A Journey To Forgiveness, Part III: The Crossroads












(Note: please read Part I and Part II first, especially if you’re interested in being able to follow anything written below – but then, it’s your call.)

Grace left the office. She didn’t glare, she didn’t slam the door, she just threw me a lightning-fast eye-lock, and then she was gone. I knew she didn’t hold anything against me – it wasn’t anything like that. It was just that her head was exploding from so many forces coming together at the same time: her anger at her mother; feeling like a bad daughter; embarrassment and shame at the fact that her mother still held such sway over her; guilt over seeing me, given what her mother had said and done when she ‘found out’ about me; and last but not least, her strong desire to get better, to find herself, to claim a life of her own.

And sometimes, it’s just . . .

Too many teardrops
For one heart to be crying.
Too many teardrops
For one heart to carry on.

(As Question Mark and the Mysterians put it)

After she closed the door, I sat there in the office, staring straight ahead, but only seeing what was inside me. I felt pain for her. There was nothing I could ‘do’ right now, at least nothing dramatic: I certainly wasn’t going to engage in a world war with Momma over the rights to Grace’s mind. For one thing, I didn’t want the rights to Grace’s mind – I just wanted Grace to have those rights.

And I knew something else: human growth swings like a pendulum; a patient has an ‘amazing’ session one week, with breakthroughs and insights galore, and the next week it’s like the slate has been wiped clean, and it’s back to Square One. With experience, you learn that the patient isn’t really back to Square One, nor have you suddenly, and unaccountably, become a terrible therapist, because the pendulum will swing back toward growth again, if you ‘allow’ the swing to occur, and hold the therapeutic space for the patient. Just as a plant will seek light, a patient, if at all possible, will seek growth, if you provide conditions for growth, which don’t include forcing the issue, or expecting things to go in a linear manner. If you force the issue, all you do is alienate the person and let them know that you don’t understand, or respect, the forces they are dealing with.

No, it wasn’t time for theatrics – but it was important to let Grace know I was still there for her, when and if she was ready. I would send her an email to that effect, but not now, not today. Today was a day of turmoil for her, and I had to respect that. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

And besides, I had things to do. At times like this, a therapist needs perspective, and friends.

In baseball, they say the double-play is a pitcher’s best friend.

And at times like this, you know what a therapist’s best friend is?

The next patient.


It was the following day. I hadn’t heard a word from Grace, but that didn’t concern me too much: she needed some time, and space, to process all that had happened. I remembered when she banged her arm down on the chair and said, “I’m so sick of lying!” I had to trust that, sooner or later, she would come back to that truth: she had come too far to go back now. You can’t “unring the bell” of knowledge and insight that you have fought so hard for. It doesn’t just vanish that easily, even in the face of terror, guilt and ‘old ways’.

I sat down to my computer. I felt that an email might be easier, and less pressured, than a phone call. An email you can read at your own pace, revisit whenever you want, and respond to when, and if, you are ready. It doesn’t get distorted by the vagaries of fickle memory: it says what it says. And by the same token, I needed to choose my words carefully, because they would be there, and unalterable, once written.

5:00 P.M.

Grace – I know that yesterday, when you left, you must have felt like you were in a waking nightmare:

What’s real?

What’s true?

Who are my real enemies?

My real allies?

How can I be a good daughter and still live my own life?

How can I stay in therapy when it means losing everything I have known?

We both know there are no easy answers to any of these questions, but I do know this: you’re worth fighting for, and if you stay with it, there will be answers – answers you probably can’t even imagine right now. You are a young woman, and there are countless experiences waiting for you, some of them wonderful.

Sure, your mother is angry right now, and threatened, terribly, by your being in therapy, but in time I feel she can come to accept your need for a more authentic life, and realize that you are not trying to lose her, just find yourself.

I also know that I am here to help you take whatever next step is necessary, whether it involves continuing with me in therapy or not.

I hope to hear from you sometime. Whether you leave therapy or not, please don’t leave you.

All the best – Dr. Bernstein.

That was it – now the waiting.


At 11:28 that night, this appeared in my email queue:

Dr. Bernstein – Thank you so much for your email. I thought you were mad, or at least disappointed in me. I was so upset, I didn’t know what else to do but leave. I’m lying here in bed, with the covers pulled up over my head, just like in your office. Not much more to say right now.

I felt many things upon reading Grace’s message that night, but mostly relief: I didn’t pick up any hints about despair, or about “nothing mattering anymore” – not that she might not have been feeling those things, of course, but at least it didn’t sound like they were crowding out all else in her emotional field. Of course, it was also possible that she was so regressed she was omitting them so as not to ‘burden’ or upset me, but from the tone, that seemed unlikely.

No, it sounded like she was doing what I thought she was doing: holing up and saying, “Stop the world, I want to get off,” for now, buying time so that she could process all that had happened. It reminded me of how a friend’s mother had once described childbirth:

Trying to shit a watermelon.

Right now, she was seeing the emotional task before her in basic, extreme terms: I can have Momma, and be miserable the rest of my life, or I can have myself, and be alone and ‘bad’ the rest of my life. The missing ingredients in that formulation are Time, and Help: Time, to let her sense of self expand (remember that pesky watermelon?) to accommodate the complexities of the task (and to let Momma accommodate to the new realities, as well), and Help, to add another person’s wisdom, and support, to the solution, and to demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be like it is with Momma.

