Light Unto My Lamp

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The Lamplighter is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous, and most endearing, poems, from his classic, A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson was a sickly child, ‘banished’ to his room, alone, for long stretches of time, away from the society of his peers.

But, here – read it first, and then we’ll talk some more:

                         The Lamplighter

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;

It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;

For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,

With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,

And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;

But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,

O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

Lovely, isn’t it? And haunting. You can just picture the young Stevenson, poet and literateur-to-be, the scope of his world reduced to his bedroom and the street outside his window, the endless hours marked by the regular cadence of activity on the street, the coming of darkness, and then, finally, Leerie’s nightly rounds.

Mary Shelley gave her famous novel, Frankenstein, the subtitle A Modern Prometheus, in honor of the godlike miracle of vivification that Dr. Frankenstein performed with lightning. But for the small Stevenson, Leerie must have seemed a modern Prometheus as well, bringing flame, as he did, to the darkened streets of Edinburgh on a nightly basis, magically replacing the foggy murk outside his bedroom window with the warm glow of the flickering streetlight.

And little Robert lay there wondering, probably, if he would ever again leave his room, and maybe, too, about those things a child should never have to wonder about: permanent infirmity, continued isolation, and possibly, death.

What do you do in that kind of situation? You make, by necessity, a ‘world’ of your small world. You watch, and wait, for the rhythmic, the predictable happenings that mark the tedious hours, happenings that assume enormous importance. So much importance that even a (hoped-for) momentary nod from a lamplighter becomes a signal daily event, a blessed pinprick of light in the vast darkness of a child’s loneliness.

Stevenson even immortalized his sickroom ‘world’ in this poem:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay,

To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;

Or brought my trees and houses out,

And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

Is this a boy who is content to lie in bed, a passive observer of life? Is it even possible to read this verse and miss the longing embodied in the references to the active, daring life of soldiers and sailors, or the poignant irony of Stevenson, in enforced bed rest, calling himself “the giant”?

Growing up, attending various schools, he was eager, desperate, to push his way out of the narrow confines of not only the sickbed, but the boy’s world of Edinburgh that circumscribed his life. He wanted ‘out,’ but then again, he also still prized, and needed, the “pleasant land of counterpane” where he had once lived. Like a prisoner of war who, once released, finds the ‘real world’ too fast, too loud, too demanding, too changed, Robert still clung to the old, the small, the familiar.

But is it possible to hold on to the old, when the world is changing so fast?

Stevenson certainly hoped to: here is an excerpt from his essay, A Plea For Gas Lamps, which he wrote years later, clearly influenced by his continued affection for the fast-fading age of gas lamps. In this passage, he compares the ‘new’ electric lights with his beloved gas:

The word ELECTRICITY now sounds the note of danger. Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror. To look at it only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance fit to eat by. Mankind, you might have thought, might have remained content with what Prometheus stole for them and not gone fishing the profound heaven with kites to catch and domesticate the wildfire of the storm . . . but where soft joys prevail, where people are convoked to pleasure and the philosopher looks on smiling and silent, where love and laughter and deifying wine abound, there, at least, let the old, mild lustre shine upon the ways of man.

So young Robert found ways to prize and treasure his ‘small world,’ but at the same time, I think The Lamplighter shows you that, for Stevenson, watching wasn’t enough: He wanted the power of the lamplighter, too! He wanted to make a difference. He, too, wanted to ‘bring the light.’

But how was he supposed to bridge the huge gap between being a sickly child, confined to his bed, and becoming a force in the adult world, like Leerie?

He wanted to be somebody!

And not just any somebody: his own somebody!

He didn’t ‘just’ want to go into the family business, as he was expected to, although, ironically enough, the family business was ‘bringing the light’: Robert’s father, and other close relatives, were noted lighthouse designers. No, Robert, though limited and betrayed by his frail body, imagined something grander than designing lighthouses. He imagined himself bestriding the ‘big world’ in seven-league boots, running away from his real life as a frail boy in his cloistered bedroom.

