Oddball In the Corner Pocket

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The first course: two poems by Alice Walker, to serve as antipasti for the soul (note: if you have the attention span of a hummingbird, I hereby give you permission to skip ahead to the entree without incurring my wrath):

Be Nobody’s Darling

Be nobody’s 

Be an outcast.

Take the contradictions

Of your life

And wrap around

You like a shawl,

To parry stones

To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb

To madness

With ample cheer;

Let them look askance at you

And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;

Be pleased to walk alone

(Uncool)

Or line the crowded

River beds

With other impetuous

Fools.

Make a merry gathering

On the bank

Where thousands perished

For brave hurt words

They said.

But be nobody’s darling;

Be an outcast.

Qualified to live

Among your dead.

________________________________________

I Will Keep Broken Things

I will keep

Broken

Things:

The big clay

Pot

With raised

Iguanas

Their

Tails;

Two

Of their

Wise

Heads

Sheared

Off;

I will keep

Broken

Things:

The old

Slave

Market

Basket

Brought

To my

Door

By Mississippi

A jagged

Hole

Gouged

In its sturdy

Dark

Oak

Side.

I will keep

Broken

things:

The memory

Of

Those

Long

Delicious

Night

Swims

With

You;

I will keep

Broken

things:

In my house

There

Remains

An

Honored

Shelf

On which

I will

Keep

Broken

Things.

Their beauty

Is

They

Need

Not

Ever

Be

‘fixed.’

I will keep

Your

Wild

Free

Laughter

Though

It is now

Missing

Its

Reassuring

And

Graceful

Hinge.

I will keep

Broken

Things:

Thank you

So much!

I will keep

Broken

Things.

I will keep

You:

Pilgrim

Of

Sorrow.

I will keep

Myself.

_____________________________________

The other day, at the Chinese restaurant, I asked a good friend: “Am I an oddball?”

For a bare instant she contemplated her plate, then nodded, “Yes,” and popped an egg roll into her mouth.

Whew: I haven’t lost my mojo yet.

To really “be somebody,” you can’t be everybody, you can’t be a stereotype, you can’t be society’s personality du jour, you can’t be totally predictable, you can’t get along with everybody, you can’t be universally admired, and you can’t be all things to all people.

Being a person is hard.

In Finger Man, Frank Lovejoy’s (Casey’s) sister Lucille is in a ‘dry-out’ facility for alcoholics. This was the mid-Fifties, and dry-out meant cold turkey, complete with the DT’s or whatever other devils, terrors and hells came along for the ride. She is suffering – in pain and desperate, looking at the world cold sober for the first time in years; looking not only at what she has done to herself and her young daughter with her years of drunkenness, but at a future without booze, facing life straight, with nothing to soften it, nothing to blur it.

Lying there in bed, writhing in agony, Lucille says to him, “Casey, is there room in the world for people like us?”

Good question.

And here’s the weird answer, the secret ‘they’ never, never tell you:

There is room in the world for you, but ONLY if you’re being yourself!

And why don’t ‘they’ ever you this? Easy:

There’s no money in it.

It reminds me of a big oil company executive I used to see in therapy. Once, during a lull in the conversation, I asked him to be honest with me about why the big energy companies don’t pursue the development of more ‘sustainable’ sources of energy more vigorously. He laughed and said, “What – you think I’m a greedy captain of industry who doesn’t give a damn about raping and despoiling the earth? Look – I’ve got to answer to shareholders, and the truth about solar, wind, geothermal and all the rest of that shit is: there’s no money in it!”

And that applies to any field: look at psychotherapy, for example. Which would you rather market: something that is highly individual, quirky, takes years to learn, is deeply complex, and really more of an art form (i.e. traditional psychotherapy), or something that you can ‘package’ into one-size-fits-all modules that can be taught in a series of weekend workshops (i.e. behavioral therapies, EMDR, and the like)?

The same is even true for spiritual and religious practices. There are some things you just can’t ‘sell’. How would you like to attend a seminar where the leader says,

“Look, there’s this guy, Jesus, who had some truly amazing, transformational spiritual experiences. We have some information in this book, The Bible, which admittedly is speculative, about how he did it, and you’re welcome to delve into it all, but what you really need to do is to have your OWN transformative spiritual experiences. Of course we have no idea what that would look like for you, but, using Jesus’ experience for inspiration, please go out into the world and seek your soul. We’ll be right here to support you with soup, sandwiches and hugs, if need be. You may begin.”

The truth is that anything that is individual, quirky, unpredictable, spontaneous, intuitive and creative can’t be packaged or sold, and if something can’t be packaged or sold, there’s no money in it. Of course, the flip side of all this is that, when there’s no money in something, the nabobs and poobahs aren’t much interested in it, so it’s left pretty much unregulated, unsupervised, wild and free.

Which is to say that in the field of self-development, the bad news is, you’re on your own, and the good news is, you’re on your own.

When I was an intern at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, we each shared an office with another trainee. My fellow boarder was the kind of fussily self-important guy whom you just knew would go on to become a psychoanalyst (he did). Somehow, I always felt that, in striving so mightily to prove himself as a serious dude, he was acting ‘on top’ of a part of him that was, well, kind of goofy.

But it gets better:

Now, mind you, we’re talking the Dark Ages here – no computers, no Internet, no nothing. After we saw patients, we dictated our notes, which were then typed up mysteriously by the Typing Pool (a phantom room full of unseen women, somewhere in the bowels of the building), who, after a reasonable period of time, returned to us our notes made visible, corrected for spelling and punctuation, as need be, and suitable for presentation to the Panels of the Gods (the supervising faculty members, whose intellect and all-around majesty we could never hope to approach).

But to get back to the Typing Pool: understand, they were there not to interpret, but to take down ‘the record’ accurately. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to type or die, and all that sort of thing.