It was late, and I didn’t want to disturb Grace’s process at this point (remember, I want her process to be Hers – to have and to hold), so for now, I merely emailed back,

I have every confidence in you. Stay with it.


Two (long!) days went by before I communicated with Grace again. Yes, I could have called or emailed again, but it didn’t feel right. Besides, it occurred to me that maybe I was being the dramatic one: how did I know that she hadn’t intended, all along, to keep her next session? Oops: busted! Her sessions were on Tuesday – it was Friday now. She had never ‘officially’ said she wasn’t continuing her therapy – so why not just assume normality? What a concept!

I emailed her,

Feel free to update me or check in anytime. See you Tuesday.

And back came the immediate response:


Whew! And to think, I was the one who wouldn’t have been there on Tuesday, because I had ‘jumped the tracks’ and made a dramatic assumption! Little did I know what was to come on Tuesday.

I didn’t hear from Grace any further. On Tuesday afternoon, her regular time, she appeared, once again in Living Goth: short black skirt, torn fishnets, boots. This time, I was going to play it ‘smart’: I wasn’t going to make any Pollyanna assumptions about her state of mind, based on her clothing. And once again, I was wrong.

She sat on the chair, as usual: no couch, no blanket.

Grace: You know – I wasn’t going to come.

Me: Oh, really?

Grace: Yeah – I thought you knew.

Me: (Wisely silent)

Grace: But then, when you sent me that email, saying you would see me at our regular time, in that instant I made up my mind to come.

Me: I’m so glad you did.

Somehow, she was more cheerful than I expected. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. I didn’t want to pry, but I had to know ‘what happened’.

Me: So, what happened with . . . you know . . . your mother and all?

Grace: (Gaily) Oh, that? She asked my cousin to sit with the animals, and I went with Kim for the spa days we planned. (Pause) It was so fun!

Me: (Feeling left at the post) But, she was so mad . . . and you were so . . .

Grace: (Nodding, jauntily) Guilty? Scared? Hopeless? Yeah, I was, for a day or two, but then it just seemed like . . . you know, like something snapped, and I realized I’m not a bad person, whether Mom thinks I am or not. And, it’s really none of her business, anyway, whether I’m seeing you or not; in fact, if I wasn’t seeing you, she and I would probably be doing a lot worse. (Shrugs) In fact, I think she understands now, that you’re trying to help me deal with her, not ditch her. (Pause) We had a talk: as usual, she didn’t really listen, but I think some of it got through.

Wow – this whole conversation reminded me of my oldest son’s fear of ghosts. In elementary school, he had a teacher who, for some misguided reason, brought in an article that discussed the possibility that ghosts may be real. Ever since that time, he had been afraid of ghosts, especially at bedtime (Thanks, teach!). When I went in to tell him his bedtime story, I would frequently have to reassure him that ghosts weren’t real, and weren’t going to come and get him in the night.

One night I went in and ‘proactively’ began to ask him about his ghost ‘thing’: how was he doing with his fears, if there was anything I could do to help, etc.

He promptly said, with an almost disgusted, eye-rolling tone,

Daaaad – I’m not afraid of ghosts anymore.

Uh – yeah. Well, that’s how I felt with Grace: she had shit the watermelon, and, suddenly, what I was talking about was ‘so yesterday’. Of course, it was not ‘over’ – far from it, but this phase of it was over: she would never again feel so desperately torn in half by her mother’s demands, or agree so passively with her mother’s (mercurial) ‘assessments’ of her personality. She had come through the ‘fire’ stronger for it, and she never walked out of therapy again.

She could damn me, or damn her mother, but she didn’t have to damn herself anymore – at least not full-bore.

How far had she come? As she walked out of the session, she said,

By the way, Doc, that ‘naturopath’ crack was pretty good!  It  gave me some perspective on things: if you could sit there and have some humor about the whole thing, well, maybe I could, too. It kind of made Mom’s accusations seem silly, and my taking them so seriously, silly, too. So, thanks.

Maybe you’re saying, “Hey, wait a minute: what does all this have to do with forgiveness?” Well, all of the above is how ‘forgiveness’ usually looks, in real life: Grace and I never even mentioned the word ‘forgiveness’, and yet she was moving towards it all the while. By ‘demoting’ her mother’s opinions of her to the level of, “Oh yeah – well, that’s just what you think”, Grace stopped having her self-image, and her whole life, controlled by her mother. (And, note: she was now calling her mother “Mom”, not “Momma”. Was she even conscious of it? It didn’t matter.)

And once her mother didn’t control her life, Grace could step back and take control of it herself. And once she could run her own life, she didn’t have to hate her mother anymore, or wish her dead. In seeing her mother as “just a person”, Grace could have empathy for how limited and fragile her mother’s self-image was, and how needy her mother was. In effect, Grace had been giving her mother more power than her mother could handle: after all, you don’t base your self-image on what a four year-old, in the midst of a tantrum, thinks of you!

In the future, when her mother would start to rant and rail at her, Grace didn’t have to collapse into being crushed or enraged: she could reassure her. When “Mom” said, “You’re an ungrateful brat,” Grace could say, “Mom, we don’t need to go there right now. I’m sorry it hurts you that I can’t talk to you right now, but I’ll call you later, when I’m off work, okay?”

So, it turns out that forgiveness is not something you can just make happen by wishing for it, or focusing on it, or repeating some magic mantra. It comes when what the person has ‘done’ no longer is actively destroying your life, and you can see it as their problem, not something that defines you in the present.

