My Own Little Canoe

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It was my second job as a psychologist. Well, technically, my first-and-a-halfth.

First came Carmel, and the Behavioral Sciences Institute, but whew, that’s a story in itself – or maybe a gothic novel.

But after that came two part-time jobs, close together: my gig for an outfit providing hospital-based outpatient alcoholism treatment, and the one I’m talking about now, seeing people on an EAP contract. As in ‘Employee Assistance Program’ – a benefit a lot of big companies offered, wherein their employees were entitled to two, or three, or five outpatient visits to a mental health professional per year, for any reason.

Of course, they were also ‘entitled’ to be compelled to visit that mental health professional, either with or without their immediate boss, to work out personal or interpersonal issues that were affecting their work performance: otherwise known as shape up, or ship out.

Well, so here was the deal: the client saw you for the two, or three, or five times, and at that point they had the choice of saying, “Adios, muchacho – it’s been swell,” or continuing on, courtesy of their own wallet. After a few months of this, my schedule was pretty-well filled with people who had elected to continue seeing me ‘on their own hook’; by then, I was not really of much use to my boss as an EAP counselor. In effect, I was running a full (low fee) private practice, under their roof. Of course, the boss got a significant cut of what I was making, but that wasn’t the purpose of the place being there. We were supposed to be available to provide EAP services to covered employees. Available for real, not theoretically!

Well, the boss noticed that I seemed to know what I was doing, and I’m pretty sure my immediate boss, a pretty amazing ‘older’ lady (in her Fifties, maybe?) put a bug in his ear, saying I was a comer who could help them out as Clinical Director, or some such capacity. In effect, this was going to be the therapy world’s equivalent of the cliché I’ve seen a million times in my office: the tech nerd who is smart, a good worker, and doing a great job, so they want to kick him upstairs and make him a Manager (i.e. of people, not machinery or data or processes). And the nerd has no capacity, or more to the point, Interest, in riding herd on the five, or ten, or a hundred, complicated, unmotivated worker bees that would be ‘under’ him. The big bosses can’t understand why he doesn’t want ‘advancement’, or power, or a Good Boy sticker pasted on his forehead.

Well, as I say, that was pretty much the situation when our Mr. Big invited me to lunch at a nice restaurant. Now understand, I had barely met this guy, and normally, he wouldn’t have invited me to anything, anywhere, for any reason. So I figured either I was going to get fired, or more likely, offered ‘something’.

I knew the drill: I was supposed to coo over my expensive entree, be very flattered, and nod my head up and down while polishing off my chocolate mousse. (I don’t think they even ‘had’ tiramisu in those days. Don’t forget, America at that time had just graduated from a choice between jello with a glop of mayonnaise on it, or marshmallow ambrosia. Oh sure, in movies there might be Baked Alaska or Cherries Jubilee, but that was in movies, or the Stork Club, not lil ol’ Piedmont Avenue.)

But I digress (Sorry – food’ll do that to me). So, I’m eating my chocolate mousse and pretending I’m interested in talking with him about the A’s, or the failure of democratic processes in America, or something else earthshaking, when he finally got to it:

“Gregg (at least he didn’t say, Young Man) – there’s something I want to talk to you about. Something that could be important to your future.”

“Really?” (at least I didn’t say, “Shoot, podner”)

“Yes – and it could be important to our future, too.” (‘Our’ of course, being his company, the royal plural now having been stretched all the way out to the likes of me.)

I nodded. (But did not bat my eyelashes coyly or curtsy – I do have some pride, you know. Besides, as you may recall, I was still working on that mousse.)

“We would like to offer you the position of Clinical Director.”

(Pause for piccolo trumpet solo, a la Penny Lane)

God, I hate disappointing people! Especially on a full stomach.

I cringed, flinched and very likely, began imperceptibly melting towards the floor. Mr. Big was smart: he could tell the difference between a joyous heel-click and a full-body cringe. He immediately went into his wow finish:

“Gregg – in LIFE (sorry – but that’s the way I heard it), you can be in a Big Canoe, or you can be in a Small Canoe: now, which one do you want?”

Oof – the mousse was on the move, in my guts.

Not that I felt confused, or flummoxed or anything – just bad for him, and afraid of his reaction.  I took a deep breath:

“Mr. Big – I’m sorry, but none of that stuff matters to me, as long as it’s MY canoe.”

There, it was out. I was a non-responder, a non-striver, a non-corporate, a type B, a lover not a fighter, a loner not a mingler, a goddam introvert, and a stain on the stainless steel of his shining dreams.

Please, don’t shake your head slowly in disappointment and total-not-getting-it-ness, Mr. Big!

He shook his head slowly, in disappointment and total-not-getting-it-ness.

The mousse was on the move again.

“Gregg, I don’t think you’ve fully understand what I’m offering you here.”

Oh god, was he really going to go there? I mean, I’d already shot my wad with that ‘my canoe’ crack: why do people always insist on not taking a hint, on forcing a sledgehammer into your hand, then making you hit their thumb with it?

“Mr. Big, it’s not that I don’t understand, and, I might add, appreciate, what you’re offering me here, because I do. It’s just that my dream has always been to have a private practice.”

His eyes kind of clouded over. He looked like he was the guy in charge of doling out the state lottery winnings, and I had just said, “Nope – I don’t want that million dollars in cash you’re trying to hand over to me – now step back so I can slam the door in your face.”

Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m a thousand miles beyond my comfort zone, stranded in the no man’s land of his disappointment, anger and willful non-comprehension.

No, please – no PLEEZE, don’t play the “You’ll be sorry” card! Did I say PLEEEEZE???

“Gregg, maybe you need to think about this a bit longer. Talk to your wife. Think about your children – your future. Because I’m afraid that if you don’t consider this wonderful opportunity more seriously, there will come a day when you’re going to be very, very sorry.”

NO, that did NOT just happen!!

Umm . . . Yes, that DID just happen!

I mean, dude: my wife, my children, my future – my sorry, raggedy-ass, never-was, had-a-shot-but-blew-it FUTURE, for chrissakes!

Please don’t make me pick up that hammer again.

Gangway! Mousse, coming up!

I couldn’t believe it: forced to take up the hammer, again! I mean, my god, who was I, John Henry?

Hammer, in five, four, three, two, one . . .

“Mr. Big, I really don’t need overnight to think about it. I know, right now, that I have to respectfully decline your generous offer.”

“Ah, but that’s it, isn’t it? You don’t even know, yet, WHAT my offer is, do you? I mean, I know you’re not the ‘money type’ (author’s note: zing!), Gregg, but I’m talking about security here – financial security that could do things for your family, now and for a long time to come . . .”

(Mousse on the loose! My kingdom for a Tum!)

” . . . Sure, you have your own, you know, dreams, and I respect that – I really do (author’s note: read, ‘your own tiny, little, pathetic dreams’) – but we can really build something, here, something that can do a world of good for this whole community, not just . . .

(Author’s note: projectile vomiting is not just for the very young . . .)

” . . . not just, let’s face it, for the small, elite (zing!) group of well-to-do upper-middle-class white people (zoing!) who seek out, and can afford, private, long-term psychotherapy (author’s note: kabing, kachoing, bing, bing, bing, TILT!) . . .

No, not the dreaded Elitism Card!

Yep, It was the old one-two:

1) You don’t care about MONEY, you freak, even though it could buy bowls of gruel to feed your malnourished, orphaned children and your poor, bedraggled wife, who creeps around the house in her faded, frayed frock, feebly dusting those orange crates that pass as living room furniture!

PLUS:

2) You don’t care about THE MASSES, either, you reactionary snob, you, who would callously leave the homeless, in their miserable millions, to their insanity, their undiagnosed adjustment disorders, and their untreated childhood traumas!

Shame!

Shame!

(Author’s note: repeat every few seconds, as needed.)

And, he wasn’t finished: “And, don’t forget, just because you’ve been able to assemble a small practice under our roof here (zing!), that doesn’t mean it would be a snap to get a full-time private practice going. I mean, where are your referrals going to come from, if you don’t have the benefit of a built-in referral source, like us (kazoing!) and you’re out there, all on your own?

(Dramatic pause)

“Besides, believe me, I know lots of people who’ve been out there in the wilderness for years, and are still struggling just to make a bare living at it. You want to think about that, too – you and your family want to think about it, that is.”

(I guess the mousse doesn’t need any introductions, by now.)

Or, at least that’s how I heard it. Now, I’m willing to concede that, somewhere between the mousse and the apres-dejeuner coffee, it’s possible that he may have pled his case in a slightly more restrained tone. Okay, so maybe he did leave out the part about the money, and the masses. And he might, just might, have forgotten to mention that part about the orphans, or the frock.

But I’m pretty sure he did say that stuff about the canoes.

And I’m pretty sure I did say my stuff about the canoes, too.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure the part about the mousse backing up on me was mostly true, too.

Food’ll do that to me.

In the end, I did agree to think about it overnight, to talk to my wife about it, to go down on my knees in prayer to Jahweh, to hit all the stations of the cross, to offer up my firstborn, to toss the bones, and lo, go unto the desert and seek counsel amongst the stately Joshua trees and the withered yucca.

I guess you want to know how it all came out.

Well, despite my sincere quest for guidance, my answer was still ‘No’. I mean, sure, the Joshua trees laid into me pretty good about the orphans and all, but on balance, it was pretty clear to everyone that, as a reactionary elitist, and an uncaring plutocrat, I needed to follow my (teeny, tiny) dream about creating my own private practice.

I’d like to think that, in the years I’ve been in practice, I have done some small good for a few worthy souls, in my reactionary manner, though I never did find out how the Masses managed to struggle along without me: one of the great unanswered mysteries of my life, I guess. I’ve got a theory that I wasn’t really as indispensable to Mr. Big as I thought I was, and ditto to the Masses, but that’s all just unscientific speculation, of course, subject to review.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I didn’t have mousse for a long time after that, either. Of course, it eventually gave way to tiramisu anyway, so it wasn’t as hard to pass up as you might think. But I did forgo it when offered, as a sort of penance to the injured parties. Again, I hope it did some good, but again, there’s no real way to know.

I could ask the Joshua trees, I guess, but after they turned against me on the orphans deal, I don’t know as I could really trust them to be objective again. But like I say, that’s all subject to review, too.

Besides, I sort of like tiramisu now anyway, though with my chronic acid reflux nowadays, it can have a tendency to back up, too – like its late-lamented brethren.

And sometimes, when I toss and turn at night, I doubt and question some of those old decisions I made with such finality.

Not too much, but enough to get me watching an old movie in the middle of the night.

Life’ll do that, you know.

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

Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby

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Don’t say nothin’

Bad about my baby,

(Oh no) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,

(I love him so) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,

(Oh don’t you know) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,

He’s true (he’s true)

He’s true to me (true to me),

So girl, you better shut your mouth.

— The Cookies, 1963

Well, The Cookies certainly had strong feelings about the nobility of their “Baby,” now didn’t they? I won’t bore (or torture) you with the rest of the lyrics, but all in all, I believe it’s fair to say that the gist of the tale is as follows:

While “Baby” may, conceivably, have misbehaved badly in previous incarnations and relationships, his great and special love for “Me” has changed him completely, as he is now a wholesome and dedicated suitor who would never do anything to hurt Me or our fabulous coupling. Due to his great love for Me, Baby is now a changed man: true, good, and altogether committed to the sanctity of our close and holy intimacy. Oh, yes – and one more thing: anyone who doesn’t agree with, or indeed even dares to question the entirety of, the above, had just better, well, shut her mouth.

I believe that about covers it. Hmm, so what’s the take-home here? Well, for one thing, I guess we can all agree that Me is a very lucky girl, and a very special one, too – right? I mean, after all, Baby appears to be transformed, and all for the love of Me. She must be quite a gal – quite a gal, indeed – to inspire all that change for the better, in a guy who appears to have been something of a scamp, in his pre-Me life.

So, what was the appeal of this song? Yes, it had kind of a catchy tune, for its genre, but that’s certainly not all. Why did teenage girls take to it so strongly, even though most of the lyrics are merely a continuous, defiant repetition of the warning against speaking ill of the great Baby? Well, I think it touched on some universal sentiments and longings. First of all, we ALL want to be Special. So special, that, for the love of us, even a bad person could turn good. Tucked in with the wish to be special is the wish to believe that People Can Change. We also want to believe that our ‘someone special’ is in some sense, Perfect; that is, we idealize them. And finally, we all want to believe in a Perfect Love – that if we could only meet The Right Person, and be the Right Person for our Right Person, we really could walk off into the sunset together and be happy, forever.

Of course, we are all mature, sophisticated people who don’t really believe in, or wish for, these things anymore – aren’t we? We, the wise, the grown up, look back on songs like this, shake our heads sagely, and say, “Tut tut – that’s all just so much romanticized, teenage twaddle,” right?

But the fact is that, despite our not believing anymore, that these things are possible, we nevertheless still WANT them. Because for most of us, the outer veneer of emotional ‘sophistication’ is just that – a veneer. The longing for, and belief in, this ‘romanticized teenage twaddle’ is still there, just beneath the surface, waiting for the right circumstances to potentiate it.

Think you’re immune? Well, consider these folks:

1) Joe, a successful, middle-aged business executive who had been ‘happily’ married for twenty-five years. I’d been seeing him in therapy for about a year, dealing with his ongoing low-level depression. I saw him weekly, on Thursdays.

One Monday, I got an urgent call: “I have to see you, right now – something has happened.”

I try to ask what.

No dice.

“No – I have to tell you in the office.”