Well, one day my office mate, I’ll call him Percy, dictated his final termination notes on a particular patient whom he had seen for some time, then sent them off to the Ladies of the Keyboard. Apparently, he was nodding off while he was dictating, because, to his shock and chagrin, when the copy came back, the last sentence of it read, and I quote:

I had high hopes for you, boy, but you were just a fucking oddball.

Well, it was funny – at first. And it was funny for the same reason it’s funny when Groucho Marx puts a whoopee cushion under Margaret Dumont: because of the comical juxtaposition of Percy’s officiousness with the bald primitiveness of his ‘real’ feelings about this patient.

But here’s the thing: I still think about it all these years later, and it’s not that funny, because it has all the earmarks of bad therapy: blaming the patient; an inability to respect the other person’s ‘otherness’; an assumption that the therapist’s ‘way’ would have worked if the patient had been what the therapist thought he was. I’m not saying Percy was a bad guy, or a bad therapist, only using this incident to point to a phenomenon that could — and does — happen to anyone, therapist or not, where ‘different’ equates to ‘weird.’

And the scary part is that, for so many therapists, this kind of thinking doesn’t go away with training and experience: it just goes underground and unconscious. If it were always this blatant and obvious, it would be less insidious, but it almost never is: therapists tell themselves they accept people for who they are, that they’re not ‘triggered’ by their patients, that it’s an even playing field for all.

But in reality, it’s like parents telling themselves (and their children) that they love all their children exactly the same: bullshit! That’s ridiculous and impossible – not to mention the reason for a great deal of psychotherapy, as people deal with the huge unspoken undercurrents of family life. Therapy is not just about ‘making the unconscious conscious,’ but making the unspoken spoken. To say something out loud, to claim it and admit it, is the beginning of all growth and change for the better. It’s what we’re helping our patients do – why shouldn’t it apply to us as therapists, too? It never really ‘hurts’ a patient for the therapist to admit to negative, judgmental or even hateful feelings about the patient, as long as the therapist uses reasonable clinical judgment about how to use the realization – whether to say it or not, and if so, how, etc.

But first, and most importantly, comes saying it to oneself. Without that, there is nothing – with it, the rest is just following your intuition and judgment.

And most of all, therapists need to know this: EVERYONE is an ‘oddball’ – and especially when they’re allowed to play out their individuality without fear, which is what should be happening in any good therapy. If you don’t get to their ‘oddball’ places, you’re not done, because the oddball in someone is the “there there.”

So, like Lucille in Finger Man, I have always hoped that Percy’s oddball did find ‘room in the world’ for someone like him.

To become a person, you must have the courage to stray from any path that can be sold, packaged and marketed.

Embrace your inner oddball, because without it, you’re just another product.

 

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

My Own Little Canoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mousse was on the move again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO, that did NOT just happen!!

Umm . . . Yes, that DID just happen!

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

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

Gangway! Mousse, coming up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not the dreaded Elitism Card!

Yep, It was the old one-two:

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

PLUS:

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

Shame!

Shame!

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

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

(Dramatic pause)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food’ll do that to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life’ll do that, you know.

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

Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia

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(Note: please read Route 66, Part I: For the Long Haul, first)

Culture shock is such an overused term. Besides, it is wholly inadequate to describe what I found when we finished our marathon journey on Route 66 and pulled up into the front yard of the Smiths. Yes, I said the Smiths. You see, where I came from, everyone but everyone was named Sherry Brodsky, or Max Leibowitz, or Marla Epstein. Am I making myself clear? I mean, in my world, I was the only one who was at school during Yom Kippur, being a ‘half-caste’, you see. We always celebrated Christmas, with the tree, the presents on Christmas morning, and all the trimmings – I never saw the inside of a synagogue my entire childhood. But my whole neighborhood was Jewish, my school probably eighty percent Jewish, and my name – well, what are you going to do?

But hell, my Mom was all-WASP, all the time, and certainly no Jewish mother. She was more of a cool cucumber than any of my friends’ parents, careful always to keep emotions, and emotional ‘displays’ to a non-embarrassing minimum. She didn’t hug, she didn’t yell, she didn’t argue, she didn’t cry – whatever was going on went down into the undertow below, to be guessed at by whomever had upset her in some untold way.

So, to me, Jewish meant warmer (good) but overwhelming (bad), whereas WASP meant icy cool (bad) but non-abrasive (good). And then we arrived in Williamstown, West Virginia, where I met the Smiths, and my Uncle Tom.

We pulled in to the gravel driveway and my Uncle Skeet ran out to greet us. Imagine that – I had an uncle named not Leo, not Max, not Irving – but Skeet! Skeet Smith. Or Skeeter, for ‘short’. Later I figured out that this was a regional nickname meaning ‘mosquito’, that is, a little guy. But he wasn’t a little guy to me – he had a big ol’ smile, a ready hug and a funny way about him that you just couldn’t not like. Now I knew what the expression ‘salt of the earth’ meant. Though nobody else ever said it, that I know of, I somehow immediately knew he reminded me of Will Rogers, the down-home, unofficial humorist ‘laureate’ of America in the Thirties: the crinkly smile, the dancing eyes, the genuine aw-shucks manner he affected, while seeing through you down to the bone. Or if you ever saw The Rockford Files, you might remember who Noah Beery, Jr. is: same thing. Honesty, realness, warmth and a big wink, all in one folksy package. Skeet Smith didn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body. Now, this was a kind of WASP-iness I could get to like!

And his wife, Aunt Naomi (pronounced more like “Nay-el-mah”), my mother’s sister. Another one who had a lot more acceptance than judgment. She was big – real big. Think of Jane Darwell – Ma Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, if you’re a movie person. But like Ma Joad, she was an earth mother – unpretentious and caring. And like many women who have been heavy most of their lives, and have therefore mostly let go of personal vanity, she was not posturing or brittle. A big woman with a big heart.

Theirs was a home you felt at home in right away, as opposed to my house, where you always felt everything was on display, even (or maybe especially) the kids. As usual, being my reticent, shy and observing self, and being in a new and foreign place, I mostly stayed to myself, not really connecting too much with anybody, but I felt comfortable, and at ease.