It takes hard work, and usually, teamwork, to break the iron grip of resentment and get to forgiveness, but, just as being in the thrall of someone’s abuse is hellish, to release that grip is a heavenly blessing.

So I guess Alexander Pope was right at that: To forgive is divine!



















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

A Journey to Forgiveness, Part II: Grace Under Fire









(Note: please read A Journey to Forgiveness, Part I: First Steps, first)

During the next few sessions, Grace continued to get more comfortable talking to me about herself, getting more used to being the ‘main attraction’, as opposed to talking about the other person (i.e. me), pleasing me, or taking care of my feelings There was less knee-jerk fear about my reaction, whenever she said something that might not be ‘acceptable’, and she talked less and less about her mother, and more about her own interests and dreams.

She was working as an ‘admin’ in a law office, and was highly valued by the firm, but she dreamed of becoming a paralegal, and maybe, someday, even a lawyer, though her mother had told her repeatedly, since childhood, “You’re not very smart, and you’re not very pretty – your only hope is to be a hard worker.”

Although her growing comfortableness in talking about herself might seem at first blush to be great progress, I knew it was just the calm before the storm, because there was still a white elephant in the room, spelled M-o-m-m-a.

One day, I came out to the waiting room and saw that, for the first time, Grace was not wearing the hoodie over her head. I could see purple and red streaks in her hair. She had on a shorter skirt, black tights and her engineer boots, along with heavy mascara and eyeliner.

Oho, maybe a Goth not too depressed to claim her Gothnicity?

Alas, that was wishful thinking.

As before, she sat down hesitantly and looked around the office like a trapped animal, twisting her fingers together.

I waited for her to start.

Grace: So, Momma called again.

Me: Oh? What did she have to say?

Grace: Oh, the usual: “Why didn’t you ever apply to Stanford, like I told you to?” and “You know, I had high hopes for you,” and “Why are you always trying to hurt me?” (Looking down, dejectedly)

Me: And what did you say?

Grace: Nothing: I mean, what is there to say? I am a failure, I didn’t have the guts to apply to Stanford, I am a disappointment, and I am always hurting her: four for four. (Tearing up)

Me: Well then, just for my information – why didn’t you apply to Stanford? (Pause)You’re certainly smart enough.

Grace: (Her eyes flipped up to mine instantly, when I said “certainly smart enough” – maybe to check out my sincerity?) Because I had, like, a 3.2 in high school – that’s why.

Me: So it would have been unrealistic to apply, in your opinion?

Grace: (Angrily) Dude – in anybody’s opinion! Let’s face it.

Me: (Smiling) Wow – thanks for the “Dude”!

Grace: (Looking down, biting her lip and smiling in embarrassment) Sorry – I guess I . . .

Me: Forgot yourself for a minute, and were real with me? (Pause) I just said “Thank you” – did you get that?

Grace: Yeah, but . . . it was disrespectful.

Me: Was it really?

Grace: (Immediately) No! (Pauses, surprised at the heat she gave the word). I mean, I didn’t mean it disrespectfully, but, you know, you might have . . .

Me: Been wounded – in my feelie-weelies?

Grace: (Smiling) You’re weird, Dr. B.

Me: Well, what do you expect: I didn’t go to Stanford, either. (Pause) So . . . I guess that just makes us a couple of gutter rats, right?

Grace: (In a high, silly squeak) Pass the cheese!

We laugh hollowly, both knowing we were just sparring before the main event.

Grace: (Turning more serious) Then, why do I let her talk to me like that?

Me: I don’t know – why do you? (I know what’s coming, and keep my mouth shut to let this crucial piece develop)

Grace: (In a questioning tone) I don’t know . . .

(I keep quiet.)

Grace: . . . because part of me believes her?

Me: (I just raise my eyebrows in acknowledgment – that’s enough, and besides, she’s not done)

Grace: So – what do I do with the part that believes her?

Me:You mean, you’re more than just that one part?

Grace: (Looking down) I guess – I mean . . . I don’t know . . . I’m so confused . . . it’s like . . .

Me: A civil war, inside?

Grace: Yes – but how do I know which side is the good guys?

Me: Maybe ‘good’ isn’t the right word.

Grace: What do you mean?

Me: Maybe you need to start thinking about which side actually works for you, and which side cripples you.

Grace: (Thinking) But, that’s not fair: I want to be good, and functional!

Me: Then maybe you need to take charge of what’s considered ‘good’.

Grace: I mean, what’s my goal in life, anyway – to be a good person, or to be . . .

Me: Yourself?

Grace: (Twisting her fingers) It’s so confusing. (Pause) How do you figure it out?

Me: You mean, for myself?

Grace: Yeah.

Me: Well, number one, I figure it out – not someone else. And number two, it’s about my Self, not someone else’s idea of who I should be.

Grace: But that seems so . . . you know . . .

Me: Selfish?

Grace: Yes!

Me: You mean, instead of Other-ish?  (Pause) Or Mother-ish?

Grace: (Smiling) You’re weird!

Me: Guilty as charged. (Pause) But then, it takes one to know one.

Grace: (Thoughtful, big breath) Somehow, that’s a relief.

Me: What – being weird?

Grace: Yeah – like I can finally say, “Momma – I admit it, I’m weird, so just leave me alone.” Like I can finally throw off her expectations, and still not . . . (Pause)

Me: (Pause) Be a failure? Be all alone in the world?

