Saturday, March 29, 2008

Season 1 - Episode 4

Scene 1 - Therapist’s Office

Working on a college campus exposed me to all kinds of strange and changing fads expressed by the children who were finally rebelling for the first time in their lives - or who had never stopped. Shock still permeated my therapist’s shell with the patient sitting across from me today.

To say she was “Goth” was an understatement. I didn’t even want to start counting how many body piercings she had. The one on her lower lip looked especially painful - until I saw the one in the center of her tongue.

My rational mind sorted through all the textbook answers as to why someone would do this to themselves - they wanted to be noticed, they wanted to be different, it was a cry for help. Perhaps this made her feel good, perhaps it was her true self. After all, societies throughout the world used body adornments as an expression of their cultural beliefs.

I still struggled to get past the tongue piercing.

Laura was here because her parents insisted - they wanted to meet with me as well, but I put them off, uncomfortable with how demanding they were - especially the mother. My hunch was that they were still trying to control her life and that’s why she dressed the way she did. I had to find out from her just what was going on before meeting with her parents. Of course, Laura was the patient and since she was 20 years old her parents weren’t entitled to any information. Laura agreed to see me because her parents had threatened to cut her off financially if she didn’t.

We did our preliminary discussion - as I did with all my new patients, gathering just enough background information to start asking the kind of questions I needed to ask to make our sessions meaningful. It was as much for the patient’s benefit to learn to trust me as it was for me to understand them and how I could help.

It hit me hard just how important it was to have functionally healthy parents - even if they weren’t living together.

I made a note to call Dana’s father and reopen that door that I helped shut so long ago.

Scene 2 - Therapist’s Home

Dana was still at school and I had left work early so I had the house to myself. I noticed how much the clutter had grown and decided that this wasn’t how I wanted to live. I had been boxing myself in for years, seeking protection from the pain I hadn’t yet faced. I had erected barriers in my own home trying to keep out that pain and the rage that was dumped on me as a child and later as a wife.

Life was certainly ironic. Here I was a therapist, seeing other people’s issues and challenges so clearly and ignoring my own even when they were staring me in the face. I walked from room to room assessing the damage and coming up with a plan on how to deal with bringing down the walls of my self-imposed prison.

As I tossed, recycled and designated items for charity I felt liberated. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free to be the person I was meant to be.

I was hauling boxes for charity to the garage when Dana arrived in an unfamiliar car.

Out of view she didn’t notice me watching. She leaned over and kissed the boy in the driver's seat and for the first time I got a glimpse of the young man who had come into my daughter’s life for all the wrong reasons.

Dana finally got out of the car and I went into the living room and sat and waited for her to come through the door. Our eyes met briefly and she knew I had seen her in the car.

The phone rang before either of us could or wanted to speak. Dana rushed to answer it thinking it was one of her friends. I knew it was her father making the call I had arranged.

Scene 3 - Therapist’s Office

Looking out the window, I leaned against the wall seeking comfort from the familiarity of its strong support. I needed that right now.

Regina didn’t say a word - she normally didn’t, letting me speak when I was ready.

“Dana spoke with her father last night.” I didn’t offer it up as anything other than what it was - a statement of fact. I heard Regina smile and her say, without saying, “finally.”

I pulled myself reluctantly away from the support of the wall and the serenity of the garden view outside Regina’s window. I could stay here for the rest of my life feeling supported, comforted and serene, but I suspect Regina’s patients would object to me as a fixture in the room while they bared their souls and worked through their issues.

As I sat in the all-too familiar and oh so comfortable chair, I scratched having a career as a live statue off my list.

“So, what next?” Regina’s voice broke through my thoughts. I studied my shoes against the pattern of the new rug on her office floor.

“I don’t know.” I raised my head and looked her straight in the eyes. “I just don’t know.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

Season 1 - Episode 3

Scene 1 - Therapist’s Office

I listened to my messages between patients. The news wasn’t good but explained why Lizzie had missed her last appointment. She had attempted suicide at her parent’s house. They found her in the bathtub, gashes across her wrists. At least that’s what I was told when I called the hospital where she was struggling for her life.

She would now be in the hands of other professionals, her situation beyond my expertise. While I saw many troubled young people at the student health center where I consulted, I knew Lizzie would need a level of treatment beyond the centers capacity - and mine.

My heart ached as I slumped into the same chair Lizzie had sat in less than two weeks ago. I wondered if she had told her parents after all. I wondered if she had decided it was just too much, the pain too great to live another day.

I pictured her young body, limp in the water, life oozing and rippling away as her blood turned the water a brighter shade of red. My stomach ached with such a fierceness and I felt bile work its way up my throat and into my mouth as I fought to keep from vomiting. I had to pull myself together. I had other patients.

Rubbing my own wrists I looked at the scars that reminded me why I had connected so strongly with Lizzie.

