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The View from the Gristmill

watermelon

Watermelon image courtesy of purpleslog

 

“I spent all yesterday putting together holiday gift bags and had one left over.”

“I bought you this restaurant gift card to express my thanks for the consultation.”

“I just finished making cookies, and so I brought a few for you.”

Every now and then a client presents me with a gift. I debate instituting an official No Gifts policy to avoid the therapeutic work these offerings demand. On the other hand, these moments can open a window for me to model healthy boundaries or discuss the meanings behind the gifts in ways which provide grist for good therapy.

Don’t be fooled by this fancy-sounding talk. I am a chicken. Sometimes I want to be an ostrich. As much as I would like to be a peacock, I know these presents are not always an indication of my stellar counseling abilities; and I try to overcome my fear of ruffling feathers for the good of my counselees.

I realize that some offers are uncomplicated gestures of thanks. But many are not. Some represent a discomfiting gesture of familiarity. Other times, the giving is an attempt to seek my reassurance or trap me in a tacit contract. Use your imagination, and you will be spot on.

The art of discernment is one I will never completely master.

She–and it is usually a she–may be asking if I like her. Is she is special to me? Will I will think about her when she is not before me? Do I love her? Do I love, love her?

She may not believe she alone is enough to hold my interest. Or what if she has to soften my burden in trying to help someone so defective? Is money enough to make her tolerable?

Is she is just a paycheck to me?

She may be trying to secure a better outcome…Will I work harder if she provides me with added incentive? Maybe I’ll work on commission. Can she extract more-more-more benefit faster-faster-faster if I feel beholden?

It could be that she doesn’t even see me as a real person with feelings (yet?) but experiences a self-absorbed need to give, perhaps compulsively or lavishly, to maintain her fragile belief in her own goodness. Or maybe she needs to remind me that I am a subordinate, a sort of emotional manicurist whose services she can take or leave.

This week I was offered the following:

1. A single, perfect melon from a client who works 80 hours a week to pay off her children’s gambling debts.

2. A gift-wrapped calendar, printed from home, whose artwork had been created by one half of a couple in long-term therapy to manage anxiety and depression without drug dependency and codependency. The creator of the calendar expressed surprise coupled with approval at his wife’s presentation of this gift.

3. A ticket to a motivational speaking event from a client who came to therapy to work on her painful relationship with her adult daughter and who moves to capture me in a hug at the end of every session. She and her spouse are the featured speakers.

I won’t disclose how I handled each instance of gifting. I will leave it to your imagination.

I will say that I have accepted a hand-knit scarf, a tangerine, and some amazing whiskey-infused brownies. I will also say that I have declined a zebra print makeup bag, a silk scarf; and, session after session, the most fraught offer of a stick of gum in the history of mankind.

I am curious. What would you have done?

This post belongs in the series Therapy Tales.

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The Last Time I Saw Hanna

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

October 20, 2015

I do not believe I have it in me to write this with eloquence. I am just going to tell it. I am weary this week, and relating this ending draws on scant reserves. Please view my friends with compassion. I will put some links to prior posts in blue in case you have not been following along and want to read this in context.

As Hanna and Niko packed to leave our home for good, Hanna made one final request:

“On the day of our flight, will you drive ahead of me to the airport?”

She was afraid she would get lost on the way to the airport and cause them to miss their flight.

I agreed.

Since our friends would be returning after all, they packed only what they needed for the next 10 days and left the rest of their belongings in our basement apartment.

Hanna and Niko pulled out of the driveway with the dream of salvaging their vacation. They had wised up and escaped our false friendship and the “jail” of our basement.

I breathed a bit easier.

A few days later, Henry and I realized we all needed to get away for a few days of rest. We decided to visit my mother in the country, three hours away. I reminded Henry of my promise: I had to be back by 11:00 a.m. on Sunday to make sure they got off safely. We drove separately.

I returned early as planned. I waited in the ancient green wing chair, trying to avoid feeling the horse hair poking out of the arm rests.

