Goodness Knows

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A person doesn’t always get what she deserves – remember it. If there’s anything in life you want, go and get it. Don’t wait for anybody to give it to you.

—  Miss Elsie Thornton, Peyton Place (at 18:54, if you want to see it for yourself)

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This past year, a very special woman named Betty, a long-time patient of mine, a good person, a wonderful person, who fought and clawed her way in therapy to ‘recovered memories,’ who went from a totally unfulfilling, dead-end career, to becoming a powerful and creative psychotherapist and a force in our community . . . well, Betty died, unexpectedly, ‘unfairly.’

We talked often, very often, in her therapy, about fairness. Why had these terrible things happened to her? We talked about being ‘good’ a lot, too, and she came to realize that from childhood on, she had believed that if she was just ‘good enough,’ good things would come to her.

And finally, in working with patients of her own, she got to pass on her hard-earned wisdom – that goodness, in itself, is no guarantee of happiness, or safety, or satisfaction, and that, as the teacher in Peyton Place quoted above states, you have to take action in the world to get the things you want and need.

Therefore, this blog posting is dedicated to the memory of Betty The Good, who did finally, take action and, for a while, got some of the things from life that she longed for. And of course, for me the ultimate irony is that it was Betty The Good, of all people, who ended up dying far before her time.

We often said that the last part of her life, when she finally got to be a therapist and ‘strut her stuff’ in the world, was going to be the greatest time of her life.

Better late than never, we said.

Well, it didn’t end up that way for Betty, but now, whenever I talk with someone about ‘goodness’ and their expectations of a reward, I think of Betty and hope she knows how much she taught me, and that her life and learning is still being put to good use by someone who revered her.

And so, my dear, your race well run, your work well done, your victory won – now cometh rest.

This one’s for you, Betty . . .

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Working with people all these years, certain eternal themes begin to stand out, and one of them is this:

If I’m a good boy (or girl), I will be rewarded by Fate.

Don’t laugh: most people – most likely even you – really believe this, and, to some degree, base their lives upon the promise and expectation of justice, fairness and richly-deserved rewards, at the end of the day. Am I saying people expect miracles – a fortune in jewels, fame and legendary status in the eyes of the world, or to live to a hundred, just because they didn’t rob banks or beat their children? No – it’s a lot more subtle than that, and the roots of it run deeper than that.

Picture yourself as a small child with your mother. Mother controls everything – everything you need: food, milk, comfort and affection, approval, treats, toys, everything. But the ‘system’ isn’t simple: you can’t just cry, or smile, or do anything that’s under your control, to get what you want. It depends on a lot of things – Mom’s mood, how much she has to do at that moment, how Mom feels about you, your damn older sister, who’s always yapping for more, the family’s finances, and so much more. If you cry, or smile, you might get what you want, but than again, you might not.

Well, being a smart little son of a gun, you soon figure out that, even though you can’t always get what you want right away, you might get it later on, if . . .

If what? Well, ‘if’ a bunch of things, but mostly, if you’re good.

Good? What’s good? The stuff that makes Mom smile, and act like she likes you. Even though you want things NOW, you get in trouble when you demand them, plus you make everyone mad. Nope, you do better when you’re good, and then wait. It doesn’t always work, but it works better than anything else you’ve been able to come up with.

And the same thing applies, in mirror image, for Mom. Any mother of young children knows what a blessing it is when they are finally old enough to be told, and understand, “Maybe later.”

Maybe later: that blessed incantation that not only buys you time and heads off yet another tantrum, but also, by implying, “If you’re good,” buys you quality time.

So there you have it: by the time the kid is old enough to understand words, not only has the child learned that ‘being good’ works to control Mommy, but Mommy, too, has learned that making things contingent on, “If you’re good,” is the royal road to controlling Junior.

And that’s when things start to shift, subtly, towards our topic for today. Eventually, “I’ll get good things, if I’m good,” shifts to, “Because I’m good, I’ll get good things,” and then to, “I am good – and therefore I deserve good things.” Well, it’s all Jake, except for one thing: no one informed God, or Allah, or Fate, or Kismet, about the little deal you’ve cooked up in your head, because as we all know from famous book titles if not from personal experience, Bad Things Happen To Good People.

Miss Elsie Thornton, for example, from our opening quote, was by all accounts an extremely good person and teacher, and therefore deserved to be appointed principal of the high school. And yet she was passed over, because one person on the School Board had it in for her.

If good things happened to good people, where would the quote, “The good die young,” fit in?

I mean, we all know that we have a “rendezvous with death,” and poor old death stands in for “the unforeseen” to most of us, but, in truth, we all have a rendezvous with destiny all day, every day. Who’s to say a drunk driver isn’t going to swerve into you on the freeway, sending your car tumbling end-over-end? Who’s to say you aren’t going to be diagnosed tomorrow with Parkinson’s, as Robin Williams apparently was? Or that your wife isn’t going to leave you for the neighbor? Or that your son isn’t going to announce he’s a radical Muslim? Or that you’ll develop a back problem that ultimately requires twelve operations, leaving you broke and in pain for the rest of your life?

These things do happen – they happen a lot, and to perfectly nice people, who wear their seat belts, don’t beat their children, remember their anniversary every year, treat their employees right, floss every day, and give to charity.

Why?

Just because – that’s why. We want to believe that being good will protect us from bad things happening, and to the extent that taking care of your health, or being nice to your wife, or being frugal with your money and showing up for work every day can make a difference, it does, but so many, many things are beyond what we can control – and beyond what we ‘deserve,’ too.

Your doctor says you have an aneurysm that might explode at any time.

That’s not fair!

You develop esophageal cancer, and you’ve never smoked a day in your life.

