How Psychotherapy Ruined America









See? I am capable of writing, catchy, ‘marketing’ titles, as all the “How To Grow Your Blog” people keep telling me to do! Next time, I may write about Ancient Secrets Of Reverse-Aging, followed by Losing Weight Without Diet Or Exercise, and maybe How To Date Without Leaving Your Mother’s Basement – am I on the right track here?

Well, all marketing aside, the truth is, the title of today’s blog is unfortunately not just a come-on. I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but hesitated because, let’s face it, therapy has been under attack for a long time now, both from within and from without the profession, and I didn’t want to be the one to put yet another spear in its side. So permit me to just pen a quick anticipatory defense of therapy, then we’ll move on to our target for tonight:

Therapy is the reason I’m even alive and writing this. Without years of at least halfway-decent therapy, I’d either be living under a bridge somewhere, or long gone from this mortal coil. And practicing psychotherapy has also enabled me to have a functional role in society, doing what I’m most suited for, and I think I can say without undue horn-blowing that I have been responsible for saving, or improving, many, many lives over the years I have been in practice. I write about therapy, I love being a therapist, and I’d like to say a public and deeply-felt thank you to Sigmund, Carl and all the rest of the gang who made the whole thing possible. Okay, all together now:

Every session’s sacred, every session’s great – if a session’s wasted, Freud gets quite irate. 

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, I do have a few items on the negative side of the ledger. Psychotherapy is ultimately about the Self: claiming the Self, reclaiming the Self, rehabilitating the Self, finding the Self, enabling the Self. And that’s fine – the ‘standard’ therapy patient is someone who, for whatever reason, has not had the opportunity to establish a strong, secure, delineated sense of Self, the lack of which results in low self-esteem, confusion, insecurities, vagueness about life purpose, unacknowledged feelings, difficulty with boundaries and limit-setting, and a host of other problems. And psychotherapy is tailor-made for those people: that type of person, in the hands of a competent, dedicated therapist, stands a very good chance of finding their way to a life with more meaning, satisfaction and purpose.

And in doing therapy with this kind of person, there are certain basic principles that inform and guide the work, either explicitly or tacitly. These have never been stated openly, at least in lay terms, but I think this would be a fair listing of some of them:

Getting in touch with your OWN feelings is a good thing, and letting your feelings be your guide in life is an even better thing.

If something doesn’t work for you, you should probably not do it.

Your tendency to subsume your own experiences and needs to those of others has caused you problems: we are working to bring your experience to the fore and to help you feel that your perceptions and needs are at least the equal of everyone else’s.

If and when you stop ‘taking care’ of other people and start getting your own needs met, you will not only feel more fulfilled, but ultimately be more available, in a more real way, to attend to the needs of others without sacrificing yourself emotionally.

Okay, I could go on and on, but I think you get the basic idea: for people who have been minimized, marginalized and squashed (by others, and ultimately, by themselves), it is necessary (as an emotional ‘corrective’) to bring their own experience to the forefront, and to honor it above all.

In a crude form, you could express the task thusly:

First YOU – then everyone else.

As I said above, this goal is only an emotional corrective to having stifled their own experience before this, much the same way that Affirmative Action is a (hopefully temporary) societal corrective that exists in order to try and counterbalance forces that were out of balance before. A pendulum that is ‘out of whack’ needs to swing back ‘too far’ the other way before it can gradually swing back to the mid-point. For example, we all recognize and accept that a teenager has to ‘over-correct’ in the direction of rebellion, in order to throw off the strictures of childhood, until ultimately coming back to the center-point of normal adulthood (we hope!).

So far so good. But here’s the thing: these corrective principles, which were developed in a particular context (psychotherapy) to help a particular kind of person, don’t stay put. They leak out into the mainstream willy-nilly, out of context, and get appropriated wholesale, and applied across-the-board, by all.

And in my generation, that admittedly did sometimes take the form of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” or “Do your own thing.” The older generation saw this as an abnegation of responsibility to others, a rejection of what they had worked (and fought) so hard to preserve, and a justification of self-absorbed ‘navel-gazing.’

