Category Archives: depression and control

(THE BOOK) Chapter 25: The depressed

For the anxious, constipation is a problem.  For the depressed, it’s a lifestyle.

Usually it starts unconsciously and in self-defense.  All my depressed clients grew up in dangerous families where it was unsafe to be themselves.  (See Chapter 14.)  Kids in such families have little choice but to self-constipate. 

Ever been physically constipated?  Remember how, the longer it lasted, the more distracted and uncomfortable you felt?  How eventually the internal pressure and tension came to sap your energy and occupy all your attention?

That’s just what happens to the depressed.  It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (my shit’s coming up, can’t get my shit together) to describe emotional processes.  Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are physical byproducts of what we eat.  And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings must be expressed — not hidden or stored up.  When they aren’t we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Humans either express themselves or depress themselves.

The best book I know on all this is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body, which explains depression as a physical symptom, an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need to come out.  Lowen writes,

The self is experienced through self-expression, and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed….  The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.

For control addicts – who experience life itself as one long litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts — some depression is inevitable.  And since everyone is addicted to control, it is not surprising that depression is called the common cold of mental illness.

I’ve had my cold for six decades.

I caught it in grade school.  Nobody called it depression then.  This was the fifties.  I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.

All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried.  Different.  Inadequate.  Flawed. 

I preferred being alone.  Preferred books to people.  Preferred tv to real life.

“Moody,” mom called me.  “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.

I also felt bad about feeling bad.  It must be my fault, I thought.  Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try.  So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder.  I just didn’t know how.

I felt bad through high school, college, and into adulthood.  Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood.  Through college, graduate school and into professional life. 

Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books.  Lots of books.  The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest. 

I read everything I could that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life? 

It was only after I began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.

Doing therapy with control addicts taught me that I hadn’t gotten depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or because they fought or divorced when I was eight.  It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write.  Or because of anything that had happened to me.

I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.  

Or rather, didn’t react.

We express ourselves, or we depress ourselves.

 

 


Your other foot

A man loses his foot in an accident.  Forced to hobble and use a crutch, he finds himself the object of unexpected attention and sympathy.  Then his doctor fits him with a prosthetic foot. The hobbling ends.  The crutch becomes unnecessary.  The attention and sympathy dwindle away.  So he takes an axe and cuts off his other foot.

Crazy?

I see it all the time.

In the husband who complains daily about his unhappy marriage but puts off getting a divorce.

Or the wife who rages about how her husband avoids or ignores her but won’t examine how her behavior pushes him to do so.

Or the teacher who bemoans the bullies who abuse her at work but refuses either to learn how to assert herself or to change jobs.

Or the son so scared his alcoholic parents will reject him if he stops drinking that he clings to his addiction in self-defense.

Welcome to the world of secondary gain.

Secondary gain refers to an emotional or psychological benefit that comes from having a problem or illness.

The gain may be attention, acceptance, sympathy, safety, familiarity, resistance to change, distraction from responsibility, avoidance of intimacy, or denial of other problems.

Seeking such gains is not faking or manipulation.

It’s often unconscious.

It can be seen as an attempt to meet legitimate needs in an unhealthy way

It’s also a monkeytrap: a situation that encourages you to hold on when it would be healthier to let go.

Suspect you might be monkeytrapped in this way?

Try asking yourself one question about your persistent symptom or problem:

If I were to fix this, what would I lose?


Control addicts

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* * *

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Here are the three things you need to know about shame:

We all have it.

We’re all terrified to talk about it.

The less we talk about it the more we have it.

~ From Part 1 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (4:56).

*

Q: You say that shame leads to disconection.  So how do we reconnect?

A:  You know, it’s funny.

One of the ironies is that shame fills us with this fear of disconnection.

But it is our imperfection that connects us to each other.  It is the fact that our shared humanity is imperfect.

I think if we can find the courage to talk about our lives honestly, and our struggles, not only does that free us, it gives other people the freedom to be more authentic and real as well.

I don’t think connection is possible without authenticity.

~ From Part 2 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (5:31).


Addict

(Bert speaking.)

I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember.

That is, for as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself — to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.

I do this constantly.

I do it unconsciously.  Which means I usually don’t know when I’m doing it.

And I do it compulsively.  Which means I get really really anxious when I can’t get control.

I expect to stay an addict until I die.

Yes, I’m in recovery.  But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink.  They’ll always be alcoholics, though, and I’ll always be a control addict.

I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff.  Even when I know it’s crazy to try.

It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.

Sure,  it’s not always an illusion.  If I pour sugar in my coffee the coffee gets sweeter.  If I pull the steering wheel to the right my car will reliably turn right.

But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels.  And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.

Why?  Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships.

And feelings have no steering wheel.  And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.

Let me explain.

Say I have a feeling I don’t want.  Say I feel inadequate.  But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see that I feel inadequate you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse.  So I hide my feeling, from you and from myself.  I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”)  And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior.  I have successfully controlled your perception of me.

Do I feel better?

Not so much.

At least, not for long.  Why?  Because I know it’s an act, a pretense.  I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that.  So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless.  And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony.

