. Okay then, I guess you can call me Jay Jay.
Me: Hmm, Jay Jay. I’m honored.
James: You should be.
Me: I am.
James: And what do I get to call you?
Me: How about Gee Gee?
James: Asshole – okay, I’ll settle for Dr. B.
Me: Fair enough – you got it, Jay Jay.

And after that, I was always Dr. B, except when he wanted to tease me, and then he would put his head down, shoot his eyes up at me, and with an impish grin, call me Gee Gee.

Now, that was an honor. And a Blue Star moment. (Actually, the real Blue Star moment was the word ‘Asshole’: you don’t call a holding-at-arm’s-length therapist Asshole. When he first said it, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and giving him a fist-bump.)

Another example: a woman I worked with long ago – very strong-willed, very loud, very brash, and very opinionated, who, not surprisingly, was in conflict everywhere in her life. She was the CEO of a small company she had founded, a service company that depended on good will from its clients to survive. But she was constantly getting into disputes and arguments with the clients, mostly about meaningless details that she could have let go, but didn’t.

And most of all, she always had to ‘know’ the one right answer, the one right way – her way – to do everything. This was her idea of ‘strength’ – she saw people who weren’t as sure as she was, as weaklings and saps. She had also lost many good employees, due to her overbearing manner and refusal to back down in disputes – disputes which she caused, and which didn’t leave any room for a resolution which allowed the other person their pride or even their emotional space.

Our sessions would often take the form of a ‘test’: she would bring up a problem, such as why employees were leaving, or why clients didn’t renew their contracts. My ‘test’ was that I was then supposed to supply an answer – an answer, that is, that didn’t involve her changing her own behavior! This is what it was like:

Marsha: Why am I the only one who takes on any responsibility at work? I mean, there are a million things to do. Why is it so hard for people to just put down their damn coffee cup and dive in?
Me: Are you saying they don’t do anything?
Marsha: Oh sure, if I stand there over them with a whip and tell them word for word what to do, they do it. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Me: So, they don’t do anything on their own?
Marsha: Well, you’re actually catching on: for a minute there, I thought you were deaf.
Me: No – I’m pretty sure they can hear you all the way down the hall. Has it ever occurred to you that your employees are intimidated by you, or that they are afraid to do things on their own, for fear that you’ll criticize them?
Marsha: Criticize them? Now why would I do that, if they actually got it together and did something without my standing there with my whip?
Me: Well, one reason could be that they might not do it your way.
Marsha: You mean the right way?
Me: Um hmm – and what is the right way, Marsha?
Marsha (smirking):  My way, of course!
Me: The defense rests.
Marsha (shaking her head in disgust): Well, once again, you haven’t come up with a single workable idea to help me deal with the employees – or the clients.
Me: I’m just saying, if you gave them a little running room, a little more leeway, they might feel more empowered to do things on their own without fear of criticism.
Marsha (shaking her head No): Nope – you still don’t get it: if they would show a little more initiative, a little more intelligence, maybe I could back off and trust that things wouldn’t go to hell in a handbasket as soon as I walked out that door. But no such luck: they just sit there like Henny Penny and gabble on their cell phones like kindergarteners all day, unless I stand over them and hand-feed them the next task, and the next, and the next.
Me: I did give you an idea.
Marsha: You call that an idea? That’s no idea: that’s yesterday’s coffee grounds.
Me: I guess you’re going to have to stand over me with a whip, too, to get any decent work out of me.
Marsha: You got that right.
Me: Well, sometimes I might not have an immediate answer that meets all your criteria. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying, or that what I’m doing won’t help you, maybe in ways that you can’t see right now. There are ways of knowing that aren’t about giving right answers.
Marsha (mocking): Oooh – deep thoughts!

Well, it went on like that, week after week, her testing me, and me ‘failing’, until one dark, rainy day, when she came in, looking totally exhausted, and flung her wet umbrella down at her feet.

Me: What’s going on? You look all done in.
Marsha: I am.
I sensed that she needed to have some time with her feelings. We were silent for a few moments, then I spoke again,
Me: Feel like talking?
Marsha (with a deep sigh): I’m tired – just so tired, of always being the one on the spot.
Me: You mean, like having all the responsibility?
Marsha: Yeah – keeping everything on track. (another sigh) But – what if it wasn’t me: would the world come to an end?
Me: I don’t think so.
Marsha: That’s good to know, because I don’t have anything left in the tank.

Silence.

Me: So – what happened?

Silence.

Me: Is there something . . .
Marsha (beating her hands down on the chair arms): I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know!

Silence.

Marsha (Sighs again, then glances at me with an unfamiliar, almost childlike look): Can’t I just not know, for once?
Me: Of course – there’s still a place for you here, and in the world, whether you know or not.
Marsha (crying): Can’t someone else just take over for once?

Silence.

Me: They could if you’d be willing to stand back from the wheel and let them steer for a while – and accept that their course might not be identical to yours.
Marsha: As long as we’re going in the right general direction, I’m too tired to fight anymore.
Me: Sounds like the captain is growing up.

Give that lady a Blue Star!

She later realized that she had learned something from all the times I had ‘failed’, but was still there for her: that I was still providing something, and that my not always ‘knowing’ didn’t mean I was weak, or that I didn’t care; there are things beyond ‘knowing’ that a human being can provide.

And still later, she learned that when her critical, demanding father ‘quizzed’ her at the dinner table every night, she felt that the only value she had was in giving the right answer. And she learned that she wasn’t the failure, he was, for only valuing that one thing about her.

And for Gee Gee (aka Dr. B)? He had the joy of welcoming an honest-to-god human being into the world.