Grace: (Nodding) Yeah – I think so. (Pause) I think being ‘different’ from what she wanted, always meant that I would be alone the rest of my life – like, you know . . .

Me: Cut out from the herd?

Grace: (Nodding) But now I see that (Pause) . . . well, there might be another herd right over the next hill – even though I don’t know them, yet. (Pause, looking up) Does that sound stupid?

Me: No – not to me, it doesn’t.

Grace: (Crying) It’s . . . scary . . . to be, you know . . . Free . . . (Looks up) . . . isn’t it?

Me: It sure is – at first. But you get used to it, after awhile. And, besides, you get to hang out with a whole different class of people: honest ones.

Grace (Crying again, angry, slamming fist down again) I’m so sick of lying! I’m so sick of feeling like a failure! I’m so sick of wanting to die! I’m so sick of hating everything: myself, Momma . . .


Grace: (Sobs dying out) (Pause)


Grace: You . . . you think I can really pull it off?

Me: You mean, being yourself?

Grace: Yeah – being a weirdo.

Me: Well, you’ve made a pretty good start: (Looking at watch) You’ve already been one for at least forty-five minutes, and you haven’t been arrested yet.

Grace: Yeah, but that’s in here.

Me: Well, maybe you can take some of here with you. Besides, you can always connect with me between sessions, if you want. (Note: she never did this before, feeling it was ‘dependent’, ‘weak’ and a ‘burden’)

Grace: (Shaking her head) You really are a weirdo.

Me: Welcome to the club.


After that, she began to email me occasionally, between sessions. She was learning how to ‘use’ me for support, and validation of her experiences, especially with her mother. She would regularly say, “You sure I’m not burdening you?” and seemed surprised when I said I wanted to know what was going on with her.

But I also felt that, in establishing regular communication with me, she was just ‘battening down the hatches’ in anticipation of the coming storm, and I was proven right in the next session.


When I greeted Grace in the waiting room, she looked like she had come directly from bed: her hair was held up by a pencil stuck through it, she was wearing what likely were actual pajama tops and bottoms, and she had flip-flops on her feet, with no socks, though it was actually rather cold. Her eyes looked wild – haunted.

As she entered the room, she went directly to a blanket I keep underneath an end table, pulled it out and, in one motion, flung herself on the couch, and threw the blanket over herself, pulling it up over her head. She had never used the blanket before, or lay on the couch. Something big had obviously happened. I was guessing it started with an M . . .

Silence. (I was letting her take it at her own pace)

Grace: Well, I did it.

Me: You did what?

Grace: No – that’s wrong: not “I did it,” but, “Now I’ve done it.”

Me: Sounds scary.

Grace: It is: I just want to cover myself up and hide from the world, forever.

Me: Must have been pretty bad.

Grace: It was – the worst.

Me: I’m interested.

Grace: That doesn’t matter – anymore.

Silence. She was ‘baiting’ me with negativity again: would I give up, get mad, be impatient?

Me: Why don’t you just tell me what happened?

Grace: I just feel numb. (Pause) Okay, then – just for the record: I had a fight with Momma, and . . . and, I lost it.

Me: How do you mean?

Grace: (Pulling the cover up higher, talking from underneath it) I mean I’m an idiot – that’s what I mean!

I could hear anger in her voice, probably at me, but I didn’t want to ‘go there’ yet, as I felt it was probably still unconscious, and there was important ‘Mom work’ to do first. We could always do me later.

Me: Was it a conversation you had with her?

Grace: Ha! I’d say more of a “versation” than a conversation, since there was no place in it for me!

Me: So, what did she say?

Grace: (Sighing) Okay – so she called me because she’s going out of town for a week on a business trip, to Denver, and she wanted me to pet-sit at her house for the week.

Me: Oh? I didn’t know she had pets.

Grace: (Ironic smile)Oh, just four cats and a huge German shepherd! She calls them her “good children”, as opposed to her ‘bad’ one, which of course is me.

Me: So, what did you say?

Grace: I said ‘No’, because I’m going out of town for three days with my friend Kim. (Pause) I haven’t had a vacation in years, and it’s important to me!

Me: Sounds reasonable. And what did she say to that?

Grace: She went off! She said I was a bad daughter, that I didn’t care about her at all, that I was disloyal, and that I had never once put her needs before mine! That it was all about me, that no matter how much love she’s poured into me, all I ever thought of was myself. She said she thinks I’m a psychopath . . .(crying) . . . Dr. B., am I a psychopath?

Me: You? Hardly. You’re not even a naturopath.

Grace: (Pulls blanket down to glare at me, then blanket goes back up) Don’t kid! This is serious!

Me: Okay, I’m sorry – but it’s hard to take seriously that anyone could call you a psychopath: you’re such a sweet, caring person, and daughter: she’s lucky to have a daughter like you. 

Grace: (Pulls down blanket) You have to say that!

Me: I do not. Okay, put it this way: would you call someone just before going out of town for a week, and ask them to pet-sit your four cats and a dog, and then blow up if they said No, because they already had other plans?


Me: I’m waiting.

Grace: Well – that’s different.

Me: Why – because different rules apply to you, than the rest of the world?

Silence. She’s still undercover.

Me: I ask you again: would you ask your daughter to do that on such short notice, then blow up if she had other plans?

I can see squirming under the blanket.

Grace: Well, I guess not.

Me: You guess not? C’mon – get real.