It was summer, but a different summer than I was used to: the air was ‘close’ (a new word for me) a lot of the time, and the skies even broke out into rain (my favorite) every so often. It was hot and ‘sticky’ – another novelty for me. We didn’t do sticky in L.A. We also didn’t do ‘outdoors’ in L.A. very much, other than playing ball with the guys in the street, or on the playground. Not with the whole family. Here, most of summer life took place outdoors, and what an outdoors: they had a big, big yard. My cousin Susan had a horse – named Mabel. Imagine that: a horse! There was a cat named Fancy, and some kind of a little terrier named Missy. Uncle Skeet would raise his hand and say, “Missy sing!” and she would give out with some kind of caterwauling that was hilarious.

The summer game was croquet, and Skeet played the ‘course’ with genius and virtuosity. He could make his ball hunt the wicket like it was pulled by a string, and if he wanted to, he could knock your ball clear into the next county.

The official summer treat of the Smith house was homemade ice cream, and Skeet Smith was the Babe Ruth, the Jascha Heifetz, of the ice cream maker. I would go with him to the ice house to get rock salt and dry ice, and he would pack it all into the big grinder and let me crank till my arm just about fell off. Then he would laugh and take over, whirling that thing like it was nothing, all the while keeping up a stream of good-humored commentary that made me feel like a person, not a kid, like a family member, not an outsider. And when we were done, and it was served: ahhh – the gods wept with envy!

It was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I remember sleeping in the screened-in porch at the back of the house. In my mind, it was my personal fiefdom, at least for the duration, and I loved it. What I do remember is this: I found a 45rpm record that had Anything Goes on one side, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin on the other, and I about wore that thing out, I played it so many times. Like the porch, it felt like mine – my own little secret. Who would have thought I would discover Cole Porter in Williamstown, West Virginia? I never talked about it, and no one ever noticed, or if they did, they never asked me about it. In fact, I’ve never mentioned it to anybody until now.

At home, all the records (except the weird kid stuff like King Thrushbeard and funky Burl Ives or Danny Kaye) belonged to Mom. At some expense, she’d had a very high-tech (for the time) Hi Fi installed in the area behind the living room, where she could play all her opera and classical LPs during the day – it was important to her. I think it reminded her that she was more than ‘just’ a housewife, marooned in suburbia, like some landlocked cetacean.

But this little record, and this guy Cole Porter, was my discovery – all mine! And like the trucks, and the trains, and the broasted chicken, I reveled in it, coveted it, secretly, as a small building block of my shaky and scattered identity: something, some one thing, I could call my own, had found on my own, that had nothing to do with “the way we are”. In my family, there was no place to not be part of wewe took in the whole universe, and to defect from we meant — well, you just didn’t want to go there. It didn’t need to be said: it was our way or the highway, but the highway was, and is, unthinkable to a child.

But back to the ice cream. Peach ice cream. Sometimes strawberry, maybe, but what I remember best is the peach: hot, sticky weather, croquet, and then, blessed, cold peach ice cream, a la Skeet:

Ambrosia.

And then there was my Uncle Tom, who never married (and probably never dated) and lived with my grandmother, his mother, and had all his life. He had suffered some pretty severe health problems for much of his childhood, and most likely it had taken him out of the mainstream so far, for so long, that, combined with his innate shyness, it was too much to overcome to try to fight his way back in. He was smart, quiet, reserved, wry, and slyly funny, if you got what he was talking about, which was sometimes a little bit on the odd side. Finally, a relative whose mind I could relate to, at least a little bit. That helped, to have one like that. No, I definitely wasn’t the type to never marry – in fact, I was the type to marry as soon as possible, and for life, if possible, but I had the same kind of mind, and wit, and the ways of the born observer, and appreciator.

But Tom was too quiet, and too shy, to be a real role model – in fact, he was a role model for what might happen to me if I allowed myself to sink into my shyness too far, and thus he inspired me, albeit unintentionally, to stay on the path of a ‘normal’ social life. Thanks, Thomas!

But what I’m really getting at in telling you all this – and what’s relevant for all of us – is that with my ‘immersion’ in West Virginia life, I started understanding that these were ‘my people’, too: yes, I absolutely was the “Jewish kid” (of sorts) from North Hollywood, and I’m proud of that, but I was also ‘of’ these other people, these lovable, loving and gentle people of the Ohio River. And now, with a broader cultural framework to draw from, I could cast my net wider – I could stretch out and embrace all of my cultural background: instead of feeling neither/nor, I could become both/and.

Yes, it would take me a long, long time (and a lot of therapy) to put this complex, unique jigsaw puzzle together, because I eventually had to figure out how to be my own ‘role model’, but the extra time, and work, was worth it: by being a complex person, with boots in several cultural ‘worlds’, one is able to partake of, and appreciate, the whole banquet that life has to offer. I don’t have to just ‘choose one from Column A’ – I can mix and match in all kinds of creative ways. And it has enabled me to relate to all kinds of therapy patients, as well – I have a personal understanding of being in the mainstream, and of being an outsider; of being a minority, and a majority, of being quiet and reserved, and outgoing and warm – of being lots of things at the same time.

I think I was a blob when I hit West Virginia – by the time I left, I was on my way to being almost human.

Of course, the downside of complexity is that nobody ever knows what movies I’ll like (!), but consider this: the most treasured professional compliment I ever got was from a woman I had seen through a very difficult, and very self-destructive, obsession with a man. When she finally came out the other end of this harrowing episode, she was telling me one day that she appreciated how, though we are very different people, I was able to ‘stay with her’ through hell and high water.

I said, “I hope you could feel how much I value you – no matter how different we are.”

She said, “Gregg – you could make a wall feel right at home.”

Well, the old hymn says, “It’s a gift to be simple”, but I’m here to say, it’s a gift to be complex, too. So thank you, Route 66, thank you Uncle Skeet and Aunt Naomi, thank you, Uncle Tom, and thank you, Cole Porter.