That’s not right!

Your marriage falls apart because your husband realizes he’s gay.

But I didn’t do anything wrong!

See, we’re still stuck with that operating system we developed as a kid: if I’m just good, good things will come to me, and I’ll get what I deserve.

Oh, and then, when bad things do happen to us, we twist ourselves into mental knots trying to reverse-engineer it:

Wow, I must have done something wrong for this to happen to me!

My god, could this be ‘punishment’ for the one-nighter I had with that waitress at the toy convention in Cleveland?

Holy cow, I know I once wished my wife dead, but why did ‘You’ have to give her cancer? I was only kidding!

Okay, you say, “I get it”: our outcomes are not necessarily tied to our personal worth, or our goodness, or even to attending church regularly, paying our taxes on time, or apologizing to those we have hurt.

Where does that leave us?

Well, funny you should ask, because that’s just what I was going to talk about next. It leaves us kind of like an astronaut whose umbilical cord has snapped: lost in space. Oh sure, you can believe in The Almighty looking over us, or the power of prayer, or the Oneness of all things – and I’m not knocking any of those things: whether they’re ‘true’ or not, they give people something to hang on to, some sense of control in a frightening universe, and that’s not a bad thing.

But what if we just faced the barest truth: that things are pretty random, that ‘bad’ and ‘good’ things are handed out willy-nilly, that a saint could get Parkinson’s, while an evil monster lives healthily to a hundred-and-ten?

What are we left with then? Does it make you feel like the denizen of an ant farm, going about your business every day, with no ‘real’ meaning, except to go on, and on, and on, until Fate strikes you down like you would swat a fly or step on a bug?

As Peggy Lee once said, is that all there is? Should we ditch the whole concept of trying to be ‘good’ and just Come And Get It – all we can, as fast as we can, however we can?

After all, if Fate doesn’t care, why should we?

In the film noir, The Turning Point, there is a character played by William Holden, a cynical newspaperman, with a jaded, nihilistic point of view about the story he’s covering – yet one more Blue Ribbon Crime Commission, established to ‘get to the bottom of’ a crime syndicate that’s running the town. He is the voice of the uncaring, taking potshots at the “do-gooders” who are, as far as he’s concerned, just going through the motions of combating the criminal forces in the big city, making it look good for the public.

But gradually, he comes to care, and he comes to admire those who are at least doing their best to do ‘good,’ even if the forces of evil are overwhelmingly powerful.

Eventually, he gets involved, ultimately sacrificing his life for ‘the cause,’ going way out on a limb to aid those who are trying to improve the lives of others.

Finally, just before he is killed, he, the formerly wise-ass, seen-it-all newsman, says this:

Sometimes, someone has to pay an exorbitant price, in order to uphold the majesty of the law.

He knew that he might die, in doing what he did, he knew the forces of evil would continue, in some form, even after his exorbitant sacrifice, he even knew that what he was doing was a drop in the bucket in the ultimate war on crime in his city.

But he decided to do the right thing, BECAUSE it’s the right thing, because we’re not animals, because even though our little, ant-like gestures for good may be small and puny, even ridiculous, in the eyes of Fate, it’s all we have. And maybe because, if we do the right thing, if we contribute our share to the common effort, we earn the right to stick around for another day and share in the beauty that is all around us. Because even though “they’re” handing out Parkinson’s Disease to a lot of nice people, and cancer to a lot of wonderful ones, they’re also handing out gorgeous sunsets, and amazing food, and good friends, and staggering feats of imagination and artistry, and soft rain, and train whistles in the distance, and tears, and laughter.

So, even though being ‘good’ may not bring you a million dollars, or a lifetime of happiness, or that big promotion, or a pain-free death in your sleep at a hundred-and-ten, on silk sheets – even though, maybe, it’s even puny and ludicrous, it’s all we have.

And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t expect too much of it, and back it up with action, being good can have a majesty that is sufficient unto itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Number Four, Hold the Onions

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One of the small, unsung joys in working with people as I do, is that, maybe a few times a year, patients will get a little gleam in their eye and describe a moment in their life, perhaps from decades earlier, that was special, memorable in some way, or even just representative of a certain place, era, or quality of feeling. These moments don’t have to be big and brassy, or even significant in any traditional way – in fact they often aren’t – but nevertheless, for some reason they resonate with the person, down through the years; they persist in memory, fixed in the amber of emotion, despite all the new and maybe more flashy incidents that flood the river of experience.

And I listen carefully, feeling honored and privileged to be allowed ‘orchestra seats’ to these little-known playlets of memory, lit by the heart from within. There is something remarkable about a mere moment in time that, a lifetime later, can still glow with a quiet, eternal fire.

They’re usually not the ‘main topic’ of a session – far from it. When they arise at all, it’s only incidentally, and spontaneously, as the person is trying to make some other point, or discussing a particular time of life. They’re talking along, and then, suddenly, a change comes over their face – like I say, a warm, suffusing, faraway glow, followed by a little, inward smile, that makes me say to myself, “Hush – here comes something that matters.”

It can be a person:

I was standing on the subway platform in the Bronx, in 1965, I think it was, on the way to my cousin’s house in Brooklyn. It was cold – cold as hell – and I’m stamping my feet to stay warm, and bang, suddenly, out of the blue, I saw this girl – well, not really even a girl, more of a vision. She was so . . . well, there’s no real way to describe her, just that she was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, but even that isn’t really the point. It was more than that – more like a familiarity, if you know what I mean. Like when people say, “I felt like I’d known her all my life?” Well, it was like that – like she was an angel sent to earth, sent to me, for me to see once, and once was enough. Like a possibility, kind of. Something to shoot for, to aspire to, or to inspire me to believe in things, no matter if it’s cold, or life is hard, or I’m discouraged. And it’s funny, but there are times, when I’ve been really down in the dumps, or feeling like a loser, that I remember her, and it keeps me going, because if she could exist, then it’s like everything’s worthwhile, after all. I know all this doesn’t make any sense, but I wanted you to know.