Grace: Okay, then – I wouldn’t. I mean, of course not: especially my daughter.

Me: So?

Grace: But she expects it of me! To her, it’s what a good daughter would do! And I’m not a good daughter! (Pause) And there’s something else, too.

Me: And what is that?

Grace: I told her about you. I mean – she got it out of me.

Me: You make it sound like a police confession.

Grace: Well, it is, kind of. (Pause) She . . . kind of . . . figured it out.

Me: What do you mean, figured it out?

Grace: When I said No to the pet-sitting, she said, “Something’s wrong here: what’s going on in your life, that you would talk to me like this?” (Pause) So – I told her. (Pulls covers back over head)

Me: You mean, she didn’t know all along that you were seeing a therapist?

Grace: No – how could I tell her? She would just think I was talking trash about her. (Pause) And, besides, then she would grill me about it every week. (Pause) And – I kind of am.

Me: Am what?

Grace: Talking trash about her.

Me: That’s unfair to yourself – you’re just trying to find yourself, and if that sometimes involves facing the truth about her, well, what else can you do? The truth is the truth.

Grace: But she doesn’t believe in the truth: she just believes in her truth. (Throws blanket off – picks up purse and stands up) I . . . I can’t do this anymore . . . I can’t take it anymore . . . I have to . . . get things back to normal! (Begins to walk out)

Note: It’s different this time than the last time she started to walk out. This time, I feel she may need to go through with it, at least for the moment. I want it to be her choice to continue, if she does. But I also want her to know I still care.

Me: Grace – are you sure you want to do this?

Grace: I’m not sure of anything – that’s why I have to get out of this and just let everything just go back the way it was. (On the way out, she makes almost desperate eye contact with me for an instant, then walks out, closing the door)

At this point, my biggest concern is that she might do something impulsive, to harm herself. It is not like before, when she would have been walking out before even starting therapy: by this point, I know she knows the ‘truth’, and knows I am on her side. I’m frustrated, but at the same time, I understand: to go towards the truth, when it seems to be bringing disaster with it, is a hard, hard thing, and sometimes people can’t do it in a linear way.

Sometimes, they have to go (what looks like) two steps back. I know that, by now, even if Grace stops therapy, she has come too far to ever go back completely to ‘the way it was’ – she has an inner strength that is impressive, and even though she doesn’t know it’s there, it’s there.

I am not going to ‘force the issue’ at this point, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan: I’m going to give her some space, and make sure she knows I am still available, am not ‘mad’ at her for leaving, and am still in her corner. It’s important that she know she has not “disappointed” me, as she always feels with her mother: I am proud of her for coming as far as she has, and I stand ready to help her puzzle this thing out, even if it means talking ‘outside of therapy’ in some way, without a commitment to therapy.

As I said earlier, the most important thing is that our interaction be for her benefit, not to please me or to avoid alienating me (i.e. an echo of what happens with her mother): if therapy is defined as my ‘thing’, not hers, then I will have failed, even if she comes back to therapy.

Did I make a mistake by not being more forceful in influencing her to stay? Will her mother’s pull be more powerful than the working relationship we have established so far? And what does all this have to do with forgiveness?

For now, it’s a waiting game, while “ignorant armies clash by night” inside of her. This ‘clash’ of primitive forces, this squirming under the blanket of emotional imperatives, is what therapy is all about. This is the cutting edge of change, and it’s never easy, or predictable.

A patient once yelled at me, in anger,

You dragged me out into the middle of a race track, with cars whizzing past me at 200 miles an hour. How am I supposed to survive out here, alone? Damn you!

And two days later, the same patient said,

If it wasn’t for your faith in me, I’d still be a little girl, afraid of my own shadow. Thanks to you, I’m becoming a grown woman: for the first time in my life, I feel proud of myself.

Which of these two statements was true?

Both of them.

Grace was at a fork in the road. Which path would she take? And what would the rest of her journey look like?

I didn’t know. I just knew that if I continued to believe in her, and demonstrate that belief to her, she had a chance to become herself, someday.

Continued in: A Journey to Forgiveness, Part III: Crossroads.





















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

A Journey To Forgiveness, Part I: First Steps










To err is human – to forgive divine…

Alexander Pope

Well, Al, I know you were a Pope, but for most of us, the closest we’ll ever get to divinity is corn syrup, eggs and sugar. So let’s take a whack at what forgiveness actually is, and what attaining it is all about,  for real people in real life. We’ll use the topic of parents today, because parents are a common target of resentment and suppressed rage, and therefore a common subject for forgiveness. We could use bosses, landlords, ex-spouses, abusers, or anyone a patient (or other human) might hate or hold a grudge against, but resentment against parents is so universal, it’s a handy set of ‘training wheels’, for starters.

To begin with, most patients come into therapy with an attitude something like this:

I know my parents did some things wrong, but we all, do, right? Besides, they tried their best. So how do I stop holding all that stuff against them and just let it go, already?

Easy there, Pilgrim: I can see that you want me to just hand you a card that reads, “Go Directly to Forgiveness – Do Not Pass Go, do not collect $200.” I wish it were that easy, but unfortunately you do have to pass Go to get there. Religious wishful thinking to the contrary, you can’t just go straight from the thought to the done deal.

Penance won’t do it.

Brow-beating won’t do it.

Primal screams won’t do it.

Prayer won’t do it – not prayer alone, not in any real, meaningful way.