Wow. Okay, we set up an appointment for Tuesday. I wonder all that afternoon and evening what it could be, wracking my brain for any memory of a medical condition, or a boss that might have it in for him, or fill-in-the-blank. I draw a blank.

Next day, I come out to get him in the waiting room. He’s a nervous wreck, unshaven and looking hung over, though he doesn’t really drink. I show him in to the office.

Pt: I’ve got to talk to you.

Me: That’s why we’re here – fire away.

Pt: (Rubbing his hands over his face – he hasn’t made eye contact yet) You’re going to say I’m crazy. But I’m not!

Me: Look, I don’t even have any idea what’s going on yet. Suppose you tell me first, then we’ll decide later if I think you’re crazy?

Pt: (Twisting his tie) Okay, then . . .

Silence.

Me: Okay, then . . . what?

Pt: I’m in love!

(Silence, as I mentally offload cancer, the plague, getting fired, murder, and a host of other felonious and fatal suspects.)

Me: Okay . . . go ahead, I’m interested.

Pt: (Breathing hard) What am I going to do?

Me: Well, for now, I wish you’d tell me what you’re talking about, so we could all be in on it.

Pt: This isn’t funny.

Me: I’m not laughing – I just don’t have any idea what, or whom, you’re talking about. Is this someone I would know about?

Pt: Yes. I mean, well yes. Kind of. I mean, no – not really.

Me: Hmm – that covers a lot of territory. Can you be a little more specific?

Pt: Okay – it’s . . .well, it’s . . . I can’t.

Me: Is it an adult female?

Pt: Yes.

Me: Someone you’ve known for a while?

Pt: Yes.

Me: But it’s too scary to tell me who it is?

Pt: Yes. (Silence) Oh, okay, then: I had an affair with my admin. (Visibly shaking)

Me: Oh, you mean Edith?

Pt: (Looks around, terrified) My God! Don’t say her name!

Me: Joe, saying her name won’t make anything happen. It’s just a name.

Pt: Okay, then, I guess you can say it. (Pause) The main thing is: I’m in love!

Me: Wow – how long has this been going on?

Pt: Since last night.

Me: You mean – last night is the only time you’ve . . .

Pt: Yes. (Pause) But it’s enough.

Me: You mean, enough to know you’re in love?

Pt: Yes. (Angry, defensive) And that’s definite – you got that?

Me: Well, sure, I think I get what you’re . . .

Pt: No! It’s not what you think. This is . . . different – it’s like, amazing.

Me: Okay – amazing?

Pt: Yes. Beyond everything –  just beyond . . . you know, just, like, way beyond.

Me: Joe – don’t you think . . .

Pt: God damn it – I knew it! I knew you were going to start questioning it, tearing it down, making it, somehow . . . cheap.

Me: Joe, I’m not trying to do anything . . .

Pt: Yes you are! I can hear it in your tone! You don’t really believe in it!

Me: Look – but isn’t Edith the one . . .

Pt; I knew it! I knew you were going to start with all that stuff! (Throws up hands) Oh, what’s the point?

Me: Joe, please – I was just . . .

Pt: Yeah, yeah, I know. Just because, once upon a time, I once told you a few minor things about her, you pre-judge, and go off like a Roman candle.

Me: Well, it wasn’t just once, and it wasn’t a few minor things. (Pause) I mean, you tried to get her fired, Joe – and for several pretty good reasons, as I remember.

Pt: (Stands up, in a challenging manner) Stop, right there! You’re talking about the woman I love!

(Editor’s note: Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby!)

I’ll stop right there, as he advised me, so I can introduce you to:

2) Rebecca, a small, quiet bird of a woman. Thirty-two years of age, she had come in because she didn’t agree with the policies of her boss at the Oakland Library. The boss wanted Rebecca to ‘man’ the front desk more frequently, interfacing with the public and thereby maximizing the usefulness of the library facilities. Rebecca believed that being in ‘the back,’ taking proper care of the collections, was what her job was about. She didn’t much like dealing with the public, finding them on the whole “crass,” as well as “obnoxious and plebian.”

If you’re getting the picture of Rebecca as a somewhat haughty, prim introvert, well, then I’m doing a pretty good job of describing her. Her last relationship with a man had been at least ten years earlier, and she broke it off because she found him to be . . . well, I can’t remember her exact adjectives, but if you looked for him in a library, he’d have been filed in the Crass, Obnoxious and Plebian section.

Our sessions were on Wednesdays, at 6:00, and with Rebecca, that didn’t mean 6:00.01, if you get my drift. Let’s put it this way: once, in a small fit of affection, I slipped and called her Becky, and she almost quit therapy over it.

And then one day I got a call:

Rebecca: I have to talk to you.

Me: Now’s as good as any.

Rebecca: No – in person, and in private.

Me: The NSA isn’t onto me yet, as far as I know.

Rebecca: This isn’t funny.

Me: Okay, then let’s set up a private appointment in my private office.

Rebecca: What did I just say?

Me: Okay, in all seriousness, let’s meet tomorrow at 4:00.

Rebecca: Alright, then: 4:00.

(Editor’s note: “And don’t give me no 4:00:01, either.”)

It made me feel like I was part of a sting operation – you know, like a cop or something.

The next day, I was working Robbery Detail out of Rampart Division, when the suspect came in for a sit-down:

Rebecca: I have something to tell you.

Me: Sounds like a good reason for a meeting.

Rebecca: This isn’t funny.

Me: Sorry, Ma’am: just the facts. (Okay, I didn’t really say that, but that’s what it felt like.)

Rebecca: I met someone, at the library. (Pause) And he touched me.

Me: He touched you? Where?

Rebecca: In Biography.

Me: Uh . . . so, tell me about him.

Rebecca: (Defensively) It’s not what you think.

Me: And what do I think?

Rebecca: You probably think it’s inappropriate and wrong. But you’re wrong.

Me: Okay, it’s been established that I’m wrong. Now can I please know what I’m wrong about?

Rebecca: Well, he’s . . . well, he’s a Hell’s Angel. (Pause) But he has potential – I know it.

Me: Oh? What kind of potential?

Rebecca: Well, for one thing, he knew the word ‘propinquity’.

Me: Well, that’s a start.

Rebecca: (Glowering) Don’t go there!

Me: I’m not going anywhere.

Rebecca: I know just where you’re going, but you’re wrong.

(Editor’s note: Boy, you better shut your mouth!)

Me: So, tell me more.

Rebecca: And now, it’s all up to him – to prove himself.

Me: And how will he do that – if he does that?

Rebecca: For starters, by picking me up in a car, and in a suit.

Me: Why does he need to do that?

Rebecca: Because I have tickets to Don Giovanni. (Pause) I know he has potential – I could feel it in him, and I know I’m right. This could be . . . well, this is the Big One. (Pause) You look skeptical, and I don’t appreciate it.

Me: Well, I don’t know if I’m skeptical, but it does sound like a pretty big stretch – for both of you.

Rebecca: I know he’s going to prove himself to me, and live up to his potential. (Pause) He agreed.

Me: He agreed that he has to live up to his potential?

Rebecca: No – he agreed to try. (Smiling) For me.

Me: Well, you’re certainly worth it, but how long is it going to last, realistically?

Rebecca: (Disgusted) I knew you’d use that word!

Me: Well, I am here to help you . . .

Rebecca: Then help me!

Me: I’m trying.

Rebecca: Then tell me how I can make it work.

Okay, I think that’ll give you a pretty good idea of the kind of situations that come up – regularly. Both these patients were (and are) smart people, who would absolutely tell a friend, who told them what they just told me, “Hold on a minute there – this is crazy.” So what made their judgment go AWOL like that?

Wishing.

Hoping.

Dreaming.

We all know – on some level – what’s ‘realistic’, but we all have primitive wishes, hopes and dreams, going all the way back to childhood, that lurk inside, waiting for the right opportunity. As we grow up, we learn, from the experiences of others, from societal pressure, from our own frustrating experiences: we learn what is societally ‘normal’ to expect, we learn what sounds mature, and we learn, in some sense, what the realistic ‘range’ is, for each of us.

An example: I remember a woman describing to me going to a summer camp, in Upstate New York, as a young teenager. She said that within the first two days, the girls and boys had divided themselves into levels:

“The really cute girls got the really cute boys, and the rest of us – well, we were the bottom-feeders; we could never ‘cross over,’ and we had to scramble for whatever we could get.”

Sad and poignant – but realistic. We all have to learn our ‘place’ in the hierarchy. And we learn what to expect from relationships, and from work. But that doesn’t mean our FANTASIES are dead: they are just dormant, waiting inside for the right situation. I remember, as a young boy, being shocked, shocked, when a girl I really liked, didn’t like me. I mean, how could she? It didn’t make any sense – it didn’t feel ‘right’: how could she not like me? God got it wrong! Well, I learned – I didn’t like it, but I learned – or maybe I should say I ‘settled,’ for frustrating reality: sometimes, you like them, but they don’t like you, and vice versa. Damn.

So, we learn (grudgingly) to accept all of these realities. We certainly know how to tell other people how to act, what to expect, and whether they’re acting rationally. And, for the most part, we apply those rules to ourselves, too.

Until we don’t.

My patient Joe knew quite a bit about the ‘admin’ he had the one-night affair with (and that’s above and beyond the fact that he also absolutely ‘knew’ not to get involved with anyone from work). She had undermined several bosses – and those were only the ones he was aware of. She had created rivalries that didn’t need to be rivalries. She had spread ugly rumors about a co-worker, that eventually got the co-worker demoted – rumors that eventually were found to be false, by the way.

So what happened to him – what happened to his judgment?  Well, she had a genius for telling people what they wanted to hear, and she certainly told Joe what he wanted to hear, during their one-night stand. The day I spoke to him, he was ready (seriously ready) to leave his wife and children, ready to jeopardize his job, and ‘run away’ with her. But Joe was lucky: she called it off, a few days afterwards, before it became public knowledge, when she realized (bitterly) that it wasn’t going to improve her chances of advancement in the organization!

And by the next week, Joe had returned to his senses, regretting what he did, and thanking god that it had ended before he destroyed his marriage. Later, he was amazed, and disturbed, by how he had been able to deny all that he knew about this woman, and only believe the best about her.

He sat there and said, “How could I have been so stupid?” And the only answer he could come up with was, “I guess I wanted to feel like a big man so bad, that I just believed what I wanted to believe.”

I get it: we all, deep down inside, want to feel like a ‘big man’, but it stays deep down inside, unless, and until, something comes along that triggers it full-scale, in a way that our good sense can’t override.

Joe was foolish, yes, but isn’t he just you or me under the right circumstances?

And Rebecca? Well, maybe she was lucky, too. Her Hell’s Angel never showed up for their dress-up date, in or out of a suit. She was devastated for a week or so, and then embarrassed for having taken the ‘sleigh ride,’ as she called it.

But even much later, she said, “Part of me knew it could never work out, but I still think he had something special in him, and I could have brought it out.” She was enamored with the idea of having that kind of power, and besotted with the idea of his changing ‘for’ her.

Rebecca could find any rare book you wanted, but there was still that little girl (Becky?) inside her, way back in the stacks, searching for the elusive Book of Love.

These were both normal people, who happened onto situations that, somehow and mysteriously, were perfectly designed to actuate their hidden inner wishes and needs, like the right key opening a lock.

It could happen to anyone, so don’t feel so superior.

And if it does happen to you, you might be able to recognize your sorry state, if you find yourself saying to your friends,

Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby!

 

 

 

 

 

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

I’ll Be There

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A fella ain’t got a soul of his own – just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody. I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

These stirring words, spoken by Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in the classic film The Grapes of Wrath, have a searing power because, like all great art, they resonate on several different levels at once. In the film, Tom Joad is planning to leave the family, and his mother wants to know where he’ll be. He is a young man whose family (‘Okies,’ in the argot of the times) has just completed an arduous trek to the West, escaping the grimness and despair of the Dust Bowl, for what they hope is a better life in California. It doesn’t turn out that way: instead of milk and honey, they find hordes of other displaced people just like themselves, from all over the country; they find the police of angry communities, trying to keep out, or beat out, these unwanted newcomers; they find greedy landowners, taking advantage of this desperation to get their crops picked for next to nothing.

So Tom Joad decides he’s had enough. He’s pulling out. He doesn’t have the slightest idea where he’s going – it’s enough to know that it’s not where he’s been. He wants something new, something different, and, like all young men, he wants a life of his own making.

And, like all concerned mothers, Ma Joad is anxious, and worried, about her son leaving the family. So, when she asks the question, she is simply distressed and wondering where he is going to go. But his answer ‘jumps the tracks’ to a place so universal it has rightfully earned a place of immortality in movie lore.

On one level, Tom is talking about what we would call his ‘spirit’: he is saying something transcendent:

The things (in this case, moral and political principles) that I stand for, are me. I am the spirit of fairness; I am the spirit of the fight for a decent life for all; I am joy, I am righteous anger, I am the spirit of every man who is trying to fend for himself, make a life for himself in this rough world. Where these things are, there I will be.

Compare to this passage, from The Little Prince, by St. Exupery:

“People have stars, but they aren’t the same. For travelers, the stars are guides. For other people, they’re nothing but tiny lights. And for still others, for scholars, they’re problems. For my businessman, they were gold. But all those stars are silent stars. You, though, you’ll have stars like nobody else.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you look up at the sky at night, since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you, it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!”

And he laughed again.

“And when you’re consoled, you’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend. You’ll feel like laughing with me. And you’ll open your windows sometimes just for the fun of it. And your friends will be amazed to see you laughing while you’re looking up at the sky. Then you’ll tell them, ‘Yes, it’s the stars. They always make me laugh!'”