So, the next time you’re listening to a friend’s problems, or looking in the mirror and wondering if you’re worthy, or driving along with your kid in the back seat, don’t wait for miracles: if you look closely, you’ll see that a Blue Star is already shining upon the one you love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Just Passing Through

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We live and we die
Like fireworks
Our legacies hide
In the embers
May our stories catch fire
And burn bright enough
To catch God’s eye

We live and we die

Like fireworks
We pull apart the dark
Compete against the stars
With all of our hearts
Till our temporary brilliance turns to ash
We pull apart the darkness while we can
In the Embers – Sleeping At Last

What’s a nice species like us doing in a place like this? We live and we die, and we know it; we are glory, we are dust, and we know it; we are giants in the earth, we are a hunk of bones, just passing through, and we know it. We are prisoners on death row, who don’t even have the grace of knowing how death is coming, or when. But that, exactly, is our glory – here we are, in this impossible, ludicrous situation, but we make the best of it.

Oh sure, we live in denial of what’s coming – of death, of physical breakdown, of the indignities of aging. Sometimes I think there should be a Dying Anonymous for all of us, where we have to get up in the meetings and say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe Jones, and I’m going to die.”

In his book, Living Your Dying, author Stanley Keleman describes two normal phases in the great flow of human life: Self-expanding is expressive, reaching out beyond the physical body to newness and social interaction; Self-collecting gathers inward, withdrawing from the social world to define the self and its boundaries. We see these pulsations constantly in therapy.

New therapists are often surprised that, after a dynamic, boundary-stretching session, the following session is comparatively ‘dead’, quiet and more pulled back. But this is exactly how growth and change occur, in pulses: expansion, then consolidation; rupture, then repair.

For example, in one session, someone might experience deep despair, feeling meaningless, hopeless, and hollow. If they are allowed to ‘drink deeply’ of that despair, to experience it fully, to breathe into it, held emotionally by the therapist, the next session might seem relatively tame, disconnected, thoughtful, leading the therapist to wonder if he is doing something ‘wrong’. But if the therapist stays with it, honoring the flow of experience, it pays off. On the way out the door, the patient might turn and say, “You know, I used to love dancing.” What does this mean? It means ‘Thank you’, it means ‘With your help, I’m remembering myself’, and it means that, if we can stand up to despair together, like facing a bully, there might be a way out of this. Does the patient know this? No. Do you say any of this out loud? Of course not – but you file it away, you hold it emotionally for the patient, and, most likely, you sigh to yourself that maybe, like Scherezade, you’ve earned the right to therapize another day.

So we face crazy, impossible things, like the unknown, our physical limitations, death and infirmity, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Where I used to work, in an alcohol rehab program, there was a poster up on the wall – a picture of a mouse, standing on the railroad tracks, giving the finger to an oncoming train. The caption was,

The last great act of defiance

In a way, we are all that mouse, insisting, in the face of overwhelming evidence all around us, that we MATTER. We pulse, expanding and consolidating, reaching out and withdrawing within, changing, changing, as we try to make sense of it all, find our place in it all, even though there are no ultimate answers. In Keleman’s book he tells this tale:

Plato, on his deathbed, was asked by a friend if he would summarize his great life’s work, the Dialogues, in one statement. Plato, coming out of a reverie, looked at his friend and said ‘Practice dying.’

But what does it mean, this ‘practice’? I think it means standing up to our emotional bullies within, not resisting that inside us which is trying to be born, breathing into change. In baseball, they talk of ‘making adjustments’: a kid comes into the league, with a great reputation for batting. He has torn up the minor leagues, and now he is poised to bring terror to the hearts of major league pitchers. And for a while, he does. But what happens? Major league pitchers are smart: they see his tendencies, and they adjust. They see that he is vulnerable to curve balls, low and away. Now what does the new kid do? If he is ordinary, he just continues to flail away at low-and-away curves, gradually becoming predictable, and mediocre. But if he has greatness, he adjusts back: he learns to let those curves go, forcing pitchers to throw him something hittable. And he studies them, too: he learns their tendencies, their patterns, their weaknesses, and he uses all of it against them. Life, also, is a game of adjustments. Things change, constantly. What we held on to for dear life yesterday, is lost for good; what was our best ‘material’ yesterday is irrelevant today.

So, what does Plato mean by practicing dying? Possibly, having an open attitude to changes, the ‘little deaths’ that happen to us throughout our lives. It means being light on our feet in the face of new information, not being unduly attached to ideas, images, or the status quo, not having to have things a certain way, being willing to not be in control all the time. And, maybe most of all, being committed to seeing things as they are. This doesn’t mean being wishy-washy, passive or uncaring. It doesn’t mean not being yourself. It means standing there and bringing your Self to each situation, meeting reality face to face and engaging it fully, in all its complexity, sitting with unsureness, if necessary, until a greater whole presents itself.

We all have our ‘tendencies’, to be sure – these are the legacy, for better or worse, of our early family lives, our genetic predispositions, our unique interactive experiences with life. And to some extent, we are all prisoners of our tendencies. The famous psychologist Alice Miller once wrote a remarkable book, which she called Prisoners of Childhood. It discussed exactly this – how we are all shackled, to a greater or lesser degree, to our early childhood experiences. The book didn’t sell well. Finally, she changed the name to The Drama of the Gifted Child. Sales took off and it became a best-selling classic. No need to explain why: we don’t want to know our ‘tendencies’, our limitations, our flaws. But, if we are willing to face them, to “adjust back” to life, we can do great things, and even if we don’t do great things, we can do ordinary things with a kind of greatness.

I have read quite a bit about prisoner of war experiences in World War II. One of the most surprising things I learned was the importance of rumors. Incorrect rumors. Yes, in memoirs man after man wrote that rumors, most of them begun by the prisoners themselves, were a major source of hope and ‘entertainment’. At first, I was shocked: I would have thought it would make a prisoner enraged to hear that, say, “General MacArthur is forming a 200,000 man army and is only two weeks from returning to free us”, and then learn that it is Wrong. But rumors were a cheap, available and defiant means of keeping up hope and morale, something the Japanese guards could not control, or codify, or influence. They became an expression of creativity, a way of keeping the men open to possibility, and a middle finger raised to the oncoming train.