See how that works?

Another example:

Say I’m mad at you, but afraid to show it.  I’m scared you might get mad back at me, which would make me unhappy.

So I hide my anger from you.  I bury it.

But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me.  Feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained.  Released, not stored up.  So burying my anger makes me uncomfortable.  Constipated.  Pressured.  Uneasy.  Anxious.  And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed.  I.e., chronically unhappy.

How’s that for irony?

Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?

Because at the heart of this addiction lies an annoying but inescapable paradox:

The more control I need, the less in control I feel.

* * *

 


The Uncomfort Zone

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.  

That’s the signpost up ahead.

Next stop: the Uncomfort 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 if she 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, and 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 scareder I get.”  “Good for you, David,” I say.  “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.  “Everything scares him,” he tells me.  “He’s 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

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. ~ Albert Einstein

 

* * *

 

Overheard at the House:

 

I’m probably addicted to control too.  The way I’ve attempted to control things is to pull further and further within myself and my own world.  I got hurt at work.  Now I don’t work.  I got hurt by friends.  Now I don’t have friends. I’m hurt by family.  So, I’m very careful when I’m with them.  But, I don’t feel safer.  I can’t control myself.  Now, I’m with myself more than ever before!  I don’t think I thought that through…

 

Monkey House. 

Click here ^

and join the conversation.

 

* * *

 

Coming soon:

From the monkeys who brought you 

Bert’s Therapy, The Tribe and Monkey House,

a new cartoon strip about secret thoughts:

 

The Dark

   


The tribe: Expectations

 

Most people feel anxious in group without really understanding why.

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Personally I think it’s because, on some deep level, the group reminds us of our family of origin.

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And we expect it to treat us just as our family did.

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So tell me.  If this group were your family, what would you be expecting now?

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therapist 5

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To get hit.

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To get humiliated.

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To be told to shut up.

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therapist 8

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To be ignored.

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Pink?  What would you expect?

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therapist 10

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All of the above.

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Jeez.

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member 11

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So you all have good reason to feel anxious in this room.

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But I have to ask Pink:

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How’d you work up the courage to even come here?

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therapist 15

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Two beers, half a pizza, and a Vicodin.

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* * *

  

Group therapy. 

In Hebrew. 

“Hello, this is Fear Management. 

“My name is Moni, and I too have a phobia. 

“I have a fear of shouting. 

“You know, a, h, h, h, exclamantion mark, ‘ahhh’!

“At this point I suggest we all tell about ourselves…” 

 

Excerpt from the Israeli TV show “Ktzarim”:  Five troubled people (that description includes the group leader) meet for group therapy.  In Hebrew with English subtitles (2:22).

 

* * *

 

Overheard at the House:

Eventually, and every time, I used to drive my current partner insane with my hang ups and he broke off the relationship….

So I decided only I could change and needed to put my – sorry to be blunt – infantile behaviour aside and choose blind trust, no matter the outcome….

Result: I came to accept that my life is my life and not dependent on anyone else for survival or safety – and in a way I was going to be alone, with or without a partner: it’s part of the human condition….

 

Come. 

Join the conversation

Monkey House.

Because we’re all monkeys on this bus.

 

 

 

 

 



Session 22: Bull (part 2)

bert

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Remember when I complimented you on developing some empathy?

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Yeah.

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I may have spoken too soon.

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What the hell is “empathy,” anyway?

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Awareness of another person’s feelings.

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And I lack that.

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Apparently.  But it’s not your fault.

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bert.

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You’re a man.  Most men are trained to be emotional dunderheads.

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“Dunderhead”?

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Emotionally stupid.

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How does that happen?

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Well, we teach men to ignore or hide their feelings…

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bert

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…so they can go to war and go to work and do other stuff that feelings tend to interfere with.

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Because big boys don’t cry.

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Exactly.

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bert 10

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And once you lose touch with your own feelings…

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bert (11)

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…it’s hard to be sensitive to anyone else’s.

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Like a wife’s.

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Yes.

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So she’s right.  I am insensitive to her feelings.

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So it would seem.

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Now I feel like a jerk.

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I wouldn’t say that.  Just think of yourself as…

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bert (15)

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…a bull in a china shop.

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(To be continued.)

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* * *

Want more?

Having spent half his life trying to find fulfillment outside himself, he awakens to discover that it has not worked. For the first time in his life, a man may turn inward for answers.

He may begin to realize that his unhappiness is not caused by his failure to find the right woman or the right career, but by who he is and the way he is living his life.

Rather than blame others, he may ask, “How have I caused this to happen? Perhaps I need to change and develop greater self-awareness before I can have a healthy relationship or a satisfying career.”

This is a very difficult and courageous step for a man to take. Having successfully mastered his life on the outside, he is now forced to acknowledge that he needs help to explore difficulties encountered in his inner life.

From Real men do therapy by Jerry Magaro.

* * *

Most men grow up with an emptiness inside them.  Call it father hunger, call it male deprivation, call it personal insecurity, it’s the same emptiness.