Here’s one small instance of what I’m saying: I started my career in the Seventies, working in alcoholism rehab. I worked with people struggling with substance abuse, but naturally my help was also needed by the ‘significant others’ of these addicts and alcoholics. You’ve probably wondered to yourself at times – why would someone stay with an abusive alcoholic or addict? Who are these people who would sign up for continued pain, disappointment and suffering that is virtually guaranteed? Well, the answer is complicated, but many of these people are the kind I was describing earlier: people who have a hard time knowing what they want, have a hard time asking for what they need, and on some level, for them it’s more comfortable, and more familiar, to focus on the needs of someone else, to continually ‘monitor’ someone else, even if it means living on a roller coaster of fear and dread.

For these people, the Al Anon program was developed. With group support and a spiritual program, it helps people focus on (and meet) their own needs, and learn to balance themselves inside, rather than looking to the addict for a stability that is not there, and therefore focusing on and resenting the addict. And a few years later, along came Melody Beattie and others, who developed the concept of Codependence (see Codependent No More, for example). This gave a name (yay: we all love a name!) to this phenomenon I described earlier, i.e. that of being a ‘good person’ by orbiting around another person’s life and (seemingly) not having many needs oneself. I won’t go into the concept any further, because I’m just using it as an example, but like I say, this concept ‘leaked’ out into mainstream society and has been picked up by anyone and everyone.

So now, I frequently hear extremely self-centered people, when asked to do something for a friend, a partner, or even a dying parent, say,

“The hell with that: I’m not going to ‘co’ her anymore! What about me?”

The concept of codependence, a perfectly useful one in the context in which it was developed, has been lifted, stolen and appropriated for constant misuse by narcissistic, self-absorbed people in all manner of situations.

Likewise, the whole idea of Self (as developed in, yes, psychotherapy), and the need for under-Selfed people to ‘correct’ by putting themselves first sometimes, has been swallowed whole by a society that is increasingly self-absorbed. I am not proud to acknowledge that it was my ‘generation’ that was first called the Me Generation – and with some justification.

But you have to understand, at that point (say, the Sixties), it was a necessary corrective to the so-called Greatest Generation before us, who, by necessity in most cases, navigated the Depression and the World War II era by emphasizing self-sacrifice, non-expression of feelings, self-sufficiency, and modesty in all areas of life. Ask a World War II Medal of Honor winner about his feats, and he will invariably say,

“I just did my job. The real heroes are buried in Normandy (or Iwo Jima).”

And that modesty, that self-deprecation, is a very special quality – one I admire with all my heart. But, ‘we’ – i.e. my generation, and all the people who entered psychotherapy beginning in the Sixties – felt we needed something more than being the father who worked his ass off, then looked down at his shoes and refused to talk about anything real, or the mother who tirelessly slaved for her family, without an expressed life of her own.

We needed more out of our parents than that, and more to look forward to than a life of duty and self-sacrifice, and this is where therapy was of tremendous help – in claiming these needs without guilt or shame, and in providing a safe framework for finding a more meaningful, richer life for ourselves.

But as helpful and as transformative as therapy was, it was inevitably hijacked by society. By the Sixties and Seventies, you started hearing therapy talk everywhere, like “guilt trip,” “ahh – she’s got a complex about it,” “that’s just your family shit,” and “you’re so paranoid.” And today, people throw around terms like bipolar, transference, regression, personality disorder and borderline, without a thought. They use them for name-calling, for labeling people, and for excusing all kinds of inexcusable behavior.

So, I wanted to write this, in public, as a therapist, to say in all honesty that sometimes, when someone says, “Therapy just teaches people to be selfish,” or “Since you got into therapy, it’s all about you,” well, sometimes they’re right.

And sometimes, when people misuse therapy talk and therapy concepts to justify meanness or obliviousness to the needs of others, well, it makes me feel bad, and I do feel that therapists have had some part in creating a country of self-absorbed people.

But you have to understand that therapy, and therapy concepts, were necessary as a corrective to a generation that was silent, undemonstrative and sometimes too self-sacrificing. And therapy was – and is – necessary, now, for people who feel disenfranchised, lost or unheard. It’s a damn shame that the therapy world was hijacked, distorted, oversimplified and misused for the wrong purposes, but I’m afraid that that’s the fate of every philosophy or practice that comes down the pike, from democracy to existentialism to Christianity.