So, yes, it’s true that death is the oncoming train in all of our lives. We are all on death row, prisoners of childhood, living on rumors. Our position is laughable to some, ludicrous to others, and wholly absurd to anyone who is a fair witness to it all. If you ask ‘heroes’ about their outrageous acts of bravery, they will invariably say, “I was just doing my job.”

And that’s what we do. If we are ludicrous, we are also magnificent: we “pull apart the darkness while we can”, and if we do not live forever, well, we do our best to live now, and that is heroic – that is our job.

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

I Googled You Last Night and Got That Old Feeling

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Every therapist in town is aware of a phenomenon that has been ‘sweeping the country’ in recent years: getting back in touch with old flames from years past, via the Internet. Now, I don’t say it’s not understandable, and I get the basic gist: you’re sitting there at the keyboard late one night and thinking,

Wow, she used to be hot – and so were we.

I can’t remember why we broke up – I must have been an idiot.

God, remember that one night we………………

Man, those were the days – no responsibilities, no bills, no job, just me, ol’ Janey  Jones and the back seat of that ’75 Gremlin.

Wow, she used to be so hot (oh, I already said that).

Maybe I could recapture my flaming youth if I got back in touch with her.

Wow, she used to be so hot (oops – sorry, my memory isn’t what it used to be).

Okay, so what do we really have here? The Past vs the Present – with the ‘past’ being the amped-up, revisionist history of a probably-never-was life, now burnished to a golden hue by distance and wishful thinking. A totally unfair boxing match.

I can hear the announcer now:

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rummmmmble!

In this corner, your current wife, Quasimodo, in the long, baggy black trunks –  representing the relationship that is in your face every day, burdened by responsibilities, dirty dishes, bills, arguments, diapers, night farts, snoring, more bills and more arguments.

And in that corner, in the snazzy, form-fitting red trunks with the gold glitter, Kid Glamour, in the form of the soft, glowing memory of Janey Jones, lovely and unlined at age 18, who had the luxury of spending two hours in front of the mirror getting ready for each date, always smelled wonderful, and was ethereally perfect because all you did was hang out, drive around, go to the movies and then hit the back seat of the aforementioned ’75 Gremlin (a back seat which was designed strictly for children, but one must make sacrifices) for two glorious hours of kissy-face and huggy-poo.

So: Quasimodo vs Kid Glamour. Hmmm, wonder who would win that match?

But consider this, Hot Shot: Did the alluring Janey Jones have to put up with your running late for everything for the last twenty years? Did she still love you even though, while you can remember what the count was on every batter in Tim Lincecum’s no-hitters, you can’t remember what grade your kids are in? Did ol’ Janey, your Venus in blue jeans, have to get down on her hands and knees in the middle of the night and clean up puke, because you let your kid have five bags of candy corn and three cotton candies at the county fair, after ‘Quasimodo’ told you to stop? Did Kid Glamour get her alabaster orbs moving and pick you up at the airport at 4:00 AM, after you forgot to make reservations on Ride Share, like your wife reminded you to twice, or was that someone else at the wheel?

As a therapist, one runs up against this kind of unfair ‘comparison’ all the time, especially with affairs: i.e. comparing a new relationship, where the person is perhaps “in lust love”, on good behavior, and not facing all the frustrations, all the history, all the sacrifices, of a longer-term, familiar relationship, to an existing workaday relationship. Of course the new person looks better: you’re seeing them at their best, and only at selected times, the physical relationship is brand-new and exciting, and they only see the ‘you’ you want to present to them, not the guy who was afraid to set the mouse trap in the pantry because he might hurt himself, or the guy who got himself fired because he got drunk and told the boss his wife was ugly at the Christmas party, or the guy who missed half of his daughter’s high school graduation because the Royals game was on, while ‘Quasimodo’ took one for the team by telling the daughter you were late because she had broken a heel on her good shoes.

In times past, before the Internet Age, the temptations that would create the possibility of such unfair comparisons were much more unlikely, and harder to come by: maybe a minor flirtation at the office, or a meeting at a high school reunion, or coincidentally running across someone from one’s past on the street. But now – whoa Nellie, all bets are off: with a few surreptitious keystrokes, you can find almost anyone from your past whose name you can remember; you can find and meet up – tonight! – with women who want everything from a perverted quickie to lifelong love; and you can you see any kind of porn you can dream up.

All across the nation, men and women are up late at night, pounding out their fantasies on their keyboards, from the privacy of their own dens, in complete secrecy. This is a terrible, and unfair, burden on a long-term relationship. Why should you stick around and work out your problems with your wife, when you can sail away to a mental Tahiti on your own little pirate ship, any time you want?

What’s to keep you from creating “relationships” (whether physical or cybernian) with one, or two, or twenty women, that no one but you knows about? Man – to live a ‘secret life’, a guy used to have to be smart, ruthless and cagey: he had to maybe have a job as a traveling salesman, or an airline pilot, or a spy, to have the opportunity to meet, woo and bed the “other woman” (or women) in his other life, and keep all parties in the dark. Now – well, all you have to do is pilot your computer around the world, setting up as many clandestine relationships as you want. All that’s required is a password on your PC that your wife can’t guess, and you’re the Captain Cook of the airwaves. Aaaaarrr, Matey!

But what happens when Captain Cook actually contacts his ol’ matey, Janey Jones, and they try to rekindle some of that Gremlin Love? Well, for one thing, the beautiful and unlined Janey Jones has a few years on her. She’s a bit long in the jowl, portly in the pot-ly, and there’s now a bit of a haggard cast to that porcelain shell of a face she labored over in the full-length mirror for hours. And for another, she’s been through a few things by now: maybe a crummy relationship or five, a couple of bankruptcies, an honorary Narcotics Anonymous life membership, a kid in jail, and oh yeah, that affair with her brother-in-law that put the skids to her only decent marriage. Aaaaarr, well, there goes your tropical paradise, me bucco.

