Sunday, July 30, 2017

When "strength" is impossible

Here is a fragmentary idea, vaguely described and hypothetically explained. It lingers in my brain and wants to be better understood.

There are adult clients who, during work on more fundamental issues, complain and grieve about their abuse-of-power parents or ex-spouses. A session starts off with actionable energy, or it seems so: Alarmed and insightful, they detail one indignity after another: divorcing husband calls Child Protective Services on his wife for malicious purposes. Parent treats live-in thirty-year-old son like a humiliated prisoner of war. Father forbids forty-year-old opiate addict daughter, who lost everything and had to crash at his home, from taking medication of any kind including her antidepressant. Grandfather sues his daughter for “grandparents’ rights” or custody, treats the little boy like a king, the girl like baggage. Mother slanders her daughter to their friends. Father restricts adult son’s use of toilet paper and doesn’t let him sit in “the master’s” easy chair. New stepmother barges in and harps every time son phones his dad (who probably colludes in his own pussy-whipping).

There is nothing suspect about these complaints, on their own merits. Fairly early on, though, I will get the sense that the client is in narrator mode. He has one predominant tone throughout the speech, an inscrutable one that brings to mind humorist Dave Barry’s compliment to readers who sent him grist-for-the-mill anecdotes: “alert.” There is no anger. There is no sense of resignation, victory contempt or rolling of the eyes. There is not a sense that this is a problem to solve. And it may be just when this mystery strikes one’s awareness that two equal but coup de grace ones appear: The client has chattered his litany for the entire hour. And my interventions have been unheard; they have had as much effect as a leaf flittering down upon a charging bear.

The leaf, though, eventually takes a stand. “You are naming all these crimes,” I say, “but I get the feeling that you are somehow one with them, are not really ready to do anything about them.” The client’s response is: “He drives me crazy! Sometimes I just want to sit in my room and be left alone, but he stands at the door yelling about how much gasoline I used or that I ate some leftover he wanted. And my mother doesn’t believe me: She and he are a perfect team, though she sometimes listens. When my sister visits, she always takes their side. I try to be as polite and reasonable as I can be. Sunday night I listened to him pacing – or marching – back and forth outside the bathroom door as I was doing my business. I guess he wanted me to know I was taking too long. . . .”

If only these clients were as single-minded and driven in their health as they are in their misery, their chains would be broken. Or it seems so.

What generates this reportage, this constant list of small rapes and murders and abandonments? How does the client say them and not revolt against the saying? Is there an unspoken feeling within him that I am not grasping? I wonder if it’s the feeling: “Daddy, mommy, please love me, don’t hurt me!” In these jeremiads, I have never heard that feeling, but is that what is left when all the other expected expressions are not there – anger, humor, strength, futility? If this is so, then therapy would have to reach that need, and help (frankly speaking) a pitiful client be more pitiful, a childlike client become the child. He or she would need to grieve past losses dug up and snarling in the present. And I would have to put aside my own sick need and not push the client’s anger and resolve and rejection of the parent. Strength is not what I think it is.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.