So, on one level, Tom Joad is saying, “The things I am associated with, will remind you of me.”

But on another level, I believe he is, in effect, speaking on behalf of God, maybe as an agent of God:

I am everywhere, witnessing and representing all that is good, fair, and righteous – protecting the ‘little guy’, those who are not powerful and need my help, in their struggle to survive in the world.

In its overall meaning, this manifesto sounds like it could be from the Bible – perhaps Jesus addressing a crowd of people. In this majestic passage, Steinbeck is channeling, and appropriating, the same authorial ‘voice’ commandeered by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass – a kind of populist humanism that moves us deeply because it has always been associated with America, and with the idealized American character.

But what is left unspoken here, though nonetheless evident on an unconscious level, is yet another layer of meaning: that Tom (like Jesus) is leaving his immediate family in order to pursue a ‘calling,’ to right the wrongs, to fight the ‘good fight’, to speak to the downtrodden and devote his life to  his larger family – the family of man. The grandeur, the selflessness, and the eloquence of Tom’s spoken words, at the moment of his leaving, show a man transformed, a man transcendent, a man with an unshakeable vision. Like Christ, this is a man on a mission, and the mission is bigger than his personal life.

And Ma Joad unconsciously comprehends this, and it terrifies her, as well it should. One gets the sense that Tom will not be coming back home, ever – that he no longer places much, if any, importance on his own personal outcomes in all of this.

So, what does all this have to do with the process of therapy? A great deal, if you look closely.

First of all, a therapist is also an evangelist of sorts, one who pursues a vocation, to empower the unempowered, to restore functionality to the (emotionally) disenfranchised, to help people find an expanded sense of self, to rise above their limited, harmful, and sometimes abusive surroundings and be the person they were born to be.

Long ago, I had a friend, a fellow graduate student, whom I admired greatly. He used to say, “A therapist is a salesman – a salesman for mental health.” At the time I thought that statement was kind of low-rating the grand profession of psychology, as I saw it then. But now I see that he was right: a therapist is a salesman, because he is ‘selling’ the patient on doing the (hard!) work required to transcend the harm done by a difficult early environment, as well as selling a belief in overcoming whatever other barriers – social, neurological, biochemical – life has put in the patient’s pathway to self. Selling a belief in his own possibility.

Sure, you can know your theory, and be very experienced and well-schooled, but eventually, most therapy comes down to getting the patient to “buy in” to what you’re trying to do: after all, if the patient’s not there, there’s no therapy.

When therapy fails, why does it fail? Mostly, for not very dramatic reasons, in not very dramatic ways: the person decides they can’t afford it, they feel they don’t have the time, they don’t understand what’s happening, they don’t see why they should keep coming, it hurts too bad, it doesn’t make sense to them, they’re afraid of getting too dependent, they feel it’s not helping them in the way they first hoped it would help them.

These mundane, ‘ordinary’ reasons all relate back to what I just said: the therapist failed to ‘sell’ the person on the importance of therapy, to make him believe in it, to empower him enough to talk ‘out loud’ to the therapist about what his questions and doubts. The person was desperate enough, at one point, to pick up the phone and call for help. But now, perhaps the crisis has calmed down (temporarily), or resolved in some short-term way (a break-up, or staying sober for a few weeks, a new medication that is helping, or just ‘blown over’), and the reasons for spending the money, taking the time, and going through the difficulties of therapy, don’t seem as compelling. And so the person gradually ‘falls off the map’: perhaps they request meeting every other week, or once a month, or they say, “Nothing personal – I just feel like taking a break,” or “I guess it’s not what I thought it was going to be,” or “Thanks, I’m feeling a little better now. Maybe I’ll come back when/if things gets worse again.” But it is the therapist’s job to ‘sell’ the person on continuing for as long as it takes to really resolve the problem, or at least help the patient get to the point where the problem will not recur in the same way, as intensely, or as frequently.

Is this ‘creepy’? It can be. In the minds of many therapy patients:

You just want to keep me coming forever, for your own pocketbook.

A patient once accused me of using her as an ‘annuity’. And, to be fair, I think that can happen in therapy: the therapist gets used to meeting with the person regularly, they talk and talk and talk and talk about the problem, with the therapist spinning out, or spitting out, theories about why it all happened. Many, many patients have come to see me after having spent months, or years, with another therapist – talking, talking, endlessly about the problem, speculating about what caused it, only to end up with the classic patient’s lament:

“I understand perfectly what caused my problems, but I still have them!”

And I always ask, “And did you talk to Dr. _______ about all these feelings, all these things you were thinking, about the therapy?”

And the answer is almost always, “No.”

And this is a shame, because it tells me the therapist didn’t manage to convey to the patient that one, indispensable thing: that honesty and openness in the therapy relationship itself, is crucial to the success of the whole enterprise. And it also tells me that the therapist failed to help the patient feel safe enough to feel free to express these doubts, and questions, to him. And this is unfortunate, because a big part of why people end up in therapy is that their parents (and others) did not encourage them to express themselves honestly (especially about the parents) and didn’t make it safe to do so – so the patient’s silence in the therapy relationship in effect just becomes a repetition (and sadly, a confirmation) of the original hurt.

If there was only one thing I had the opportunity to emphasize to therapists, beginning and experienced, it would be this: to stress to the patient, from the very beginning, that it is crucial (and safe) for the patient to openly express his changing thoughts about the therapy process itself, whether those thoughts seem rational, or fair, or not.

One of the saddest things I hear (frequently) from patients in failed therapies, is that when the patient finally did try to express his frustrations, or doubts, or disappointments about the therapy, the therapist became defensive, angry and even attacking, such as the tragic situation I have mentioned elsewhere in this series of blogs, wherein the therapist finally erupted,

“You’re nothing but a borderline!”

So all of this is what I mean by the ‘evangelistic’ aspect of being a therapist: you’re conveying to the person that they can ‘get better’, but that it’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of honesty, on both your parts. Can this lead to a conflict of interest? Absolutely! Consider this: you can be a good salesman with a bad product. Like I’ve said in previous blogs, there is virtually no way for a new therapy patient to know whether his new therapist is really ‘any good’ or not, so a therapist who is a good salesman (or even an unethical manipulator) could induce a patient to stay in a sterile, barren, or even harmful therapy situation.

But what’s worse is what happens time and time again: a good, well-meaning therapist loses a patient for lack of conveying to the patient how important, how crucial, it is to talk openly about the patient’s feelings about the therapy.

And here’s yet another facet in many of these instances of ‘quitting without a word’: the patient ends up feeling that the therapist just ‘let it go at that,’ instead of FIGHTING for the patient and the therapy.  And often, patients in these circumstances don’t even realize it until much later in their therapy with me, because it is only later that they realize they are (and were!) WORTH fighting for. So often, in retrospect, they will say, “Wow, now I realize that my previous therapist just let me walk away without a word, and didn’t really care enough to make me talk about it.”

And of course, one of the main reasons people seek therapy in the first place, is that they didn’t feel valued by their parents – by parents who didn’t connect with them, or fight for them, or stay there (emotionally) through disagreements and difficulties.

A therapy patient is a person who has lost his heart, and even the way to his heart.

Consider this quote from the author, Robert Walser:

A person who does not know how to preserve his heart is unwise, because he is robbing himself of an endless source of sweet inexhaustible strength, a wealth in which he exceeds all the creatures on earth, a fullness, a warmth that, if he wants to remain human, he will never be able to do without. A person with a heart is not only the best person but also the most intelligent person, since he has something that no mere bustling cleverness can give him . . .

And for a person who has lost his heart (and therefore, his way), the ‘prescription’ is connection. Here is what Walser has to say about that:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long. The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat.

And that precious flower, that familiar heart, that place to chat – that is psychotherapy.

Is saying such a thing heresy? Is it unscientific? Is it soft-brained pap? Here is what James McMahon, an esteemed psychotherapist and writer, thinks:

We write more and more esoteric journal articles and we quote each other and discuss theory with each other in conferences and meetings. But how practical is it all? How much does it help? What can we bring into our consulting room that helps us make true contact with our patients? I think it often actually stands in our way. We do the good work we do in spite of it!

Note that he says, “But how practical is it all?” He’s not saying, “C’mon, people, be nice; be kind and understanding toward your patients because it’s the right thing to do.” He is saying this:

To do anything that doesn’t constitute “true contact”does not work.

Why is this? Because working back through all the layers of pain and emotional damage hurts. And if you’re not ‘really’ caring or involved with the patient, it isn’t WORTH it, for the damaged part of them. They don’t know this, of course; they’ve already accepted, on some (unconscious)  level, that there is no such thing as ‘real caring’, or at least real caring directed towards them, and that whether you care or not is irrelevant, because the caring of someone else about them (even if it did exist) doesn’t matter.

What ‘matters’ (they think!) is for you to give them the magic words: words that ‘explain’ their problems, words that tell them the magic stuff to do about their problems, words that will magically undo the harm. Yes, they think ‘mere words’ are the answer, so your caring for them is not only irrelevant but quite possibly a pain in the ass that they wouldn’t know what to do with anyway. What they don’t know is that the child in them NEEDS someone to ‘hold them’ through the work of exhuming their lost self from the dead – that if there isn’t anyone ‘there’ to care and see them through it all, they can’t do it.

They don’t know that they can’t do it alone, and they don’t know that the fact that there was no one really ‘there’ is the reason for the whole mess. They don’t know this, but YOU DO. And if you don’t – perhaps you’re not suited to this precious work. Because the truth is, that the child in them can perform miracles, but only IF you hold their hand through it, and hold it the right way.

Is this the dreaded “dependency”? YES – it is temporary dependency, for a purpose, or what they used to call ‘regression in the service of the ego’. It isn’t an end point – it is a (NORMAL) stage of development that they will go through, using you, and then be able to do it themselves, just as other ‘normal’ people can.

After all, we don’t become disturbed that an infant, or a toddler, or any young child, is “dependent,” do we?  It’s NORMAL, FOR NOW, right? So why would you think that the process of therapy would be any different? Since normal development was sidetracked and stunted for lack of a reliable partner, the ‘cure’ is the appearance of a reliable partner, FOR NOW. Later, through going through it all with you, they internalize the functions of the ‘parental figure’, so that they can do it for themselves. This, not the dreaded (gasp!) dependency, is the real hoped-for outcome. And note, I don’t say that “understanding” is the real hoped-for outcome. You do NOT teach the patient “tricks” or “explanations” or “techniques” or anything else: you go through something with them, until finally the “something” is inside them, to stay. It’s just that the unreliable experiences people have gone through in early life (and sometimes later) “give dependency a bad name,” so to speak, so that any hint of really needing someone is terrifying. (And of course it doesn’t help that our entire society endorses this stance, as well.)

So let’s go back to Tom Joad’s speech in The Grapes of Wrath. What is really happening here, emotionally? He is moving beyond the small identity with his original family, to his membership in the family of man. He is expanding his small, personal identity (I am this guy, from this family, who is on the run from despair and degradation) to a larger identity, as a human being >> as a living being >> as spirit made manifest. And this act of expansion, this expanded IDENTITY (I am part of mankind, I am part of “something bigger,” I am spirit incarnate) gives him the ‘holding’ experience: I am not alone, I was never alone, I am a part of something bigger than me. And THIS ‘holding’ (just like the holding in the therapy relationship) is what gives him the courage to strike out into the world boldly, to prosecute aims that are bigger than “I want a job, I want security” (i.e. the things his family is seeking). This is a spiritual awakening – which really means an identity expansion and a ‘joining’ of a bigger family, not just the family of man, but the ‘family’ of living beings, and the ‘family’ of spirit.

The aim of psychotherapy may or may not involve an expansion that large, into the realm of the spirit (although it can), but it must involve an expansion beyond the stunted personal identity which was frozen by key experiences in the family of origin. And it always, always, involves an expansion of personal identity from a personality system that is motivated by FEAR, to one that is about the encountering, and the experiencing, and the expression, of SELF.

From fear, to self-manifestation.

And that takes a partner.

And that’s what psychotherapy is all about: providing that partner.

Because Selfing is a two-person job.

So, when someone struggles in to see you, heart-sick, soul-battered, and weary beyond telling, what you are really offering – beyond the theories, beyond the techniques, beyond the ‘expertise’, is simply this:

I’ll be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Coming Home

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This is it: the last day of my vacation. Part of me (a Big part!) wants to mope, to pout and kick, and say, “Waaahh – now it’s all over!” But what is it, really, that’s ‘all over’? The whole thing is just my own mental division of life into “vacation” and “not on vacation” – that’s all. Yes, it’s true, on vacation I don’t have to ‘work’, but then I love my work. Yes, I get to do “whatever I want” on vacation, but being of service to other people is also very much “what I want”, so that one doesn’t really hold water, either.

I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame again today, just to be there one more time, and let the spirit of it sink in a little more deeply. And this time, before leaving, I found myself at the gift store, looking at all the stuff you can buy – all the stuff that represents one’s love for the game: autographed balls, photos, team hats and jerseys, books, posters. The ‘old’ part of me would certainly have found something to ‘bring back alive’ from Cooperstown, some doodad, or keepsake or memento that I could stick on a desk or a wall and smile at every so often.

But I found myself walking around and just smiling. I no longer need any ‘stuff’ to remind me of my love for baseball: I have it in my heart, always.

It’s like when people in my life find out I like baseball, and they ask me, “Oh yeah – so who are you rooting for?” And increasingly, I can’t answer that question – it’s not even relevant. Oh, I might mention that I follow my local teams, sure, and even ‘keep my eye on’ a few more out-of-town teams each year, like I would ‘root for’ the progress of a favorite child.