Scene 2 - Therapist’s Home

Winter in Chicago had dragged on for so long that I thought it would never end. Mounds of piled snow - now turned to ice - still littered parking lots and sides of streets where plows had pushed it out of the way. It was the middle of March and we were still battling the winter blues, another storm on its way.

After fifteen years I was finally getting used to the cold grey winters of the Midwest. Being a Southern California girl by birth and nature it had proved a hard adjustment and just when I thought I was turning the corner a brutal winter made me wonder why I moved here in the first place.

I knew why and that reason had left me long ago. But I was here now and so was my life, what there was of it these days. I silently chastised myself for having a pity party as I unloaded the dishwasher, looking out the window for any signs of the sun to lift me out of this horrible funk I was in.

Dana had spent the night at a friends house and my anxiety level increased as I wondered if we’d ever be close again. I knew that the mother-daughter relationship was a difficult one. Hell, I worked with the failed results of it everyday at the student health center. I just didn’t want to be part of that statistic.

Scene 3 - Therapist’s Office

"Stop trying to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, Georgia. You need to lower the life boats, get in, make sure they don’t leak and that you’re headed in a good direction."

Scenes from the latest remake of the movie with Kate and Leo popped into my head. Only she had someone to hold onto as the boat sank. Then I reminded myself of what happened next and decided that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t in the cards.

"That’s right." Regina’s voice cut through my mental game of tag. I looked away from the window and saw her knowing eyes piercing through the frenzy I was working myself into.

"Ouch." I vocalized the pain I was feeling. She was the one person in the world who I could count on to keep me grounded. Now I just needed to learn to do that for myself.

"Has Dana talked to her father yet."

"No." It was the truth - at least I thought it was. For all I knew she could be calling him since I really wasn’t privy to any of her phone calls. She had become increasingly secretive and withdrawn from me.

"Okay - I haven’t even broached the subject with her yet." I didn’t even try to lie or mislead Regina. It was impossible to do.

"Why not?" Her voice was gentle but stern.

"I’m afraid, that’s why!" My voice was harsher than I intended.

"Of what?" She wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily.

"Of losing my daughter." I felt the tears finally come as I sank into the big overstuffed chair identical to the one in my office. Regina and I found them at an estate sale and both fell in love with them instantly. Good thing there were two of them!

"And being alone." I finally added trying to be honest with myself.

Regina got up and sat on the edge of the chair and put her arm around me. "You’re not alone, Georgia. Dana will always be your daughter and despite how it seems right now, you know that she loves you very much. She’s just trying to navigate the teen years which are hell on all concerned." She got up and grabbed the box of tissues.

"Besides, what am I? Chopped liver?"

She pulled the box away from me until I answered.

"That’s better. Now, get out there and enjoy life!" The laughter in her voice made me smile - a deep smile - and it felt good.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Season 1 - Episode 2

Scene 1 - Therapist’s Office

A frail young woman sat in my over-stuffed chair almost disappearing in its comfortable folds - she was so thin. I forced myself to concentrate on her but my mind wandered with concern for Lizzie, who had missed her last appointment. I was overcome with worry for her - not something a therapist should allow.

"How are you feeling today, Jennie?" I asked trying to focus. She deserved my full attention.

"Okay." She cast her eyes away from me, her hands hidden in her too long sleeves as she hugged her knees to her chest.

"Just okay?" I tilted my head trying to make eye contact, something that was always hard to do with her.

She didn’t answer. She didn’t budge.

"Tell me about your visit with your parents."

Jennie’s body tensed even more. "Same as usual." Her sleeve-covered hands were now bunched under her chin as she held herself even tighter, almost in a fetal position.

It was her standard response to any question about her parents but since she has never defined what a usual visit with her parents looked like it was challenging to decipher. I could only push so hard. It had taken a long time to get Jennie to be even this responsive to me. She was on the edge and I didn’t want to push her over it.

The rest of the session was mostly silent except for my gentle prods to get Jennie to open up just a little more. Her anorexia nervosa was so advanced that I was afraid I’d lose her to heart failure before we could make the kind of progress I hoped for. Not uncommon for patients with anorexia, Jennie controlled her food intake more fiercely than the gold was guarded at Fort Knox. It was the only area of her life where she felt she had any control and control it she did.

Her pain resonated through the office and it hit me hard today. Not as hard as Lizzie’s had during our last session and perhaps I was more vulnerable because of it. I feel others pain too easily - it’s one of the reasons I became a therapist. It’s a gift and a curse, and lately it has been an overwhelming curse.

Scene 2 - Therapist’s Home

Dana and I maintained a somewhat peaceful coexistence since our blowup over the mall visit and how she had dressed. Her clothing choices returned to more of the Dana I thought I knew but somehow I suspected she was taking a change of clothing with her and dressing differently at school. She was craving the kind of male attention most adolescent girls do but in her case it was amplified. I was afraid for her because I knew what that was like.