It can be the mental snapshot of a time and place, like this woman in her fifties remembered:

I was sitting in my third-grade classroom – just a regular day in class. As always, I was sitting in the far-right side of the classroom, in the back, at one of those desks that curves around, and is hinged, so you can fold it up when you don’t need to write?

Well, I told myself, “Notice this exact moment. You’re going to get older, and lots of things are going to happen to you, and you’ll forget all this stuff, so that it’ll seem like it happened in another lifetime. But I’m going to make an agreement with myself: I’m going to look around carefully, and notice this exact moment, at this exact place, at this exact age in my life, and I’m never going to forget it, as long as I live.”

So this is what I remember: we had those blinds that you pull down, over the long, tall windows. And the blinds were pulled down about three-quarters of the way, and the windows were open in the uncovered parts. It was late afternoon, probably close to three o’clock, when school would be out, and you could see the afternoon sun behind the blinds, kind of glowing through the fabric. I was sitting next to Marilyn Brodsky, and she was wearing a green plaid dress with a white, Peter Pan collar. And on the other side was Robert Helling, this boy I always had a little crush on – in fact, I think he’s the reason I decided to memorize that moment, you know, to memorialize him, and how I felt about him. So Robert was there, in his t-shirt and blue jeans and these black grown-up-looking shoes he always wore, which to me, made him a ‘man,’ because none of the other boys ever wore shoes like that – almost like wing-tips or something, and he wasn’t embarrassed to wear something different; it almost made him cool to wear something different and not care. And the teacher was writing on the blackboard, something like maybe an addition problem – I know I wasn’t interested in it, but I memorized the feeling I had, that I still had to pay attention, because if she asked questions about it, and I didn’t know what she was talking about, I would be horribly embarrassed! 

And I also memorized the way it felt being my age – you know, like a little scared all the time, because the world seemed so big, and yet also more excited than I am now, because there was so much possibility in life still to come? So, the fear of the unknown, but also the excitement of the unknown, at the same time – and that’s about what it felt like for me to be an eight-year-old girl, that day in class.

I also memorized the smell: that classroom always had a special smell, composed of chalk dust, and the smell of the cloakroom, kind of a nice, musty smell, and the girl next to me had on maybe some kind of little-girl perfume, or toilet water, the kind of thing a girl would put on, thinking she was being mature, maybe something she got from an older sister or something.

Well, that’s it – that’s the moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life, and so far, I have!

As I listen, I tuck these moments away in my own personal psychotherapy hall of fame, so that they can glow for me, too. Sometimes, they help me, too, just like they helped the original person. And sometimes I can even use them to help that patient, like when Joe was very despondent one day, and I said,”Joe, don’t forget the girl on the subway platform,” and something seemed to shift inside of him, and he simply nodded quietly and said, “Thank you.”

Do you have moments from your life, that are fixed in your mind forever, like still photographs? Moments that maybe don’t ‘make sense,’ but are still there, forever and ever?

Well I do, and I’ll tell you about one of them, but first a little back-story.

Where I grew up, in North Hollywood, a suburb of L.A., everyone lived in tract houses that had been built after the War, on quiet, perfectly-laid-out little streets – nice little streets, row upon row of them, only distinguishable by the kind of tree that was planted next to the curb. We had liquid ambars, that had lots of bristly ‘cones,’ and leaves that turned spectacular colors with the seasons, so that you could almost imagine that we had real seasons.

Well, this particular day – it must have been Fall, because I remember the leaves on the ground – my Mom decided to take us on a little outing. I was a pre-schooler, probably three or so, that magical age when you’re old enough to know a few things, but not old enough to have to know anything. It was unusual to actually be ‘doing’ anything with my mother; most days I spent playing with the guys down the street, all day, and that was the pattern my whole childhood: get up, take off, and come home in time for dinner. But for some reason, today Mom had made plans: we were going to have a picnic at Victory-Vanowen Park – me, my Mom, my older sister, and Libby, the woman next door who had just adopted a baby.

Libby was different than Mom – it’s hard to say how, exactly, through the eyes of a three-year old, but she was somehow softer, more feminine, more girlish, maybe more wounded. Nowadays, I would say, “vulnerable,” but I didn’t know that word then, or need to.

Libby was younger than Mom (almost all the other mothers were, my Mom having had babies ‘late,’ hatching me at 35). But she wasn’t just younger chronologically: the story, as it was passed on to me in dribs and drabs over the years, was that Libby had been an only child, a quiet, sensitive girl who grew up alone. Her parents, whom I met on a few occasions when they came to visit next door, seemed like nice folks, straightforward country folks, no-nonsense and plain, maybe the kind of folks who wouldn’t exactly know what to do with a soft, forlorn little girl.

I remember her Mom, Theresa, a perfectly nice woman, but a woman who would tie a rag on her head, then barrel through Libby’s house, cleaning, mopping and vacuuming with a vengeance: definitely not the ‘woe is me,’ ‘meaning of life’ type, more the ‘please get out of my way, I have things to do’ type. Of course, I could be wrong, but even at my young age, I already had a primitive version of my ‘this is a bad child/parent personality match’ thesis, that would later be the explanation of so many visits to my office. Like I say, I could be wrong, but I felt strongly that Libby had had a rough childhood.