It seems clear that young Robert felt the soul of an adventurer stirring within himself, but also that he knew, from early on, that he didn’t have the body of one: an identity out of sync with itself, two warring camps, each insisting on its own way.

But how does one resolve this internal tug of war – something that is far more common than you might imagine? Well, I could give lots of examples from my practice, but let’s use Stevenson as an example. For Robert, an artistic type with a literary bent, one of the ways is to work on the issues by using fantasy.

Is this the internal tug of war that haunted Stevenson? Forced into a small world by childhood illness, trying to make something worthwhile, something memorable, something meaningful, out of his limited resources? Then, as an adult, expanding his world hugely, almost ‘counter-phobically,’ by taking trips – no, not trips: voyages, that were certainly uncharacteristic of people of his time, traveling the biggest of the Big World, with seven-league boots. But was this far-flung travel, this enormous striding of the bigness of the world, the ‘corrective’ that he sought, to his childhood confinement? And finally, in writing of his travels, did he become a symbolic Leerie, bringing that larger, far-flung world to ‘light’ for his readers, illuminating them with tales of his voyages and adventures?

Hear his ‘protest’ of following in the family footsteps, in this poem:

Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.

Does the phrase, “like a child” jump out at you, like it does me?

I hear, in this poem,

“I’m no f________child! I’m not weak!”

He wants us to know that, although he didn’t do the ‘right thing’ and follow his father in the lighthouse business, he is not a nothing, not a failure.

There was an enormous displacement, and discontinuity, in scope, that his life spanned: shut-in, to world-wide traveler. Was this the split, the disjunction, that so haunted him, the basis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? That enormous gap between the small world and the big world, that lay inside him, yawning and unbridgeable? Did he wish that it were possible to bridge that gap by taking a magic potion?

Did he say to himself, as many, many of my patients have said to me,

Can’t you just knock me out and give me something, so I wake up changed?

Well, that is what Dr. Jekyll did, isn’t it? The fantasy of getting to the ‘other side’ just by taking something – kind of an alchemy by ingestion. Well, what were Stevenson’s alternatives? There was no psychotherapy, no real way that personal help from another person could bridge that gap. So what could he do? The well-known ‘Geographic Cure’ was an obvious attempt to get there. This tremendous yearning is even on display, very clearly, in his most famous writings: what is the plot of Treasure Island, after all? A young boy is basically ‘transported,’ willy-nilly, into a pirate’s life! He (as the character Jack Hawkins) goes from the Small World of an ordinary boy of those times, into the Big World of swashbuckling adventurers, from the ‘good boy’ world of young Robert Stevenson, to the ‘bad boy’ realm of a buccaneer!

But let’s go back to The Lamplighter for a moment, to the time before this child, Stevenson, lost his innocence, and when those yearnings were right out in the open, for us to see. What is he really saying in this poem? That he is lonely, clearly. That the nightly coming of the lamplighter is a boon to him, and something to hold on to, to look forward to, clearly. But there is more here: he is saying to the lamplighter, isn’t he:

Please be with me.

Please notice me.

Let me ‘apprentice’ with you, the art of lamplighting (and therefore, be my bridge to the big world)

Take me with you!

And, maybe even,

Get me out of here!

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A way to magically be transported (with care) to the adult world? The irony of psychotherapy is that, while most psychologically ‘healthy’ people already know, and assume, that they have to make use of other people in order to “get there from here,” most psychotherapy patients have learned, somewhere along the line, that it is THEY who are ‘deficient,’ that somehow, they just have to get it together, try harder, snap out of it, concentrate, stop fooling around, face facts, stop dreaming, get with the program, and BUCK UP!

What they don’t know is that it takes HELP from other people, to do this. That’s why they come in (reluctantly) to therapy and say, “Tell me what to do,” not “Help me.” They want explanations, shortcuts, techniques, or maybe at worst, pills, to ‘get there.’