And that doesn’t even factor in what good ol’ Janey would see in the ‘new you’: the pathetic wisp of frazzly hair you try to sweep over that bare forty acres and a mule on top of your head, and the fact that you haven’t seen your feet in twenty years, thanks to that beer gut you’re sporting that’s a bigger monument to Budweiser than the St. Louis Arch. Not to mention the emotional mileage you have on you, from your own bad relationships, and your unwillingness to do anything around the house, and your habit of passing out at the Side Rail Taproom every Friday night – you know, the place where that bosomy redhead bartends, the one you sometimes ‘help with her taxes’, because you’re something of an expert – having once attended a free marketing talk at H&R Block called ‘Taking In Wash: Can You Write Off Your Laundry Room’?

But suppose you and Janey do decide to go ahead and have a ‘meet-up’ anyway? After all, you did email back and forth for three hours once, comparing notes on what kind of dogs you like, discussing whether lethal injection is humane or not, and deciding for once and for all whether prime rib is better than steak. Deep stuff, right? I mean, doesn’t that mean you’re soulmates? Damn straight!

Okay, it’s finally here: the day of the secret tryst. You’re all set: you had your wisp specially trimmed, you bought an orchid corsage – the same exact kind you gave her at the Frosh Bop (on the corsage deal, you cannot go wrong, according to Billy Brady at the Taproom, who really knows people: after all, he used to be a janitor at an HR firm, before he got fired for making a pass at an admin in the Inappropriate Relations division). Oh, and you also got two tickets (expensive ones) for Swan Lake – because you remember Janey used to take ballet when you were in elementary school (yeah, yeah, Quasimodo has been harping on you for years to take her to the ballet, but what the hell – for that kind of money, it has to be a special occasion, right?).

You’re breathing hard. You told her to meet you on the corner of Fifth and Broadway, because you’re taking her to an oyster bar here, and then you can walk to the Ballet House later: perfect. You’re standing there watching for her, as you shift from one leg to another in the cold, trying to push away the negative thoughts:

I wonder if she’ll get cold feet? I wonder if she’ll reconsider? I’ll wonder if she still has that little mole…

Suddenly, someone yells,

Hey, Tarzan!

That’s it – the special name Janey had for you! But the only person in sight looks like your Great Aunt Eunice, the one who took her teeth out to eat.

Yeah, you, Big Boy!

Oh my god – think fast! You force your arm up into a sort of weak papal benediction. Hey yourself – Kitten!  Well, you had to throw back your nickname for her, right? You’re already backpedaling fast on the dinner reservations and those ballet tickets, but it’s too late.

She punches you in the upper arm, hard, like your older brother used to. It hurts. Then she musses up your fancy sweep-do and rasps, How you been keepin’, Sport?

Well, nothing to do but play along now. Great, great – how’s yourself?

She jacks out a pack of Marlboros and offers you one.

You shake your head. No thanks – quit twenty years ago.

She cackles derisively, Pusseeee!, and fires up a camo-colored Zippo.

You’re wondering desperately how to downgrade this thing: maybe just go out for burgers, or a doughnut – or maybe just coffee? If you could ditch her early enough, you could go hang out in front of the Ballet and scalp those expensive seats.

Goddam double-wides – they take too much housekeeping anyway!

What? You realize you missed a few words while you were planning your exit strategy. She continues, in a torrent of raspy words, apparently about trailer park life:

Throw me out, will ya, I sez. I don’t need your goddam double-wide anyway, you little sawed-off weasel! Got me a sweet single picked out already – and it’s half the price of that pile of shit you call ‘luxury’! Not bad, eh?

Through your haze, you realize you’re expected to respond. Uh – yeah. You really showed ’em, Janey!

She gives you another shot in the arm. It hurts. You bet I showed ’em, pard – up one side and down the other. With a single, there’s no housekeeping at all! Once you get up, all you gotta do is reach down, yank the covers up over the pillow, and you’re good to go!

Now you’re desperate: So, I know this great coffee place around the corner where you can get anything you want. They got Jamaican, Nigerian, Kenyan . . .

Coffee – you kiddin’ me? Sanka I can get at the Safeway! I want a row of boilermakers, and I want ’em now! Besides, we got time to make up for, slugger! Let’s get to ‘er!

Actually, a drink wouldn’t be a bad idea – anything to dull the reality of the moment. You see a neon sign:

Red’s Recovery Room, Where Every hour is Happy Hour!

You wonder if they have a shorter version – you know, like a Happy Minute? Before you can decide, Janey makes a beeline for the bar and hoists her girth onto a red plastic stool. You follow.

The bartender is busy washing glasses on the other end of the bar. Just as you’re motioning hesitantly for his attention, Janey hollers,

Boilermakers, Jackson – and I do mean plural!

The bartender cuts his eyes to you, real quick – you think you see pity there, but you could be wrong – it could be horror.

Three rounds later, you know more than you could possibly have realized there is to know about the denizens of the Shady Grove Trailer Lodge and Park, and the lovely pied a terre Janey maintains there. You’re just about to look at your watch ostentatiously, and segue into your exit routine, when Janey jumps up and yells, Let’s get a little life into this place! and launches into a full-on bump-and-grind karaoke to Stuck In the Middle With You, blasting out of the jukebox.

The bartender cuts his eyes at you again, and this time there’s no mistaking: it’s horror and pity. But before you can think of your next move, Janey rushes over and yanks you onto the ‘dance floor’. You now have the full attention of everyone in the house. You just hope nobody here knows you, or even might know someone who might know you. You move as minimally as you can move, and still have it defined as dancing. Janey, on the other hand, is just getting warmed up. She shimmies, she spins, she wiggles suggestively, as she belts out the words to the song, or rather, belts out words she is making up as she goes along.

And as the song comes to an end, for her final dance move, she grabs your crotch and, to the amusement of the assembled multitude, shakes it, hard. It hurts.

It’s time to end this. Discretion doesn’t matter any more – you need out, now. Back on the stools, you point to your watch:

Oops, I forgot – I have an early meeting tomorrow. I’m going to have to run. Uh – Janey?

But Venus is out to lunch: she doesn’t even hear you, caught up in mumbling evilly into her drink. You only catch a few words: Double-wide, kitty litter, maybe eviction notice.