All we, as therapists, can do is honor the guts and vision of those who developed these amazing concepts, and try to stay true to their use in the right context and for the right people, because self-absorption and the justification of selfishness is never the ultimate outcome of appropriate psychotherapy.

My experience with people has been that, though their ‘pendulum’ might swing towards selfishness as they work through their problems, it always swings back as they consolidate a true sense of themselves, and ultimately leads to a generosity of spirit and a sharing of the human experience that would have been impossible without the crucible of psychotherapy.



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

The Diary Of Anne Candid









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

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

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

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

Again and again.

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


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

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

Well, my pushing finally led to this outburst:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut Up And Listen!

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas a monolithic family says,

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

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

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

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

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

I’m alive, damn you!

I’m still here!

I exist! 

You can’t stop me from growing up!

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


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

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

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

She got MAD.

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

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

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

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

I waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

















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

Do You Believe In Magic?










One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.

— Henry Miller

Everyone in therapy wants to change. We hear it every day, from new patients and old. They come in with a problem, that frequently sounds like this:

“I’m ________________ (fill in a way of being), but I want to be __________________ (fill in ‘better’ version of way of being). Where do we start?”

It reminds me of an old comic strip I used to read (maybe Dixie Dugan?), in which there was a character that obtained plastic surgery. I can’t remember whether the person wanted to hide, or just look better, but I do remember the premise was this: plastic surgery can make you look ANY WAY YOU WANT – all you have to do is point to the right picture, and let’s go!

Otherwise known as magic. People love magic. Another favorite magic fantasy is hypnosis. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Can’t you just hypnotize me and make me different?” Magic lurks everywhere in our society, but we don’t always call it magic.

How about,

“Lose ten pounds from your thighs in two days, without having to diet!”

“Send $29.99 for step-by-step instructions on how to have power over women!”

“Make up to $5999 per month, from home: no sales, no calls, no products!”

“Take my weekend seminar, and never be shy again!”

I love magic, too – hell, most of art is based on magic, on teleportation: it ‘transports’ you. For two hours, I can watch a movie and be somewhere else; for days I can read a book and be someone else; I can watch a music video and be swept up in the energy, or sadness, or joy, or wildness, of a song. We all want to be somewhere else, someone else, and we want life to be ‘different’ than it is – better. We want all things to be possible, and in art, in fantasy, all things are possible.

We don’t want to have to work for it: we want it good, and we want it now.

Sounds like a child, doesn’t it?

Mommy – I want a pony!

In a movie or a book, as soon as little Johnny says, “I want a pony,” we know that somehow, some way, he’s gettin’ a pony. In real life – not so much. One of the things we like about movies, about books, is that the story makes sense, it ‘goes’ somewhere: almost like there’s a ‘God’ watching over the whole story – because there is: the director, and the writer! We want there to be a God, a Higher Power, watching over us, too, but all too often, when a child in real life says, “I want a pony,” the response is:

“Do you realize we live in a city?”


“Do you think we’re made of money?”


“Get real, dodo!”  (Sadly, the ‘signature’ rant of the parent of a patient of mine.)

And this is assuming that there is even anyone there to listen. More often than not, and so very unlike ‘the movies’, our wishes are met by the other person’s being preoccupied with their own issues, or distracted, or even cynical. We express a wish, and are told, as in the old English nursery rhyme:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

So we learn that to wish for something unrealistic leads to being mocked, put down, or ignored. We learn that this is for ‘babies’ (though for many of us, it wasn’t even okay as babies!).

Why are people so ‘mean’ about irrational wishes? There are several reasons:

For one, most likely they never had anyone to treat their ‘irrational’ wishes with respect, either, so there is no role model for this; also, if you don’t get something yourself, you have no way of accepting others needing it.

For another, people feel that to ‘encourage’ irrational wishes is to lead the child (or person) down the wrong path: i.e. our job as parents is to teach the child about real life.

Further, it makes parents (especially those who actually care) feel inadequate:

Jeez, now what – how am I supposed to get this kid a pony?

And inadequacy feelings lead to anger:

You made me feel inadequate, so to show that I’m not inadequate, now I have to make your wish seem ridiculous, and paint you as a spoiled baby.

In fact, the skillful handling of irrational wishes is one of the most important jobs of a parent. Unfortunately, most parents are unprepared for the task. So the child learns to ditch all of the elements of ‘wishful thinking’, and it’s a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, because in wishing lies great power.