What they don’t want is an actual relationship (ick!) with another person (eeewww!).

Why?

Because, as we all know (All together now, big breath – now hit it):

That’s WEAK!!

There now, don’t you feel better, getting it all out?

Cue the marching girls! Cue the brass band! Cue Stars and Stripes Forever! Because independence is the American Way! Not needing is the American Way! Flying solo is the American Way! Doing it on your own, by your lonesome!

And needing? Shoot – that’s just .  . . just . . . well, it’s just plain Communism! Weak-kneed, bleeding heart, sob sister, boo hoo, poor me, pity party, oh-dearie-me-I’ve-got-the-vapors Communism!

And here’s the ultimate irony: for all our jingoistic, teeth-gnashing, fire-breathing, gun-toting, saber-rattling defiance of England, the ‘Mother Country’ we broke away from; for all our proclamations, declarations and disputations, we (like all rebellious children) ended up a hell of a lot like our ‘parent’ after all, in the things that matter.

We just didn’t notice.

Oops.

What is it you see all day long, from therapy patients who have ‘sworn’ to be totally different from their parents, and from patients who divorce one person, and swear they’ll never, ever, hook up with anyone ‘like that’ again?

Exactly: the rebellious son of a cantankerous, controlling father takes up a defiantly ‘alternative’ way of life, grows his hair long, wears outlandish clothes, and then proceeds to become a cantankerous, controlling ‘alternative’ man.

And the woman who will never, ever, marry a man like her short, long-haired, uninvolved alcoholic plumber ex-husband, ends up marrying a tall, short-haired, uninvolved alcoholic stock broker.

And America, the country that shouted long and loud that it wanting to be nothing – nothing at all – like its stiff-upper-lip, don’t-talk-about-your-problems, keep-it-private, act-like-everything-is-okay-even-if-it-kills-you, look-fate-in-the-eye-and-spit, don’t-let-’em-see-you-sweat ‘Mother’ England, ended up . . .

Need I go on?

Busted!

So, what can we learn from the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, that we can put to use here, on ‘our side of the pond’? Well, it’s not very sexy, but is it too much to suggest that running away (i.e from the ‘Hyde’ parts of ourselves, and from our lives) doesn’t work? That, while we are fascinated (understandably) by Treasure Island as an adventure story, it’s not really much of a model for life? After all, we Americans have our own Treasure Island, don’t we? I mean, isn’t ‘our’ own American archetype, Huckleberry Finn, really just Treasure Island on the Mississippi?

Running away makes a compelling story line for a book, but it’s the relationships, not the geography, that make these books, and our lives, truly memorable and rewarding.

Because it’s not running away that really lights our lamps – it’s running TO.

And, when Stevenson died, in far off Samoa (“I’m NOT home in bed!”) he requested his poem, Requiem, to be engraved on his tombstone:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

And what does this scream? “I’m a hunter; I’m a sailor; I traveled far and wide. I’m not a little boy, lying in bed at home: I’m a man!” It not only sounds more like an epitaph for John Wayne, it actually was recited by John Wayne in a war film, in an impromptu memorial for a lost Navy comrade. But it’s clearly what Stevenson wished for himself –  the more empowered, more uninhibited man he felt stirring inside himself, and that he wished he could embody, or at least unleash at will (paging Mr. Hyde!).

But you can’t just jump out and ‘be somebody else’ – it takes a foundation, a continuity of self, to actually be the man Stevenson envisioned himself to be. Fortunately, these days we have psychotherapy and other means of obtaining help from others, to assist us along that trail from child to adult, and from chronological adult to true adulthood. So let’s really rebel from England, and be a people that embrace not only independence but all parts of ourselves, and our fellow human beings as well.

Because while in books you can be transformed magically from a child in a sickbed to a cabin boy on a pirate ship, in real life it takes hard work and help to manifest your inner buccaneer.