You get up to leave. Again, no response, except for the bartender’s eyes throwing you another pity party. You nod back at him, “Tell her I had to go, okay?” He frowns, unhappy in the knowledge that he’s just been granted temporary custody of Kid Glamour.

You look at your watch: good, you still have time to make it to the Ballet, where you pray you can still get back at least something on those expensive tickets. It’s cold. You throw on your topcoat  and run – the running warms you up by the time you get there. You station yourself at the front entrance and hold up your hand with the tickets. People swarm by you – people dressed nice, mostly in groups, or couples.

Couples – yeah, that’s nice.

A name comes to you: Quasimodo – er, Joyce, your wife. She’d love the ballet. Gee, I wonder . . . You look at your watch, then pull out your cell phone . . .

________________________________

You’re inside, together, in the good seats.

Curtain up.

Gee, ballet isn’t half bad.

Oh George – it was so nice of you to think of this.

You turn to her.

Jeez – what was I thinking? Didn’t Paul Newman once say, Why should I mess around with hamburger when I’ve got steak at home?

She looks kind of pretty in that blue dress.

You put your arm around her.

Yeah, taking my wife to the ballet: not a bad idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Rocky Road (Part II)

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A while ago, I wrote a blog piece called Rocky Road, about a folk song, not a road. Well, this is about a different rocky road, but still not a road. This one is about coherence, elegance, fittingness, and grace: the quality that would have inspired my mother, when looking at a living room, to nod approvingly, and say, “It’s pulled together”.

Today, my daughter, who’s in the music business with Sony, and the songwriting business with herself, in L.A., told me about a ‘pop’ song on Youtube that she wanted me to check out. I watched and listened. It was odd, unusual, fascinating and even a bit disturbing, but it held my attention from start to finish. It definitely wasn’t my ‘thing’, but I definitely appreciated it. I fished around for a way to describe its merits, and finally emailed her the following:

Well, it’s like this: you can eat almonds, then marshmallows, then chocolate ice cream, and it’s all pretty darn good. But when you eat rocky road ice cream – that’s something else again, something a whole lot better than the sum of its parts. This song has an artistic vision that’s cohesive and consistent, with a real authorial ‘voice’ to it. It’s pulled together. It’s rocky road.

And that’s the goal of the kind of therapy I do: to help people become someone, some particular someone, who’s cohesive and ‘of a piece’ – pulled together. But why do people need this, and how do they get to the point where they need it?

Well, think of a baby: what does it do all day? It just babies around, needing things, blurting out whatever is going on inside it, drinking when it’s thirsty, eating when it’s hungry, and then peeing and pooping it all out. That’s its job, and it’s good at its job. So far, so good.

But then storm clouds appear: Mom gets mad for some reason when I poop, Mom gets nervous when I crawl near her special vase, Mom looks really tired when I cry too much, or ask too much, and her mouth turns down when I don’t respond the right way to those stupid noises she makes (later I found out they’re called Words – big deal); so I try not to poop, but mostly it doesn’t work, I try not to ask too much of her, but what am I supposed to do when I can’t do things for myself? And I try to smile like she likes when she makes those stupid noises, but sometimes that makes her mad, too – especially when her mouth makes a circle and she goes “NO!” Jeez, if saying “NO!” makes her that mad, why does she keep doing it?

The whole thing’s crazy to me, but it’s the only game in town, so I try to work with it the best I can. Trouble is, after a while I get so caught up in trying to ‘game the system’ to get goodies and smiles instead of “NO!” and loud voices, that I kind of forget my insides – I forget what I feel, what I need and, well, I kind of come unstuck from who I am, inside, so I’m more drifting around in search of not getting in trouble than I am being Me. Being Me didn’t work – drifting around did – kind of, so I became a better drifter than a Me. And, after awhile, I kind of forgot the Me anyway, so I didn’t mind it that much.

Drifting isn’t really that bad, once you get used to it. And later I found out that most people really don’t mind you not being a Me anyway, as long as you do the stuff they want and expect. It’s kind of like wearing a magic suit: as long as you have the magic suit on, you can ‘pass’ for real, and no one ever really checks your id anyway (no, not Freud’s ‘id’, I mean your identity, though come to think of it, no one really ever checked Freud’s id, either, but we’ll let that go), so you’re good to go.

Then, when you get to school, the whole thing works even better: the kids who get in trouble are the ones who are too much Them, whereas the ones who can play the fake-Me game hardly ever get in trouble, and since they don’t stick out too much and do individualistic things that draw attention to themselves, they don’t get teased or picked on very much either. And if they are tempted to revert back to being Them, all they have to do is look at what happens to the weirdos who aren’t smart enough to hide out in their magic suits. Boy, nobody wants that, right?

So, you pass along smoothly, grade to grade, until graduation. Uh oh – now people suddenly start asking you stupid questions – things they never asked before: What are you going to do with your life? What are your PLANS?, and things like that. Holy cow, what’s with the sudden interest? No one bothered you with that stuff for years and years, and now, boom – suddenly, they HAVE to know? But, not to worry – as it turns out, they don’t really mean it: you can just go to college and they don’t bother you for a few more years. Yeah, some of that Me stuff crops up in college: stuff like your MAJOR, and having to do a lot of schoolwork that seems meaningless, but mostly you can just pass your classes and put it all off, and it works pretty good. The magic suit still protects you, and besides, now there’s drugs, alcohol, sex, music, movies, and relationships to distract you from You and to distract other people from bugging you about You. Whew.

The real trouble starts after all that – when you enter the Real World, which, as it turns out, isn’t all that Real either, but here’s the rub: now you find out it isn’t enough to just Get By. Sure, you’ve still got, maybe, a Job, maybe a Relationship, and maybe even Kids, to distract you from You, and to keep everyone else off your back (since you’ve done the Regular Thing and gotten a Job, a Relationship and maybe even Kids, they shut up and leave you alone), but as the years go by, you find yourself wondering: What am I doing in this life? How did I get into all this? What’s wrong here? I still play The Game, I still wear the Magic Suit, but somehow, it doesn’t work for me anymore – it isn’t enough. And the last time you said “this isn’t enough”, Mom got really, really mad, if you can even remember back that far.