Almost all meaningful change starts with a wish:

Why can’t I be taller?

I want to be rich and famous.

I want to be young again.

I want to love my life.

Yes, these are all either irrational, or certainly not reachable by mere wishing (i.e. magic), but is the recognition of irrationality the ‘end of the line’ for a wish? It doesn’t have to be, and much, much, is lost if it is. For a wish – even if it’s a wish for ‘magic’ – can be just the beginning of the ‘line’, not the end, as most therapists can attest to. Wishing, hoping, dreaming, are direct pipelines to what’s inside of us, and fantasy is one of the most profound (and useful) of the signal qualities that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

But how do we use it?

As I mentioned earlier, parents spend an inordinate amount of time “drumming into” their kids that you have to be realistic in life. So it’s safe to assume that most people, by the time they’re even young children, actually “know” the score:

You can’t attain anything without work.

Money doesn’t grow on trees.

Don’t wish your life away.

Wanting something, or even deserving it, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

Okay, so they know these things, on some level, but what does that actually mean? Well, in most cases, what it means is that, while they’ve learned these (admittedly) valuable lessons about reality, they may also have learned to suppress their irrational wishes, maybe even lose touch with them.

Then what?

Well, to most people, having ditched everything irrational, all that’s left is the humdrum, the ordinary, the boring – that is, going ‘straight’. But somehow, a lifetime of being good, of being realistic, of not wanting more than you can have, of settling for the regular stuff, doesn’t seem that thrilling, that exciting, or worth fighting for.

And there’s something else, too: living life that way doesn’t seem to fit with your insides. You hear a great song, see a great movie, read a great book, and you feel something inside you – something above and beyond the normal, the safe, the regular. It makes you want more out of life than just playing it safe and being good, and it makes you want more out of yourself than just falling into that long, grey line behind everyone else.

And what about those ‘weird’ feelings that come up inside, especially when you’re young – the ones that no one really talks about? Wanting to hurt yourself, or other people? Sexual feelings, or desires, that aren’t the ‘norm’? Crazy thoughts, about all kinds of stuff: running away, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, living an ‘alternative’ life, being different? You’ve been taught that these things are ridiculous, wrong, bad: yes, you understand all that, but the thoughts, the wishes, are still there. Are you supposed to just squash them, push them away, and march along with the crowd, acting normal, keeping your secrets inside?

Whom do you talk to about it? Your school guidance counselor – the nice one, who’s  trying to get you ‘on track’ for college and a ‘good future’?


Your parents, who would just be worried – and mad, that you’re going against everything they’ve tried to drum into you all these years?


You keep it to yourself. Maybe smoke dope alone in your room, late at night, trying to get away from all the pressures to conform.

And if you’re already an ‘adult’, already grooved into regular life, what do you do? Well, variations on the same theme: maybe drink alone in the living room, late at night. Maybe have an affair, then feel crummy about it. Maybe try to lose yourself in sports, activities, interests, raising kids, work.

And maybe, just maybe, see a therapist, to figure out:

What’s wrong with me?

Well, very often what’s ‘wrong’ with you is that your dreams are under lock and key, exiled deep in a bunker inside of you. And even if you somehow got access to them, you wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. You’re not really going to run off and join the French Foreign Legion, or become a hobo, or immediately act on any of your dreams, anyway, so being in touch with them just hurts, right?

But a therapist knows what to do with your dreams. When we can haul them out, together, and take a look at them, in a safe and accepting environment, they can work for you, in ways that might surprise you. It is possible to lead a life that doesn’t feel staid, constricted and boring – and sometimes it isn’t that different from your current life, but it requires the therapist doing what your parents couldn’t: letting your dreams ‘breathe,’ so that they can interact with, and be affected by, reality, without being mocked or squashed. They need to evolve, and, like growing a plant, this involves water (attention), good soil (a safe environment), and time.

How does this work? Well, it could look like this:

Sometime in the mid-Eighties, Harry, a big, burly guy in his early forties, came in to see me. At first glance, he looked like he should be the owner of a bustling Italian restaurant, or maybe a ‘mad’ sculptor (a lovable mad sculptor, that is). But what was he?