Well, Libby grew up and eventually met and married a guy, Dan, who was also an only child. But Dan was a big, bluff, outgoing guy, a typical salesman type, who traveled, selling, for a national paper bag company, as I remember. He was gone a lot, and when he was there, he expected it to be his castle, his big personality dwarfing Libby’s, as she bustled about to keep him happy, probably wondering, with silent dread, what he really ‘did’ on the road all that time.

So, the most obvious answer for Libby, the lonely, only child in a lonely marriage with a guy who was on the road all the time, was to have a child of her own. And she tried, and tried, and tried. But, as it turned out, she couldn’t have children. So she tried adopting, and it was a long haul, but finally, she got a child to have for her very own: a little boy, Rory. And Rory was a holy terror from the start, a kid we would probably recognize as AHDH today (with an emphasis on the ‘H’), maybe even bipolar, an “all-boy” type who ran Libby ragged, morn to night. Libby would have been an amazing mother to a sweet little girl, but with this kid, she was outgunned and outmanned, her home a battle zone, not the love nest she had hoped for.

I knew, from hearing little thises and thats, that Libby kind of idolized Mom, and our family: I’m sure to her it looked like exactly what she had always longed for, with two sweet kids and a nice husband who was home for dinner every night. I think Libby saw Mom as the perfect mother, an older woman she could look up to, and confide in, someone who knew the score and could understand her troubles.

Little did she know that Mom had a few troubles of her own – not that Mom would talk about them, even with Libby, of course: ‘we’ didn’t talk about our problems with anyone, ever. That was low-class, weak and common – a breach of the privacy that we maintained at all times, with all people.

But to be on the receiving end of Libby’s talking – well, that was alright.

Well, I have a feeling that the picnic might have been the result of one of those talks, an antidote to the humdrum of Libby’s life, an anodyne outing that could lift everyone’s spirits and ‘change the slide’, for one afternoon.

But it wasn’t going to be a ‘pack the potato salad’ kind of picnic: nope, we were going to the Orange Suzy, near Sears.

Ah bliss!

Ah joy!

If you’re old enough to remember those ubiquitous Orange Julius stands, well, the Orange Suzy was something like that, with those whipped-orange drinks, made maybe with eggs, that you could get all over the country at the time. But the drinks were the least of it, because they also had these wonderful, fantastic, amazing hot dogs, and hot pastrami sandwiches that would make the angels (the Jewish ones, at least) weep with envy.

And the secret?

Steam!

Everything was steamed in a special contraption that locked in the flavor and gave everything a moistness and density that couldn’t be matched by ‘conventional’ heating methods.

Now, that was something I was willing to forgo an afternoon with the guys for!

Well, I threw on my uniform – striped t-shirt, jeans and Keds, and we were off. Of course we drove – you always drive in L.A.: if I’m not mistaken, it’s a felony, there, to be caught walking further than the distance to your car.

First stop: the Orange Suzy. Though I was always torn, momentarily, between their great steamed hot dogs and the hot pastrami, I, of course, ordered the pastrami. I mean, put it this way: how could you possibly forgive yourself if you were killed later that day in an accident, and like a damn fool, you’d passed up your last chance to have a Suzy pastrami? You’d have no one but yourself to blame, as you died slowly, in shame, with chili dog on your breath.

If you ate there, everything came in those brightly-colored plastic baskets, but if you were taking out, as we were, the guy just wrapped it up in wax paper and put it in a paper bag (maybe sold to him by Dan?).

I don’t remember what everyone else ordered, but Mom always got “Number Four, hold the onions,” which was a chili dog with shredded cheddar cheese, on a bun, which ran a very respectable second-place on the Suzy sandwich menu to you-know-what.

Laden with our feast, we made our way to the park, which was just across the Sears parking lot from the Suzy. We finally settled down on the grass amid a copse of sycamores, their mottled trunks rising high over the park. Squirrels gamboled in the trees, going about their business with an admirable intensity of spirit.

I reached for my sandwich, wrapped in that yellow-orange wax paper that I don’t think they even make anymore. Then I opened up the paper and just took a moment of devotional grace, inhaling the glorious aroma of the bread, the meat, the pickle, even the mustard.

Like the girl who ‘memorized the moment’ in elementary school, I consciously fixed the scene in my memory: off to my left there was my mother and sister, setting out their food in preparation for our picnic; to my right there was Libby and her young son. I remember Libby’s face to this day, the skin creamy and soft, almost lustrous, like the girls in the Breck ads. And right in the middle of that creamy skin, for once, a small, contented smile.

And I saw, through my child’s eyes, the grass, the squirrels, and most of all, the stately sycamores.

The same sycamores that, five years later, would be the subject of one of my father’s Cub Scout ‘Nature’ merit badge talks, which would earn him the nickname Nature Boy, which would lead to his love of birds, which would lead to a lifetime of birding, and writing about birding. The same sycamores that, ten years later, would witness me running home, my arm a bloody mess, when I tried to sled down the paved ‘wash’ of the L.A. River on a piece of cardboard and ended up shredding my skin on the asphalt all the way down. The same sycamores that, fifteen years later, would be there as I sobbed my heart out to my sister, in shocked disbelief, when my first ‘real’ girlfriend dumped me.

But the day of the picnic, the day I memorized, all was magical: good company, good food, the woods, the squirrels, the rustle of the leaves on the trees, the crackle of the leaves on the grass, and the kindness that my mother had shown to Libby, to get her out of her house, and into that beatific smile, for a few precious moments.

And, looking back, I think that maybe, in my own little-boy way, I was proud of Mom that day. I think that maybe, because of her thoughtfulness, and her love for Libby – well, maybe I kind of felt loved-by-association, and proud-by-association, too.