But all of that jazz matters less and less to me; the real answer is that I just love baseball: I love the unexpected way the season unfolds each year, the new kids that force their way in, the players that suddenly explode in a blaze of unexpected glory, the comeback stories, the old guys making use of their one more chance in the summer sun. That is to say, I hold baseball more lightly than I ever did before – deeply and lovingly, but more lightly. I won’t say it doesn’t matter what happens, but more and more, what really matters is that it happens.

And I find that this is how I feel about my work with therapy patients, too: increasingly, I have less and less ‘ego’ involved in exactly how it goes. It’s more the privilege and honor of being able to be there while whatever happens, happens. It isn’t about me, but rather about clearing a pathway for the patient to follow. I’m not the ‘doer’ anymore – I’m just the snowplow. In other words, I’m holding the whole process more lightly – deeply and lovingly, but lightly.

So I got to thinking that I want to be able to hold my life more lightly, now. I don’t want to be making arbitrary distinctions between being ‘at work’ and being ‘on vacation’. I don’t want to be sad because I’m leaving a vacation, or happy that I’m going on vacation. I want to clutch life to my chest, dearly, like I hold baseball: to love it, deeply and indiscriminately, for whatever it is, no matter how it ‘turns out’; to be my own snowplow, rather than identifying with the ups and downs (“I’m bad/I’m good”), or even differentiating between ups and downs. There are no ups and downs – there is just life, one minute following the next. There is just paying attention to what develops, and being interested, no matter what develops.

Instead of, “What the hell is that all about?” I want to say, “Gee – what is that all about?”

It’s like the parents who complain to me about their child, “He just does that for attention.” And I tell them, “Well then, why not give him attention?”

So, I’m taking a vow, though I want it to be a realistic vow. A recovering alcoholic doesn’t say, “I’ll never drink again,” he says, “I’m not going to drink today, and I’m going to follow my program, and we’ll see what happens.”

So my vow is simply this:

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I’m going to try to be kind to myself at every step, stop making arbitrary distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and just pay attention as closely as I can, appreciating each thing that comes down the pike, remembering that I really have no way of knowing what each thing actually ‘means’, in the larger sense of things, or what it is going to lead to. I’m going to try to not miss my life, by obsessing about details, or wailing that it didn’t go ‘my way’.

And most of all, I’m going to try and treat myself like a favorite child, and love myself, no matter what: my value is not derived from my actions, but from my essence.

I know this will be hard, so I will forgive myself when I screw up, when I judge, and when I get distracted. I’m going to love my life like I love baseball, like I love doing therapy: deeply and indiscriminately, but lightly. Like baseball, loving my life will be hard, but fun. Yes, I dare use the word ‘fun’, because anything you love deeply enough is fun. And crazy. And unexpected. And that’s why it’s fun, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you relish it – you relish it all, come what may.

As someone once said,

Your life is not your master.
It is your child.

So treat it as a beloved child: accept it fully, and hold it dear.

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Okay, I’m done here now.

Tomorrow, I get on that plane and come home. Come what may: cancelled flights, missed connections, lost luggage, new friends, crazy stories, air pockets, smooth landings, seeing my family, my own bed, fortunes, misfortunes.

All of it.

I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow, but I hope you’ll ‘take the pledge’ with me, in your own way. For what it’s worth, I’ve shared my way with you: I’m finally putting Life up there in the best possible company, with Therapy, and Baseball.

What’s your way?

I hope you’ll join me, and come home.

Play ball!

 

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

October, In the Rain

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It’s October, in Upstate New York.

Turning leaves.

Raking leaves.

Burning leaves.

And this year, I’ve got a front-row seat for all of it. I’m in Cooperstown, New York. I’m sitting here in my cottage on the shores of Otsego Lake, looking out my window at the lake, through the soft rain that’s been falling all afternoon. Looking at the flame-orange and yellow foliage on the trees – their last, glorious act of defiance, before winter pulls down the curtain on the show. But what a show!

I came here to worship at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s located here because, back in the Thirties, a group of guys got together and decided to say that baseball was invented here, by a guy named Abner Doubleday – a Civil War hero. Well, long story short, but d’ohh, it wasn’t, and everyone knows it. But here’s the deal: whoever thought of locating this thing here in Cooperstown was a genius. I mean, if they needed to say that Christ was raised from the dead in Cooperstown to get the darn thing located up here, it would’ve been worth it. Because this place is so utterly beautiful in the Fall, it’s practically criminal. After seeing all this, I feel like every other burg in America should be arrested for impersonating a small town in Fall, because this is IT.

I mean, if there was an All-Star game for the seasons, this place would have to represent Fall, hands down:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together once again and welcome your unanimous selection for the season of Autumn: Cooperstown, New York!

All that Fall stuff, and Americana, too. As far as the Americana part of it all, well, I guess it’s understandable: once Cooperstown was chosen as the site for the Hall of Fame, it was committed to keeping its old-time flavor, and that’s as it should be. I mean, you will not find a McDonald’s on Main Street, or a Wal-Mart, or a Taco Bell. I did find a Price Chopper store, but it’s kept discreetly out of the way, like an embarrassing relative.

So what it comes down to is this: Cooperstown is what we, in our modern cynicism, would call a Theme Park. But is that so bad? Hey, we need Theme Parks! I remember, years ago, when I was on a business trip in Florida and visited Disney World in Tampa. And they had this thing called the World Showcase, and it had areas that were supposed to look like Germany, and France, and they did! I mean, heck, I knew it wasn’t Germany, or France, but it did kind of give the feel of those places, and I enjoyed it. And, in the original Disneyland, my favorite part is the one that’s supposed to look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and you know what – it does look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and if you hang out there in the evening, and have a couple drinks, it’s like being in the French Quarter. And no, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

And for that matter, aren’t our whole lives kind of like a Theme Park? I mean, we decorate our houses to give the ‘feel’ of something or other, don’t we? It’s not like the visitors to our homes actually look around the living room and think, for example,

“Wow, the Bernsteins really ARE the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America: they live a life of aesthetic perfection, because I can see that that special celadon vase with the dragonfly imprint goes so well with that painted tile on the south wall over there.”

And how about the way we dress? Do people actually look at a woman and think,

“Oh my god – she’s the living embodiment of Dior! And she has accessorized so perfectly that it takes my breath away! She must spend all her time in Paris at the feet of the masters!”

I don’t think so. All we really want is a momentary Theme Park: “Oh, yeah, you’ve got the right idea. You go, girl!” That’s good enough for us, right? We’re going for an impression, a ‘feel’, not a full-on identity. We’re, all of us, impersonators, to one degree or another.

And in that sense, Cooperstown really does its job. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and treasures its old times and its old players. Even the casual baseball fan knows something about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Willie Mays: the really famous guys. And the Hall of Fame is a shrine for the casual fan, because it’s about the Really Famous Guys. The average Joe who makes the pilgrimage to Cooperstown wants to look at a plaque, turn to his wife and say, “Oh yeah – I know that guy!”

Yes, there is a fantastic library, which is a fabulous resource for the hard-core guys: the writers, the researchers, the people who are sitting up nights obsessing about  OPS+, and the research facility also houses a staggering amount of memorabilia, artifacts of the game, that tell the story of baseball in the objects that have been associated with it. Rotating group of these artifacts are on display in the ‘museum’ of the history of the game that you can walk through at your leisure and ooh and aah over: baggy old flannel uniforms, tarnished trophies, the battered catcher’s mitt that Mickey Cochrane once used, the cap that Casey Stengel wore at a Yankees’ old-timers’ game, the bat that Babe Ruth leaned on when he said goodbye to us forever.

It may seem childish to ‘outsiders,’ but to anyone who loves this beautiful old game, these are holy relics.

But back to this lovely little town and looking at the lake through the rain. This little town’s job is to be Evocative, and evocative, even if it’s only ‘theme park’ evocative, is wonderful. It reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago, called Bachelor Party. Nope, not the Tom Hanks one. Definitely not the Tom Hanks one. The 1957 one – one of those ‘prestige,’ social commentary jobs, written by Paddy Chayevsky, that were so prevalent in the Fifties, with Don Murray, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Warden. At one point, one of the characters tells the story of going out with a woman who asks him, “When we go to bed, please, just say you love me.”

So it’s kind of like that for me here: I don’t care if the people who work in the cute little diners and shops on Main Street actually aren’t wonderful human beings in their ‘real’ lives, whether they forget their kids’ birthdays, cheat on their taxes, or sometimes shoot up something stronger than aspirin; I just want them to LOOK LIKE they’re nice people, so I can get into that evocative space that this place is all about. I want to float along Main Street and pretend, if I feel darn well feel like it, that I’m back in the 1950’s, or even the 1900’s.

Just SAY you love me, Cooperstown!

So I went and saw a life-like statue of Ted Williams, I genuflected to Stan Musial’s bat from the 1946 World Series, I rubbed the bronze plaque of Babe Ruth (I noticed that Ruth’s is the only one that is  worn absolutely smooth, from decades of spontaneous affection), and I even listened to Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First’ routine once again.

And now I’m back in my hotel room, looking out at the lake, and the rain, and thinking. I’m thinking about how, in some ways, we are all impersonators. Yes, we admire those Hall of Famers because they actually got out there and DID it, in the big-time.

But real life isn’t that simple, or substantial: a lot of life is about how we’re SEEN, and how we’re seen matters to us, a lot.

Perception.

A therapist lives with the issue of perception all day long:

How is the patient seeing me?

How does the patient see the therapy?

How is the patient seeing himself?

How does the patient feel about his life?

Because there is very little actual difference between the life of a person who is severely depressed, and the life of the same person when he/she is feeling ‘better.’ The difference is, mostly, perception. Are you actually functioning much better, in real terms, when you’re feeling good about yourself and your life? Are you actually doing a better job at work, functioning more maturely in your relationships, making more money, being a finer human being, making the world a more worthwhile place?

No, not really.

You just feel like you are. But that makes all the difference.

After all, on Monday, a patient might feel like a loser, a failure, and a bum.

On Tuesday, he starts taking Prozac.

The next Monday, he comes in beaming:

Life is good.

I am worthwhile.

I look forward to each day.

What happened? Did he have a spiritual awakening over the weekend? Did he find a four-leaf clover? Did Jupiter align with Mars? Nope – he started taking a little round pill before bedtime each night, and he feels differently about himself and his life.

Perception.

Why is it that one person, with terminal cancer, can feel calm, settled, and appreciative of life, whereas another person, who is perhaps privileged, healthy and in the prime of life, can feel desperately miserable and tortured?

Because it is not so much what is going on in the patient’s life, as it is his or her relationship to what is happening. What a therapist does can be very complicated, steeped in convoluted theory, and infinitely challenging, but it all ultimately boils down to two basic tasks:

1) Teaching the patient a new way to ‘hold’ the facts of his life.

2) Creating a safe place for him to do so.

Each and every therapist will accomplish these things differently, and differently with every patient, but the success of the therapy will primarily hinge on these two jobs.

And how do you accomplish those two jobs?

Ask me later.

Right now, I’ve got a lake to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Sleepy Town Awakening

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So here I am in Cazenovia, New York. Things are old here. Real old. I mean, San Francisco barely existed before the Gold Rush, and L.A., where I’m from – well, anything more than fifty years old, they either tear it down or slap a plaque on it. But here – there are lots of buildings still standing from the 1700’s, and there are no plaques, shrines, or ceremonies associated with them: they’re not ‘marketed’, they’re just, well, there.

As you may remember from my old blogs, I like old things. I like old things a lot. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me take a minute here and go in my favorite direction: backwards.

A long time ago (well, an L.A. long time – say ten or twelve years), I somehow got involved with a real estate investment outfit that said they would help you find the ‘hot spots’ in the country, places where big things were happening, or were just about to happen.

For a fee, of course.

Major hot spots. For a fee. What could be bad about that, right?

Well, it turns out that, according to these heavy hitters, Upstate New York, and particularly the Syracuse area, was going to go nuts, I mean just explode, in a supernova of development. Big stuff. I’m talking major malls, big stores: Wal-Marts, Schmall-Marts, Tall-Marts, hell, All-Marts, if you catch my drift. So, being the kind of prescient investor who has his ear to the ground for big doin’s like this, I ponied up the dough and jumped right in.

You know, kind of like the Gold Rush: you can’t lose.

Well, somehow, and I don’t even remember anymore how, I ended up buying a small apartment building in Cazenovia, New York. I mean, it’s kind of near Syracuse, right? Well, what I mean is, if you look closely at a map, with a magnifying glass, you’ll see that it’s in the Greater Syracuse Sphere of Influence. Or something. I mean, I promise you, it is there. There’s even a college there, called (wait for it) Cazenovia College. Actual people actually go there and everything.

So, I bought this place and waited – you know, for the supernova.

And waited.

Well, it should have been a tip-off to me that I’m the kind of person who, if I get in a supermarket line, I actually curse the people ahead of me, because as soon as I get in the line, someone at the head of the line is guaranteed to forget their credit card, or decide they don’t want half of what they brought up there, or need a price check on some recondite item that simply cannot be found anywhere in the store, after ten or fifteen minutes of intense checking. I am actually called Price Check Bernstein in certain quarters, because where I go, Price Checks follow. But I don’t usually talk about it openly. Anyway, the point being, it should have been a tip-off.

I’m not actually sure, but I think that after I bought this place, Syracuse not only didn’t grow spectacularly, but had the city equivalent of a price check. I mean, it did nothing. Somehow, Sam Walton must have heard that I was involved, and passed the word on to all his big-store buddies, to drop all their major plans for the area, and leave it flat.