Hanna did not come. Noon came and went, and still no Hanna. By 1:00, I was pacing. Hanna had no phone, and I had no idea where they were staying. I am not entirely ashamed to admit that while I was concerned for their well being, by this point in the summer, I was most terrified by the possibility that something would prevent their return to Germany; and we would be left as their only financial, emotional, and logistical supports. I knew their financial resources had to be perilously low.

Around 1:15, I heard a key in the lock. The door popped open, and Hanna nearly fell into the entryway. She was frantic. And this is a woman who always keeps her cool.

“I forgot what day it was.”

Niko had tried to tell her their flight was that day, and she had shushed him. Why? Because he was psychotic. She had assumed he was confused. Hanna had known it was only Saturday. At least, until she had left the hotel room to buy milk. She had happened to look at the receipt as she was putting it in her wallet.

Hanna ran down to the basement and began throwing things into bags.

Here is what I learned about how they had spent the last 10 days of their much anticipated vacation. (These are the days they had tacked onto their visit to our home, against our express wishes, in the certainty that 10 more days would enable them to do all the sightseeing which had not been possible in the first 32 days due to my refusal to loan Niko my laptop. I am uncertain how they could have been so sure of their plan, if the success of their vacation indeed hinged on the matter of the computer, as they had left our home with the same number of electronic devices they had had when they arrived–zero. I don’t know why I even mention this as it is, by now, clear that many things about that month did not make sense.)

Our friends had left our house and headed to a Best Western in a nearby town. In no time at all, Niko had completed his disintegration into psychosis and had been unable or unwilling to leave their room. His unrepentant chain smoking in a non-smoking room had not gone unnoticed. The consequent eviction was troublesome but in the end, Hanna managed to get Niko to leave without out (much) police intervention. I am ever thankful he complied, which you will understand if you are familiar with some of the ways things can go wrong when the police are not properly trained in working with the mentally ill.

And so Hanna and Niko finished their vacation in a small, smoke-filled room. Hanna ran out quickly for food now and then, but that was her only relief. Niko hadn’t really been sleeping, and Hanna had stayed up nearly around the clock to keep an eye on him.

I helped Hanna carry the bags out to the car. Niko was waiting. As I approached the car, Niko approached me. His hair was a stringy mess, and he reeked of body odor and cigarettes. He did not much resemble my jovial friend as he shoved his fist under my nose.

“Stop trying to manipulate my wife or you will have to answer to me!”

I don’t think I answered back. I was too scared. As Hanna and I headed back to the house for one last check, I asked her, “Do you think he would actually hurt me?” I had never been on the receiving end of this type of threat.

Hanna had always insisted Niko would never, ever, hurt a fly, even when psychotic. At their 2006 visit, she had remained unruffled as he roamed the house, muttering. This time, she shrugged. She had too many worries to hold my hand. “Well, I think you never really know.”

In a very short time, I was going to be behind the wheel of a car bearing a corpulent psychotic man who had just threatened to flatten me. I knew that if I were to ask my therapist colleagues, they would advise me to keep my distance. So I wasn’t asking them. I knew I was going to bank on the history of the friendship and take my chances.

Hanna encouraged Niko back into their rental car and followed me to the car return near the airport.

I pulled over onto the shoulder of the busy access road and put on the flashers. I was afraid to follow her into the lot lest I be unable to exit without difficulty. Time was of the essence. Hanna told Niko to get into the back seat of my car and wait. He was unhappy to be left with me but she promised she would be back soon. Hanna drove through the gate, down a long drive, and disappeared from sight.

Niko, restless and uninterested in conversation, exited the car. I was afraid of him. I was also afraid for him. I loved him, and he had been a good friend. What if he walked into traffic? What if he wandered off, and got into some other trouble? As it turned out, he only wanted to heed the call of nature—in full view of passing motorists.

“Oh God,” I thought, “let him not attract notice!” We were at a major airport, after all, and security came and went every few minutes. After taking care of business, Niko took off at a clip towards the car rental place in search of Hanna. I called to him but he kept going.

After some time, he and Hanna returned. It was as though the sun had come out. Niko was happy to see me! He was very chatty as he hopped into the back of my car.

“We’re going on the Space Taxi! You and Henry and the girls are coming too, right? Where are they?”