I couldn’t have done it without you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Route 66, Part I: For The Long Haul

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Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip,
Get your kicks on Route 66…

Route 66, by Bobby Troup (who lived for a time in North Hollywood, one block over from our house, with his wife Julie London).

We drove across the country almost every summer when I was a kid – from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Ohio, where my Mom’s relatives lived. When you left the city, things changed some, but by the time you left California, things changed a lot. No, not like nowadays: there were no Red States, no preening redneck patriotism, no strident gun lobbies, no divisive Fox News rhetoric.

There were only country people, and country people then were mostly kind, generous and helpful, and when they weren’t, it was because they had things to do: morning-to-night things that 9 to 5 people know nothing about. Running a farm, working the land, watching the weather, and tending to farm animals, you don’t live by the clock, don’t take regular breaks, don’t have paid vacations, and don’t often have time to sit and gabble with strangers. You have your hands full trying to get by, survive and maybe put enough aside to see you through the next drought, or flood, or bad market.

So, once we were past the California line, the scenery changed, but the people, mostly, didn’t. It was different, but marvelous, and I loved it: to me it was the all the variety that was America, come to life. I was living Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, before I had ever heard of Whitman.

The wondrous and frighteningly hot Mojave Desert:

Mirages (“Daddy, I think I see a lake over there!”)

Shimmering heat waves

Those funny tubular swamp coolers people used to have on their car windows

The burlap water bags hung in front of radiators

Dipping paper towels in water, then folding them and pressing them to your forehead, just to get a little relief

“Last chance for gas!” signs at the few-and-far-between service stations (“Daddy – what if we run out of gas? Do we have enough water?”)

Curios – yes, two-headed snakes, calves, and other misbegotten middle Americana, there for the looking. We didn’t have curio stands in North Hollywood!

Navajo Indians, tending their sheep, selling their turquoise jewelry and their angularly beautiful blankets

Q: Mommy, how can they do anything here? It’s too hot!

A: They do it anyway.

Q: Well then, why don’t they just leave?

A: Where would they go? This is their land.

And for the first time, I began to understand how people could have a fierce connection and loyalty to their ‘land’, their place on earth – no, not because it was easy, or lush, or perfect, but precisely because it was forbidding, because they had to work so hard to exist there, had to sacrifice and sweat, to make it – to endure. I saw how there was a kind of pride in all these things, a feeling of ‘we did it, dammit – and we’ll keep doing it’ – a feeling we didn’t have in North Hollywood, where the hardest thing about the physical environment was the smog burning your lungs at the end of a long summer day playing with your friends. This was long before I (or anyone else) knew of the concept of cognitive dissonance, which explained, ‘scientifically’, why having to work so hard for something makes it all the more valuable.

And the staggeringly flat endlessness of the Great Plains:

Mile after unimaginable mile of planted crops. Waving wheat, tall corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and all the others I couldn’t identify but had been planted by somebody, helped along, fretted over, brought along with infinite care and patience. The big machinery: massive tractors, threshers, cultivators, harvesters, operated by men who sat alone in them, stoically, for hours and hours, quietly doing their jobs under the hot summer sun.

We thought our backyard was enormous, and for North Hollywood, it probably was: the total area behind our house was maybe a hundred yards by thirty, populated by ants, Jerusalem crickets and horned toads when we moved in.

But these ‘backyards’ were like entire states: mile after mile of flat land, far as the eye could see, all planted with something, all needing tending, all subject to the whims of nature. It gave a kind of scale to things that we didn’t have at home – a scale so grand, a space so big, that it made even a boy think about things like life and death, creation, the purpose of things, time, what we are doing here. Or at least it did me, but then of course, I was always The Dreamer – the one who sat in his pajamas and watched the world go by, wondering, always wondering . . .

The middle of nowhere. A train goes by:

Q: Mom, where are those people going?

A: I don’t know.

Q: But don’t you wonder?

A: No, not really: we’re on our vacation now. What they’re doing is none of our business.

Q: Are they okay?

A: What do you mean, okay?

Q: Are they moving away from somewhere because they had to? Are they all together, or did they get separated?

A: I’m sure they’re fine – and besides, that’s not our worry. We’re fine, and that’s what matters.

Q: Mom – are they Okies?

A: That’s enough: now, be still and enjoy your own trip.

Eastward we pushed: Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Amarillo (god, Texas went on forever!), Oklahoma City, St. Louis. License plates to watch; roadkill that was a user’s guide to the fauna of south-central America (Could I make a coonskin cap of that raccoon we just saw? What’s an armadillo anyway?); regional cuisine (except we didn’t call it cuisine then, just hick food) – I became fixated on ‘broasted’ chicken for some reason, that and chicken-fried steak, yumm!); the clothes changing from cowboy hats and bolo ties to bib overalls and tractor-brand caps, to slacks, button-up shirts and Fedoras.

And, all the way across the big country, in their rolling majesty – the semi trucks: citizens of nowhere, rumblers-through of everywhere. Oh yes, the big rigs, the semis, the long-haul boys. Now, they were something to fire the imagination of a small boy! Just the names: Mack, Freightliner, Peterbilt, Kenworth, and the names of the hauling outfits, that you saw over and over again till you knew the logos, and the slogans, by heart: Navajo (“route of the blue-eyed Indian”), P.I.E. (Pacific Intermountain Express), Consolidated Freightways, Ringsby, Yellow Freight, Transcon – they became my friends and traveling companions all along Route 66.

Sometimes the drivers waved to me, and sometimes, when I was very lucky, they honked their horns, and smiled down at me. Why did they do this? It took me a while to figure out that, unlike the adults in my world who didn’t seem to need anything, these guys were lonely – even my childish waving, though I’m sure it was annoying at times, was a sign of humanity for them. Imagine that: I had something to offer an adult!