So set sail on your own bold voyage, get all the help you need from the wise and the adventurous, and raise high your own Jolly Roger. Yo ho!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Lady in the Leopard-Skin Suit

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I was four years old, walking down the beach, feeling my feet sink into the soft sand with every step. I had never heard of ‘walking meditation’, and wouldn’t for many years, but that’s what I was doing. It was a typical Los Angeles beach day: hot, hot, hot, and crowded, crowded, crowded. My family – my parents, sister and I, had come here for the day.

Mind you, I hate water, always did – hate its unpredictability, its danger. I hate to swim – still do – and can’t, really, despite lessons as a kid, lessons as an adult. It’s pretty simple, really: I sink. I mean, when one of Nature’s Major Elements tries to warn you repeatedly like that, you should listen, right? Case closed.

My father was a whole different story. As soon as we got there, he did what he always did at the beach: put on his brown and yellow trunks with the sailfish on them, and run straight for the water, diving in with total abandon and swimming straight out to sea with strong, confident strokes. I wished, at four years old, that I could be the way I saw him then: strong, brave, at home in the world. I still do, sometimes, but now I realize there are different kinds of strength, different kinds of bravery. But that’s a story for another time.

My mother, also, did what she always did: set out the blankets and the food, and looked askance at the ‘neighbors’. She had a thing about ‘the great unwashed’ being in proximity to her, especially when in public. At the movies, she always said it was guaranteed that the guy who plopped down next to her reeked of garlic, or had a smoker’s hack, or mumbled inanities to his wife, loudly, throughout the show. So, having set up our temporary beach bivouac, she did the Proximity Scan: all clear, for now. Being an observant fellow, I of course had learned my lessons well: the world was unsafe, overwhelming, untrustworthy and coarse.

What do I mean by ‘coarse’? I mean Mark Halpern’s mother driving me and the guys down to the Channel 5 studios to watch Zebra Man annihilate The Hypnotizer, until the Hypnotizer finally maneuvered into position to ‘hypnotize’ Zebra Man’s hand to the ropes, leaving him free to pummel the beejeezus out of Zebra Man, while grown men on all sides screamed their lungs out in crazed bloodlust. Now that was ‘the world’. We didn’t do things like that.

Of course some people (mostly relatives) other than us were okay in my mother’s ‘book’, but then their okayness floated in and out like the tide: sometimes they were ‘in’, sometimes ‘out’, and as it was hard to keep up with her social tide tables, I think I just played it safe and decided that all ‘outsiders’ were not to be trusted – that way, I didn’t have to keep readjusting to their fluctuating status. If I just held everyone at arm’s length, I was safe.

But back to the beach. As much as I hated the water, water took second place to my worst fear: Getting Lost. Getting lost meant being separated from the herd, and when you’re a prey animal, in a predator’s world, that’s a bad thing. Well, things were going alright: my Dad had returned from his swim (Catalina and back?), Mom was pretty well settled – so, finally, sequestered on Bernstein Island, temporarily safe from all possible danger, I could finally relax on the blanket and watch the waves go in and out. God, there were a lot of people! God it was hot! I eyeballed the shoreline: gee, it looked kind of fun to be down there, at least getting your feet wet. No harm in that, eh?

I scanned the distance from my parents to the shore: not that far, as the crow flies, and I definitely was going to be the crow on this run. Maybe a hundred feet there, a hundred feet back:. Sure, I could do it, easy. Besides, they’d be right here watching me, though at the moment Mom was absorbed in a book and Dad was – well, Dad wasn’t responsible for ‘the kids’. Once, years later, when I was in the initial righteous flush of therapy and confronted him about not being available or ever doing much with me, he said, in all earnestness: “Well, your Mom had been a teacher: I figured she should take care of all that.” Hmm, nice to be relegated to ‘all that’, but back to the beach.

I mentally measured off the distance again: if I went straight there, didn’t move, and came straight back, I should be okay. After all, the shore wasn’t going to move in relation to my parents, and the same went vice versa (yep, I actually thought that), and if there wasn’t a massive act of god (I had seen hurricanes on TV, and heard about earthquakes) I should be alright.