All I know is that, for that one magic moment, time stood still, and life was good.

I hope that you, like my patients and I, have some magic moments squirreled away, too – some inner pictures that are there when you need to ‘go to the well’ and draw sustenance from it.

And I hope that, like those sycamores I treasure in memory, they stand eternal watch over you.

 

 

 

 

 

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

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Therapist!

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Long ago, when I first started my practice, I also started therapy of my own. Oh sure, I had been in “therapy” before, in L.A. (during my internship at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute), if you want to call it therapy. One guy was into wrestling around on the floor of his office with his patients, and once, when I tried to talk to him about my bad back, he mockingly said, “Ooooh, poor baby!”: maybe he was pissed off that it meant I wasn’t gonna be a good candidate for his half-Nelsons down on the rug!

Another guy believed that the way to mental health was to become an ‘expert’ at something. His ‘specialty area’ was humor, but after a few months of nothing really happening in our sessions, I wasn’t laughing.

But what did I know? I mean, I thought, well, maybe they were fabulous therapists, and I was just a dud as a patient. (Hmm, does this give you any idea of my psychological problems at the time?)

So, after I moved to the Bay Area in the late Seventies, and started my private practice, I finally had enough money, and time, to actually be in therapy myself, hopefully with a ‘real’ therapist. I know this probably sounds weird to a lot of you reading this: how could a psychologist who needs therapy, and who hasn’t really even been in therapy, actually do therapy? Well, it’s not nearly as weird as it sounds. First of all, here’s a news flash:

All therapists are Just People!

They have their own issues, their peccadilloes, and their emotional tics, just like anybody else. And, for that matter, while we’re at it, I might as well share some other late-breaking news:

You don’t have to be ‘together,’ yourself, to be a good therapist!

I know it sounds funny, and it may not make sense to a ‘layman,’ but it’s absolutely true. I’ve known many excellent therapists whose own personal lives were lived in a basket, and I’ve certainly had many therapists as patients who, at times in their life, occupied prime acreage on the Funny Farm. But that didn’t mean they weren’t good therapists! In fact, some experience of ‘bad times’ and some time logged on the couch oneself, is almost a qualification for being a good therapist.

After all, the stuff you get from books and teachers can only take you so far in understanding, and dealing with, psychotherapy patients. Beyond a certain point, you’ve got to either be able to identify in some way with what people are struggling with, or at least have some empathy for their woes, neither of which you get by having had a perfect life. While a therapist should at least have a commitment to growth and change in his own life, I don’t feel he needs to have “gotten there” in order to help others. No, being unfinished business oneself is not a disqualification for being a good therapist; but being a hypocrite, i.e. one who smugly helps others with their problems, without an awareness of one’s own problems, or a commitment to working on them – now a dude like that is a no-show in my little black book of therapist referrals.

It’s true, therapists are often seen as role models by their patients, are looked up to, and seen as experts and maybe even paragons of a sort, but while this doesn’t preclude therapists having problems of their own, it does mean that they can’t drag them into the therapy relationship like pet poodles. This is where “disclosure” often becomes an issue: I don’t believe in the old ‘blank slate’ policy, whereby the therapist displays no reaction whatsoever to anything the patient says, sitting there like a cigar store Indian when the patient says, “I just got accepted to Yale!” and then when the patient says, “Aren’t you even happy for me?” responds with, “So, what are you feeling right now?”

What are they feeling right now?

Well, probably that you’re an asshole, for starters.

No, I’ve been there, done that, on the patient end and the therapist end, and I feel that this style is unnecessarily withholding and emotionally miserly, leading to exaggerated hurt, insecurity and desperation on the part of the patient, that isn’t even part of their real ‘work,’ but rather an artifact of the method itself.

On the other hand, you definitely don’t want to be intruding on the patient’s rightful space in therapy, by constantly throwing your own personal reactions, experiences or feelings out there. There is a time and place for such disclosure, and it’s when it is of service to the patient and the therapy, not just because it occurs to you, because it’s a great story, or because, “I don’t know – it just came up,” which the ex-therapist of a patient of mine routinely gave as a ‘reason’ for his constant, interruptive disclosures. Dude, self-disclosure in therapy is not a burp: it’s a wisely-meted-out resource, to be used for the benefit of the patient only. Yes, I self-disclose nowadays a lot more than I used to, but I know what I’m doing, as opposed to when I was a beginner, when it was wiser to keep my mouth shut and just listen. Besides, I have enough life experience now to come up with stuff that’s actually relevant, rather than just playing word-association, to wit:

Patient: I grew up on a farm.

Gregg: Oh – I used to have a chicken!

Ouch! See what I mean? Relevance, and therapeutic benefit, are the keys, not cleverness or sloppy over-identification.

But back to my first ‘real’ therapy. Well, this guy came highly recommended. He was an older guy, a big muckamuck in an esteemed local psychotherapy training program, and had been around the Berkeley therapy scene for decades. In other words, as a current young woman patient of mine would say, he was supposed to be “the shit.” Well, like I say, what did I know? I knew about doing therapy, not being therapized. I knew my way of operating, but also knew there are many ways to skin a cat, so whatever he did, I figured it had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Well, the first session was, shall we say, a little spare. I rattled on about my marriage at the time (not so hot), my depression (mild to moderate), and anything else that was bothering, frustrating, or torturing me, while he sat there in silence, puffing on a (mostly unlit) pipe, fiddling with pipe cleaners and other paraphernalia of the pipe-maintenance trade, making occasional furtive entries on a little yellow pad. I once saw a couple where the woman really loved her dog and was pretty lukewarm about her husband. Once, the husband got so fed up he yelled, “When I die, I want to come back as your dog!” Well, when I died I wanted to come back as this guy’s pipe: it seemed like the only way I was ever going to get any attention out of him.