So, I’m using this space to issue a blanket apology to the entire Greater Syracuse Area: it was me, guys, that popped your balloon – it was me, all along.

Yes, I ruined Syracuse.

Whew, it always feels better to make a clean breast of things – you know, like an amends.

Man, I can breathe again.

Okay, so the point being that I ended up with this little apartment building in Cazenovia, New York. That I’ve never seen. And eventually, I got this nice couple, who live in town, to manage it for me. And eventually I sort of got over my disappointment about the whole thing, and settled down to accept reality for what it is, which is that I am Price Check Bernstein, who owns a sort of cute little apartment building in Cazenovia, New York.

And when people ask, “What the hell – why Cazenovia, New York?” all I have to do is say, “Aw, it’s a long story,” and they give up, right away.

See, it’s not that hard, once you get used to it.

So, there it is. It’s over and done, and I own it. End of story.

Except for one thing: I’d still never seen it. So, I got this idea: how about going to see it? You know, Autumn in Upstate New York, plus I could see stuff like Niagara Falls, and maybe sneak over to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, another nice little town not far from Caz (that’s what we insiders call it, you know).

You know, like visiting a nice old uncle you have somewhere, except that it’s a nice old apartment building.

So, I made my plans to fly to Syracuse. Whoops, two plane changes. Well, that’ll be no problem, right? I mean, what could go wrong?

So, I don’t have to go through the whole Price Check thing again, do I? I mean, by now, we all understand the immutable rules of the universe, and that one of them is that, if I’m involved, things MUST go wrong. If you read my last blog posting, you know most of the details anyway, so either go read it now, or just move on to the rest of the story, like those people who say, “Just tell me the good stuff,” which I’m not one of, but I do understand, especially in this case.

Though I can’t promise that it’s ‘good stuff’. You’ll just have to take your chances. I waive all responsibility: your results may vary.

So, a lot of bad airplane stuff happened, but that’s over now, and I have now seen Niagara Falls, too (and no, they didn’t stop falling when I got there, thank you!), and then I was on my way to Cazenovia (that’s in New York, in case you’re the type that skipped the whole first part of this).

And shoot, Cazenovia turns out to be Gorgeous. I mean, everywhere you look there’s leaves (the good, deciduous kind, not the blah evergreen needles we have in the Bay Area), and lakes, and beautiful rivers, and old things. Yeah – old things, which I happen to like, in case you skipped everything above, like the disrespectful skimmer that you are (but I’m not judging you, you understand – we can’t help our disabilities).

So I met the nice couple that manages my place, and the nice couple took me to the nice place – and it was really, you know, nice. And I’m even gladder that I own it, now, even though Syracusapalooza didn’t happen and Sam Walton shot me down like that.

It doesn’t matter, anymore: I’m happy with what I have.

Really.

So, having some time, they took me on a short tour of the Village (Caz is a village, not a city or town – in fact, there’s a little place just up the road that actually officially calls itself a Hamlet, imagine that!), and the whole place is gorgeous, though they kept saying, “There’s not really much to see here.” So they took me to see Chittenango Falls, which, though no Niagara Falls, is a very cute falls indeed, and I didn’t even have to wear an embarrassing pink plastic Breast Cancer Awareness raincoat thingy like they make you wear at Niagara Falls. And the leaves were spectacular, and the little Chittenango River was pretty darn cute, and Cazenovia Lake is very darn cute, and I can definitely see why it’s a bedroom community for people who work in Syracuse, because it’s a lot darn cuter than Syracuse, so there! (We Cazenovians have to stick together, you know.)

But that’s not all of the good stuff. Nancy, the woman of the nice couple, asked me, when I was on my way here, if I wanted her to set me up at one of the “really nice inns” they’ve got here in town, for the night. I figured, why not? The worst it could be is a little, dorky, embarrassing dump with fake-everything, right?

Wrong!

I am staying at the Brae Loch Inn, and dude, it’s just about the most beautiful, amazing place I’ve ever stayed in my life. And not only is everything not fake, nothing is fake! It’s old, but ‘real’ old: the furniture in my room is honest-to-god antiques, the bed is one of those fabulous canopy jobs that you see in magazines, and not one of those fake-sweet Laura Ashley-oid canopy jobs, but a real one. The carpet is thick, wool and handsome – the real deal.

And, I kid thee not – there is an honest-to-god working fireplace in my room! As in, you light a match, touch it to the log inside the big hole in the wall, and boom, you have a god’s honest FIRE, right in your own bedroom, that you can sit and moon over till all hours, or even moon over from your own bed!

The restaurant is all dark wood and antiques, and the food is fabulous. I guess people have known about this place for a long time, because I saw autographed pictures of a lot of my old film noir ‘friends’ all over the walls in the restaurant and bar. I can’t remember who, exactly, but I’m pretty sure I saw Ed Begley there (that’s Senior, dude, not Junior: yeah, the fat guy who always played shady police chiefs). And by autographed, I mean personally autographed, to the owners of this place. Like, they actually drove all the way up here just for this place – as well they should.

So here I go again: I set out to go on this kind of nerdy little trip, and I found a new ‘home’, that I would want to come back to, again and again. I mean, Jeez, I’m writing this with all the lights out in my room, except the fire blazing before me! And, not to sound like an ad or anything, but in a few, minutes I’m going to bed in my honest-to-goodness canopy bed, which by the way has an honest-to-goodness Tempur-pedic mattress, and lie there in luxury and watch the fire die down, with visions of roast duck with plum sauce and chocolate lava cake swimming around in my head.

So, do you remember in American Graffiti, when John Milner, the coolest guy in town, who drives this boss ’32 Ford, gets stuck driving ‘the strip’ with Carol, a pre-teen MacKenzie Phillips, in his car? And man, he’s humiliated, and starts putting her down. But then, in a move of sheer genius, she says, “I’m gonna tell everyone you raped me, unless you say, ‘I take back everything I said about Carol. She’s not grungy, she’s bitchin’.” And she makes him say it.

Do you remember that?

Well, ahem, here goes:

I take back everything I said about Cazenovia, and especially about the Brae Loch Inn. It’s not grungy – it’s bitchin’.

So the whole thing turned out to be a supernova after all, but not a Sam Walton supernova. A quiet supernova – my kind of supernova.

Excuse me – I have to go poke at the fire a little bit, like you do when the fire’s actually doing fine, but you want to remind yourself that you’re the Lord of the Manor, who has to keep the home fires burning properly all night, to keep all the vassals and serfs and stuff warm.

And I am the Lord of the Manor, except the manor is this cute little apartment building on William Street in Cazenovia, New York, my ‘home’. And we don’t need no stinkin’ Wal-Marts, or Tall Marts, or All-Marts, either – we got buildings from the 1700’s, and real antiques, and a real lake, and a real waterfall, and real people, too.

Sam Walton, eat your heart out!

Oh, and one more thing. Just a friendly tip, but never mess with small-town people around here, and here’s why: they’re tough, and they stick together. They shovel snow, they drive on ice, they stack wood, and they don’t complain about winter lasting five months.

And listen to this: When I went to check out from the Inn, I casually said to the lady at the front desk, just as idle conversation,

“Wow – I came here because I had never even seen my property – just a little place I own, here in town. And my property manager said, ‘Hey, maybe you’d like to stay at a real nice Inn we have here in Caz.’ And I thought, ‘Well, it’ll probably be dorky, but what the hell.’ And then, this place turned out to be really amazing!”

And she said,

“Oh, Nancy must be your property manager. You probably own that cute little place down on William Street. And by the way, our bartender is one of your tenants.”

Whew! See what I mean? Don’t mess with ’em, because in no time flat, you’ll be surrounded, and big-city boy, you’re goin’ down!

 

 

 

 

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

In The Zone

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One does not have to stand against the gale.
One yields and becomes part of the wind.

— Emmanuel’s Book

 

Well, here I am, stranded at SFO (that’s the airport, not ‘So Fucking Old’, smart-ass!), the first day of my big trip. I was supposed to fly to Syracuse, with stops in Phoenix and Philadelphia. Not ideal, but hey, it’s still a vacation, right?

Except my morning flight got . . . hmm, don’t even know exactly what my flight ‘got’, but it was definitely announced on the loudspeaker, and definitely official – something about ‘air traffic’, ‘delays’, ‘full’, and, in a much louder voice, “No hotels, in either San Francisco or Philadelphia.”

Okay, Chief: got it. No hotels, on account of you cancelled, delayed, and screwed up my flight, which you admit is your fault, but which you also admit is not your responsibility, as in NO HOTELS, ANYWHERE.

Got it: actually, I consider myself lucky that you didn’t extend the ‘no hotels’ ban to my whole LIFE. Well, maybe you will if I’m not a good boy, so I just quietly got out of line (and by ‘line’, I mean the 40 minutes I spent standing in the “since we screwed up the first leg of your flight, therefore your connecting flight will be screwed up, too, so you have to stand in line to change that, too” line), and retreated to the inconspicuous black vinyl seat bank on the outer fringes of the Main Generic Area, in the entrance area of the terminal, before you even get to the security checkpoint – the area that is so generic, so blah, and so unvalued that the Authorities can’t even be bothered with Security, or Inspections, or Sterile Areas, or even gradations, such as First Class, Commercial, Purple Plush Club Members Only, or Purple Plush Club Hopefuls Only, and we all know that any area that doesn’t even have Gradations – well, who would holler on it? (If you’ve never seen Guys and Dolls, you’re excused from getting that reference, but if you haven’t even HEARD of Guys and Dolls, rectify it immediately, or I’m going to impose a Gradation on your sorry ass, and you might never make Plush.)

So, (in keeping with our musical theme here):

A lovely day in SFO,

Had me blue, had me low;

I viewed the Round Table with alarm,

The Generic Fringe Waiting Area had lost its charm.

Oh, before I move on, just a short announcement: I’ve already spent some of my unexpected ‘bonus time’ reading the long-awaited Baseball America Top Prospects issue, so if you ever want to know how Rafael Devers (HT: 6-0, WT:195) edged out Tyler Kolek (HT: 6-5, WT: 260) for top honors in the Gulf Coast League this year, give me a buzz.

And for you normal people, I’ll try to keep the rest of this post a little more mainstream. Not that I’m implying that ‘mainstream’ means ordinary, banal or standard-issue, you understand. I just mean that there are probably quite a few of you that really couldn’t care less that, despite the fact that, Tyler Kolek “stood out in high school for his enormous frame, terrific arm speed and devastating mid- to high-90’s fastball,” and that he’s a “solid athlete with surprising body control,” sadly it must also be reported that, “His command and control can waver, and he does throw across his body.”

Poor kid, imagine that: reduced to throwing across his body, and such a nice, enormous body, too.

Well, we’re going to have to leave Tyler to his second-place finish and his unfortunate body mechanics now, because we have other things to attend to.

Frustration.

There: how’s that for mainstream?

We want things, we plan for things, we look forward to things. And then, they don’t happen.

Like, say, oh, an airplane trip.

We dread things, we plan to avoid things, we positively loathe things. And then, they do happen.

Like, say, oh, a flight being cancelled for vague reasons, standing in a long line for nothing, or ending up in the Generic Fringe Inconsequential Seating Area for a whole day of your ‘vacation’.

Stuff like that.

Well, there were several reactions on display in plain sight this morning, by people in the same boat as I, which were observed, noted, and culled by your obedient Observing Eye, and they went like this:

1) A middle-aged Asian woman, who stepped out of line dramatically, held her hands to her head, dialed her cell phone, and wailed to the unfortunate on the other end, in a smashing British accent: “It’s uttah chaos heah! Insanity, insanity, I say! Incredulity!”

Okay, so that’s the ‘Losing It’ option:

“It’s all fucked up, and I give up!”

Yep, we all recognize that one, loud and clear:

Utter victim.

I give up.

It’s all over now, Baby Blue.

That approach doesn’t really have much to recommend it, on the whole, although it does have one hidden side benefit: It makes other people feel a little superior. A few of us fellow stranded travelers kind of rolled our eyes at one another, in a subtle, respectful way, of course, presumably thinking: “Gee, lady, it’s not THAT bad. Some of us are able to maintain a bit more perspective than that – such as me, for example.”

2) Okay, then you have your “Cool Guy” approach. And that one would go something like this:

“Dude, chill. None of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Hey, I just remembered, there’s a gal named Bambi in the Flight Room over there who serves majorly strong daiquiris. I’m gonna go check her out: any takers?”

This guy is, hmm, just a bit out of touch with reality. I mean, he gets points for chillosity, but he’s the kind you don’t want to be on the receiving end of, as in the poor business partner he was going to meet in Philadelphia, who will probably receive a vague, boozy call much later tonight, saying, “Didn’t make it, but it’s all good, bro.”

Oh, by the way, we rolled our eyes at him, too.

We do that a lot, us normals.

And felt superior, too.

We do that a lot, too.

So, what’s the right answer? Like most of Life, it’s probably good old, “something in between.”

Examples?

3) Well, the German guy, who was my comrade-in-arms by then, who just blithely went ahead and took the flight to Philly, knowing that he had blown his connecting flight, fully aware of the dreaded “NO HOTELS” ruling, and took his chances of trying to snag a connecting flight on the other side, sometime, somehow. I guess he was ‘chill’ with possibly hanging out for hours in the Philly airport (maybe it has a better Generic Fringe Multi-Purpose Area than SFO?), and besides, he could always pass the time speaking really fast German to his girlfriend, or whoever it was he kept calling with witty, vaguely anti-American, Social Democratic updates.