I stood up and started walking. The sand seemed to pull me down with every step. Uh oh. Of course, I had seen Ramar of the Jungle and knew what quicksand could do (“Help – give me your hand!” “No, it’ll pull me down, too!”), unless you were a gorgeous jungle girl or Ramar himself.  But, as I went on, I  started to relax and enjoy the way the sand gave with my every step. It was like walking on the moon, or Mars, maybe: this was kinda fun, like being an explorer. I made it down to the beach. The waves weren’t bad, kind of unpredictable how high they were going to come in, but what’s the worst that could happen? Getting my legs wet, but that’s no big deal. Granted, it felt a little weird to have the sand give way under me even more now, when the water came in, but what’s that, to an explorer? Ramar had nothing on me.

The gulls wheeled overhead, a friendly escort. Hmm, what if I just walked along the shore for a while? What if I just looked down and followed my feet, like I used to do on the way to school? I could try to stay in a straight line, even though the undertow was always trying to pull me down and toward the water. Heck, I’m strong, I can do it: one, two, one, two . . .wow, this is amazing: I feel free, almost hypnotized, like the Zebra Man’s hand. One, two, one, two . . .I’m doing it, I can stay in a straight line if I keep concentrating . . .shutting out everything but my feet . . .wow, I wonder if the Zebra Man even felt The Hypnotizer hitting him when he was ‘under’? One, two, one, two . . .I’m free, free, free . . .

A cloud passed over the sun, breaking my trance. Gee, how long have I walked? I turned to the shore, looking behind me hopefully – nope, nothing was familiar. Deep breath. Okay, I’ll just turn around and retrace my steps – I should be able to see where I . . .nope, all washed away. I swallowed my panic. Well, all I did was walk along the shoreline, right? I’ll just do the same thing in reverse. Eventually, I should see them on my left. What if I don’t? I pushed that away. All I have to do is turn around and march. I was tired by now, but that didn’t matter: I had to get back, somehow. Seaweed swirled around my feet, tripping me up, but I kicked it away, angrily, and plodded on. Take a few steps, look to my left. Take a few steps, look to my left. Nothing, no one I knew, just hordes of strangers, laughing, shoving, having a great time. It was like Laughing Sal, the maniacal funhouse woman that populated so many scary old movies I stayed up too late to watch on the sleazy local channels: she laughs and laughs, oblivious, while desperate things – murders, betrayals, beatings – are going on.

Gotta keep walking. No, don’t watch your feet this time. Gotta stay alert, gotta keep going, gotta keep watching. Don’t cry, don’t panic – none of that baby shit, you got too much to do, boy. Walk, walk, walk . . .

“Are you okay?”

What? What’s that? I looked up, unsure who had spoken. I scanned the faces: all strangers – and everybody knows, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

“Little boy – are you okay?”

There she was: a lady. Kind of fat, kind of old, but she looked pretty nice. She had on a funny swim suit – a, what-do-you-call-it, from the zoo, a leopard-skin suit. What was I supposed to say? I froze.

“Come here – I won’t hurt you.”

I remembered the witch in Hansel and Gretel. No – somehow, the leopard-skin suit cancelled that out. No, this was a ‘regular’ lady, and she was holding her hand out. Hmm, when does “Don’t talk to strangers” not apply? There was nowhere to appeal for a ruling.

Then, like a flash, the thought came, “I wish she was my mother.” Even in my panicky state, I felt guilty toward my mother. How could I think a thing like that? I pushed it away, along with the panic, and waited, a rabbit in the high beams.

She walked over to me, clearly seeing the panic in my eyes, panic that, somehow, I could now afford to feel. I started shaking, and realized for the first time that I was cold.

She pointed up, toward the shore, to a funny little house of some kind, and beckoned me to follow her.

Oh my god – the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel! I can’t go up there, I’ll get trapped and god knows what she’ll do to me! I looked around in panic.