You find yourself wondering if, maybe, you made a mistake by detaching from your Me and wearing the magic suit all those years: but what choice did you have?  You had to survive, didn’t you? And how could you possibly have known that, one day, just coasting wouldn’t be enough? But damn – by now, you’re so out of practice being a Me that you couldn’t find your way back with a dowsing rod, a GPS unit and Daniel Boone to lead the way. You’re Lost, is what you are.

You wish you could just sleep through the whole thing, but you can’t even seem to sleep right anymore, so you get up and pace around for hours. You try drinking, but that just makes you feel like hell the next day. You try smoking some weed, but no matter how good you might feel for a while, you have to Come Back – and when you do Come Back, you’re even further behind than you were when you left. You might even try an affair, or overeating, or overworking, or getting massages by cute girls with ‘happy endings’, but here’s the problem with all of these ‘fixes’: they might change your relationship to reality for a while, but they don’t change REALITY. And reality is – you’re lost. You’ve lost your connection to yourself, and you’ve lost your way back to who that person ever was.

You realize, now, that it’s not about pleasing everyone, or being good, or doing the regular thing, or blending in, or not standing out, or having Mom smile.

It’s about Your Life.

Shit!

So, now what?

That’s where I (or someone like me) come in.

I’m a patient Daniel Boone, a friendly dowsing rod, and a GPS with a heart. I’m Howard, the maddening old goat of a prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Together, we set out to look for signs of Gold – your lost Me. We talk, feel and pay close attention until a trail emerges, a trail an old buzzard like me knows how to follow. In the meantime, I don’t get mad if you have to poop, I don’t smile just because you act like you like it when I say my stupid noises (Words – remember?), and I don’t turn my mouth down just because you need more than I can give at the moment: we’re after Gold, not the fool’s gold of feeling good temporarily, or the relief of not facing hard things, or the comfort of coasting along. I’m interested in You – not in you doing things the ‘regular’ way, or the ‘right’ way, or the way everyone else does it. I’m interested in helping you find your way, and Your way.

At first, it sucks. It sucks to sit with feelings, and needs, you long ago decided were “stupid”, “embarrassing” and “weak”. It sucks because you have no idea what’s happening, it sucks because you don’t know what to do, and it sucks because you hate not knowing what to do, and being bad at things, and man, you are bad at this.

Of course, that’s when your friendly local therapist says, “Naturally – that’s why we’re doing it.”

Shit – who’s on first?

So, you sit there with tears in your eyes, or anger boiling up inside you, or sadness pressing down on your shoulders, or all three, and you ask me, “So, what am I supposed to do?”

And I answer, “You’re doing it.”

What the hell!

You think, the heck with this guy – where’s the instruction manual for this shit?

There isn’t one. Turns out sitting there and feeling whatever you’re feeling is actually supposed to DO something, but the son of a bitch won’t say just WHAT it’s supposed to do, or WHEN. Damn, where’s that Internet site again – the one that says that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can get rid of this stuff in just a few weeks? Jeez, for the first time in your life, you’re asking for homework, and the guy won’t give you any! What has your life come to?

So you sit there some more, feeling, talking; it’s weird, but it actually feels kind of better: not all the way, but you can see that maybe this guy isn’t just lying to keep you coming to therapy and wasting your time: maybe there is some kind of “process” (oh, he LOVES that word!) that is going on, that might actually change your life. And it is starting to feel like, maybe, this guy is on your side – not that you asked for that, or need it, or really care, mind you, but, well, he seems to actually care about you and how you’re doing, and he never uses stuff you tell him against you, like you thought he might at first.

This guy is weird – this whole thing is weird, but you do feel better, and you think you’re learning things about yourself, though you almost never actually talk about your ‘stuff’ directly, and he never actually ‘teaches’ you things, exactly.

The whole thing is just – weird.

So, like the greenhorn would-be prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he drags you up hills and down dales, as cactus and brambles tear at your clothes and dangerous animals lurk in the dark, but you keep a goin’ until the hills and dales seem to flatten out a bit, the scary animals seem less frequent and less scary, and you actually begin to see signs of Gold – real gold, not that quick-fix, tin-plated, phony stuff that the suckers believe in.

And you think, “The Gold doesn’t look like I thought it would, either – it looks, well, more like ME. This is not what I set out to look for – I wanted instructions, and tips, and brilliant insights. But now I, myself, seem to be coming up with instructions, and tips for myself, and some not-too-shabby insights about myself, to boot. After all, I am the expert on Me. Imagine that.”

So, after a while, after you’ve worked hard, and stayed on the trail, and suffered some bramble scratches and cactus scars and maybe fought off a few wild animal attacks, you look at yourself and you realize,

I’m of a piece, I’m pulled together, I’m a Me.

I’ve got good stuff inside me: nuts, marshmallows and chocolate. But I’m a lot more than my pieces:

I’m Rocky Road!

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Addictions: Are We Having Fun Yet?

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This post won’t speak to everyone out there, but for those who have battled addictions of any kind, I hope it will be a ‘shout out’ of respect, guidance and fellowship. And the truth is, we’re all addicted to something: it’s just that some addictions are legal and socially sanctioned (material things, anyone?), whereas others are considered ‘bad’ and not tolerated.

Has it ever occurred to you that in some ways, all of society is just one big sandbox, and we’re all children playing around in it? Orson Welles once said that the whole development of civilization was just a way to impress girls, and I think that’s pretty close to the truth. All of us in this ‘sandbox’ want to be liked, we want to impress people, we want to feel included, we want to be like everyone else, and we want to be special. Like children, we all have a need to be good, and a need to be naughty.