Yep – an accountant.

He told me that he came from a very difficult family background, in which his father was an alcoholic, his mother (“She was wonderful”) died when he was seven, and his ‘mean stepmother’ (yes, they really exist!) was always yelling at his father for being a weakling and a failure.

So where did this leave Harry? Well, on his own, mainly, unless his father wanted someone to make a ‘milk run’ to the liquor store for him, when his stepmother wasn’t looking. Not only did procuring a bottle of whiskey for Dad bring him a “Thanks, old boy,” but even a pat on the head and sometimes a quarter: “Here ya go kid – stuff yourself with Snickers.” When you’re starving for attention, even a pat on the head and a couple of Snickers can be a big deal.

There was no planning for Harry’s future, no encouragement, nothing but staying out of range of his stepmother. One day in high school, Harry was called in to the office of the school guidance counselor: the infamous Miss Magreblian. Apparently it was a requirement that every student had to see her once a year.

Harry dreaded it.

She was a tall, reedy ‘spinster’ lady in her fifties, with “not an ounce of fat on her, and a face that would stop a clock” (Harry’s exact words), and she had a reputation for being mean and scary. But she wasn’t mean or scary to Harry. He thought maybe she felt sorry for him – Harry remembered she once came up to him in the hallway and said, “Do you even have parents?” telling him that she had tried to contact them, repeatedly, for some reason, and struck out. His Dad had never been to any of his schools, not once, and his stepmother – well, it was best to keep her away from any part of his life.

He sat there quietly at Miss Magreblian’s desk, while she leafed slowly through his records and his test results, until she finally put the paperwork down and looked at him, with a small, pitying expression. Then, she sighed heavily, and said,

Harry – here’s the deal. You come from nothing and you’re probably on your way to nothing, but I’m going to say this anyway, because I’m supposed to offer you guidance, whether you use it or not. You’re not a bad kid – not a particularly bright kid, either – but all in all, you might make something of yourself, because you’re mostly quiet and get your work done. And I’m guessing you get it done with no help from anyone, either.

Harry squirmed in his seat, unused as he was to being talked about at all. Even though her words kind of hurt and made him uncomfortable, he also liked it, a lot, that she was acknowledging his existence. He nodded, “Yes, Ma’am.”

She sighed again, and went on, chewing her pencil thoughtfully between words.

So, here’s what I think: as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, the world revolves around money. Now, there are two ways to get it, legally. First, come the people who are smart enough to make a lot of it. Then, come the people who help the smart people take care of what they’ve made.

She paused, chewing thoughtfully again.

I’m thinking you’re the second kind – the helpers.

Harry wasn’t sure if he should be insulted or grateful. They sat there in silence for a moment, until he managed to sputter, “So, what does that mean – you know, about me?”

She waved her hand at him. “Quiet – I’m thinking.”

Wow, imagine that: someone was actually taking time to think about him. He knew, somehow, that her next words would shape his whole life. He noticed he was holding his breath.

Finally, she tapped the pencil on her desk, decisively, three times. “An accountant, I think.” She paused, chewing the pencil again, and looking at the ceiling. “Yes, that’s it.” She carefully placed the pencil back in her desk tray, with finality. “Harry, I don’t know if you have it in you, but that’s what you should shoot for. If you don’t make it – well, you’ll still have a college education to fall back on. And a quiet kid like you, who does his work, can always manage to scrape by.”

She looked at him with a not-unkind expression. “I think we’re done here.”

So that was it: the gods had spoken. He was supposed to be an accountant, if he was smart enough, and hard-working enough, to make it. If it wasn’t exactly thrilling, at least he knew she was right about that money stuff: anyone who could help the smart people who made lots of money, take care of it, would always have a job, somewhere.

Well, Harry rode that interview for the rest of his life. He did attend a local community college, then transferred to a state college, majoring in accounting. He graduated – not with honors, maybe, but he’d had to wait tables practically full-time – and eventually, went all the way through and became a CPA. He got married, had three children, owned his own home, and had a German shepherd he called Miss M, in honor of you-know-who.

All in all, a “nice life.”

So what did it mean, that one day he walked into my office for the first time and said, “My life isn’t enough”?

That his whole life was a sham, or a mistake, or a mess?