When positive masculine energy  — a male mode of feeling — is not modeled from father to son, it creates a vacuum in the souls of men.  And into that vacuum demons pour.

Among other things, they seem to lose the ability to know how to read situations and people correctly.

Richard Rohr, in From wild man to wise man: Reflections on male spirituality.


Session 17: Guilty

Bad day at work.

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What happened?

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Boss yelled at me.

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And how do you feel?

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Guilty.

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Why’d the boss yell?

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Having a bad day, I guess.  He’s like that.

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So why do you feel guilty?

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I don’t know.

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That’s not guilt you’re feeling.   

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It’s not?

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No.  It’s anger.  Internalized anger often feels like guilt.

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It does?

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Sure.  Anger’s like poison.  If you don’t spit it out at the person who hurt you, it eats away at you and feels like guilt.

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I don’t know about that.  I’ve always been a pretty guilty person.

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4I see.  Tell me, what’s your boss like?

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He’s an asshole.

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How big an asshole?

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Big.

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Big?

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Enormous.

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And how’s it feel, working for an enormous asshole?

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I hate it.  I hate him.  I hate my job.

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th12

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Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate.

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How you feeling now?

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Better.  Much better.  Not guilty at all.

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Does that always work?

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When the guilt comes from internalized anger, pretty much.

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bert (17)

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By the way, how’s your marriage going?

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bert (18)

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* * *

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Bert’s therapy

Finally the heat broke, so I went out for a walk. 

It was the sort of day that reminds you of summers in childhood, of how life felt without the permanently clenched fist in your midsection.  Lawns bright with sunlight.  A solid blue sky you want to swim in.  Breeze like a kiss.

So I’m walking along, enjoying all this, listening to the Corrs through my earphones, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. 

Bert sidles up next to me.

I need some therapy, he mutters.

I sigh.  For just one hour I’d have liked to have skip the whole neurotic thing.

But your monkey’s your monkey.

“Sure,” I tell him.  “Walk along with me,” and I pull out my earphones. 

* * *

What’s up?

I’m discouraged.  Depressed, maybe. 

How come?

You know.

Tell me anyway.  Part of the therapy.

Well, I’m really tired.  That heat wore away at me like sandpaper. 

I know.

And I’m sick to death of this insurance audit.  What’s it now, six months?      

Something like that. 

I’m sick of not having money.  Or a vacation.  It really hurt to skip Vermont again this year.

I know.  For a day or so I thought you might lose it.

Me too.

What else.

The house is a mess.

As usual.

Still bothers me.

I know.  What else.

The block’s back.

Yeah, I noticed.   What’s up with that? 

I got discouraged by the lack of comments.

Hm.

What’s that mean?

Nothing.  I’m listening.   Go on.   Is there more?

Well.

What?

I’m sixty.  (Sighs.) 

Yes, we are.

Sixty fucking years old.

I know.

Thought it’d be easier by now.

I hear you.  I feel you, as the kids say. 

So.  What would you tell a client like me?

Good question.  Let me think.

You get people like me?

All the time. 

So what do you tell them?

Well, first I guess I try to reframe things.  Help them see what they’re not seeing.

And what am I not seeing?

How lucky you are.

Excuse me?

Your marriage works.  Your kids love you.  You’re a pretty good therapist. 

Am I?

You help most of the people who come to you.  

I guess.

You like what you do for a living.  You own your own home.  You’re not sick, or crippled, or divorced, or in Afghanistan.

True. 

You worry about money, but your bills get paid. 

Eventually.

Right.  The house embarrasses you, but it’s your house.  Remember what renting was like? 

True.

And you have options.  Writing is still an option.  You’re a step closer to writing for money than you’ve ever been.    And you managed to start Monkeytraps in the face of all this other crap.

That’s true too.  So why don’t I feel better?

Oh, that’s easy.  You’re tired.

That’s it?

It’s important.   “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

You and your quotes.  Who said that?

Vince Lombardi. 

So what do I do?

Rest.

How?  I have work to do.

Find a way.

That’s what you’d tell a client?

Pretty much, yes. 

Sounds too simple.

Simple, yes.  Easy, no.  For one thing, it takes courage.   You’d have to give up controlling all the crap you just mentioned.

(Silence.)

You’d have to let go of the bills and the practice and the house and the blog.  In your head, I mean.  And have faith that the sky won’t cave in.   

(More silence.)

And you’d have to act like you deserve a rest.  Which you’re not at all sure that you do. 

No, I’m not. 

I know you’re not.  Do it anyway.

How can I?

No choice.  You have to save yourself.  If you don’t, who will? 

Hmpf.  

Too late to get parented.  It’s all your job now.

(He frowns.  I wait.  He scratches his head.  I wait some more.  Now his eyes open.  He looks at me.)

Hey.  I know why I hate this.

Why?

It’s an AFGO.

Yes, it is.

Another fucking growth opportunity.

Yep.

I hate them.

Yeah.  Me too.  Anything else?    

(He squints at me, like he suspects a trick question.  Shakes his head.  Leaves.)

(I put on my earphones, turn up the Corrs, and resume trying to swim up into the solid blue sky.)


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