Of course, like most small boys, I was fascinated by trains, too, especially the sleek-looking ‘streamliners’ that flashed past on their way from one coast to another. And sometimes we had to stop at a crossing while an endless succession of rail cars rattled past us. My Dad was impatient, as always, probably anxious to get on to our night’s destination, but I, with a small boy’s relation to time, could revel in it, enraptured by all the different types of cars, with names – Great Northern (with that cocky mountain goat prancing on the sides), Santa Fe (“All the way, with Santa Fe!”), Southern Pacific – that became familiar after awhile, betokening the romance of faraway places and never-to-be-met strangers, and of course, my endless questions, which by now I had learned to keep to myself: Where are they coming from? Who is shipping this stuff, and where, and why? Why is it needed in one place and not another? What’s it like to be an engineer? Do their families miss them? How do they decide when to blow the whistle, and how many times?

But trains, though magnificent, and fascinating, were of such a scale that they seemed to be from another solar system, whereas ‘my’ trucks, and my truckers, existed down here in my bailiwick. Truckers existed in real life: I could see their frustration, and commiserate with them, as they struggling at a snail’s pace up the hills, as lines of angry cars passed them, each one watching for oncoming traffic, then zipping out into danger to get by; and then, on the downhill side, playing truckers’ Russian roulette, as they balanced the need for speed, to make up the time they lost on the uphill, with trying to avoid going out of control and plunging to disaster – their gears grinding viciously, their brakes hissing like angry cats.

Now, this was a connection with being a man I could actually conjure with! For at least a year or so there, when my parents, or anyone else, asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would say proudly, “Gonna drive a diesel pruck (sic).” In fact, I think my parents only asked in order to hear me say that. And of course, it was unspoken, but clear, that plying such a lowly trade would be beneath me – beneath us. What they didn’t hear, or pay attention to, was that, hidden in my answer lurked some pretty clear hints about who I was and what I actually would go on to do when I grew up.

Like truck driving, psychotherapy is “long haul” work, requiring consistent, sustained effort over long periods of time. Semi drivers, like therapists, are entrusted with a precious cargo, a cargo they have to ‘see through’ to the end of the line, and mostly alone.

There is no boss sitting there looking over your shoulder, no fixed set of rules telling you exactly what to do each minute: it’s up to you to get the job done, in a way that works for you and the client. It takes personal dedication, and perseverance, to do the job well – no one is there to tell you that you put in a half-ass effort on a particular day. Also, like a trucker, it’s up to you to ‘entertain’ yourself during the long haul, to keep it fresh, rather than fall prey to boredom, dullness or lack of involvement in the task, to see it not as endless repetition, but ever new, ever different.

I watched the truckers when we would stop to eat or rest. How they joked with each other, flirted with the waitresses, told ‘war stories’ about road life, and swapped gossip and news about other guys, other truck lines, their bosses, their equipment, road conditions, best routes, and best places to eat, or pull over and catch a few winks. Like sailors, they had their own jargon, and their own network of news and information. I came to understand that, while they were solitary, cut off and isolated in some ways, in other ways they were privileged insiders in a world all their own.

And that’s how it is with therapists, too: sure, everyone knows, basically, what you ‘do’, but they don’t know at all what you really do. It takes another therapist to understand what it’s like to listen for hours, to have it be ‘about the other person’ all day long, to sustain your interest, your involvement, your dedication, to improve your skills and hone your craft not because it’s required, but because it matters to you to do the best job possible. Like truckers, therapists have to take inner pride in ‘getting the load through’, in a timely manner, undamaged and in good shape.

And best of all, now I don’t have to wonder, Where are those people going, and why? They come right into my office, sit down, and tell me.

So, to all the people who asked that little boy what he was going to be when he grew up, I actually gave you the right answer, folks, if you listen with your heart and squint a little:

Gonna drive a diesel pruck!

Our cross-country trip down Route 66 rolls on in the next installment:

 Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia.

 

 

 

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

Man Oh Manhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what changed, and how?

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute: did he just say,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a penis?

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

Pardon me?

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

I said, Do you have a penis?

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

Uh – yeah.

With that, she nodded confidently, and said:

Then you’re a man.

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

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

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

Scheiss.

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

Merde.

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

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

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

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

I worked, therefore I was.

Childhood’s End.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Rocky Road (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about Your Life.

Shit!

So, now what?

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

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

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

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

Shit – who’s on first?

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

And I answer, “You’re doing it.”

What the hell!

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

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

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

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

The whole thing is just – weird.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Rocky Road!

 

 

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

Doing What You Came Here For

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I place on the altar of dawn
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to,
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

A Morning Offering, by John O’Donohue

 

You have been given the gift of life – and, if you’re lucky, a bunch of decades to do your thing.

Alright, what is your thing?

Checking your Facebook page 500 times a day?

Acting like everything is okay when it isn’t?

Fitting in, so nobody gets upset?

Keeping so busy that you never have to be with yourself?

Doing just enough to keep out of trouble?

Putting your head down and just repeating what you did yesterday?

What if you looked at yourself in the mirror every morning, and said,

Well, for cryin’ out loud, here I am again. They gave me another whole day. For all I know, it may be my last. What am I going to do with it? What could I do that I would look back on tomorrow and say, “Kid, you took that precious day and did a pretty good job with it.”

No, I don’t mean being a ‘do-gooder’, though, sure, that may be one thing you could do with it. I’m talking about living from the inside out – ‘manifesting’ (eeww: buzz word alert) who you actually are, out in the world. What is it to be you? I’m talking about coming up with an active answer to the complaint, “I never get a chance to really do what I want to do. I never get a chance to be who I really am.”

Sure, maybe you’re a jeweler and all you ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. Maybe you’re working in a day care center and you’re really fascinated by numbers. Or maybe you’re like most people, and you don’t KNOW ‘who you are’. It doesn’t stop you from feeling that you never get to BE who you are, though, does it? You still have that vague unease that you’re not really being YOU, even if you have no idea what that would look like – it still feels frustrating and unsatisfying, doesn’t it?