No – to me, it just meant that he had reached the next stage: the stage where he could take all that he’d worked for thus far (successfully), and add to it. He had enough experience now, enough self-esteem, to recognize that fifteen minutes of guidance, given him twenty-five years before, was not enough to carry him through the rest of his life.

Sadly, I find that many therapists are too eager to ‘rip into’ their patients’ lives, to dismantle them (“How could you stay with him after that?”), to tear them down, like malfunctioning engines. Instead of helping to build on what is already there, they assist people in creating major, unnecessary drama and pain. So often, the ‘problem’ is not the existing family relationships, or the existing job, but an inability to access what is inside, and put it to good use, in a way that also preserves what the person has already built up over so many years.

The Wizard of Oz is a classic example of what I’m trying to say: Dorothy leads a (purportedly) ‘drab’ life on a drab farm with drab people, until she has a kind of spiritual awakening, that enables her to ‘see’ her life in a new, colorful, richer way than before. The real problem, ultimately, was her inability to appreciate what she already had, rather than the seeming drabness of her surroundings and people.

And yet, if Dorothy had come to therapy at the beginning, many therapists would have in effect agreed with her initial ‘take’ on the situation, and recommended leaving the farm as the solution, i.e. that she “had a lot more ‘going on’ than the other people on the farm, greater dreams, and more potential” – needs that (supposedly) couldn’t have been met on the farm.

But what was the actual solution? It was Dorothy’s ‘stepping up’ to take a more empowered view of the people on the farm – her own view: instead of being the little, passive girl who lived amongst all these ‘big’ people, who were beyond her ken, she (or at least her unconscious) stepped up to see each of them as they actually were – flawed beings, each of them needing something specific to be complete. In seeing these ‘adults’ as merely human beings, like herself, she was able to join them in the human race, to feel like we are all in the same boat. And ironically, in seeing all of their flaws, she was able to see them (and herself) in all of their beauty, as well.

And so, in the end, she didn’t have to leave the farm after all, in order to be her real self: she merely had to step up (where she was) to a more empowered self, and a richer, fuller, inner and interactional life.

So, the therapist’s job is to help people find, and follow, their own ‘yellow brick road’ to inner consciousness and empowerment – not help them run away to what A. A. calls a ‘geographic cure.’ Someone once said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that’s true, as far as it goes. What’s more true is this: “If you’re not ‘there’ here, you’re not ‘there’ anywhere.” Movement in space isn’t the answer – movement inside is the answer.

So, the next time you “wish for a pony,” take a closer look (maybe, with some help): you might already have one!

And Harry? Well, in therapy, he ‘remembered’ that he’d always wanted to sing in a barbershop quartet. These days, you might see Harry on the weekends, in a church, or a retirement home, or even on a stage, singing Sweet Adeline, with three of his closest friends. I went to see them once, and they won a local barbershop contest.

Harry came up to me later, with a big smile on his face, and said, “It’s like magic!”





















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

My Own Little Canoe







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!


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!



(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.

The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers










(Note: Please first read The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through the Grass)

The summer weeks drifted by in Asheville: group therapy, botanical rounds, the cockroach and raccoon wars, loving a neighbor’s puppy named Shane, doing individual therapy sessions, hopes borne out with some patients, hopes dashed with others, teaching my wife how to drive a stickshift in the Blue Ridge Mountains, claiming my gifts, accepting my limitations, crossing back and forth through Beaucatcher Tunnel, work and home, heat and humidity, summer rain, lessons, lessons, under the hot Southern sun . . .

A new patient arrived: Victor. A Vietnam vet. His diagnosis: Depression. I don’t know why, but I gravitated to him. Make no mistake – all patients are not treated the same. Not that all don’t get the benefit of everything the program has to offer, but sometimes you take a special liking to, or a special interest in, a particular one, and spend “more time than you’re getting paid for,” as a supervisor once put it, in his care and treatment. Such was the case with Victor.

He was a big, likable guy, a heavyset bear of a man with a deep, resonant voice that you noticed right away. Paul Robeson’s voice came to mind – and William Warfield, maybe Billy Eckstine, but for obvious reasons I wouldn’t have made any of those particular comparisons to Victor’s face. White guys from Mississippi don’t like that.