Oh, did I mention that my basic ‘presenting etiological problem’ was having two narcissistic parents, who were unable to get their heads out of their own popos and pay any real attention to me? Hmmm . . .

Well, we went on like that for weeks, months, years. Me talking, him puffing – only taking small breaks to raise an eyebrow, smirk, or chuckle to himself.

Oh, yes, one more thing: he also took breaks to answer his telephone.

Yes, you heard me right: I said, “answer his telephone.”

During my sessions.

To talk to his other patients, right out loud.

During my sessions.

Oh, and did I mention that the basis of my problems was that I had two narcissistic parents who . . .

And one more thing: he was almost always late in coming out to get me. And his previous patient was a real cute girl. And he was late because he always ‘ran over’ with her. And he had a reputation around town as a ladies’ man.

I finally got up the nerve one day to say, “Why are you always late?”

No response.

“You always run overtime with that girl you see before me.”

Puff.

“It annoys me. Is there something going on with her and you that you’re not dealing with?”

Smirk.

“Look, I’m asking you a direct question: what’s going on with you and her, that always makes you late for my sessions?”

Chortle.

“I’m getting sick of this cat and mouse routine.”

Ring.

He answered the phone, talking chummily with someone for at least two full minutes.

“And another thing: stop answering your phone on my time. I’m paying for a full session, not to mention for getting your full attention.”

Puff.

“Maybe if you ended your sessions on time, you’d have time to answer your phone calls on your own time.”

Furtive note.

“Don’t you have anything to say? Because if you don’t, I’m not sure I can continue this.”,

With that, he actually put down his pipe and actually spoke, in actual words: “You’ve been complaining since you got here. What do you think is going on with you today?”

I almost said, “Better watch out – I think your pipe’s getting lonely down there,” but I was too stunned to say anything for a minute. I mean, dude – you’re going to be friggin’ late to sessions for months at a time, play footsie with your cute girl patients, answer your damn phone on my dime, and then blame me for complaining about it?

I sat there with my head spinning for a few minutes, and then he announced the end of the session: exactly on time, as always.

Before the next session, I decided it would be our last – and I use the word “our” loosely. Part of me (the part that needed therapy!) was still trying to make excuses for him:

Maybe I was wrong about his running overtime with the cute girl.

Maybe I was wrong about his always starting sessions late with me.

Maybe he had a right to answer his phone during my sessions: he certainly seemed to think he did.

Maybe his not responding was actually good for me. Maybe his not caring was good for me.

Maybe I was a chronic complainer.

Maybe this, maybe that.

Yeah, and maybe if your aunt had a beard, she’d be your uncle.

Well, that last session was a classic.

A doozy.

A lulu.

A pip.

Look, when you’re a therapy patient, about the only real ‘power’ you have over your therapist is two things: time and money. Because, in the final analysis, those are the only two things that the therapist is really entitled to from you. So, to have an ‘effect’ on the therapist, the only real things you can do are to withhold time (be late, ‘forget’ sessions, cancel, demand extra time, not be available, cut back the frequency of meetings), or withhold money (‘forget’ to pay, pay late, refuse to pay, demand reduced fees, say it’s not worth it). But you shouldn’t have to use the threat of time or money to get the therapist to care: I mean, he or she is supposed to care ‘just because,’ right?

Wrong.

I came in to the session (which started late, of course), and announced that this was going to be my last one. I mean, Jesus, this should have evoked some kind of big response from him – if not because it meant he had failed me, then because he didn’t want to fail me.

Right?

Wrong.

Well, then, at least because it meant I wasn’t going to be paying him anymore.

Right?

Wrong.

So, back to my announcement, which went something like this: “I’ve decided, based on how you’ve treated me, that I don’t think this is doing me any good, and that to continue to go along with it would mean accepting the way I was treated in my family, which you’ve pointed out many times, was abusive – or at least when I said it was abusive, you puffed on your pipe and didn’t take any notes, which I take to be agreement in principle.”

Puff.

“So, like I say, this is my last session.”

Smirk.

I sat there, waiting for a response, and not getting one. Heck, even with starting late, we still had at least thirty minutes to go. Thirty long minutes. Thirty minutes of angry silence, humiliated silence, punctuated by puffing and smirking. I mean, after a while, I even started hoping the damn phone would ring.

Finally, I just couldn’t sit there and take it anymore: I had to put an end to it. I stood up and said, “Well, I guess this is goodbye – to you, and your damn pipe.”

I was just starting for the door, when he suddenly spoke. “That’s the healthiest thing you’ve done in your whole therapy.”

I could have said, “And that’s the first right thing you’ve said in my whole therapy,” but I didn’t.

It felt bad: kind of like threatening to break up with a girl and all she says is, “The door swings both ways: don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out.”

There was nothing to say. I walked out the door and never came back.

Well, he was right: it was the healthiest thing I had done in my whole therapy. And I did learn some things from it all – or at least it started me on the road to some important learnings:

I learned, finally, to trust my own perception of situations, instead of always believing people who “know more than me.”

I learned that, at least for me, when dealing with self-absorbed narcissists, the only proper response is, “I think we’re done here.”

And, oh yes, I learned something else, too: if this clown was thought of as a big whoop in the therapist community, if he was considered to be the ‘real deal,’ well, then I certainly didn’t have anything to be ashamed of as a therapist. At least I cared about my patients. At least I fought for them. At least I responded when they were upset, or hurt, or felt ignored, or not taken seriously.