We all have internalized ‘voices’ – from parents, teachers, religious institutions and other authorities – that tell us what to do. They tell us the ‘rules’, not just of our outward behavior, but even the rules of how to feel and think, in the privacy of our own minds – in fact, maybe mostly in our own minds. Imagine that – we live in a constant stream, a soup, a marinade, of judgments about our very thoughts and feelings. ‘They’ tell us where we go wrong, and we go wrong a lot:

Why were you happy when Jimmy got hurt? That’s not nice!

You lied about pushing your brother off the bed. What’s wrong with you?

You’re not very good at kickball – you better hide in the back the next time they choose up sides.

Now look what you did: you forgot to get Mom a Mother’s Day card and she’s all upset!

When we get older, the ‘voices’ get older, too, but they still have the same hectoring tone:

Why can’t you talk to people? Because you have nothing to say – that’s why!

Unbelievable: is that the best you can do?

Everyone else seems to be in a good relationship, but here you are, alone again!

I can’t believe you just did that: you must have been asleep the day brains were passed out.

And on and on it goes – sometimes it feels like a civil war inside your head. It’s frustrating and confusing to always be on two sides at the same time, or even worse, on no side at all. Other people seem able to do their homework, to plan for the future, to get hooked up with others, to belong, to not fail all the time, to relax, to have fun – but not you. And boy, do you hear about it: it’s yammer yammer yammer all the time.

Then one day, someone offers you a drink (or a joint, or a shot, or a pill). Well, it’s no big deal – besides, everyone else is doing it, and they seem okay. Well, just one won’t hurt. Besides, you don’t want to be a dork and an outsider, right? So you take one. Hmmm – tastes like crap, but it didn’t kill me. Another one? Sure – hit me again.

Wait – now this I didn’t expect: the voices stopped! Wait a damn minute – let me just take another one and test this out: Son of a gun – they did stop! Now this is more like it! I’m free! I’m living! I’m me! Where have they been keeping this stuff all this time? This is the best-kept secret of all time! And why did it take me so long to catch on?

Wow, I’m not afraid all the time!

I can talk to people!

I’m funny!

Man, if this is what the Buddhists call being in the moment…whee, I’m a Buddhist!

And, for many women, there’s an added ‘bonus’:

I’m sexy! I can have my own sexuality and not be so uptight about it. Woo hoo – I never knew being bad could feel so good!

Okay, sure, so you wake up the next morning and feel like the scum on the s…house floor. Sure you’re hung over. Sure, you ‘tied one on’, but then that’s part of life, right? It’s part of being a real man! You were there, man – you were part of something. Finally, you were YOU!

Well, who wouldn’t want more of that? Who wouldn’t want to feel like yourself? Who wouldn’t want to feel the flow, to feel sexy, to feel like you belong, to feel, finally, like you’re all right, instead of all wrong? To shut those voices up? To not be angry all the time, hurt, out of it, shy, dumb, worried, ashamed? To be free!

So you want it again. And you get that good feeling. But it wears off. So you want it yet again. And it wears off again. And now you need it, and it’s starting to cause trouble – nothing big, nothing you can’t handle. You’re lying to people about little things: where you were, what you were doing, how much you had, who you were with. Why are they asking anyway, dammit? Why can’t they just lighten up and leave you alone? You’re even lying to yourself, not a lot, but a little: just one more, then I’ll study; just one more, then I’ll swear off till the weekend; just beer, no hard stuff; only after work; in the morning, but only on the weekends; in the morning, but just enough to get me going.

Now you’re starting to have some real trouble, but again, nothing you can’t handle: a DUI from some cop who’s just out to fulfill his frickin’ quota, and can’t leave decent citizens alone; some snitch at work who told the boss he saw you take a nip in the men’s room; getting an F because the teacher was too uptight to be flexible about the drop deadline; a friend who’s mad because you didn’t show up when you said you would, or at all for that matter. And you lie to yourself about it: anyone can get a DUI – it’s just bad luck; I do more at work drunk than the rest of them do sober; that F doesn’t matter, because it isn’t in my major, besides I can always make it up in summer school; friends come and go – besides, they never understand that I can’t be held to rigid schedules all the time.

And the truth? You actually should have gotten 50 DUIs; you missed work ten times the last six months because you were hung over or passed out; you haven’t gotten it together to study for any of your classes; you don’t have any friends anymore, because the bottle is your one and only ‘friend’.

Okay, okay – you finally get the message: you have to stop. Not today, but soon. Real soon. Promise.

And you try – you really do try. You lay off for two whole days. That shows you can stop whenever you want, right? So why stop now, when you can stop whenever you want? Or how about this: I’ll control it; yeah, I’ll only drink every other day, and only at night – and only beer, which I hate anyway, so it should be easy.

So you enter what I call the phase of Independent Research: you know you have a problem, but you think you can ‘handle’ it. You develop, and test out, more approaches, more theories, more hypotheses, more hunches, more sure things, than a roomful of experimental physicists would in a lifetime.

I’ll only drink high quality stuff: it’s better for you.

I’ll cut down, but I’ll do it slowly, so it isn’t a shock to my system.

I’ll only drink at bars – that way I’ll drink smart, because I’ll have to drive home.

I’ll alternate a day of Ativan and Vicodin with a day of booze – less dangerous that way, and I’ll get used to not drinking every day. It’s really not that different from a dry-out program. Now I just have to convince my doctor that my knee really is that bad, and that I can’t sleep. But it’s a good, sound plan.

The variations are endless, and I’ve heard some real lulus in my time, including this one:

I’m on straight Xanax now, and I figure if I can handle Xanax for six months, I can definitely handle booze again. So my course is charted.

And this was a very bright guy – a guy who, a few months into sobriety, would tell this story at an AA meeting and get a big laugh. And he laughed with them.