I scheduled some individual sessions with him, and we talked of all kinds of things: the wife he still loved (she had left him for another man while he was in ‘Nam), his lonely childhood (an only child of a drunken mother and a father who was on the road all the time), his own drunkenness and addiction to pills (he had kicked both years before, “on his own”), and most devastating of all, his loss of the guys he called ‘the only family I’ve ever known’ – the platoon that was annihilated by the Viet Cong, all but him.

Victor was the first person I ever heard say, “I wish I had died instead of them,” and really mean it. He explained, “The dead get to rest. I have to face hell for the rest of my life, because aloneness, and life without The Goners, is hell.” That’s what he called them – The Goners.

I thought about that, and thought I could understand it, a little. I had never suffered a significant loss of a person in my life, but I could see what he meant about the dead ‘getting the best of the deal’, in that their struggles were over, while the living had to go on and face life without their loved, and lost, ones.

But what about that peculiar phrase, The Goners? For some reason, I felt I needed to file that question away for later.

In the meantime, I tried to talk to him about the things he did have to live for.

What about other women?

He would shake his head sadly, and say, “For me, Joanie was the beginning and the end.”

Subject closed.

New friends?

“What’s the point? You let people matter, then you just lose them, and it’s worse than never having them in the first place.”

Subject closed.


“I’m an electrician. I do my job. I go home. What else is there to say?”

Another one bites the dust.

Finally, I mentioned his voice.

“You’ve got quite a voice. Ever done any singing?”

That got a small smile. “Singing? Sure – when I was a kid, in church. I was a soprano. Then, my voice changed.”

“It sure did.”

He really smiled, for the first time ever. “Now I’m a bass – like Daddy.” He grinned, proudly.

Hmmm – were we finally onto something? “Daddy?”

“Yeah, you know – my father.”

I smiled, “Yeah – even a Yankee knows what ‘Daddy’ means, Vic. It’s just that I never heard you talk about anyone before – anyone other than Joanie, or The Goners – with any feeling. I guess your Dad meant a lot to you.”

He pursed his lips in thought. “He meant everything to me.” He paused, his eyes moving as he searched his past. “He used to sing.”

“To you?”

“He sang all the time – in church, everywhere.” He paused, his eyes lighting up, head nodding proudly.  “He used to blow out speakers, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sure – a really powerful, deep bass can do that, you know.”

“No – I had no idea.”

He was quiet a moment. “But he also sang, special – to me.”

“How do you mean – special?”

“At night, in my room.”

“Like, bedtime songs – lullabies?”

“Not lullabies. Just anything: popular songs, hymns, gospel – you know, church.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I know gospel has something to do with church.” I paused, considering. “Would you sing for me?”

He did a double-take. “What – right here?”

“Yes – right here.”

He looked at the closed door. “Is that okay?”

I did my best Edward G. Robinson. “If they come to arrest us, I’ll take the rap, see?”

He looked down, clearing his throat. “Well, I don’t really sing anymore. It’s kinda like, when Daddy died . . .”

“The songs went with him?”

“Um hmm.”

“So, you don’t really feel entitled to do it on your own?”

“I don’t know about that – I just haven’t done it.”

“Would you do it for me? I’d be honored.”

He looked around again, like we were up to something illicit. “What do you want to hear?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know – maybe some of that hymn and gospel stuff you were talking about?”

“Like, what hymns?”

“I have no idea – I’m just a Jew-boy from California.”

That earned a rumbling laugh. He looked down and cleared his throat again. “Okay, then”

He began, timidly,

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing by the throne of God?

Now, he really gave it his all – his voice molten gold:

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

He looked at me. I nodded, “Keep going.” He continued through the verses, belting it out, body swaying, his eyes closed, and ended with,

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver,
With the melody of peace.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

By god, I almost converted, right there on the spot!

There was a knock at the door.

Victor flinched.

I said, “Yes? Come on in.”

The door opened, and two nurses poked their heads through a crack in the door, timidly, one head on top of the other. “Is everything alright in here?”

I nodded. “Everything is great in here.” I looked at Victor, then back at the nurses, asking them, “What did you think?”

The one on the bottom had her hand clapped over her mouth. They both had tears in their eyes. The one on top said, “It was just . . . just so beautiful.”