You have to earn it, by traveling each step on the emotional road, from the original injury to the present day effects of it – and by ‘traveling each step’, I mean going a step at a time, and traveling it consciously. And what does ‘consciously’ mean? It means feeling your way through it, ideally with a witness (Good Therapist, Good Therapist, to the orange courtesy phone, please!) helping you make sense of it all. It means Claiming what happened, fully and freely.

But enough talk – let’s dive in and actually go through the whole process of how Grace, a patient of mine many years ago, got to forgiveness. And although we all have different journeys, Grace’s ‘stations of the cross’ (i.e. the steps of her journey) are representative of what it’s like for almost anyone to take the journey to forgiveness, a journey that, as we’ll see, is part of the journey to self.

My first contact with Grace (though I didn’t know it, initially) came via checking my voicemail.

Please enter your PIN, followed by the pound key.

I did so.

You have five new messages. To get your messages, press 1.

Being no dummy, I pressed 1.

First new voice message, received today at 5:52 P.M. :


Hmmm – must’ve been a wrong number.

Second new voice message, received today at 5:53 P.M.:


Hmmm, they must have thought they mis-dialed.

Third new voice message, received today at 5:54 P.M.:


Hmm – my my, what have we here? Hesitancy? Shame? Fear? Well, maybe the fourth time’ll be a  charm:

Fourth new voice message, received today at 5:55 P.M. :

Uh, Doctor . . . .Click.

Hmmm: Dr. Click, Dr. Click – paging Dr. Click!

Well, I crossed my fingers that on the next call, she would give me enough contact information so that I could at least talk her through her initial hesitation, whatever it was. By now, I was rooting for her: making that first call is one of the hardest things in the world for someone to do; I already respected her for making it, and I didn’t want to miss the precious opportunity that it represented – for her.

Fifth new voice message, received today at 5:56 P.M. :

Uh, Doctor . . . . Doctor Bernstein? Could you call me, please? Grace, at (She gave her phone number) . . . . I, uh, I, uh, . . .oh well . . . .Click.

Go, Gracie! We were in business! At this point, in my mind, I’m the Coast Guard: I’ve received an SOS, and it’s my job to see to it that the caller gets headed towards help, as soon as possible, whether it’s going to be with me or not. Like I said before, that first call is tenuous, tentative, and very, very precious. From the perspective of having been a therapist for decades, I know all too well that how I handle it now can make the difference not just between life and death, but between life and a death in life. To reach that crisis point, finally ask for help, and then get no response, or an uninterested response (Sorry, my practice is full – Click), or to hook up with a dud therapist, literally can make all the difference between going on indefinitely in misery, or a life that was meaningful and well-lived.

I dialed the number she gave.

Grace: Hello?

Me: Hello – this is Dr. Bernstein.

Grace: Oh, uh, Hi, Doctor. I’m not really, uh, that is . . .

Me:That’s okay – I know it’s hard to call, and hard to talk, right now. How about you just tell me what’s going on today, that brought you to ask for help?

Grace: Oh – oh, okay, then: I had this fight with my mother, well, Momma, that’s what I call her – this, uh, big fight.

Me: When you say ‘big’, do you . . .

Grace: Oh no, no – nothing like that. But it was bad, you know – pretty bad. And it’s been bad for a long, long time. . . .

Me: And you thought it might make sense to talk to somebody about why it all happens, and what it all means?

Grace: Something like that . . . yeah, well actually – that’s it, exactly.

Me: So, would you be willing to come in and see me, so we can actually meet, and then I can see what you need, and help you find what you need?

Grace: Oh, well sure, I guess so. (Pause) But, do you think I really need . . .

Me: Well, I really don’t know anything right now – that’s why I’d like to have a chance to sit down with you and see and hear it all from you in person. Then I’ll have a better idea what’s going on, and what you need. Okay?

Grace: Okay.

We made an appointment for an afternoon the following week. Would she keep it, given her hesitation? I didn’t know, but I knew one thing: I was going to be there.


Next week:

I walked into the waiting room to find an attractive woman (girl?) in her mid-twenties, looking distracted and preoccupied, twisting her fingers together and staring at the floor. She had on a dark green hoodie with the hood up over black hair, big sunglasses, no makeup and a long, dark skirt that came down to her black, engineer-type boots. She had a tattoo of Snow White on one arm, and a grinning skull on the other one: hmmm. If you made me call it something, I would call the look Depressed Half-Goth.

Me: Hello there – c’mon in. I’m really glad you were able to make it. (That tells her, hopefully, two things: that I know it was hard, and that, for me, it’s not just, “Next!”. But I could see she was too preoccupied to pick up on anything at the moment.)

Grace: (Taking a seat, looking around the office dubiously, scared – no eye contact) . . . (sighs) . . . So, yeah, well . . .

Me: When we talked, it sounded like there was a lot going on . . . (I deliberately drift off, leaving the thought for her to complete, if she will, and knowing that she probably has already down-shifted, emotionally, from the ‘crisis point’ when she got up the nerve to call; now, in the ‘cold light of day’, when she’s actually facing the help she asked for, will she still have enough oomph to carry through with it?)

Grace: Yeah, well (still looking around the office, clearly hesitant and conflicted, twisting her fingers again) . . . Things were really bad last week.

Me: (Nodding) Yes – I could hear that.

Grace: But, you know, I think we cleared it all up. Momma . . .well, she apologized (looks down),  well, not really apologized, but . . .