I can hear some of you saying, “Hey – we can’t all save the world, buddy.” True, but fortunately that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. I’m talking about incremental steps towards letting the cat (you!) out of the bag – small steps for tiny feet. It might start with this exercise:

I always wanted to _______________ (fill in the blank).

I wish just once I could ________________.

The people I really admire are ______________.

I can hear the classic comebacks:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

You can wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up first.

Yep, I get it. Just wishing alone does nothing. But wishing can lead to more than ‘nothing’: most new things start with an idea, a wish, a concept, a drive, a desire, a ‘vain’ hope – and then, by allowing those things to rattle around in our heads and hearts, they lead to a wish, dream, concept, drive, desire, and hope, that is more realistic, that is a first step, that is a revised version of the original dream.

The hokey saying, “dreams plus effort equal success” is not so crazy after all – because the primary thing holding us back from reaching some version of our dreams is that we give up before we start, mostly because, at the start, we can’t envision the modified version we might end up with. If you talk to people about their lives for a living, as I have done for decades, you begin to hear things – like the fact that, at the beginning, most people had never heard of what they ended up doing for a living. And, if they had, they might have rejected it because it was not “what they dreamed of”.

It takes emotional work to process a dream. Let’s say you start out wanting to be a famous performer. Of course, you know the odds against you are astronomical: you may feel you’re talented, but not that talented – so you give up, accepting “reality”. Now, what would happen if you continued with your dream?

Well, just as a representative example, this was the sequence of events for a woman I worked with, we’ll call her Josephine,  who dreamed of being a performer:

1) You take singing and guitar lessons – you do pretty well, but nobody ever suggests you should go on American Idol.

2) Nevertheless, you do develop your singing and playing ability, and your performance ‘chops’, to the point where you are able to perform at local open mikes. You get some pretty good responses, but again, no one says, “I’ve never heard anyone as good as you, Josie”, either.

3) Hanging out at the clubs, you get to know more and more people in the music scene, and also land a few paid gigs at local spots. It is gratifying, and some people really like what you do. You meet an agent who is in the audience at a local club you are working, and she’s a really cool person. She doesn’t offer you anything, but you talk a lot together, and it’s pretty interesting. Maybe this thing could actually work.

4) You get a better gig, but it’s on weekends, out of town. You are hostessing at a nice restaurant where you live, and on weekends you can make pretty good money, even though hostessing is a million miles away from what you really want to do. But you can’t afford to quit your job just to pursue one gig out of town. What do you do?

5) For some reason, you call the agent you met at that club – you end up talking to her for two hours. She talks to you like a Dutch uncle (aunt?) and says, kindly, “Josie dear, you’re an amazing person, but to tell you the truth, I don’t feel you have what it takes to make it as a performer.” She’s nice about it, but it hurts, bad. But on the other hand, there’s something about her that you trust, so you can’t just dismiss what she’s saying.

She does say, “You should call me sometime, when you’re feeling better. We should talk.” (Whatever that means.)

6) You cry – a lot.

7) You cry more – a lot. (Hopefully you have good friends. They help – a little.)

8) When you get off work late one Saturday night, you suddenly remember that the agent said to call her sometime, when you’re feeling better. You check: Hmmm, you’re feeling better, marginally.

9) You call her, hoping against hope that she has reconsidered her death sentence of you, and wants to work with you on your performance career.

10) She doesn’t want to work with you on your performance career – but, she does want to talk to you about something else. She’s a top agent in town, and has noticed that you are good with people, and know a lot of folks locally around the music business by now. She is trying to expand her business, and, maybe, could use someone like you. Of course, you would have to “start at the bottom”, but she feels you might have it in you to grow into a significant role in talent representation one day. You’re flattered, sort of, but inside you’re still really wounded that she didn’t want to talk to you about you-know-what. But, you tell her you really appreciate her time and comments, and you’ll have to think about it and get back to her.

11) You sulk alone. You sulk with friends.

12) Hmmm, you sigh a lot, but it kind of makes sense, what she said: you are a good judge of others’ talent, you are good with people, and you have always liked helping people pursue their dreams, even if you can’t pursue yours.

13) You cry.

14) (Sigh) You call her, and say you’re willing to talk more about it. (Sulk)

15) You do talk more about it. It’s starting to sound like a possibility: Your friends say, “I can totally see you doing it – helping people like that.”

16) More sighing – after all, if you accept this, it means throwing away your ‘real’ dreams, right?

17) Secretly, you’re getting kind of excited about this whole thing: “Wow, I could work for a talent agency: I’d still get to be around performers, watching them, helping them, and I always thought I had a good eye for talent.”

18) Last-ditch sighing, last-ditch crying. First-ditch excitement – all mixed up together.

19) You make a decision: you’re going to do it. It’s not as much as you’re making hostessing, but it’s in the field you love, and the potential in that field is a bit greater than in the field of guiding drunk people to their tables.

20) You have a new dream: Being a talent agent. “Gee, now that I’m a ‘professional’, I have to get some real working-woman clothes. This might be fun!”

Okay, I can hear you (you, reading this – you know who you are) saying, “Oh sure – he came up with an example where it all worked out, but what percentage of the time does that happen? My Uncle Moe wanted to be Enrico Caruso, and now he’s a broken-down bum on Skid Row. Dreams, schmeams.”

Folks – this is the way it REALLY happens, not pie in the sky. No, not every person finds work that is a perfect fit, and yes, this story would sound very different if Josie were a man, say, but I have helped many, many people “evolve” their dreams. And note: in the example I gave, Josephine did NOT “achieve her dreams” – but pursuing it did lead her to people, and circumstances, that made it possible to develop other dreams, that were achievable. And she had no thought whatsoever, at first, that being a talent agent was a possible (or desirable) dream for herself; and if I had been prescient (or stupid) enough at the beginning to say, “Josephine, you should be a talent agent,” she would have been hurt and angry, and rightfully so.

Does this mean,

Buy my new book: Twenty Steps To a New Dream, now with detailed instructions on how sulking can lower your insulin level and burn carbs! 