4) And me? Being the overall more risk-averse type (yes, I stand accused of wearing classic loafers by a patient of mine, and plead guilty, with a side of stodginess), I elected to stay here, buy red-eye tickets for tonight at 10:00 (and ultimate, sleepless-in-Syracuse arrival at 9:00 A.M.), and, in the meantime, make a home for myself, here in the Outer Fringe Non-Threatening Vinyl Seat Area.

So, there you have it:

The Four Major Ways.

(Or,at least, if I ever publish a Guide to Frustration In the Airline Cancellation Line, I will call them The Four Major Ways. You’ve got to have catchy phrases, and definitive categories.)

Are there any others? Possibly, but our exhaustive research team didn’t turn them up this morning, so you’re stuck with these, just like I’m stuck in the General Purpose Outside Lands Zone.

So, is any one way better? Hard to say.

Maybe a part of me wishes I was Mr. Cool: and I do wonder, a little, whatever happened with Bambi and the daiquiris (sounds like a doo-wop group). But do I really want to be Mr. Cool? Nope – I don’t want to miss out on that much functionality, though I do like crushed ice quite a lot.

And Ms. Panic? Not very appealing, though a part of me wishes I could off-load some of the responsibility I live with every day, just throw up my hands and, for once, say, “I can’t, I can’t,” (or, rather, “I cahn’t, I cahn’t”) and have someone bail me out (without anyone judging me, of course, which is pretty unlikely, thereby negating the whole plan).

On to our friend the German. “Sally forth unto the breach!” you would cry, as you threw yourself, heedless, into the ticketing maelstrom of Philadelphia Frenetic International Airport, or whatever it’s called. But hell, I bet they don’t even have crushed ice, or Bambi: brotherly love, indeed!

And that brings us to the only sane approach to airplane apoplexy: calmly detaching from one’s now-unrealistic plans, calmly making other, realistic plans, and spending a delightful day sampling the joys of the Genre-Neutral Omni-Task Whiling-Away Zone, as I did. I mean, where else would you have the opportunity to watch a young woman do mortal battle with her blue suitcase, actually taking out one item at a time, and then jumping up and down on it repeatedly, in hopes of getting it to close on the one-less-item mass within? And what was she going to do with the growing pile of extracted items?

I never got to find out, as at a certain point in the proceedings, her boyfriend came along and yelled at her,

“Jennie – what’s going on here?”

I thought, Hey, dude – we’re in the middle of something here! Do you mind?

But did he listen to me? Not a bit. He poked her in the ribs and said, “Grab that shit and let’s go!”

She did, and they did.

Well, thank god, because otherwise I’d have had to obey that command being broadcast all day long to us ‘regulars’:

Please help us keep the airport a safe place. Maintain contact with all bags and luggage. Please report any suspicious activity. Thank you for helping keep our airport secure.

Jeez, that’s a lot of responsibility for us regulars. Suspicious-activity monitoring can really take it out of you.

And that’s not all:

Betty Lewin – Betty Lewin, please dial 2424 on any of the airport’s white courtesy telephones, for an urgent message.

I mean, an airport-sitter’s duties are never done. I wondered, in vain, if Betty ever did as she was told, and retrieved that life-defining message. My god, they might have been trying to tell her that she’d just had a baby!

James Mahaffey, James Mahaffey, to Gate 41, Please!

Jimmy, Jimmy – there it is: your call to The Gate of Dreams. Around here, they say that Gate 41 is lucky – very lucky.

The Loudspeaker commands, and having commanded, moves on:

Brian and Nita Gomez, to a courtesy telephone, please.

And when you get there, please take turns talking, you two: courtesy, courtesy. Probably no big deal anyway: they didn’t even specify the phone color, for god’s sake! Or that it was ‘urgent’, right? I mean, you pick up on these things when you’ve been around a while.

Hosted smoking areas can be found on the walkways outside the terminal area: smoking in the terminal area is prohibited.

Wow, cool: what is a Hosted Smoking Area? Does that mean Lauren Bacall greets you in a slinky gown, pops open a gold-plated cigarette case, offers you an unfiltered Lucky Strike, and says, “You know how to smoke, don’t you? You just open your lips – and suck.”

What’s that – you say it’s actually ‘Posted’ Smoking Areas? Well that’s a damn shame, you guys; you’re missing out on Lauren Bacall! Sure you don’t want to rethink this whole Hosted/Posted thing?

Well, night has come to the Zone. A pink buttermilk sky shimmers above a massive bank of heavy, grey clouds (that’s above Terminal 1, for those in the know), the red lights have been turned on all along the Southwest runways, and the night shift has come to the Zone’s very own Round Table franchise. The night shift people seem nice, too, I guess, but I had gotten used to Joan and Dorie. I don’t know, they just had a way with a mini-pizza – it’s hard to describe.

Another thing: the night passengers aren’t as peppy, as chirpy, as the morning crowd. Maybe they’ve spent the whole day bucking the slights, the frustrations, the disappointments of a long day in the Outer World, a world I wouldn’t know much about, anymore. It’s hard for me to remember, now, what it’s like ‘out there’. Money worries? Relationship failures? Traffic jams? I don’t know – I’d just be guessing. I mean, I’ve got the white courtesy phone, suspicious behavior, ticketing woes, and unmanned baggage to deal with in here, dude. Like the song says, “You’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine.”

Well anyway, the night people are more mellow, more subdued, like they’ve been around a little, if you know what I mean. If the morning chirpers’ theme song is “Up, Up and Away,” then the night crew is more “One For My Baby,” and that’s for me, baby:

Set ’em up, Joe,
I’ve got a little story
I think you should know . . .

What’s that – you say they’re calling my flight?

Uh, okay, just give me a minute. It’s hard to leave my little world here: The Round Table, the announcements, the drinking fountains, the characters, the cleaning crew (shout-out, Jose!). The way you can just sort of sit and observe, be there and not there at the same time. Like I say, it’s hard to describe, but . . .

Flight 255, to Philadelphia, now boarding, Gate 21!

Okay, I gotta leave you now – my chariot awaits.

Gosh, I guess I’ll never know what happened to Jennie, or Betty, or Jimmy, or Brian and Nita Gomez at that courtesy phone, will I?

But, as it turned out, it was a privilege to share a Zone with all of them, and with Jose, with Joan and Dorie – you know, the whole gang.

Hey, looking back, it seems like I actually dealt with all that flight-cancellation frustration a lot better than I even imagined.

So, on second thought, it turns out there are actually FIVE Major Ways!

Well, I guess I’ll see you in Syracuse.

Unless that airport in Philly proves to be a little too intriguing, of course . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Grow Up, but Stay Small!

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The other day, I had a weird experience. Well, that’s not totally true – it was an experience I’ve had many times before, but for some reason this time it struck me differently. Maybe because I’m getting older, maybe because I’m caring deeper, maybe because as you get older, you tend to hold on tighter to the familiar, to the old days, to what has been so precious.

A patient whom I’ve been working with for a while had her last session before she embarked upon a long trip that, somehow, I knew would be transformative.

As she got ready to leave, I found myself saying, “See you on the other side.”

She cocked her head at me and said, “Yes, and it may really be the other side.”

What did all that mean? I don’t know – I just know that something compelled me to use that phrase, “the other side” – something that ‘knew’ something that I didn’t know, until I said it.

And she clearly got it – and responded in kind.

One of those magical moments that give you a little zing up your spine.

What did I know? I’m not positive – I just knew. I knew that she would be ‘different’ when I saw her next. Different in a good way, an expanded way.

And that’s great. But it’s also hard.

Anyone who’s had children knows what I mean: you work night and day to get your kids through their youth, to help them grow up, to reach those all-important milestones: first day of pre-school (oh my god, the heart-rending cries!); first day of ‘real’ school; first sleep-over at a friend’s house; the Halloween costumes, changing through the years; junior high; high school; dates, driving, broken hearts, doing homework, passing tests, sex, college; and then, leaving.

I often tell the over-involved parents I work with that you have to think of yourself as a mother lion: nursing your cubs, catching their food for them, teaching them to hunt with you, hunting on their own, and finally – leaving.

Leaving: that’s always the primary goal, the purpose of the whole thing.

Leaving.

Sure, bonding is important, but this above all: it’s all about preparation for leaving.

So I tell the parents that, and they get it, and they try. They do the right thing and let go – let go of the baby they gave birth to, let go of the expectations, the hopes, the dreams they have (at least some of them), let go of the closeness they felt with that sweet, innocent little bundle of softness they brought into the world. They try to let go of all of that, but I know how hard it is.

And every parent knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say that every step towards growing up, every step towards leaving, is hard. No matter how proud you are, or how glad – it’s still hard.

You want to make a ‘deal’ with the child, or fate, or god: Can’t there be two of my child? Let my ‘baby’ stay the way he is, always be that cute, that close to me, that precious, that close, while the ‘other one’ grows up as I want him to?

Can’t there be two: one for me, and one for the world?

Kids are always embarrassed and annoyed when parents drag out the photo album to show family members, or new girlfriends, or grandchildren, pictures of Little Johnny in the ‘old days’. Mind you, ‘Little Johnny’ may now be the forty-five year-old owner-operator of a fleet of cement mixers, may have five kids of his own, a big mortgage, tax problems, arthritis and a cocaine habit.

It doesn’t matter: he’ll always be ‘Little Johnny’ to them.

He’ll always be Little Johnny because those early days of connection and innocence are a Big Deal to parents: to be that involved, that needed, that close to a fellow creature is a rare and miraculous thing. I mean, what else do you do in life that’s that important? It informs and shapes every aspect of your life, and every aspect of your life affects the child: your job, your marriage, your hobbies, your interests, how you feel about your life, your friends, your own past life as a child.

They all matter, they all form the child, because to the child, you are the only game in town: he or she is watching you intently, to find out what life is all about, to find out if things are okay, and always wondering, wondering:

What do you think of me?

Do you want me here?

Do you love me?

Am I a joy, or a pain in the neck?

Am I just another job, or a pleasure that is meaningful and real to you?

Do you like me, or just put up with me because you have to?

Are we alike?

Do you like being with me?

Notice that every one of those questions has “you” as the focus. To the child, you are his everything, his pole star, the one constant in life: you, you, you. And that’s heady stuff for anybody – to be that important, that much of a big deal, to somebody who really matters to you. Aside from being in love, that’s the only time one can matterthat much to another person.

Sure, it’s a lot of responsibility, but then it’s also a lot of power and importance.

Okay – back to my patient.

What does all this have to do with her?

Well, a lot, actually. If you’re being honest with yourself, and you give a damn, as a therapist, you begin to feel about your patients some of the things a parent feels about a child. After all, if the core of ‘transference’ is that patients are projecting onto you the things they felt towards their parents, and using the therapy as a crucible to work those things out, it follows that the same is just as true of the ‘countertransference’ the therapist feels back towards the patient: It involves many of the things parents feel towards their children:

How am I doing?

Could I be doing more?

Are they reaching their therapy ‘milestones’? (“Baby’s” first eruption of the unconscious, first being late to a session, first strong disagreement with you, first acknowledgment of the connection, first obvious pushing away from the connection, first obvious claiming of the self, first worry about losing you, first thoughts of leaving you – I could go on and on.)

(Note: just received an email from a former patient, who’s now a nurse, working with a difficult teen, worried if she’s ‘doing it right’, and saying that if she does get it right, “I feel I’ll be redeemed.” Well, there ya go – it doesn’t get much more ‘countertransfer-y’ than that, and that’s not unusual, folks! All helpers (including therapists!) are people, too – their own unconscious, their ‘issues’, are constantly triggered by all kinds of qualities in the patient. It’s not that a therapist shouldn’t have these things happening, it’s that a good therapist is AWARE of them, and works with them, and uses them to the patient’s benefit.)

Countertransference, as a general phenomenon, has of course been extensively documented and discussed. But what about the ‘normal’ parental feeling of loss, of sadness, of even hurt, even anger, even abandonment, that therapists feel when patients do get better? Many therapists – and I’ve supervised and consulted with many in my day – aren’t even aware of these feelings. Sure, they’re ‘all over’ the typical countertransference issues, i.e. the personal emotional reactions one feels towards another person whom you sit with closely for long periods of time:

My god, he reminds me of my cousin Saul – I never could stand him!

My god, she’s so hot – I can’t stop myself from flirting with her.

My god, he’s a died-in-the-wool Republican capitalist – how am I supposed to be sympathetic that he’s firing half his workforce to cut costs?

My god, her arrogant self-centeredness is so much like my father’s, it makes me want to yell, “You’re not the only person in the world, you jerk!”

Yep, bet on it, therapy patients: your very own therapist really does have his or her very own real feelings about you, feelings that come from ‘some time before’. Just hope that he or she is conscientiously noting them, claiming them in a conscious way, working with them, getting consultation about them if needed, and using this awareness to further the work.

What do I mean by ‘using’ this awareness? Well, here is an example from my own practice:

I had been seeing this big, beefy, fiftyish guy for quite a while. He was what you might call the ‘hail fellow well met’ type – a corporate salesman who had a story or a joke for every occasion. He made sure he ‘bonded’ with me about everything he could dig out of me: baseball (I’m always a sucker for being sidetracked by baseball talk, and I have to watch myself like a hawk!), talking about our kids, my interest in World War II (his father had won the Navy Cross as a Marine, and he figured out – correctly – that he could really ‘get me going’ on that one), old movies (don’t even get me started!), stories about how he’d gone marlin fishing in Mexico – you get the picture.

He was charming, he was funny, and the ‘lure’ was to just yak the session away with him every time, being ‘buds’. Except that, d’ohh, he hadn’t come to me to become best buds!