Me: You mean, like, it blew over, and now you’re supposed to let it all go and act normal again?

Grace: (Smiling ruefully, in recognition) So – I guess you’ve heard all this before, huh?

Me: Well, I’ve heard things like it, but never from you – and I’m interested in you. (N.B.: the patient wants to know you’ve ‘heard it all before’, but also wants to know it’s not routine for you.)

Grace: Well, things aren’t really ‘back to normal’ inside me, to tell you the truth. Something’s changed, and I can’t . . . can’t . . .

Me: Just flip a switch and be a good girl again?

Grace: (Nods, closing her eyes tightly, starting to cry, but trying to stop it)

Me: (I wait quietly – I know what’s coming.)

Grace: Dr. B, do you think I’m – I mean, is it bad for someone, you know, to . . .


Me:To what, Grace?


Grace: (Slumping in the chair, looking down, defeated) Nothing.

Me: To feel hurt, and angry, when you’ve been hurt? No, it’s not bad – it’s just human.

Grace: (Still looking down) But she says (swallows, hard) . . .

Me: (Gentle, now – this is brain surgery) She says what?

Grace: Well, she says . . . that I’m over-dramatizing everything, that I’m oversensitive. (Looks up, hopefully) You know?

Me: (Nodding) Yeah – I think I know. You’re supposed to ‘understand’, and not be hurt, and get back to normal, like it never happened. (Pause) Something like that?

Grace: (Nods, dejectedly) Yeah – that’s about right. (Pause) So then, why do I always feel . . . (trails off) . . .

Me: Guilty? Bad?

Grace: (Nodding, looking down with eyes closed) Yes, but it’s more than that. I’m almost scared to say what I really feel. (Pause) As far as me, yeah, I feel bad and guilty, but as far as her, well . . .(face gets red) . . .

Me: As far as her – what?

Grace: Well, that’s what I came in about. I’m starting to wish . . .you know . . .

Me: (Waiting – allowing her to get it out in her own time)

Grace: Well, it sounds horrible to say it. (Pause) Even to think it. (Looks at me)

Me: Go on. (I can’t rush her here – this is important. Sure, I could try to complete her sentence, but then it’s me saying it, not her.)

Grace: Okay, I’ll just blurt it out: Sometimes I wish she was dead, and I was rid of her, for once and for all! (Holds head in hands) Isn’t that terrible? My own mother! (Pause) I’ve even prayed for it! (Pause) I mean, here, she gave me life, and here I am wishing her dead. (Rocking in the chair, head down) Sometimes, it seems like the only way out is to either kill myself, or kill her. (Pause) Am I sick? Am I crazy? Or just an ugly person?

Me: Well, this may not answer your questions, but this is what I’m thinking as you talk: It sounds like there’s something your mother’s doing that makes it feel like it’s either her reality, or yours. So, in order for you to be a good daughter, you have to deny your own reality, and in order for you to believe in your own reality, you would have to cut her off and be a bad daughter. (Pause) Not much of a choice. It reminds me of the old Westerns, where someone says, “This town’s not big enough for the two of us.” Like, one of you has to go: you can’t claim your own life without being considered a bad person, and you can’t be a good person without denying yourself – at least in her view of things, which you seem to have accepted.

Grace: Yes – I’m trapped no matter which way I turn, and I end up just one big blob.

Me: Blob?

Grace: Yes, a blob – and more. I feel like a jellyfish, Doctor – like a big blob that just. . .you know, blobs around . . .

Me: (Smiling sympathetically) Yeah, I can see that. I may just have to have you arrested for having no visible means of support.

Grace: (Smiling, a tiny bit, clearly surprised, and unsure, at the humor) Well, you’d be within your rights. (Pause) Am I hopeless?

Me: (Smiling) Ohhh, I think we might be able to salvage a tiny bit of spine from all that jelly, if we look hard enough. (Pause) Don’t you?

Grace: I used to think I had a personality, and even some talent, but now . . .

Me: It’s like it all got pounded out of you? (Pause)

Grace: (Nods)

Me: (Smiling) Or maybe it just leaked out through the jelly?

Grace: (Smiles, biting her lip, then giggles) Yeah – like, maybe they should stamp ‘Smuckers’ on my forehead, so people will know what to expect.

Me: You mean, like truth in advertising?

Grace: (Laughing, with obvious relief, while covering her mouth in conflict about laughing) Yes, exactly.


In the following sessions, Grace began to explain to me “How it works” in her family:

Me: So, you live alone?

Grace: I do now.

Me: What do you mean, ‘now’?

Grace: I mean Momma threw me out.

Me: Of her . . .

Grace: Apartment – yeah, in the City (i.e. San Francisco).

Me: Go on.

Grace: She said I was being ‘disrespectful’ because I . . .(drops her head down)

Me: It’s okay – I really want to hear.

Grace: (Shaking her head ‘No’) It’s too embarrassing.

Me: It’s okay.

Grace: (Angry) No, it’s not okay! (Pounds her fist down on the chair, starts crying, gathers her things and rises to leave)

Me: Please – don’t do that.

Grace: (Still getting up, but slowly) There’s no point – can’t you see there’s no point? There’s no point in anything!