No – of course not. Every single person has a unique path to follow. You cannot ‘know’ beforehand what someone’s path will be, you cannot know beforehand what it will lead to, and it would be arrogant and disrespectful to try to, but you can know beforehand what, basically, needs to happen – that following a dream, with a lot of support, will lead to something meaningful and authentic, even if the path involves a lot of sighing and crying and rejection. Sure, it might hurt sometimes, but sighing and crying are not end points – they are only emotional way stations: if you are willing, sometimes, to sit with the sighing and crying, and have someone who believes in you (a therapist, in the case of those I have worked with), you will move beyond sadness and disappointment, to a new formulation of yourself and your possibilities, and all the emotional processing you have gone through will bring a maturity that will serve you in good stead in your ‘new’ dreams, a maturity you would never have had if you had instantly achieved your dreams (see Woods, Tiger), or if you had stayed home and never pursued them at all.  With a dream, anything might happen; but without a dream, you don’t have a chance.

So, the next time you stand there in the morning and look in the mirror, ask that sleepy guy or gal you see before you, what he or she can do to make sure the day isn’t wasted. It’s been said: “A dream is just a dream, but a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Jeez, I don’t know about all that: dreams, plans, deadlines –  why not throw in a bag of peanuts and a partridge in a pear tree, too?

But a dream paired with some courage and some help: now that’s a plan!

Where does your plan start today, sleepyhead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Be Yourself – Everyone Else Is Taken

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Welcome to your life,
There’s no turning back…

— Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears For Fears

We’re all on this crazy carnival ride called Life. We can dress up, we can dress badly, we can be hipsters, goths, or punks, we can make a ‘statement’ with tats, geeked-out hair, flashy rings, elbow patches, sandals, or fashionista shades. We can spruce up our little roller coaster cars with gold lame seat cushions, faux painting effects, or platinum grab bars. We can scream at the scary parts, or be impressively stoic as we plunge and climb. We can turn to our riding partners and chatter away, or stare straight ahead, contemplating the mysteries of the universe. But none of us is turning back, and none of us is escaping that last jolt at the end of the ride.

So, what can we do? One – we can pay attention, so we don’t miss the ride, and two – we can be ourselves. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Easy, too, no?

But what does it mean to be ourselves? Well, one part is Accessing – another part, Expressing.

Accessing:

How do you get access to your real self? How do you know what you really feel? How do you separate what is essentially ‘you’ from the million cultural influences, the social pressures, the need to be “a part of things”, the need to be like other people, to be liked by them, the need to feel normal?

I can’t say how many times patients have said,

But what if I don’t like what I find inside?

or

I already know what’s in there, and believe me, I’m not interested. I came here to become something else than who I really am.

What do these statements mean? They usually mean that something, some complex of feelings, some interaction, some response, has become impacted deep down in the psyche, and is now experienced as a fait accompli, a done deal that cannot be changed, but only avoided. These are usually expressed as an “I can’t”, or “I won’t”, or “Don’t make me.”

An example: The “nice guy” who abhors anger, or conflict, or disagreement, often becoming a situational chameleon, in order to float along with the stream, not disturbing anyone or being disturbed by anyone. Eventually, he forgets who he is. There is an expression, “Fake it till you make it,” usually used to help people ‘try on’ a behavior until it feels more natural. Well, for the nice guy, it’s “Fake it till you become fake,” as he loses touch with what he actually does think or feel about things. It’s hard to engage this type of person in therapy, because, at its best, therapy is the skillful use of conflict to encourage growth. So, when this type senses potential conflict, he will stay on “his side of the fence”, either denying it to himself, not letting it come into consciousness at all, or just remaining quiet about it, as a gulf grows between him and the other person (the therapist, in this case).

This person has no idea why other people get mad at him, when all he is trying to do is avoid anger. But you can see why other people get mad at him: he refuses to really engage, withholding his real reactions from the other (and often himself, too), and acting as if everything is alright, whether it is or not. The other person eventually feels like they are the only one showing up for the relationship or transaction, the only one ‘putting out’, and the only one taking any risks. The nice guy is like a poker player who never shows his hand, only folds his cards before the betting starts, on every deal. Eventually, the other person feels like, “Are you gonna play or not?” Then, the nice guy says, “What are you so mad about? I didn’t do anything.” The other person says, “Exactly.” The nice guys says, “Well, if you agree I didn’t do anything, what are you so mad about?”

And on and on it goes, with the nice guy wondering why people are mad at him, and also, why he doesn’t feel close to anyone, or involved in anything. As Tennyson said:

He makes no friends who never made a foe.

The nice guy serves as a great example of a major principle of human emotional life: What you’re not aware of is STILL very much in play – there is no way to make things ‘go away’ so that they’re just gone. Know this: human beings LEAK, and there’s nothing they can do about it. So, if something big is going on inside you, about yourself, about someone else, about anything – you might as well find out about it, and claim it, so that you can find another way to channel it, because it is already in the mix, all the time. Things ‘show’. In gambling, they call this unconscious self-betrayal a ‘tell’; in baseball, they call it a ‘tip’; in therapy, we call it ‘doing therapy’. A great deal of the basic working material we use in the session, comes from paying attention to tells, tips, intuitive hunches, semi-conscious awareness, and feelings.

Example:

Therapist (picking up a ‘tell’): I don’t know why, but it just feels like you’re holding me at arm’s length.
Patient: No way. Why would you say that? I came here to talk to you, didn’t I?
T: You seem mad that I just said that.
P: Are you gonna start that shit again?
T: Okay, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
Silence
P: Like last week – when you jumped all over me for eating in the room.
T: Hmm, I don’t remember jumping. . .
P: Yeah – all I did was pull out a banana, and you gave me the, like, death stare.
T: So, wow, after that, I guess I can understand…
P: Yeah, exactly – why I wouldn’t, you know…
T: Feel that inclined to…
P: Yeah – to be open with you, or whatever you people call it.
T: Well, I appreciate your telling me.
P: Well, we’re supposed to be honest in here, right?