His marriage was falling apart, he was estranged from his grown kids, he was in trouble at work, and he had no real friends, even though everyone was his ‘friend’. He had grown up on a farm in rural Indiana – a lonely, isolated farm, an only child, with cold, distant parents. So his ‘solution’ was to shed all that isolation by becoming a big-city backslapper, bonding and hail-fellowing with everyone he met, ‘proving’ that he was no hick, and surrounded by people.

And the anger, the despair and the hurt? He kept it all stuffed down, deep inside. It’s a pretty well known dynamic that therapy patients will ‘use’ parts of themselves that they believe in, that they know will ‘work’, in order to get you to like them, to relate to them in ways they are familiar with, thereby maintaining control over the relationship. Unfortunately, if you allow yourself to ‘go for’ these ploys, both you and the client lose.

For example, sometimes an attractive young woman seeing a male therapist will ‘use’ her feminine charms to take a shortcut to connection and reassurance about herself: she ‘knows’ that her looks and her sexuality are strong suits, and if she can get the therapist to go down that road, it’s familiar territory. The only problem is, if the therapist allows this to happen, it is a betrayal of what the person came to therapy for in the first place. What she really needs is to have an experience in which another person (particularly a male, in this case) values her for WHO she is, not WHAT she is (i.e. an attractive ‘specimen’ – what shows on the outside).

Well, it was like that with this man: if he could get me to hang out and ‘chill’ with him, listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes, and be charmed by his charm, then he was on his own turf. But he came to me because always being on his own turf wasn’t working! He was alone, isolated, in trouble, and failing, at work and home.

So I had to head him off at every turn, frustrating and ultimately infuriating him: every time he would launch into another story, I would say, “But what’s happening right now – here?” When he would try to lure me into the weeds by talking about the time he got Ted Williams’ autograph, I (reluctantly!) had to drag him back by saying, “We’re not here to talk about Ted Williams.”

At first, he would just try another tack – a better story, a funnier joke. Then, when he saw that that wasn’t going to work, he would lapse into sullen silence, looking at his watch (translation: “I’ve got better things to do, and a lot better audiences than this!”).

One day, he finally said, “Look – whatever your game is, I don’t know how to play it.”

I said, “Of course you don’t – you’re not here to practice what you do know how to do. You’re here to work on things you don’t know how to do. Are you willing to trust me enough to hang in with this for a while, and see where it takes us? I love your jokes, and your stories. And, believe me, I’d love to talk about Ted Williams all day long, but it wouldn’t do a thing for you. I think you’re worth more than that – a lot more. And as for ‘playing my game’ goes – that’s not really accurate: what I’m suggesting is that we STOP playing games – your games – and see what happens. Sure, it’s uncomfortable: all you know is your game, and it works on almost everybody – hell, it works on me, too, but there’s more to you than jokes and stories, even though you don’t know it. I’m telling you that I know it – give me a chance to prove it. Okay?”

I held out my hand.

I wish I could say that I saved his marriage, healed his rift with his children, and raised the dead. But I will say this (with apologies to baseball fans everywhere): Stan became a Man. He actually became an organizational consultant (as he called it, a “therapist for businesses”), using his interpersonal gifts to help people forge workable and functional relationships. It was too late for his marriage, but he did remarry, a warm, big-hearted woman with whom he achieved genuine closeness.

He isn’t “alone in a crowd” anymore, and though nowadays everyone isn’t his ‘best friend’, he does have a few real friends, whom he doesn’t feel he has to entertain constantly.

So, am I ever going to get back to my original topic, which is the woman patient who’s going off on a trip which I know will ‘change’ her?

Yes, believe it or not.

Like a doting parent with a child who’s growing up, I want there to be ‘two’ of her: one to be the person I have come to know, respect and treasure, and the ‘other’ to be the one who goes off, has great adventures, expands her life in wonderful ways, and, maybe, comes back to teach me a few things!

But then, I will always have the ‘first one’ in my heart – the things we went through, the demons she faced, her journey to the ‘starting gate’.

Like the old song says,

Make new friends, but keep the old,

One is silver, and the other, gold.

Now she (and I) will have both: the silver and the gold.

She’s at the starting gate of her great adventure.

If you listen closely, you can hear them playing Call to the Post:

And . . . They’re Off!!!

See you on the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Dark Has a Life of Its Own

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Okay, that’s cheating, but only a little.

It was early evening, to be precise. And it was stormy, but that came later.

Jason was my last patient of the day, my 7:00, that Wednesday in November, but it already looked like midnight. There’d been something brewing in the sky all day, complete with dramatic gusts of wind, heavy clouds covering, then uncovering, a weary sun, and occasional raindrops spattering my office windows. As a veteran of Oakland weather watching, I thought to myself cynically, “Threats – just threats.” Real storms in Oakland almost always come when you’re asleep, and stop in the early morning. In Oakland, you don’t say, “Wow – it’s raining,” you say, “Looks like it rained last night.” So I figured we’d be teased for a few hours yet, then the real thing would cut loose in the wee small hours of the morning.

My signal light lit up, telling me Jason had arrived. I went out to the waiting room and there he was, punctual and buttoned up as always, in his regulation uniform: white dress shirt, blue blazer with those mock-nautical, brass-looking buttons, grey slacks, and maroon loafers. I could say, “Hail, the young executive, circa 1959,” but I won’t because I’m not catty, so let’s forget I said anything, okay?

Meow.

(Oops, sorry, that just slipped out.)

Actually, my cattiness (okay, I admit it) had a purpose: to alert me that there was something in me that responded, negatively, to Jason’s ‘perfection’: his precise punctuality, his creased-and-starched, never-varying haberdashery (sorry, but that’s exactly the word for it), his reserved, reined-in manner. I know it’s not proper diagnostic terminology, but let’s face it, the guy had a stick up his ass, dude.

Go tell that to your DSM.

I’m kidding around, but it’s kidding on the square: as a therapist, you use these feelings to tell you things about the people you’re working with, and my feelings were telling me this guy was marching through life like a shiny toy soldier – “all hat and no cattle,” as Charlie Finley used to say. We had been meeting for several months already, but somehow he’d always managed to hold me at arm’s length, with his spit-shined correctness and his short-leashed emotions.

Yes, he had originally come in because his marriage was falling apart, and for a few sessions there, he seemed like he was up for doing some work, but soon enough he ‘got it together’ and said he had reached some kind of peace with his wife’s leaving him.

“Peace” – that’s what he called it. He seemed so logical about it – too damn logical – and that left his rational shell firmly in place, blocking the entrance to his feelings, like Cerberus.

Hearing him tell it, it was hard to understand why, and how, a wife would ever leave such a wonderful, kind, thoughtful and dependable husband as Jason.

She’d had an affair with one of his “best friends,” and then, when Jason found out, she announced that she was leaving him. Imagine that! She has the affair, and with his best friend, no less – and then she says she’s leaving

The nerve! The chutzpah! The effrontery! The unmitigated something-or-other!

Or at least that’s how I felt at first. But eventually, as we met and talked about it many more times, I began to feel something was missing from his explanation of the whole thing, and maybe, just maybe, my intuition was filling in the blanks.

Perhaps I was beginning to see her side of it. Maybe she’d ‘had it’ with his vanilla niceness and his starched front. Maybe she got sick of his coming home at exactly the same time every night, setting his classic briefcase down in exactly the same place, and saying, “Hi, dear – how was your day?” If there ever was such a thing as a Stepford Husband, this guy was it. You wanted to put a whoopee cushion under him, throw down a banana peel, or shake his hand with a joy buzzer – anything to get to the real human being under all that cotton batting he was all wrapped up in.

Understand, that’s not all I felt about him – I actually liked him, or maybe the ‘him’ I could sense underneath, but this feeling of being fed up with his ‘act’, of being held at arm’s length, was getting stronger and stronger. But how was I going to get under his shell, how was I going to make contact with the boy underneath – the anger, the hurt, and maybe even the joy, trapped within?

As I led him into my office and closed the door, thunder boomed outside, and the rain began a steady patter on the windowpanes. As I may have said in this space before (a hundred times?) I love rain, and particularly this night, I welcomed it as a friend that could sit in on the session with me, and maybe provide me with a little companionship, if not a few much-needed tips on working with my enigmatic patient.

Jason’s voice suddenly interrupted my little reverie: “Oh my goodness – I didn’t even bring a proper umbrella or a topcoat. I’ll get wet.” As he talked, he smoothed the (imaginary) wrinkles out of his pants, looking dismayed.

Something about his tone was so petulant, so . . . fussy, that it was hard not to laugh. I mean, really: a ‘topcoat’? It’s not the 1940’s, and we’re not in New York City, bro! And understand, he had an umbrella – one of those compact jobs that you can swing along by the black plastic loop – the only kind I’ve ever had, the kind you grab quick from a crate at the CVS after it’s already been raining for days, use twice, and then toss until next year’s one rainstorm.

But then, I don’t have any fancy flannel pants or pseudo-nautical buttons to protect.

Just sayin’.

Meow.

So where were we? Oh yeah, Jason bemoaning his lack of proper umbrellery, and me sitting there so frustrated, I wanted to run through the streets yelling, “Topcoat!” over and over until I felt better. No, not really, but you get my drift, which is that there is a purpose, and a use, for everything you feel towards your patients.

We talked, as we always did, about his business fortunes, the people he had to deal with, both up (his demanding, narcissistic boss), and down (the unmotivated, excuse-making managers he had to try to motivate). Blah, blah, blah – nothing ‘live’ was happening, as usual. I tried all my tricks (which I can’t share, of course, because they’re classified), but here is an interaction from that session that will give you the flavor of trying to ‘get in’ on this guy:

Me: So, when you had to fire Joe, what was it like?

Jason: (Wan smile) Oh, just another day at the office.

Me: Really – that’s all? I thought you liked Joe.

Jason: Oh, I do – or that is, I did, but you can’t let these things affect you.

Me: Hmm . . . What does affect you? (He said nastily, deliberately trying to bait the patient.)

Jason: (Looking outside, at the steadily increasing rain) Wet clothes, for one.

Me: Wet clothes: that’s it? (More baiting)

Jason: No, that’s not the entirety of ‘it’, but tonight that’s certainly on my mind.

Me: What about what’s on the inside?

Jason: (Laughing) Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that getting wet.

Okay, do you see what I was up against here?

And then something happened.

Now, the storm was really getting fierce. Rain was lashing the window so hard that we could barely hear ourselves talk. Thunder would crackle, grumble, then explode in waves of vibrations that made me understand why Washington Irving heard the gods playing tenpins.

And then the lights flickered, flickered again, and went out.

My office is in an old building with a 1940’s electrical system. The lights often flickered like this, flashed out for a moment, then back on. I waited, waited, but it was still dark. Well, c’est la guerre, I figured: Jason wasn’t the type to wing it, or do anything unusual, so I figured the remaining half hour of the session was a write-off tonight.

I made a perfunctory offer, just for good form. “Well, I could light the candle over there on the bookcase, but . . .” My voice trailed off.

“No. Please, I want to stay.”

I could hardly believe my ears. “Uh, okay – I’ll just see if I can find the matches . . .”

“No. No candle . . . just us.”

What the _____? Had someone put LSD in my water? My mental wheels spun, trying to make sense of it. I’ve got it! It was his way of avoiding the whole issue of what I was going to charge him, or not, and rescheduling, or not. This way, he could duck that conversation, and maybe get through the next half hour with no pressure being put on him.

Right?

Wrong.

“Things are happening – inside, that I don’t want to walk away from.” Pause. “I want you here, with me.”

Wow. That was some good acid! Or else something was really happening here. I tried to shift gears, emotionally, and create a ‘space’ for some kind of intimacy. This time, the storm really did provide an assist: just listening to the pounding of the rain, and the crack of the thunder, helped me settle down into the moment, ready for whatever was to come.

Silence.

“You said things are happening, inside. Could you say anything about that – anything at all?”

“I really don’t know. It’s flickering in and out, like the lights were. It’s just . . . something, that I remembered, from a long time ago.”

“Well, just keep breathing, and try to be with it – be willing to be with it. Think of it as a scared child, that needs to know it’s safe, before it can come out.”

“Yeah – yeah, that seems right. There’s a lot of fear in there – so much, that . . .”

“That what?”

“That it was worth living in a cave for the rest of my life.”

(Sounds of crying)

His shaky voice went on. “I . . . I think the dark’s helping.” (Pause) “Like, the fact that I’m hidden, that you can’t see me, is helping.”

Actually, I could see him fairly well by this time, although not his facial expression. “I understand. Just keep breathing and making it safe for that part of you to come out.” (Pause) “I’m with you – and him.”

“Okay – I’m trying.”

“I know – you’re doing great.”

Silence.

(Note: My body, my ‘insides’, felt completely different now: not angry, or put off, or catty, but honored, invited, dedicated, committed, involved, engaged – grateful.)

“It’s . . . it’s my brother. . .

(More crying)

” . . . He’s my idol. He’s all I had. My father and mother, they had each other. They didn’t need us, they didn’t want us. Their life was . . . perfect. They didn’t need us.” (Pause) “Did I already say that?”

“Yes, but let’s not worry about that. Keep going – about your brother, your idol.”

(Through intermittent sobs) “How could he? How could he?” (Pause)

“How could he — what?”

(Wracking sobs) “I can’t say it. I can’t say it . . . out loud.”

I gave him some time and space to work with it, but he was silent. Then, I tried something. “Could you write it down?”

“What – in the dark?”

I smiled to myself –  it was poignant how his usual persnicketyness was still present – even now. “Well, I have a flashlight – maybe you can write it down for me. Then we’ll turn it off again, and go back to the dark.”

“Uh — okay.”