So what happens to these people? Why can’t they just stop, as the title of a popular recovery book asks? Well, let’s go back to the original situation I outlined at the very beginning of this piece: what about that verbal civil war going on inside? What about the anger, the shame, the shyness, the confusion, the lack of confidence, the social awkwardness, the sexual taboos? If ‘they’ just stop – well, what’s Plan B? Sure, you could ‘just stop’, maybe, with help, but if all you do is ‘just stop’, you’re sunk. Then what? What do you do about the voices, the storm of internal criticism, the lack of belief in yourself, and all the rest of it? Yes, your original ‘solution’ (drinking) turned out to be a bust, but like the old joke about the crooked gambling house – it’s the only game in town!

This is what we call a ‘dry drunk’ – someone who has “just stopped”, period, with no Plan B in place. It’s admirable, maybe, that they’ve been strong enough to stop, but now they not only have all the original problems – the internal voices, the civil war – but they’re years behind in the game of life, and in emotional development and emotional skills, which only evolve when you confront problems directly, so that real emotional growth can take place. And I’m saying this with great compassion: it’s HARD to ‘grow up’ when you’re 30, or 40, or 50! It’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, and it’s cumbersome, to use a nice word for cluster-f___.

A ‘user’ relies on what I call the ‘one-person system’ to solve their problems: they rely on their ‘best friend’ alcohol (or weed, or meth, or oxy, or coke) to fix things (hence the word ‘fix’). They have given up on (or never had) the use of other people to help them move through difficulties, and they have never developed a familiarity with ‘sitting with’ problems until a solution occurs, or until the problem shifts into something more manageable.

What do I mean by ‘shift’? Well, let’s take a 33 year-old male patient, ‘Jim’, who had been drinking alcoholically for at least ten years. I finally got him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly, and he was starting to see that he needed support from other people if he was going to stay sober. I will present two hypothetical sessions with him: one before getting sober, and one after – that will demonstrate what I mean by a ‘shift’:

Before:

Jim: Well, Rickie’s up to the same old shit.

Me: What old shit would that be?

Jim: I think you know.

Me: Well, humor me, then. I don’t like to guess, and I don’t read minds.

Jim (Disgustedly, with a snort of derision): She has girlfriend-itis again. The same old story: Get yourself together! Where were you last night? You need to bring in some money, or you need to get out. Look at these bottles!  I mean, what does she expect me to do? I’m dealing with a bad knee, I’m working on filing a grievance for getting fired by that bastard, and – oh yeah, a guy at the bar told me I should be drawing disability for having ADD: is that possible?

Me: Rickie sounds pretty frustrated.

Jim: Frustrated? Hell, we’re all frustrated on this bus! She just specializes in blaming me for her problems. She’s got a Ph.D. in it, dude!

Me: What do you expect her to feel? After all, with you either being drunk, or gone, or both, most of the time, she’s not getting much out of the deal, is she?

Jim: I’m there, ain’t I? I try – I even brought her some flowers the other day, and do you know what she did?

Me: No – what?

Jim: She looked at ’em and started crying! Crying – I am not shitting you! Then she said, “Let’s put ’em in a vase of whiskey, and see how long they last.” Can you believe that shit? So, why should I try?

Me: It seems pretty clear that as long as you’re still drinking, nothing’s going to change.

Jim: You sound like her.

Me: Maybe there’s a reason.

Jim: Jesus, Doc – you and Rickie got the same Ph.D.

_________________________________________

After:

Jim: Rickie’s mad again.

Me: What’s she mad about?

Jim: Well, I got sober, but I guess that ain’t enough. Now she wants me to listen to her, too.

Me: Listen to her, how?

Jim: You know, like about her day, her job . . .

Me: Her feelings?

Jim (laughs): Yeah, her feelings.

Me: Is that so crazy? We all have ’em – even you.

Jim (pauses, looking down): Yeah, sometimes it’s weird-like . . .

Me: You mean like they’re coming out, coming back?

Jim: Is that weird? (foot jiggling now, still looking down).

Me: No – it’s normal. You’ve stuffed ’em, drowned ’em, starved ’em and strangled ’em for a long time – but you’re lucky, you’ve got some tough guys inside there, that refused to die.

Jim: You mean it’s good?

Me: Well, let’s put it this way: all human beings have feelings about things. It’s part of their internal GPS – feelings help you evaluate what’s going on.

Jim: You mean like, ‘Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em’?

Me: Exactly – you wouldn’t drive a car without any gauges, would you?

Jim (laughs): I used to have a Ranchero with a hole in the floor – and nothin’ on that sucker’s dashboard worked, dude!

Me: But you don’t drive it anymore, do you?

Jim (thoughtful): Naw – that’s kid stuff.

Me: Maybe stuffing your feelings is kid stuff, too.

Jim (chewing on his lips and looking away – big sigh): Like, ‘Time to grow up’?

Me: Dude, you are growing up: you got yourself sober, didn’t you? That’s man’s work.

Jim (cocking his head): Feelings too?

Me: Feelings too. Feelings especially – they tell you who you are.

Jim: But man – sometimes they’re hard!

Me: That’s why I said it’s man’s work – a real man isn’t afraid to wade in and take care of business. Or to ask for help, either. Or to talk to his girlfriend.

Jim: You mean, like, trade back and forth – about, you know . . .

Me: Exactly: she doesn’t have a monopoly on feelings. Now, you have something to throw in there, too. Back and forth. You help each other out.

Jim (laughs): You mean, like, now I can torture her with my feelings, too?

Me: Haha – now you’re catchin’ on, Bro.

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See the difference?

Before, he was shut down, blaming, locked into his own experience, unwilling and unable to take in anything new. Later in his sobriety, when he recognized these same qualities in AA newcomers, he would call it Paranoid.

And After, though he was still defensive, unsure of himself and wary, he had the capacity to take in a new point of view and ‘sit’ with uncertainty, until he had done something with it – that’s the shift, and that shift is the core of therapy, the core of sobriety, and, in my humble opinion, the core of a good life. For only when you listen, take responsibility, and have a willingness to change, do you truly have any power.

Running away isn’t power, and that’s why addictions are weak. Facing the truth is the only real power. And when you make facing the truth a way of life, sobriety starts to be fun: then you’re catchin’ on, Bro!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.