Victor looked alive for the first time since I had known him. Something had happened – it doesn’t matter what, or why, or how, only that it happened. A spark of life had been struck. Now it was my job to keep that spark alive.

I continued to meet with him, and, while he was still depressed, it seemed he had turned a corner and stepped out onto the street of life. There was only one thing I still wanted to know, and I waited till our last meeting to ask him. Maybe he’d be willing to tell me now.

“I know you don’t like to talk about the War, but could I just ask you one thing?”

He drew in a breath, hesitating. He still didn’t want to go ‘there’, but he said, “Okay – what is it?”

I had earned my one question. “Why do you call your platoon The Goners?”

He smiled. “Oh, is that all? That one’s easy.” His eyes did that moving-back-and-forth thing again, searching the blackboard of time. “When I was a kid, and my Daddy came home, which wasn’t often, he used to play soldier with me all the time. And whenever I would ‘kill’ him, he would clutch his hand to his heart, spin around, say, ‘I’m a goner’, then fall down.

“So, every time he had to leave home again, it became a regular thing that I’d say to him, ‘Guess you’re a goner, huh?’ And he’d say, ‘Yep – I’m a goner, boy.’ Somehow, it made it easier.

“So, when the guys were all killed, I just took to calling them The Goners – like, they were with Daddy, somehow.” He looked at me, but not really at me. “I guess it makes it easier.”

I nodded, and stuck out my hand. “Thank you – I appreciate it. I think I understand, now.”

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would ‘borrow’ his father, and the platoon, to make it easier for myself when Brett died.

Oh, before I get back to Brett, there’s one more thing about Asheville, and it’s in the nature of an ‘amends’. While we lived in Asheville, the older, nice guy, Bob, whom I mentioned earlier, was wonderful to us. He ‘had us over’ to his lovely house for dinner, did everything possible to make me feel welcome, talked with me patiently about my doubts and questions at work, and even laughed at my dumb jokes sometimes.

And yet, there was something sad about him, something very human. Maybe he was a self-questioner, a self-doubter, like me? I don’t know. I didn’t know, then, that ‘old guys’ were human, too, could need companionship, too, could be lonely, could doubt themselves. I just know that, on my last day at work, on my way out I glibly said to him,

“I’ll be in touch.”

He immediately replied,

“No, you won’t.”

Not like an accusation, or anything of the sort – just straightforwardly, like a statement of hard-won truth. It took me momentarily off guard. People aren’t usually that direct, or that honest. I think I shrugged it off at the time, and continued my merry way down the hall.

So, for the record, and to my shame, I just want to say that, Bob, you were right. I was a boy in a hurry – to get my Ph.D., to grow up, to get paid, to earn respect, to ‘make it’. I so wish that Botanical Rounds, that your generosity toward me, that the South, had taught me to slow down and let my heart put down roots in life, sometimes. I know it now, but I didn’t, then.

And I’m sorry – I’m the one who missed out on the privilege of a continued relationship with you, Bob – I’m the loser. And now that I’m an old guy, I know that age has nothing to do with it: I think you recognized in me a fellow traveler, and wanted to know me longer than my three-month ‘hitch’ in Asheville. Maybe at the time I couldn’t imagine an older guy actually wanting to know me, or finding genuine companionship with me – I didn’t think I had that much to offer.

But now that I’m older than you were then, I see that when a soul connects with another soul – age, or race, or gender, or background doesn’t matter much at all; sure, maybe those superficial similarities make it easier, but if the actual connection isn’t there, those things don’t make up for it. The connection is the precious part – and I let a true connection fall by the wayside when I failed to follow up on our friendship.

Maybe somebody reading this now will learn and realize that truth, and think twice about letting a special connection lapse.

That’s all I can offer you now, Bob, but I am offering it, with all my heart.

(Next: The Goner, Part III: Mission Accomplished)

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

They Can’t Take That Away From Me











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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly and passionately, Barry says,

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

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

Wow – you can do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worry is not preparation.

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

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

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

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

Worry is not preparation: obsession is optional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitchum: Am I here to admire the view?

Kirk: Not exactly – I need your help.

Mitchum: (Fatalistic smile) Like old times.

Kirk: I always liked you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell are you talking about?

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

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

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

Oh yeah? Like what?

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

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

Yeah – Graceland.

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

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

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

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










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