There’s a place in your life that’s neither light nor dark, warm nor cold, where things don’t quite work but where you stay because it’s familiar.
You stay because you know this place like the back of your hand, every dark corner, every lump in the carpet, every draft.
You stay because you can find your away around it with your eyes closed. Which, in fact, is just what you do.
There’s pain here, but it’s the dull, tolerable kind. The kind you know well. The kind you’ve known forever. The kind you cling to rather than risk something worse.
There’s the signpost up ahead.
Your next stop:
The Comfort Zone.
Albert, 58, has been married three times. His first two marriages ended in acrimonious divorce. His third marriage is two years old, and his wife recently ended their couples counseling in tearful frustration. Albert continues in therapy without her. He reports their life has deteriorated into a series of hurtful arguments alternating with long silences. Last week she told him she’d leave him if she only had someplace to go. I ask how he thinks our work together is going. “Really well,” he says. “It’s very interesting. I feel like I’m learning a lot.”
Barry, 38, sits on my sofa with his wife Beth. They are new clients. I ask why they’ve come. Beth tells me Barry’s individual therapist thinks couples work is necessary. “What led you to individual therapy?” I ask Barry. He frowns. “I have issues,” he says. “You drink, you play video games, and that’s all you do,” the wife says. Barry frowns harder. “Do you have a problem with alcohol?” I ask Barry. “I have issues,” he repeats. The wall appears impenetrable. After twenty minutes I suggest Barry wait outside while I talk to Beth alone. He brightens, stands and walks quickly to the door. Then he turns back to his wife. “Can I borrow your iPad?” he asks.
Carly, 43 and a social worker, is more depressed this week than last. Last week she was more depressed than the week before. This slide began last year, with her transfer out of the counseling job she loved into an administrative job she hates, under a supervisor she considers an idiot. Now she visits her doctor monthly to request tweaks of her medication. Asked what’s depressing her, she shrugs: “No idea.” I tell her that I think what she needs is work — real, meaningful work she enjoys, that brings out the best in her and makes her feel valuable. I suggest she network, go on interviews, or consider private practice. I also suggest she pursue the hobbies — cooking, dancing, yoga — she once used to feed and express herself. She shakes her head. “I’m too tired for any of that now,” she sighs. “I need to save my energy for the stupid job.”
Debbie, 23, is crying. “You don’t love me,” she tells her boyfriend David, who’s sitting beside her on my sofa looking miserable. After three months of Debbie complaining of his silence and begging him to be more open with her, David has finally risked telling her about something he dislikes in their relationship. “I’m not good with words,” he said. “We never talked in my family. So when I try I get nervous. I’m scared to hurt your feelings. And the more you push me to talk, the more scared I get.” “Good for you,” I say. “David, I know how hard that was.” Debbie wipes her nose with a tissue. “So you don’t really love me,” she repeats.
Eddie, 42, is angry at his son Evan. “He’s scared of everything,” he tells me. “Scared to go to school. Scared he’ll fail Math. Scared to try out for teams. Scared to ask a girl out. What the fuck?” He shakes his head. I ask what happens when he tries to talk to Evan, who’s 15. “What do you think?” Eddie snorts. “He acts scared of me.” I ask what Evan’s fear looks like. “He sort of shrinks into himself. Gets quiet. Avoids eye contact. I can tell he just wants me to shut up and leave him alone.” “How’s that make you feel?” I ask. “Furious,” Eddie says. “I’m his father. I’m trying to help him.” “And what do you say?” I ask. “I say, I’m your father. I’m trying to help you. What the fuck?‘”
* * *
We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.
~ Rabindrath Tagore
I’ve heard someone say that our problems aren’t the problem; it’s our solutions that are the problem.
~ Anne Lamott
When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
~ Abraham Maslow
Only a concerted effort to sort out the specific nature of our personal programming can offer hope of change, of new choices.
~ James Hollis