So, does that mean that, every time you become aware of some inner feeling, attitude or whim, you bray it for the whole world to hear? No, of course not, but it does mean that, if it’s going on inside you, it is in play in the world already, so what you can do is practice doing what a therapist would do with it: use it for compassionate understanding of yourself, for seeing what your real motivations are (whether you like them or not), and for plotting your course forward.

After all, shouldn’t you treat yourself as well as you would a pet? Suppose you’re on a walk with your (normally) well-behaved dog. As you approach another dog and owner, he starts a low growl. Would you:
a) hit him until he cowers and stops growling

b) force him towards a confrontation with the other dog

c) give the other dog a wide berth, until your dog moves along and busies himself helpfully watering the hydrangeas in the next yard?

For the sake of your pet, I hope you chose c. Well, how about treating yourself at least as well? Instead of saying, “What’s wrong with me?”, ask yourself, “I wonder why I feel this way?”, and also, “Since I do feel this way, what can I do, going forward, to make my life work better, in the light of this new information?” Because we are going forward, not back – remember the carnival ride?

And here’s another helpful trick of the trade: the more, and the more compassionately, you pay attention to your ‘inner child’ (yes, embarrassingly, we actually do use that phrase), the more he or she will ‘come out to play’. Think of your insides as, literally, a frightened child. What would be more likely to get him/her to engage with you: yelling, judging, bullying and ignoring, or patient encouragement? This, in effect, is a lot of what a therapist does for patients: wait patiently, pay close attention, watch, encourage, make the therapy relationship a safe place to be. When that happens, ‘things’ happen. No surprise there, right?

Yes, doing therapy is being a “person whisperer”, yes, it is a lot like taming a wild animal. Same principles: observe carefully, be patient, encourage, provide structure, be kind, be safe, don’t make any sudden movements, and above all, be respectful. Once when I was still in training, I excitedly blurted out this ‘amazing’ insight to my very uptight therapy supervisor:

Wow – it’s kind of like training a dog, except there’s only one command: Stay!

Recommendation: Never say that to your supervisor. But I digress.

So, you’re working to get in touch with your real self – you’re being kind, trustworthy, not mocking, not belittling, not judging your insides (and that already puts you in the top 1% of human beings) – what, then, do you do with what you find there? That brings us to the second task of self-realization.

Expressing:

But, what if they don’t like the ‘real’ me?

I’ll just embarrass myself.

I’ll get hurt.

I’ll get fired.

I’ll get dumped.

They’ll find out I’m just an imposter.

They’ll find out I’m selfish.

They’ll find out I’m weak.

They’ll find out I’m scared.

They’ll think I’m stupid.

Well, I’m no Pollyanna – and sure, these things can conceivably happen, when you express what’s inside you. But here’s the deal:

1. Just as you developed the capacity to access your real feelings, you develop some skills to express them. You learn when, where, how, and to whom, to express what you ‘really’ feel and think.

2. You learn that there are natural ‘compensations’ at work in human life. For everything you theoretically ‘lose’ by growing, there is something you gain – something better. In this case, what you ‘lose’ (you think!) by expressing yourself is: keeping it all hidden from others, not possibly upsetting them, having them think you’re ‘like them’, not exposing yourself to negative judgments. Okay, and yes, some of these things might possibly happen.

But look at what you gain: As you begin to know yourself better, and make that knowing manifest, out in the world, you start to feel stronger inside, so that if someone does judge you harshly, it doesn’t matter as much. Since you have something inside (a self), you don’t need to get it all from outside ! As a patient once expressed it:

It’s like getting off of heroin – now, I’m not totally dependent on what everyone else thinks of me. They don’t have the ‘supplies’ I need so desperately anymore – I do! They don’t have all the power anymore – I do!

You begin to develop pride, not in being a ‘good boy’ in someone else’s eyes, but in living from the inside out, living from your own hopes, dreams, values, opinions, in your own way. And here’s yet another compensation: Lo and behold, it turns out most people don’t want everyone to be ‘like them’ anyway – they like it when others are real, solid, when there’s a “there, there”. It is attractive and appealing when other people are solidly themselves, when they are of a piece, when they are ‘put together’, when they are real. People respect someone who stands up for who he really is, his own views, his own preferences, his likes and dislikes. And, when someone embodies who he is, they allow leeway for them to be who they are. Passive, frightened, hidden people always look at others and say, “Damn – how come he gets away with that? It’s not fair!” It’s true – someone who is real, solid, self-manifesting, does ‘get away’ with a lot more than the hidden person. Why? Because, when you’re consistently yourself, the other person creates ‘space’ to allow that self.

It reminds me of two very different dates I went on, back in my single days. The first woman just sat and listened, asked me all about me and said nothing about herself, nervously offered to pay, agreed with everything I said, and generally subsumed herself to my ways. I learned, right away, that it was mostly going to be about me. The second woman, when we got to the restaurant and sat down, looked at me with an impish smile and said, “So – impress me.” What did that tell me? That I was going to have to earn it – that she wasn’t afraid to show up, that she was going to stand on her own two feet. My point is – like the animals we all are, in both cases I immediately created a “space” (psychologically) for who the other person was, and based my expectations on that, from then on. There is a wide leeway for what we’ll ‘allow’ in others, but it happens fast, and unconsciously, on the animal level. The first date had to work a lot harder, and got a lot less out of the deal.

The first woman is what I call “the universal donor” – agreeing with everything, fitting in with everyone, being all things to all people, and nothing to herself. Her unconscious game plan is that, by being all-agreeing, all-matching, she will be all-loved. But what actually happens? The other person is like a space vehicle trying to ‘dock’ onto a space station, but there is no dock, no definitive place to click into and center on. So they just continue to hover, searching for something more definitive, until they get frustrated and move on.

The social world is designed for you to “take up the space a human being takes up”.

Take it – it’s yours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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