“I’m so sorry, Niko. They are at home. We weren’t able to get tickets,” I explained, hoping to keep things light. My heart filled.

Once in the terminal, Niko continued to speak nonsense. It was was German and Greek nonsense, so nobody was any the wiser as they checked their bags. I hoped his gently-elevated mood would last until they arrived safely in Germany.

I tried to engage Hanna while we watched Niko wander here and there for a few minutes, taking in the airport. Our talk was strained. She did ask: “Tell me the truth. How bad do I look?”

I was honest. “Bad.”

“We saved for this vacation for so long. I was run down when we arrived. I can’t even imagine how shitty I look now. “

What could I say to that?

“I dread the questions I’m going to get when I go back to work,” she went on.

“Yes.”

It was time.

We hugged. I reassured Niko we would see each other again.

And then they were gone.

I felt taut for several hours after their scheduled departure time. I kept expecting a call saying Niko had not been allowed to board or that the pilot had been forced to land. Relief of a sort, came by midnight; however, I maintained a degree of numbness and denial for months leading up to my depression.

I learned later that Hanna had taken Niko directly from the airport to the mental hospital. In her letter, when it finally did arrive, she told me how proud she was of Niko, that he had still been “himself” enough to manage until she had shepherded him safely to the hospital. “No thanks to you,” was heavily implied.

You know most of what came next.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. The prior post in the story is here.

Hanna Goes M.I.A.

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Niko is a good man, an intelligent man, an interesting man, and a gregarious man.

So far, so good.

Niko is also a man of great appetites, a man with high expectations, a man who insists upon his creature comforts, and a man who has trouble taking “no” for an answer.

In other words, Niko is high maintenance.

I’m not sure I would have sought Niko’s friendship if not for the fact of his marriage to my best friend, Hanna, but we had become close. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize how much I had Hanna to thank for brokering the relationship. And how hard I had worked at it because of my love for her.

When it came to Niko, I took my lead from Hanna. Niko suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What if I had not been able to distinguish personality quirks from manifestations of illness? I trusted her completely when she explained what he required; and why he could or couldn’t manage this, that, or the other. I imbibed deeply when both of them told stories of his traumatic childhood and his continued mistreatment at the hands of, well, just about everyone. Almost no one understood him, evidently. He was special. He was fragile. He needed preferential treatment. I never questioned this. It was just this way.

I have voiced negative sentiments about triangulation but in this instance, I found it helpful that Hanna could translate Niko to me and visa versa. Hanna had gladly assumed the roles of spouse and caregiver; and the title of caregiver called for stints as go-between, mouthpiece, and champion. Due to her more stable mood and reliable judgment, she was also their family C.E.O. C.O.O., and C.F.O.

It was natural for her to advocate for Niko. On the other hand, Hanna had a good sense for the times when Niko wasn’t living up to his potentials. She knew when and how hard to push. Hanna knew when Niko needed a reality check–both figuratively and literally–and when the best medicine was a good swift kick in the ass. When we spent time together, we made a nice little three-legged stool. I didn’t realize that Hanna’s leg was about to give out.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, I briefed Hanna on my decision not to allow Niko to use my laptop. She wished I had told them sooner, and she anticipated his upset. But she saw my point and agreed the decision was a fair one. I breathed easier knowing she understood I did not mean harm. I counted on her to help Niko towards acceptance and to help me work towards a solution.

Learning of my decision, Niko was quick to embark on a campaign to charm or cow me into giving over my computer. Failing to win my submission, he continued to needle me throughout the visit. Now and again he lobbed some outright grenades.

As far as I could tell, Hanna left him to it.

In past years, Hanna had made it her habit to help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. This visit was different, and I am coming to a place of greater kindness regarding what felt like an abandonment. I am more in touch with my feeling of ownership as well, that vague twinge of security in thinking that Niko had her on loan during those months and years when we could not see one another. A few years removed from our unhappy end, I am especially able to appreciate how exhausted and broken she must have been when she arrived hoping—knowing, really–that J.A.N.E. spelled H.O.M.E. She had needed a safe haven for care and recovery.

