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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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Chocolate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

2013

Writing seems to be at least as good as drugs. I went to sleep after finishing my essay on becoming invisible and had the oddest dream:

The weather was chilly. I stood just outside (Irish Name) Hall, an academic building on the (Jesuit) University campus. A man smiled and hurried by on my left as he made for the door. I didn’t take too close a look. Why would I? I was accustomed to the rhythms of student life, and I no longer noticed their comforting background hum.

I can’t recall his face other than to say that he was youthful looking and without facial hair. I assumed he was a fellow student. He had brown skin, and his dark hair hung about to his shoulders. My peripheral vision told me that he wore jeans and a dark leather jacket. Something flashed bright red—a knit cap or a winter scarf?  In passing, he held out his left hand as if in greeting. Without thinking–and perhaps in recognition of some unspoken solidarity among those who labor for knowledge–I held out my left hand in return. We briefly clasped hands.

I felt an immediate, sharp pain.

Stunned, I opened my fingers to find that his touch had transferred a loosely-crumpled wad of wood shavings. I soon discovered the source of my discomfort. In the ball were hidden four nails: two small wire brads and two larger wood nails. His grip had driven the larger nails into the bottom of my palm and the smaller ones into my wrist directly below. I spun around, confused. But he was already gone.

I brushed away the nails. Their tips had become embedded just deeply enough to draw a trickle of blood. I felt piqued and violated. He had smiled even while planning to harm me, and I had held out my hand in welcome. But what was to be done? Finding no recourse, I went about my business.

I opened the door and entered the building. There I found myself standing in some sort of dimly lit café or general store. To my right stood Rodger, a former professor turned colleague. Rodger’s class and way of being had been a great help to me as I was coming to the end of a long and exhausting spiritual slog. He continues to be a wise and helpful presence though we rarely interact.

Rodger stood at the end of a long wooden table which reached nearly to his chest. In the low light, I could make out a wall of shelves behind him. He was preparing to take orders, to serve people. He looked worn out.

Still startled from my encounter a moment before, I unclenched my fist to share with him the story of what had happened. The dripping blood had formed a jelly-like blob of crimson where it had congealed in the center of my palm. I wiped it away and showed Rodger my hand. He told me he was sorry about what had happened to me. I shrugged it off.

I asked how he was doing, and Rodger confirmed that he was weary. I thought some refreshment might help, and I asked him why he didn’t fix himself some tea. I remembered he was not a coffee drinker. Rodger replied that the tea had run out.

I wanted to find some way to help but couldn’t, at first, think how. I thought about my habit of carrying a bit of dark chocolate in my purse for just such emergencies as these. Rodger said he would be glad to have it.

I felt pleased to know I had something to offer and pleased that Rodger would accept it. I hoped it wouldn’t be covered in lint.

As I began to dig around in my purse, the room filled with people. They lined up along the sides of the table facing Rodger and waited to place orders for hot drinks and make requests for foods and dry goods. As the crowd grew, I was pushed farther and farther down the table and away from Rodger. For some reason, I remember that the woman who stood directly in front of me, near the back of what had become a throng, was wearing a beige overcoat.

Once I extricated myself from the tangle, I returned my attention to the excavation of my purse. To my surprise, I found two large, unopened bars of chocolate! Their labels promised a delicious treat.

I tried to recall buying these bars but I was unable to account for their presence in my bag. I realized they must have been in the bottom of my purse for some time because I could feel that they had they had begun to break along their fault lines into smaller squares. Finally, I came upon the single dark square I had originally sought. I was delighted! Not only could I serve Rodger; I could even offer him choices. I had more than enough to share.

My alarm went off. I got out of bed and pushed the dream to the back of my mind. Later as I sat in church, I woke up with a jolt: Nails. Palm. OH.

I recounted last night’s dream to my husband as we took a long walk together. He immediately saw what I had completely missed. And now, as I sit here finishing this account, I begin to wonder about something else. I had assumed the man had intended malice.

What if this was not the case?

Because of the timing and context in which I dreamed and recorded this dream, I have decided that it belongs to The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

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