I went to get the flashlight out of my drawer, grabbed a writing tablet I had on my desk, and brought them to him.

“Here you go – here’s a flashlight, and a pad. You just write whatever you want.”

He took what I handed him, and said, “Turn around.”

“You mean, right now?”

“Yes – right now.”

I turned my chair around to face the door, and waited.

Over the incessant rain, I heard more wracking sobs – it was heartbreaking. It made me feel a fierce protectiveness towards him: suddenly, I wanted to hold him, rock him, fight off anyone who threatened him.

“Here.”

I heard something fall at my feet, then looked down and saw a ball of paper lying there. I realized he must have written something, then crumpled up the paper and thrown it over my head.

I heard him sigh, hard. The sound told me what this must have cost him.

I picked up the paper. I wanted to respect his ownership of this moment. “Do you want me to read this?”

There was a moment of silence. The only sound was the whipping wind rattling the window frame. Then, he said, “No – not now.”

I started to turn my chair around.

He held up his hands. “No – don’t turn around. I’m leaving. After I’m gone, you can read it.”

I knew we had at least ten minutes left in the session. I was afraid he would leave and never come back. “Are you sure you need to go? I don’t want you to . . .”

“I’m leaving, Doc, but I’ll be back.”

He had never called me Doc before. But even more, his voice quality stunned me. It wasn’t prissy, or careful, but rich and somehow, confident.

He paused, throwing his coat over his shoulder carelessly as he got up. “You know – this is the first time in my whole life I ever felt like a man.” He crossed the room in strong strides, threw open the door, and was gone.

I know it’s crazy, but I sat there and felt like I had just watched Clark Kent transform into Superman. I was curious about what he had written, but somehow I knew it almost didn’t matter anymore. Something had torn loose inside of him, like adhesions from a scar breaking free, and he would never be the same.

I got up and went to look through the window at the parking lot behind my office. The storm was still in full fury, and it was magnificent. I opened the window wider, and felt the rush of wet, sweet air hit me. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, hungrily.

Then I remembered the ball of paper I was still holding in my hand. I uncrumpled it and held it up to the faint glow of the parking lot lights. In strong, block letters, it read:

NO MORE!

For an instant, I thought it might mean, ‘no more’ of our sessions, but I knew better. I knew that, in some way known only to Jason, it meant ‘no more lies’. I also knew there would be lots more work to be done, but at that moment, the details didn’t matter: we had made a beginning, and I knew, absolutely, that we would see it through, together.

I stood there looking out the window for a long, long time, grateful for the gift of my profession, grateful for Jason’s trust, grateful for the storm that had turned out to be my ally, after all.

Finally, I gathered up all of my things, put on my jacket, and walked down the back stairs to the parking lot and my car. I opened up the car door, but then stood there one more minute, taking in the majesty of the storm, the beauty of all that had happened, and treasuring that I got to be present at the true beginning of one man’s real life.

And you know what?

I felt like a man, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly

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My Creed

(To the tune of Wonderful World, by Sam Cooke)

Don’t believe in the DSM,
Don’t reward with no M&M’s,
Didn’t dig Rollo May or Buber,
Don’t think any one system is ‘uber’;
But I do know my hearts and heads,
(And if, maybe, you’ll consider meds)
What a bearable world this could be!

A therapist is asked many questions.

Some of them are easy, cut and dried:

How much do you charge?

How long are the sessions?

Some are harder – not to understand, but just to know:

How long will this take?

When will I feel better?

What will I be like when we’re done?

And then there’s the hardest one of all (for me):

So, what kind of therapy do you practice?

Aarghh, errr, that is, well……….I always think about Marlon Brando in The Wild One, when his gang comes to terrorize the town, and he’s asked,

Hey, Johnny – what are you rebelling against?

And he says,

Whaddya got?

Why is this? Because the real answer is, “It depends on what you got.” And at the time the patient is asking the question, I not only don’t really know what they ‘got’, I also don’t know how ‘what they got’ is going to look in a week, a month, a year.

Sure, they might ‘have’ alcoholism, or a bad relationship, or depression, or anxiety, or no job, but how are they going to respond to what I do? Are they going to listen when and if I offer advice? Are they going to be able to tolerate “sitting in a room alone with me”, and use it to explore themselves in a deeper way, or are they going to do most of the ‘work’ outside the room, with other people, in other situations? Will we be problem-solving, practicing, rehearsing, dramatizing, exploring dreams, free-associating, deepening our relationship, or just checking in about the outside world?

I’m quite sure that most patients would be very surprised about how I work with other people I see – what we talk about, what we do, where we sit (or lie), how we ‘use’ the office, even.

There are people who come in, sit in the same place, and get to work immediately.

For others, I prepare the space by setting out blankets, pillows, re-arranging the seating.

Some have asked me to turn away, some to move closer, some to move back, back, back.

I have taken walks with some people, done walking meditations together in the office, yelled at people, whispered, cajoled, begged, inspired, encouraged, apologized, confronted, talked a lot, shut the hell up.

Some do the work primarily through feelings, some through ideas, some through pictures. Some write between sessions, a little, or a lot – to me, to themselves, to God, to dead parents, to their Higher Power, to their demons.

For one woman, I kept videotapes of a TV comedy series on hand, so she could watch them when she got into rage storms during sessions, to calm her down so we could get back to work. I have gone with patients to a nearby cemetery, to visit dead relatives, to talk to them, and about them, together, and to serve as a mute witness.

I flew in a small private plane with one person, to help her face her fear of flying.

Some people lie on the floor, on the couch, on a yoga mat.

Some have brought pets – to be with, to show me, to introduce to me, to feel safe.

One man brought in a poodle to ‘approve’ of me, or not: I passed. Guess that’s what they call the sniff test!

I have met sons, daughters, parents, siblings, employers, wives, husbands, neighbors, landlords, physicians, past therapists, friends, business partners, lovers, ex-lovers, affair-mates, teachers, prospective spouses, ex-spouses, roommates, lawyers. Gone together to see psychics and hypnotists; gone together to see what a mess their place was. Looked at photograph albums, trophies, artwork. Sat together looking at a tempting booze bottle, sat together writing bills, calling creditors, writing resumes, digging through bags of receipts and tax records. Looked at old family videotapes, listened to old family audio tapes, looked at old report cards, bug collections, listened to music composed, poems written, journal entries.

Wild tales of debauchery.

Solemn tales of sitting in a room, alone, for years.

Some people cry almost every session, some never. With some I cry, with some never. With some I feel powerful, with some hapless and ineffectual. I’ve ‘been’ a genius, a dope, funny as hell, boring, original, obvious. My office has been called amazing, warm, cozy, inviting and safe, and also messy, banal, cluttered, depressing, upsetting, brooding.

Mostly, we sit, we focus on the present, we pay close attention. And mostly, contrary to popular conceptions about self-absorption, though people want to talk about themselves, they don’t want to sit with themselves.

And mostly, contrary to cultural mythology, people don’t Want real closeness, connection, or intimacy – or at least cannot tolerate it in real time, with a real person.

With some people, we establish our own language and terminology, references and in-jokes.  We laugh a lot, talk about books, movies, sports, music and what it’s like to be alive. We bond – sometimes for life.

With others, I feel more like toilet paper – there to handle the shit, then discarded.

And it’s all alright.

Yes, you heard me: It’s all alright.

My job is to take whatever I’m given and make the most of it, whether it would look like a ‘big deal’ to an outsider or not.  Maybe the best I can do with someone is to empower them so that they go on to win a Nobel Prize. With others, it might be a heroic triumph that I got them to shift from using me as toilet paper to using me as a hand towel. I’m not being glib here – this is the true story of what happens in therapy, sans ‘marketing’ claims, jargony gobbledygook, quick-fix bullshit and empty promises.

Why do I stress this? Because therapy is one area where ‘buyer beware’ is almost meaningless: how could a prospective client possibly know whether a therapist is any good or not, any good, that is, for their particular problems, for their particular personality, their particular historical context? They don’t – they can’t.

And the therapist him or herself doesn’t know, either – not really. Any therapist who ‘promises’ big change up front is deluded, or a liar – because the therapist can’t possibly know either. Anyone who says anything more than, “Come on in and let’s see,” is guilty of wishful marketing. It’s disrespectful and diminishing to the prospective client to act like you ‘know’ what’s going to happen – people are more complex than that, a lot harder to figure, more unpredictable.

What’s going to ‘work’?

The fact is, you don’t KNOW, until it works.

Or not.

As a therapist, you follow ‘trends’ in your experience – it’s only human:

You gave a particular book to a particular patient and it changed their life?

Great! Now, you eagerly want to give it to your other patients, too: woo hoo, give ’em this book, change their life! Why didn’t I think of this before?

Whoops.

They say, “I got through two pages and fell asleep,” or “It reminded me of my cousin Irving, who I hate,” or “I felt totally insulted through the whole thing – so now I’m actually kind of disappointed in you, too.”

Back to the drawing board. Like trying to hit a major league baseball, much of therapy is failure. And much of success in doing therapy is what was once called “listening with the third ear.” What does this mean? Originally, I think it meant being willing to tune in to your own unconscious, your intuition, your empathy, to listen to the overtones, the subtext, the undercurrents, the unstated, unfiltered ‘back and forth’ of what is happening between you and the patient. And it is that, but how do you GET to the ‘third ear’? You get there by NOT forming ‘clinical impressions’ prematurely, by NOT playing the smart guy, by NOT coming up with brilliant connections and formulations, by NOT talking too much, by being willing to NOT know ‘what’s going on’.

In my day, there used to be a book called Don’t Push the River (It Flows By Itself) – well, that’s it: be still and listen. The information you’re looking for will come to you, in good time, if you will only be still and listen – to the patient, to yourself. Sure you’re anxious about understanding exactly what’s going on with the patient, anxious to do a good job, to succeed, to not fail. But you can’t afford to fall prey to that anxiety, to let it push you to rush your half-baked ideas into the sacred space that is therapy.

You don’t tell them: they tell you!

When the process gets ‘there’, all will be revealed, and not before.

‘All’ you have to do is make the therapy space a place where the truth is safe, and make yourself a place where the truth is safe. Ha ha – yeah, that’s ‘all’ you have to do! Try it sometime: it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and one of the most rewarding. Look at it this way: it’s not about getting the patient to trust you, it’s about you trusting the patient. If they feel respected, listened to, honored, empowered, and safe, ‘things’ will happen.

I remember when I first started to do therapy, in my twenties, I was working with an African American veteran, Spencer, who was twice my age and had a big chip on his shoulder about ‘the system’ and how he had been screwed over by it, and by all the therapists who had tried to help him.

Our first session, he started right out in high gear: “Boy – what the hell do you know about being black?”

I fired right back. “Look, I think I can relate to what you’ve gone through, whether I’m black or not.”

He just shook his head, stood up and walked out the door.

Failure.

The next time, I was smarter. I wasn’t going to ‘get into it’ with him. I would just try to understand. Here’s how it went:

Me: So, can you try and tell me what’s been so hard for you?

Spencer: Hard? What would you know about hard?

Me: I’m just interested in trying to help you express some of what’s inside of you.

Spencer: Kind of like pulling the wings off a fly, then watching to see what it does?

Me: No, I just mean. . .

Spencer: You ever heard the word ‘condescending’?

Me: Yes, but I don’t think . . .

Spencer: You got that right, sonny: you don’t think.

With that, he stood up and walked out again.

Failure. Get used to it.

But I was learning.

The next session:

Spencer: Now what do you want with me?

Me: (Silent)

Spencer: (Agitated) You going to tell me all the shit you’ve read about The Black Experience? Maybe quote Malcolm, maybe tell me some of your best friends are black?

Me: No.

Spencer: So, what do you know about being black, about being me?

Me: Nothing.

Spencer: Then what are you doing here?

Me: I was hoping you could teach me.

Silence.

Spencer: Hmmm. . . Cracker boy, you might not be a lost cause after all.

And with that, we made a start.

What did I do? I made the space safe. I established that we were both people – yes, I was on the therapist side of the room this time, but it could just as easily be switched in the next lifetime. And I had no way of knowing what he was made of without doing a lot of listening, and learning. It’s not about you proving anything to the patient, it’s about you taking up the challenge of getting to know, a little at a time, who they are and what matters to them.

And having made the space safe (or at least safer), his insides could ‘come out and play’ a little, without fear of my judgment, my ‘expertise’, my arrogance or my superiority. And from there, we could find out that we both liked Fats Waller, that the song The Folks Who Live On the Hill made us both cry, that we both loved lonesome train whistles late at night, that both our fathers fought in World War II, that he had lost a dog when he was twelve, and that he was famous for catching catfish.

Is this therapy? You bet it is: because this meeting of the minds we made, as human beings, allowed him to talk to me about how much he hurt, and it allowed me to tune my listening to his frequency, so that I could let it come to me, instead of forcing it with my pretended expertise.

Was he ‘cured’? No – for one thing, we only had the chance to meet probably ten or twelve times. But I do know that by the time we were done, he felt more like a man, because he told me so.  And I know that, in helping him reclaim his manhood, I took a step towards becoming a man, and a therapist.

He would always know that at least one white man thought he was really something.

And me? I’ll always have the honor of knowing that, for a Cracker, I’m not a completely lost cause.

So, what kind of therapy do I practice?

I don’t know: tell me what you got, and we’ll figure it out, together. We won’t get it from books, or impressing each other, or applying a technique, or enforcing ‘patient compliance’.

We’ll figure it out by listening carefully, with no preconceived notions, then watching and waiting until something emerges out of the fog.

Then, if we’re lucky, like Bogie and Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, maybe we’ll walk together into that fog and say,

Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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