Hanna had attained middle age, and the demands upon her had only increased. I had witnessed over several years how hard she had worked in a physically-demanding hourly position to give Niko as much as she could. Her steadfast provision had taken a harsh toll. Either our friends lacked support at home or they had rejected the terms of this support; and so providing for Niko’s essentials and extras frequently meant breaking the bank, her back, or both. I have thought often about how spent, betrayed and alone my dear Hanna must have felt that summer, and I will say more about this in time.

Without Hanna’s help, I was hard pressed to manage my family, the household and my part-time counseling job, let alone attend Niko in the fashion he desired.

Sociable between rounds and ever in need of conversation, Niko set up court on the patio with his coffee and smokes. He loved the peace and quiet, and this is where he lived when he wasn’t in the basement—at least until relations between us went from iffy to rancid. He was without his default entertainment, the computer, and was not often able to muster the energy to leave the house.

When Niko asked, early in their stay, why I was avoiding him and why I never made time to talk, I was at a loss. As taxed as I felt, I had been making a point of spending time with him daily. In fact, I was spending more time with him than I was with anyone else, and our children were starting to grumble. He seemed to have forgotten our pre-visit talks and the fact that I was no longer the stay-at-home mother of small children.

Hanna failed to show up in my defense. There was none of her humorous chiding: Niko, don’t be an ass. She spent two hours with you this morning over breakfast. Jane has other things to do besides entertain you, you big lug.

In her absence, he pouted, hounded, and accused. And not always subtly.

One time, further into their visit, Hanna and Niko arrived home after a long night at their new favorite hangout, a biker bar in a nearby town. They had taken to sleeping until about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., puttering around the basement apartment, going to the bar until closing, and then having drinks with the owner for a few more hours. Since their arrival, Niko had not had the stamina to do much outside the house; and I imagine this outlet helped him meet his social needs while assuring minimal contact with my family.

This particular night, something had gone wrong with our refrigerator and the kitchen had flooded. Tired and seeing no effective way to help, Hanna passed through the kitchen with a sympathetic glance. The moment Niko walked through the door, however, he began bailing and mopping as though possessed. Wide-eyed and alarmingly animated, he told a disjointed story about spewing sewage. He appeared to be seeing it in real time. Worried, I shared with Hanna my suspicion that he was becoming psychotic.

The following day, when the two of them ambled up to the kitchen, Niko launched a sudden verbal assault. His rage caught me off guard. My legs turned to rubber, and I gripped the table to keep from going down.

How dare you talk behind my back? How dare you tell tales about me? How DARE you tell Hanna I was psychotic? I was recounting a story which actually happened when our building’s sewage system backed up into our apartment last year! You knew that! I had told you about it!

Where was Hanna? Three feet from us, looking quietly away.

I explained that I must have misunderstood. I tried to explain. I apologized profusely. I thought that all those years had earned me the benefit of the doubt; but they had accrued no interest, and my account was overdrawn. I knew that day that Hanna would no longer keep my confidence.

When it became apparent, not long after the flooding incident, that Niko was indeed on the verge of a break, Hanna actually spoke these words to me. They were intended as solace: Don’t feel too bad. I’ve made him relapse before too.

The hardest part may have been Hanna’s final vanishing act.

About ten days before their scheduled departure, Hanna approached me quietly: Niko wants to re-book the flight for a later date. What do you think?

My response was a diplomatic but firm N.O. I was concerned for myself and my family. I was concerned for Niko’s mental health. I was concerned for Hanna’s job. Her boss had been upset at the length of her original vacation request.

Hanna stated her agreement. She said she was relieved to have her own views validated, and she would just have to break it to Niko.

A few days later, Niko invited me to the basement apartment for a discussion. He informed me (informed) that he and Hanna had decided to extend their stay. Not having the use of my computer had set them back, he said, but he was certain that 10 more days would be sufficient for them to do all the traveling and sightseeing they had originally planned. He knew they could still make the trip a success.

Hanna was as quiet as a church mouse.

I stayed calm. I explained why I thought this idea was likely to lead to further disappointment. If four weeks had not been long enough to get him out of the house for sightseeing, what made him think 10 more days would do the trick?

Hanna remained silent.

I explained why I thought this was a risky plan.

Hanna remained silent.

