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M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

Don’t even ask me why I thought of M&Ms. I was having a hard day today–after having had a hard day yesterday–when the image of an orange M&M presented itself to me. Not having the energy to fight off this tiny UFO, I capitulated. So today I am an M&M. Yes, the candy. I know it’s dumb, so save your breath.

I’m orange and shiny on the outside. I am smooth and pleasingly shaped. A perfect little pod of Happy. I create a cool and pleasant “click” as I collide companionably with all of you other M&Ms in the larger M&M community.

Except that there is brown stuff inside me. Brown stuff which is threatening to liquefy at any moment. In fact, maybe it already has. Well, and you would assume it’s chocolate and shrug it off. But what if it’s not? What if I happen to be the one poop-filled M&M in all of M. County, XX, and you just haven’t figured it out yet?

I dropped by our administrative offices today to pick up some materials. The ladies who work there are great, great people; and I look forward to stopping in. I am not exaggerating. I ADORE them! But today was difficult. My neediness scared me, and I had to get out fast, before I had an accident. I longed to join their little fun-size bag of office camaraderie even if it meant volunteering for grunt work. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. The caring and warmth of these women would have resulted in melting, and who knows where that might have lead? One little sneeze, one unintentional elbow or funny look, one chance remark….In fact, one false move of any sort would have started the hairline crack in my Happy, and poop would have happened.

Just being in the office this morning took great effort. It was hard to focus on the small talk and the task at hand because of the energy drain inherent in having to operate on Manual Override. On the one hand, I noted how much healing, growth, and self awareness I have under my belt at this ripe old age of 48. I realized, with surprise and gratitude, that I rarely have to operate on manual at all these days. On the other hand, this insight meant that today was a trip back into the familiar land we counselors like to call emotional dysregulation. Ain’t it grand? Come to think of it, that thought is probably why the M&M was visited upon me in the first place. M&Ms: pretty on the outside, crazy on the inside. M&Ms: melt in your mind, not in your hand.

I am just so darned experienced that I can (mostly) hide the craziness and (mostly) function normally until I wrangle the gerbils back into the cage. You can do this too, and here is a quick lesson. You just have to ask yourself about every 30 seconds: Am I being appropriate? What would a Normal Person do now? Then you do it. And you hope nobody sees the brown stain slowly blossoming on seat of your shorts. Afterwards, you go have a good cry and take a nap because Manual Override takes everything you’ve got.

It’s challenging to be professional at best, non-life-sucking at worst, when you crave a haven of unconditional love. Instead of unloading on the Executive Director, who is one of those Moms around whom you can’t help but feel safe, I had to try to be that normal person. Surely the chocolate-filled M&M wouldn’t throw herself on her superior, an overworked mother of three young boys (who is, by the way, at least a decade younger) and demand care. I am a counselor, for God’s sake, and this woman is my boss. Certainly Normal Me would not cry and feel left out because the director now has, as her office administrator, the woman who has been her best friend since childhood. They get to hang out together all the time! What–do I want her to be my best friend? YES! I mean, wait, NO! No offense intended. That’s the poop talking. I hope the office owns a canister of Febreze.

What is wrong with me!? Do you know that in the last two days, I’ve been doing my errands in a daze, once briefly forgetting where I was and feeling lost? This afternoon, I found myself unable to remember if I had eaten breakfast. Yes, counselors, we call this dissociation. I was in a haze like this once in the days after learning of the death of a dear friend. Same kind of weirdness.

I have friends. Very, very, very good ones! Well, yes, but they are very busy, and I don’t want them to think I’m dumping on them.

What I need most is to call my best friend, Hanna; or Skype with her; or write her a long letter. She knows my whole life. She always, always understands me, and she never gets tired of me–even when I have to process a-million-and-one iterations of the same matter, in my completely obsessive and annoying way, in order to bring my mind to rest. Sadly, reaching her is tough. She lives in Europe, and she works full time, and her husband tends to take over every conversation, but still….

Oh no! I just remembered: She fired me 9 months ago.