I also learned that sometimes, a guy who’s a total fraud, a bullshitter, an insincere ass, and a phony, can be lauded and idealized by a whole community of ‘sophisticated’ people. Some people have the gift of gab, or charm, or power politics, or just intelligent psychopathy, that lets them fool most of the people most of the time.

And you know what – that’s okay, but the thing is, I don’t have to buy it. It may sound simple, or obvious, but the biggest thing I think I learned from Dr. Puffer was to sit and listen politely to people (including ‘experts’), then say to myself,

“Yeah – that’s what you think, bud.”

So there it is: from him, I learned to walk away, and from him, I learned to think for myself.

Of course, I never did learn to answer my phone during my patients’ sessions, but then, nobody’s perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Diary Of Anne Candid

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Once, years ago, I was talking with Sarah, a young woman patient, about how to deal with narcissists and other people who are self-referent and blaming of others, and end up making you feel ‘wrong’ for any of your behaviors or personality characteristics that upset them. This led us into reflecting on single-minded family systems (like hers) that offer you two choices: either join us in thinking, feeling and acting ‘our way,’ and thereby be a part of something (ostensibly) wonderful, or have your own (wrong!) attitudes and be all alone.

What a godawful Sophie’s choice, especially for a child, and most especially for a sweet, sincere child who wants and needs connection, and needs to feel a part of things.

Such a connection-oriented child, brought up in such a my-way-or-the-highway family, is at a terrible disadvantage. Desperate to fit in and not be an outsider in her own family, the child naturally (and unconsciously) learns to disregard and disbelieve her own perceptions. As my patient and I continued talking, we realized that, eventually, she was going to have to come up with a strategy for dealing with these types of monolithic people, and systems.

But wait: though Sarah understood all this, on an intellectual level, a strong part of her resisted it. That resistant part of her (the innocent child) still wanted to believe that everybody is basically honest, basically sincere, and wants authenticity and connection as much as she does. Unfortunately, in our culture, that’s called “leading with your chin,” because believing, unquestioningly, in the “good of all mankind,” means that sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’re going to get beat up and dumped in an (emotional) alley somewhere.

Again and again.

Her continuing belief in the ‘goodness of all beings’ led her to believe self-referent people when they said she had upset them (i.e. by disagreeing with them and their ways, or by being herself). Therefore, she ended up in situations repeatedly where, in order to maintain the illusion of a connection, or a working relationship with others, she had to doubt herself and her perceptions.

Result?

Feeling bad about herself, and disbelieving herself, to the point where she sometimes thought she must be crazy. Oh, and did I mention suicidal thoughts and no self-confidence?

I tried again, mentioning gently, once more, that she was going to have to come up with a strategy that allowed her to maintain her own reality with these people; that when other people are lying, or insincere, or totally unable to perceive or value her reality, there had to be a way to detach from their demands, and stop giving them the power to define her.

Well, my pushing finally led to this outburst:

But that’s elitist and snobbish. Who am I to judge them? Besides, that implies that I think I’m better than them.

I tried to explain that, whether she knew it or not, this ‘detachment’ is a function that “normal” people perform, internally, all the time. Let’s say you’re in a transaction with someone and it becomes clear that they’re blaming you for something that’s actually their own doing. You say to yourself, “Hmm, I guess they’re too limited for me to pursue this with them now.” That is, you disengage to some degree, and give up the hope of carrying on a sincere, open transaction with them any further. No, it doesn’t mean you write them off, or that you think you’re ‘better’ than they are – but it does mean that you decide, independently and unilaterally, that they are not able to continue things in a manner that honors your reality.

Once again Sarah said, “But I don’t like that!”

Hmmm. And I responded, “Well, I don’t like it either, but then, do you ‘like’ thinking that you’re a loser, crazy, or wrong all the time? Are you willing to sacrifice yourself, in order to maintain the illusion that you and this person are ‘close,’ or ‘on the same page’? And remember, it is an illusion.”

She looked agitated, and truly dismayed. I could see the wrestling match going on in her mind:

In this corner, representing all that crap Dr. Bernstein is telling me about self-preservation by selective detachment: Kid Change!

And in that corner, representing the innocent child’s belief in the Goodness of All Mankind, and the desperate need to stay connected with others At All Costs: The Denier!

At this point, I could have pressed her to continue processing her feelings about all this, no matter how rational or irrational they might be, but instead I obeyed Bernstein’s First Law of Psychotherapy:

Shut Up And Listen!

And, as so often happens when you shut up and listen, something creative and ‘self-y’ happened. She finally looked up at me, a steely resolve in her blue eyes, and said, “But, what about Anne Frank?”

Well, I remembered that Anne Frank was one of her idols, someone she looked up to as a role model for innocence, authenticity, and a belief in human nature. I wasn’t positive where she was going with this, but I had a pretty good idea that what it meant, roughly, was, “If I accept your proposition that I have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether people are sincere and safe for me, or narcissistic and toxic to me, that would mean losing my charter membership in the Anne Frank Pure and Innocent Society.”

Looking at Sarah’s sad-shading-into-angry face, I also understood that, even beyond Anne Frank, she felt that accepting my ‘proposition’ would, in some sense, mean losing her charter membership in her own family. And the universally sad part is that growing up ALWAYS means, in some sense, losing your charter membership in your own family – and absolutely so when your family is a monolithic ‘cult,’ that requires unquestioning agreement with what has been laid down by the elders.

As a child develops, and his or her uniqueness starts to become evident, a normal family says,

“That’s interesting – you’ve brought some healthy diversity to our ‘stock’.”

Whereas a monolithic family says,

“Kid, you’d better drop those new thoughts and feelings, and quick, or you’re out of here.”