I said that though it pained me greatly, I would not be able to support their plan. I told them they had to leave the house as agreed.

They extended. Hanna extended.

For several tense days, I watched and waited. There were no signs of packing. I didn’t know what to do.

On the evening of their original departure date, there was still no movement, and I was desperate. I was halfway through my preparations for a late dinner when Hanna emerged from the basement to issue Niko’s invitation for a Greek dinner out.

I can see myself standing stupidly with the pizza dough in my hands.

Niko wants to leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I declined. The situation felt surreal.

She continued: But Niko has been trying to take you guys out ever since we got here. He saved up his money for a long time to treat you. He will be so hurt.

Disbelieving, I responded: Yes. But we have had this discussion again and again. I told him several times that we would love to go but we really need to make plans ahead of time and consider whether or not it is a school night. Niko likes to start planning at dinner time to go out the same night.

She retreated to the basement to deliver the bad news.

A short time later, Niko thumped up the stairs, wronged and angry.

I can’t believe that in the four weeks we have been here, you have never once been able to find one night to take me up on my invitation!

Again, I explained.

You will never guess what happened next: Hanna remained silent.

Soon I heard the sound of showering and a flurry of packing. My best friend and her husband departed around midnight. I guess you could say I kicked them out.

I saw them one last time before they left for Germany. I’m still debating whether or not to tell that story.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

Everlasting Gobstopper

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Below, I have typed out a typical after-dinner conversation during what I am going to designate the I Didn’t Inhale Stage of early childhood development. I pause here for a nod to Bill Clinton, who attempted to set voters’ minds at ease during his first run for the presidency by explaining that while he had smoked marijuana, he hadn’t actually inhaled.

Did your kids go through this stage too? Though mine never went on to argue the situational definition of the word is (Sorry, Bill. Couldn’t resist!), I admit to being quite impressed at their dexterity. I thought you had to have an advanced degree to perpetrate these types of mental gymnastics.

One of my daughters was particularly adept. I have no doubts about her character development but let’s just say that if she ever decides to go into business, you’d all better hold on to your wallets.

Daughter: May I have some dessert?

Me: Sure. (giving her the dessert)

Daughter: (contented silence follows, after which daughter looks up with messy face) May I have more dessert?

Me: No. I think you’ve had enough for now.

Daughter: But I didn’t like it.

Me: Oh. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.

Daughter: (decisive) No, I didn’t like it. So I want some more.

Me: No, honey.

Daughter: (becoming agitated) But I didn’t like it! I didn’t like it!

Many other variants on this conversation took place. Imagine my dragging a tantrumming child out of Chuck-E-Cheese after an adrenaline-filled morning of gambling. Uh–playing, playing! I meant to say playing. For crying out loud! What is wrong with you people?

Me: Time go home for lunch and a rest.

Daughter: But I didn’t have fun! I didn’t have fun!

I have mixed feelings as I recall those days. I see our children’s tears of disillusionment and hear their protests. Their distress was very real and surprisingly pure. My daughters cried out to me to right what they perceived as injustice as surely as they would have sought me if a bully had yanked the lollipops from their mouths or the Pokémon cards from their sweaty little hands.

How could the dessert be gone if they were not sated? How could play time be over if they had not grown tired of playing? I was supposed to be their savior. But my NO could easily have cast me as persecutor. I was such a meanie.

It’s funny to think about now. But probably only because this was a battle they never had a chance of winning. Thank goodness. Envision the sort of adults they might have become had their coups succeeded! I can imagine any number of “rules” they might have extrapolated from their experience. Here are a few which come immediately to mind:

  1. Your job is to make me happy.
  2. It’s not over until I say it’s over.
  3. I get to have my cake and eat it too.
  4. Life is supposed to be fair—and I get to define fair.
  5. I am a victim.
  6. You owe me.
  7. It’s all about me.
  8. I shouldn’t feel pain.
  9. Rules are for other people.
  10. You are responsible for my feelings.

I hadn’t thought about this brief period for years. I might have forgotten this stage altogether if not for the surprising Summer of 2011.