Suddenly, something in me snapped. Wait a minute, I had a whole new slant on this thing: I was lost, right? On my own, right? Well, godammit (thanks, Dad!), that made me an orphan, a hobo, a wanderer, and a tough guy, didn’t it? Hell, I’m free, ain’t I? I can make it! I can live off seaweed, garbage, little things in shells, right? I mean, the whole beach is lousy with people loading up on all kinds of food, isn’t it? They can’t eat all of it, can they? A guy could live pretty good at the beach – tons of people come here every day, don’t they, and all of ’em bring food, don’t they? Hell, a guy could live off the land! I mean, Jungle Girl did it, didn’t she? Even Hansel and Gretel were doin’ okay, until they met the witch.

She came closer and took my hand. I froze, half-expecting her to cackle, “Come with me, Deareeee.” But she just winked at me, pointed up toward land and said something about a ‘lifeguard’, whatever that was. Lifeguard? Did that mean my life was in danger? I mean, as far as I knew, I wasn’t actually sick or anything – why did I need a lifeguard? Besides, I was a hobo now, a man of the road. She can take her ‘lifeguard’ and . . .

“Sweetie, there’s a man up there who will help you.” I let her lead me up the dune. Having accepted the touch of her hand, I was a scared little boy again. I actually remember thinking, “Well, there goes my life on the road.” I fixated on the leopard-skin suit all the way up the hill, and followed her up the steps to the funny house.

Inside the little shack was not a gingerbread nightmare at all, but just a young, tall blond guy named Norm. I mean, Norm? He couldn’t be that bad! The lady handed me off, smiled at me kindly, then started down the steps. Suddenly I wanted to stop her, to hold onto her for dear life – she was my lifeline, after all, my ‘panic-mother’, and in those few minutes since our meeting I had somehow formed a whole new idea of what ‘outsiders’ could be: kind, nice, helpful, with a warm smile and a leopard-skin suit. Suddenly, “different” was okay. But she was gone, for good.

Later, when I watched episodes of The Lone Ranger, and the recipients of his good deeds said at the end, “Who was that masked man, anyway?” I knew exactly how they felt.

And when Jimmy Durante ended his act with the famous sign-off, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” I got tears in my eyes, for the same reason.

“What’s your name, sonny?”

Norm’s steady, not-overly-concerned tone brought me back from wherever I had been.

“Gregg.”

“Where do you live?”

“Norf Hollywood.”

What’s your religion?

“Uh – Christif?” (I knew about the Holocaust: better to play it safe. I mean, Norm was a blond. And besides, I had a right, being only half Jewish.)

Well, my parents did come, eventually (I guess they had heard about lifeguards, too, from somewhere), and eventually, the whole episode kind of devolved into a family joke, featuring The Lady, my near-miss stab at religious affiliation, and, more seriously, the answer to the question: “Why doesn’t Gregg like the beach?”

But for me, it was much more, and this I didn’t talk about with my parents, or anyone else, ever. Walking along that beach, following my feet, and then later that day, in my short-lived career as a ‘hobo’, I’d had a glimpse of freedom: I realized that, at least theoretically, if I could find a way to survive on my own, which could include help from other people, I didn’t have to worry anymore about getting ‘lost’, or of losing my parents. I could make it in the world, and stop worrying all the time. True, it was just a glimpse, but sometimes a glimpse is all you need, to tell you there’s something out there to shoot for.

And I also learned how powerful it is, in this life, for one person to help another. I knew what the kindness of one Lady did for me, and how it felt, and I wanted to do that for other people who were ‘lost on the beach’. I’m not afraid of their lostness – I know all about it – and I’m willing to wade in and do something about it, unafraid that they’re going to “pull me in, too”, because I know  a secret: helping them pulls me up, too.

I know what it is to care for people, and if someone cares for you, you’re never really lost.

So good night, Lady in the Leopard-Skin Suit, wherever you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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