Unfortunately, Sarah’s family was the “drop it, quick” kind, though she had never really ‘claimed’ her knowledge of that fact. Not surprisingly, she had discovered, and clung to, Anne Frank as a symbol of openness and honesty, without fully realizing why Anne Frank meant so much to her.

Anne Frank is, deservedly, a symbol the world over, of how the voice of life continues, even under the most severe repression and ugliness. But she is more than that, as well: her diary is not only the record of a family forced into hiding by the insanity of Nazi repression, but a testament to the struggles of a young girl to say, “I exist!” to the world at large, i.e. a universal teenage girl’s shout-out of existence, of mattering, of uniqueness. Because the whole world had gone crazy, her story is not just the “usual” teenage (or ‘tweenage’) angst played out against her parents, but against society as a whole.

The challenge of a young girl entering her teens is to grow, to expand, to lay the emotional groundwork to eventually push her way out of her family system, and take her place in the big, scary world beyond – and that, as we all know, is hard enough. But in the case of Anne Frank, here is a girl who, at the very developmental moment of gathering herself and all her courage for the Big Push, up and out of her childhood cocoon, was forced Down and In, literally into hiding and secrecy, into an even smaller, quieter, more constricted world, than her normal childhood life.

And so her diary is not just the tenuous confessions and gropings-toward-adulthood of a normal preteen girl, but actually a piercing, heroic, countercoup scream to the world:

I’m alive, damn you!

I’m still here!

I exist! 

You can’t stop me from growing up!

And the ultimate irony is that, if this type of diary had been written by, say, an ordinary Dutch girl of the same era, living out in the open, in a non-persecuted group, it wouldn’t have nearly the same power.

Why?

Because you have to get MAD (even if unconsciously) to force these things out of yourself, to fling the words out there like spears, with abandon and full honesty. You have to be pushed to an emotional place where it almost doesn’t MATTER what you write, or do, or feel. Almost like, “I’m lost anyway – so I’m going to go for it!” My guess, also, is that with the Nazis as a shared family enemy, it probably forced the developing Anne into a more appreciative stance towards her family than she would have had otherwise. There wasn’t the LUXURY of standard rebellion towards family authority!

The diary was not a careful record, or a childish outburst; it was more of a, “Please, Lord, hear my cry!” Not that Anne recognized this, by any means – but the power of the diary is that it is the document of a girl in circumstances that stripped her of all pretense, of posturing, of both preening and self-pity, a girl reduced, like a fine roux, down to her basic essence, and in the case of Anne Frank, that essence carried a magnificent humanness and universality.

And this courage, this magnificence, is what Sarah responded to in the writing of Anne Frank. In lobbing the hand grenade of Anne Frank at me, in the session, she was saying, “I don’t have to face all this!”

She got MAD.

I didn’t say anything, waiting for her to make the next move: after all, it was her ‘show.’ It was up to her to mobilize all that energy and pressure we had uncorked, like drilling down to a gusher.

Suddenly, she stood up, saying, “You can’t take Anne Frank away from me: I won’t stand for it!” and stormed out of the room.

I could have stopped her in a million different ways, but I wanted to give her her head, to let her loose in the world not being scared, not being careful, not caring anymore – like Anne Frank.

This was her break-out moment: hers alone, not to be carefulized, or diluted, by me.

I waited.

The next night, I got a message on my voice mail from her:

Dr. Bernstein, I’m going to leave a message here, but don’t call me back. I need some time to deal with all this – on my own. (Pause) Okay, I think I’m getting it: you’re not trying to take Anne Frank away from me, are you? You’re trying to get me to join her. (Pause) It’s just so . . . so sad, to have to leave my family like this – to, you know, outgrow them, I guess. I thought you were trying to get me to hate them, to reject them, but now I see that . . . that it’s not like that, is it? It’s just sad, but kind of sad-proud, if you know what I mean. (Pause) Okay, that’s all I can say, for now. I guess I’ll see you next week . . . since you’re not a monster, after all (small laugh). Goodbye.

The next week, I could feel, the moment she walked into my office, that something was different. Her posture was more erect, her bearing almost regal: she had always been a pretty girl, but now she was close to beautiful. I knew, without her saying a word, that she had crossed her own personal Rubicon; she would never be the same. You know, it’s funny, being a therapist, because at times like this, part of you thinks, “Hey, what happened to my little girl? I’m not ready to lose her!” Loss and growth is hard for therapists, too! But you never say it – you just live with it, and smile.

Well, the first thing she said was, “Dr. B, I never realized that one of the things about Anne Frank that is so perfect is her last name: you know, like Frank means honest? And, in the last week or so, even though it’s taken me a long time to get there, I’ve started to be honest with myself. Well, actually, I’ve always been honest with myself: what’s different is that I’m starting to be more honest with other people, and about other people. So I promoted myself.”

I angled my head at her, confused. “What do you mean, promoted?”

She laughed. “Well, you know how I always felt like Anne Frank was a sister – the sister I never had? But before, I never felt worthy of really being related to her. Well, now I’ve promoted myself to being her sister . . . and, you’re going to think this is crazy, but, secretly, I’ve started a diary, an honest diary – and I’m calling it The Diary of Anne Candid – because that’s my new nom de plume. And that’s what I mean by ‘promoted.'”

Well, Sarah left a short time later to go to college. Her struggles weren’t over, by any means, but they were different. Now, instead of drowning in her troubles, she was swimming through them: I hadn’t made her problems disappear, but I had taught her the Australian crawl.

Sarah got her degree, eventually got married, had kids, and lives a nice life in a Midwestern town.

And every holiday season, she sends me a card, and it’s always signed, ‘Anne Candid.’

And every time I see that name I smile, and feel like I’ve been promoted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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