Niko: I know we agreed that Hanna and I would only stay for four weeks…but not having the use of your computer made it impossible for us to do the activities and see the sights we had wanted to. I am certain that if we just stay a few more weeks, we can accomplish the things we want to do and still make this vacation a success.

SO.

We’ve decided to extend our visit by a few weeks.

Is that ok?

Me: I understand your frustration but that won’t work for us. Whether or not you extend is your choice but you will still have to leave our house on the agreed-upon date. I’m sorry, the answer is no.

Niko: But I didn’t have fun.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna, a true tale of love, friendship, betrayal, loss, and aging. Hanna was my best friend for over 30 years. Until the Terrible Summer of 2011 when things went terribly awry. For the prior installment click here. For the next installment, click here.

Plan D

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

September, 2012

As Henry and I decided on some boundaries for our upcoming visit from Hanna and Niko, I made the decision to pilfer about 10 pounds of East Coast road maps and Guidebooks from our local AAA office. OK, OK. It actually involved my membership card and a lot of eye batting.

Niko enjoys researching but does not respond well to pressure, so I sent them to him in Germany months in advance. These would help him plan while Hanna was at work. They would also eliminate much of his need to use a computer during their extended stay. This was Plan A.

We blew through Plan A within a few hours of their arrival: Niko explained that he had felt too stressed to do any advance planning. He had not even looked at the materials. He needed my computer. Please.

Plan B was to ferry Niko to and from the public library each day. He would not consider it. He had had a humiliating experience while using a computer in an internet café, and the idea made him too anxious to contemplate. He needed my computer. Soon.

Plan C called upon the generosity of our youngest daughter, Claire. She had purchased a tiny netbook, and she offered it to Niko on loan. It was too slow and cranky to be of any real use. It was actually crap. He needed my computer. Now.

Do I sound like a good friend? Or do I sound like a patsy? Or maybe a martyr with whipped cream and a cherry on top? I was working hard to get Niko to a computer which was not mine, and part of my effort was motivated by cowardice. I dreaded turning Niko down, and all my planning was meant to minimize the fallout.

I could just have said, way back when, “We won’t have a computer for you to use, so please bring your laptop.” This never even occurred to me. This was probably due to reasons mentioned earlier.

I doubt this approach would have gone off as smoothly as one might hope. It would have tipped Niko off to the fact that the wind was shifting, and this would have precipitated the interrogation I was keen to avoid. But it would also have given him and Hanna time to set up proper accommodations–or conclude before plunking down thousands of dollars and boarding that plane that I was a sneaky, backbiting asshole who was encouraging their visit for the purpose of malice.

In any case, Niko declared he could not survive without a computer.

I declared I would not give him mine.

He was not satisfied with my no. Niko was determined that a compromised would be reached. And to be fair, why wouldn’t he? I had rarely, if ever, denied him any request reasonably within my power.

Niko pounded me with question after question about my work schedule, my home schedule, and my computer habits. He was certain he could get screen time without causing disruption to my routines. He worked tirelessly to open a loophole, and I worked tiredly to clamp them shut. I adhered robotically to my script: I need my computer for work. It is starting to fail. I can not afford to replace it.

My continued deflection, in the absence of reasons he deemed adequate, caused Niko to deduce that there must be More To The Story. The house vibrated with tension as our cat-and-mouse game escalated.

After a few days of relentless inquiry, I concluded that sticking to the script made me sound defensive and unfriendly. Niko’s illness lends itself to paranoia, and I did not want to feed it. We had always had an open give and take. I wondered if withholding the other reasons behind my refusal was tantamount to patronizing him, and that was never my intention. I concluded that our friendship deserved better. I didn’t want to come clean but…

I sought a private meeting.

Niko declined my request and then my appeals. He insisted I speak freely and that we have no secrets among us. I hoped that the intimacy and strength of our relationship over many years would suffice to remediate any damage my confession might cause.

This was not the case.

My concerns, however gentle, and my speculation, however tentative, were incredibly wounding. I spoke in German so that our children could not understand. However, they saw our faces and absorbed our emotion. Henry already knew what I was going to say, of course, and didn’t need to understand. I allowed that Niko’s behavior had taken place during prodromal and illness phases. I assured him that I was, in no way, making a statement about his goodness, character, or intentions. Niko accepted my words graciously at first. I suppose he experienced a kind of shock at these revelations. It didn’t last long.