Me: (Standing up halfway) Please – please don’t leave, Grace . . . we can work on this. (Note: this is a crucial move – I had to decide between, reluctantly, letting her leave for the moment, which could have been her first act of ‘defiance’ of me, which could have been interpreted as a healthy show of spirit, or ‘begging’ her to stay, which could be an exact (and healing) contradiction of her mother’s insisting that she leave: it’s important that she see I am willing to fight for her, and that it’s not about ‘being a good patient’ i.e. staying in therapy, but rather our being a team, on her behalf.)

Grace: (Vacillates, then sits down again, looking defeated). See – I just do what everyone tells me to do. (Wan smile) A human jellyfish.

Does this mean I ‘blew it’? I don’t think so, though it’s possible: I think she’s testing me by guilt-tripping me about ‘making her stay’, to see what I do with it (i.e. do I pout or get defensive?) – I don’t think she really believes what she just said – she’s seeing whether I’ll stay in team with her when she takes a shot at me, or show my ‘true colors’ by flashing some ego.

Me: I think you decided to stay. (Pause) I think you had the guts to stay. (Pause) And I admire you for it, because it was your decision, not mine.

Grace: (Skeptically – looking at me slantwise, head down, eyes up) Do you mean that?

Me: You mean, did I say it because I ‘have to’ say stuff like that to my patients?

Grace: (Unsure) Well, it is possible, you know.

Me: (Shrugging) Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not true: if I’m not honest with you, you’ll never know when I’m telling you the truth and when I’m full of shit. (Pause – looking her in the eye) As it happens, everything I just said was true.

Grace: (Big sigh) And everything I said was true, too.

Me: You mean, like how it feels like there’s no point to anything?

Grace: I mean, like how there is no point to anything!

(Note: The fact that she’s now ready and willing to move on the ‘main event’, i.e. her hopelessness about her life, tells me I did the right thing by making her stay, and that I ‘passed the test’ by how I handled the phony guilt-trip, too: if my ‘forcing her to stay’ was really an issue, she would be shut down now instead of ready to move on to deeper water, like this. Remember, there are always at least two threads going on: what she is telling me, per se, and what is happening between us, in real time, and they are both crucial.)

So here it is – since I passed the last test, I get another one: what am I going to do with her aggressive statement that there is no point to anything, and the implied undertext of suicide? Do I show panic by immediately starting to ask her the ‘correct’ clinical questions of a suicide assessment?:

Do you think about suicide?

Do you have a plan?

If I do this, it will telegraph to her that her statement scared me, and that I feel I need to ‘cover my ass’ by getting my legal ducks in a row: this is not to say that there aren’t times for this, and these questions could be coming from genuine concern, but not at this point, not with this woman. She is testing me by throwing a scary, intense statement out there.

Remember, her mother is always telling her she is overdramatic, and oversensitive: therefore, it is critical that I ‘roll with the punches’ when she gets more dramatic like this – I have to show that, while I do care, it also doesn’t scare me, and that she is not ‘too much’ for me. I need to take it seriously, but not too seriously, and also remain calm and level in my response, so that it is still ‘about’ her, not me.

I have to track all of this, in real time, and I have to get it right: this is the real ‘therapy’ – not the words she is saying.

So, back to our session . . .

Grace: I mean, like how there is no point to anything!

Me: You sound angry.

Grace: (Angrily) Angry!? When I just said there’s no point to anything?

Note: She is mad that I didn’t ‘take the bait’ she threw out there, by either panicking or accusing her of being overdramatic, in response to her intensity. People are used to what they’re used to: when you don’t do what they’re used to, they get mad and confused, even if they hate what they’re used to, and even if what you did is the ‘right thing’.

What she knows about ‘caring’ is this: when she’s intense, the other person is overwhelmed, or mad, or turns the focus back on themselves. Since I didn’t do any of these, it feels like I “don’t care”. She is used to getting the ‘big response’ from Mom, and there is a form of power, and predictability, in that: even though she hates that pattern, she is unable to recognize, or ‘take in’, that she did get a response from me, because my response was about her, not me.

At this point, she doesn’t have a ‘place’ (inside her) for it to be about her – my job is to create that psychological ‘place’ (like planting a seed) and then to fill it in with repeated experiences of it being about her (watering the seed).

Me; Yes, when you just said there’s no point to anything.

Grace: (Still frustrated) Aren’t you going to do anything?

Me: If you want to talk about how your life feels pointless, I’m definitely interested in hearing all about it. But if you want me to try and dismiss what you’re saying, or get all upset about it, I can’t help you there.

Grace: (Staring at me, shaking her head slowly) I don’t get you. (Pause) You call this caring?

Me: Yes – I call this caring. (Pause) Why – does it seem weird?

Grace: Weird? Definitely. (Long pause) Did you mean what you said?

Me: About what?

Grace: About wanting to hear about my life feeling pointless?

Me: Absolutely.

Grace: But, what good will that do?

Me: I don’t know – let’s try it and see.

There wasn’t much time left in the session, but she did talk to me about how empty she felt, how she felt like she was watching her own life ‘from the outside’, about how she sometimes used alcohol, or marijuana, to get through time and “make the bad things go away”.

I listened intently, giving her the experience I mentioned earlier, of it being about her, not me, and though she still couldn’t really ‘take it in’, she talked to me about herself, freely and spontaneously, for the first time – not as a ‘good patient’, or waiting for me to give the answers, but just to share and feel understood – brand new experiences for her.

She did not recognize this, and I didn’t mention it, but this is what creates ‘the place’ inside.

We were getting somewhere.

Next: A Journey To Forgiveness, Part II: Grace Under Fire.



























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