My direct supervisor, Tim, is very wise. Yesterday morning, I met with him to consult about a new case, a new couple I had met for the first time the day before. I was trying to figure out why worry had kept me from sleep. I was uncharacteristically distressed and felt completely stuck. The husband had assured me he didn’t have anything he needed to discuss in counseling. The wife had maintained she had come only in support of her husband. Hmmm, where did that leave me since they had asked for couples counseling and intended to return.

Part of what disturbed me about this couple was the wife’s denial. She had been alarmed enough about her husband’s behavior and the potential for violence to set up counseling. However, once she got him into my office, she had pooh-poohed (more excrement) and minimized everything. Obvious manifestations of mental illness were, in turn, labeled charming, fun-loving, rational, insightful, and demonstrative of superior intellect. Tim wondered if she had acted this way because she was scared of him. I’m not so sure. The couple owned a kennel, by the way, and spent a lot of time scooping…poop.

I lamented to Tim, “How can you know something and not know something at the same time, especially when it is so obvious?”

A long pause followed.

“Interesting you should ask that,” he replied with care….”I don’t think I can ever recall your saying a case kept you up at night. You don’t have to take this case, you know.”

It took a few moments for his meaning to penetrate. I had both known and kept myself from knowing so many things. At so many junctures. About Hanna and her husband Niko, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. My eventual refusal to collude with their reality had cost me their trust and a lifelong friendship.

“I can’t help them,” whispered. And then I just felt like crying.

I referred them out.

Later I climbed onto Jesus’ lap, curled up, and buried my face in his chest. He held me and told me I was good, and He stroked my hair.

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

This post is the latest in the thread The Story of Hanna. For the prior post in the thread, click here. For the next post, click here.

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90837

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I have known Avril for precisely 203 hours. I have known Avril for 8 days and 11 hours.

I have known Avril one hour at a time for 6 years and 8 days. She was barely out of childhood when we started our secret meetings. She had to sneak around so that her grandma wouldn’t learn about me and kick her out of the house. Now she is a career woman, a single parent, and a home owner. I am her therapist.

Today when Avril left my office, I dashed for the ladies room in the darkened part of the building. My swollen heart was near bursting. I drew a few quaking breaths, grabbed it in both hands, and wrung. When just enough of it had squeezed out my eyes to ensure that it would fit back into my chest until lunch, I allowed myself one luxurious minute more. Maybe two. Another client was on her way. I dabbed my kohl and returned to my post.

I was not sad. The culprit was gratitude. It had been welling and swelling all morning, and Avril’s face had set me off.

Four weeks ago, Avril had returned after a six-month break. She was aware she was starting to falter. I had held up the mirror and shown her how far she had come. She had curled into herself:

“Stop!” she had cried, “Stop it now!”

Two weeks ago, she knew was flirting with disaster. She was scared because she had stopped feeling scared. Would she grasp for the help she needed before she was all used up? Avril had been taught that depression is not real, that medication is an affront to Jesus. She had gutted it out before–but the stakes had seemed smaller back then.

Avril was but a nub that day. Her face was stony, her voice a near monotone. I thought I spied a spark of “Fuck You” simmering behind her eyes but I couldn’t be sure. It both reassured and alarmed me. The starving, the cutting, all those games.…These had been her tools, both comforting and despised, to secure her care. They had been friends once upon a time. Now they fit her like a too-small skin. Weary from trying so hard to embrace her new size, she sought solace in the familiar. She panicked when she realized she couldn’t go back, and this made her strain even harder. In trying to force matters, she had nearly done herself harm.

She had not yet become small enough for me to intervene. I was worried but I would not mother her. Avril had become a woman, and she had to choose for herself.

Today, Avril arrived with a gaunt face, a giant mug of tea, and no hello. She started talking and left me to fill in the blanks:

“The medication is making me really tired. But I stopped trying to avoid food. I know my appetite will come back if I wait.”

Her face was soft and almost shy.

90837 is the billing code for a therapy session lasting 53-60 minutes.

Full Plate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.

This is one of the junctures. It’s one of the joints where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna dovetail. They lean against each other like a house of cards.

I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.

This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.

I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.

Back to the rule.

I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.

The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.

I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.

Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.

I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.

Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?

Well.

Yes.

It just took me decades to complete the process.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.

This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.

A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

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