I had not been able to protect his dignity, and we were no closer to solving the problem.

In our family, each child receives a laptop on her sixteenth birthday in anticipation of college. These are prized possessions. Two of our girls had already received theirs. As Niko’s disenchantment grew, he began to set his sights on their computers. He was a fox watching a hen house. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Did hospitality require that I “command” our daughters to hand over their nice computers when I would not loan my crummy one? Should I “allow” them to make the decision for themselves?

I had some idea of the conflict the girls must be feeling. They adored and wanted to please Uncle Niko but they had not forgotten the monopoly of 2006. They were older now, no longer wide-eyed and naive. They were starting to become disillusioned, and his behavior was starting to grate. Any generosity was more likely to be the result of capitulation than an act of heartfelt sharing.

I was buckling, and the visit had just begun. I was in danger of losing my cool with Niko but I was afraid of being unfair. I toggled back and forth. Was his behavior a manifestation of his illness? If so, I would manage compassion and fight for patience. I wasn’t eager to apply the labels “childish,” “demanding,” or worse.

I had forsworn my dysfunctional training in hospitality, and I had not yet developed another set of skills. I have replayed this scenario in my mind countless times since then, and I still find myself wondering how I should have responded. Nothing I came up with seemed right.

Since I couldn’t figure out what to do, I resorted to Plan D. D as in Deserter. Desperate. Defeated. Dumbshit.

Plan D was my escape plan. It called for me to abdicate my corner of the drama triangle. While this may have been an example of healthy boundary setting under other circumstances, the real-life result was not one I wish to repeat: I served up my children and beat a hasty retreat.

When Niko asked me if he could use the girls’ computers, I told him, “Ask them.” When my daughters asked me if they had to let him, I told them, “Do as you see fit.”

Under duress, Lindy, our oldest, refused; and she fell from grace.

Under duress, Bec, our middle child, complied. She was elevated to Confidante.

What strikes me, as I contemplate the aftermath of our weeks together, is that nobody ever even hinted that Henry give up his laptop, which was also used for work. Nobody blamed him for the way things unraveled. He was beyond reproach.

I see that the splitting had begun early on. Henry, Bec, and Claire were emerging as “good.” Lindy and I were rapidly becoming “bad.”

Hanna had begun to go M.I.A. More on that later…And Niko had begun to evaluate each of us in either-or terms: sympathetic or unfeeling, understanding or unfair, for him or against him. Hanna’s behavior, and later her words, made it clear that she and Niko were a package deal. Any “unkindness” towards Niko counted as an act against them both.

This is the twelfth installment of The Story of Hanna. The story, in sequence, can be found under the tab of the same name. Installment eleven can be found here.

The No-No

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

While access to a computer had been a nicety in 2006; by 2011, it had become a necessity.

Not only was the computer the best way to research and plan travel, but it had become Niko’s main source of companionship apart from Hanna. Unable to work and frequently apartment bound, Niko had come to rely on their laptop for entertainment and as a portal to the outside world.

You know by now that Henry and I had thought about our computer situation in advance. We had agreed that it would be very difficult to deny Niko use of my laptop, especially after having previously given him carte blanche. We had also agreed that it would be best to do so.

For some reason—and I suspect some fuzzy-minded state of denial and avoidance—I had not connected the dots. If I had, it would have been evident that a month-long visit sans computer would pose problems for anyone visiting a major metropolitan area. For Niko especially, computer access had become crucial to his sense of wellbeing and mastery in a sometimes hostile and often overwhelming world.

Maybe you have had this feeling too…when one half of your brain, red faced and breathless, brandishes a red flag in your face; and the other half of your brain responds: “Strange weather we’re having. I feel all melty and mushy,” and then proceeds to the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s followed by a food coma and a dreamless sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat…with any number of diversions.

I knew, but did not want to let myself know, that confronting the matter of the computer with Niko head on would, at some point, necessitate my confessing that I had concerns beyond those related to the condition of my laptop.

To be blunt without being gratuitous: In 2006, Niko had had trouble sharing the computer with the 5 other people who wanted time. And he had used the family computer it in ways I believe most hosts would not condone.

Shortly after Hanna and Niko departed that year, our new desktop had (terminally) failed. I wondered if his habits had played a role. Realizing his activities had occurred during prodromal and illness states, it didn’t seem right to classify them as Bad Behavior. How much true choice had been involved? And thinking it unfair to blame him for the demise of the desktop without clear evidence, I hesitated to speak. I wasn’t mad at him, and I certainly did not want to shame him. He had been so worried that his psychosis had damaged our friendship. Yet, I feared the same things could happen again in 2011.

Niko is a highly-verbal, detail-oriented, analytical, intelligent, and intuitive man. And he is persistent. He is good at debating, and he never misses an angle. To engage him on these issues at all would have been to open the whole can of worms, and I was afraid he would catch me out.

Why did it matter if he did?

I’m not sure.

I harbored no ill intent. But I was young and unsure in my attempts to prioritize my family. I knew I was making a healthy change but Hanna and Niko were unaware. In some fashion, I felt disloyal. Maybe even sneaky. For the first time, I was putting the needs of Henry and the girls over those of my best friend–and by association, her husband.

This is all hindsight, of course. In the moment, one half of my brain was sending up frantic smoke signals while the other half was smothering them with plans. Layers of plans, which were to provide insurance against ever having to have this conversation.

This is the eleventh installment of The Story of Hanna, a story of friendship, loss, and aging. Please click here for installment ten. Installment twelve is here.

The NO that Broke the Camel’s Back

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

This is the NO that ended my friendship with Hanna.

Once Henry and I had put some boundaries in place, we allowed ourselves to get excited about our visit from Hanna and Niko. Truly, it would have been foolish—and negligent—to ignore the lessons we had learned in 2006.

I had told you that Hanna is humble and independent and makes very few requests of others. I should have clarified that she makes very few requests on her own behalf. Shy and unassuming, she often neglects herself. Still, Hanna can be a real tiger when it comes to the wants and needs of others. In her immense and compassionate heart, she feels with her husband all the woes of his remarkable life; and she goes out of her way to champion him.

If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I submit to you the following: a photo taken outside my mother’s house in the summer of 2006. The pose is odd and very telling–all the more so for having been struck spontaneously, its meanings transmitted without conscious consent. It speaks of love, loyalty, advocacy, and interdependence. It tells of self-effacement, exhaustion, enmeshment, and denial. Balance—literal and symbolic, necessary and illusory—manifests itself in this image, as does sacrifice. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot share the actual photo.

I’ll do my best to describe it to you here:

Niko is the focal point. Thick and solid as an oak and dressed completely in black, he stands on the brick sidewalk in front of the day lily patch and offers an understated smile. He stands flat on his feet, which are firmly planted a short distance apart. He leans ever so slightly towards Hanna. His right arm dangles at his side. His left hand reaches down to rest on Hanna’s left shoulder, as she is has made herself very small in comparison.

Hanna, dressed all in white, is in a low crouch. She rests awkwardly on the ball of her right foot while her left foot extends forward for balance. Her pose is unnatural, as though she might topple at any moment. The top of her head reaches barely to Niko’s waist. In her left hand, she holds some sort of figurine, which she balances on her left knee. Her right arm reaches under the edge of Niko’s shorts and hugs his thigh just above his knee. She smiles broadly, the side of her face pressed up against his side.

Returning to the ill-fated denial…

I think our friendship might have survived if not for this.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, Niko asked to use the computer. I explained that our desktop had broken down, and I had only my old laptop.

I told him, “I’m not comfortable letting you use it. It’s a really cheap old thing, and it’s on its way out. All sorts of error messages are starting to pop up. And it overheats and shuts down. I can’t afford to replace it, and I can’t do my work without it. Plus, if it died on your watch, I wouldn’t want you to wonder if you had done something wrong.”

I thought this was a kind and soft “No,” and I hoped it would suffice.

I was wrong. So very wrong.

This is the tenth installment in The Story of Hanna. Please click on the tab of the same name to read other segments.
Installment nine is here. Installment eleven is here.

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