Her father and I never should have married and we certainly shouldn’t have brought a child into this world with all the baggage we both carried from our own childhoods. But then when you’re young and think you’re in love that’s a difficult standard to live up to. I love my daughter I just feel so helpless these days where she’s concerned.

The divorce wasn’t bitter like most but Dana’s father - my ex - walked away and started a new life - new family, new house, new car, new dog, new everything - and Dana wasn’t meant to be part of that. At least that’s what she said after each visit. The time between visits grew and soon Dana stopped seeing her father completely.

The child support checks came on time and without debate but Dana needed more than basic survival needs. She needed a chance to develop a healthy relationship with the most important male figure in her life. I knew what happened when that wasn’t available.

I was concerned that she was projecting this need onto a very unsuitable boy at school. She wouldn’t be the first young girl to do this but right now I had doubts about my own ability to steer her in the right direction. Yes, the therapist was at a loss in how to deal and communicate with her own child.

An overwhelming sense of sadness swept through my entire body. I was losing my daughter at the same time I felt at a loss with my patients. One of my daughters many standard retorts jumped into my head - Reality Bites! - and right now it truly did.

Scene 3 - Therapist’s Office

I started seeing Regina once a week. Used to be I could just pop into her schedule whenever I needed a "tune-up" of emotional strength. Not anymore. I needed someone to guide me through what I was sure would be an extremely difficult time for me.

"Have you asked Dana if she’d like to visit her father?" The question jolted me.

"He doesn’t want her around." I knew I sounded defensive, resentful. I heard it in my voice, felt it in my body.

"How do you know?" Perhaps I didn’t know. Perhaps I was angry at him for moving on when I didn’t seem to be able to. I stopped myself from over-analyzing the situation. Analysis paralysis - gets the best of us every time.

"Look, Georgia – "

Here it comes.

"– you’re going to have to accept that Dana is growing up and away from you. That’s normal. What’s not normal is her not having a relationship with her father and if you want her to grow into a healthy young woman who has healthy relationships you need to help her find a way to reach out to her father."

I knew she spoke the truth but it was still hard to digest. It had been just the two of us - Dana and I - for so long now I couldn’t imagine my life without her. What a heavy burden to put on a teenage girl!

"And you need to start dating again." Regina’s words sent me into panic mode. I had enough heartache in my life these days. How could I risk yet someone else breaking my heart!

"Georgia, stop jumping ahead to it ending in disaster." She knew me so well. "There are other outcomes - like you could find someone who’d bring you some happiness."

A weak smile worked its way across my face. I felt a sense of fear akin to standing on the high diving board. All I could think to say to myself was don’t look down.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Season 1 - Episode 1

Scene 1 - Therapist’s Office

The young woman who sat across from me reminded me of someone. I knew who but I couldn’t let myself explore that right now. She needed a therapist not a gazer.

Her pain was real, raw. She had been raped. The violation bled through her skin.

Tears streamed down her face as she tried to hold it all together. I reached for the box of tissues and held it out to her. She took one and curled her legs beneath her in the oversized chair that sat catty-cornered from mine. I always felt that sitting directly across from a patient was more like an interrogation. I placed the box on the table between us just in case.

"Have you told your parents yet?"

Her eyes grew large. "I can’t"

"What are you afraid of?" This wasn’t new ground for us. The rape had happened a month ago and she struggled over telling her parents. It was still raw but she needed all the support she could get right now.

"They’ll be angry." She choked out the words.

"Why do you feel they’ll be angry?"

"They told me to be careful. They told me not to do anything I’d regret."

"What do you regret?" I kept my voice neutral. I felt what she meant, but this was about her - not me.

"That I went to that party. That I trusted someone I shouldn’t." Her tears flowed even harder. "How could I have been so stupid."

"Lizzie, going to a party doesn’t give someone else the right to rape you."

"But I shouldn’t have gone. I shouldn’t have gone." Her voice trailed off into a deep sea of sadness.

It always sounds so trite but I kept telling her she couldn’t blame herself, it wasn’t her fault. That was the focus of the rest of our session.

I see many rape victims in my practice - too many, but this girl was different. She reminded me of someone and that someone was me.

Scene 2 - Therapist’s Home

When I arrived home my fifteen-going-on-thirty year-old daughter had the phone fused to her right ear.

"So, what are you going to wear tonight?" She turned to see that I was in the room and her expression turned guarded.

Clothes were her favorite topic of conversation. It was difficult to convince her there were other aspects of life besides clothes.

I signaled that I needed to talk with her.

"Stacy - gotta go - my mom just got home." Her tone was hurried, even secretive.

I know I’m a therapist but it still smarts when your own child acts like spending time with you is a burden. Academic echoes of it’s normal - children need to go through a healthy separation from their parents - didn’t help ease the pain of being rejected. I tried to stay in my head.

"Is dinner ready?" It was one of her few chores.

"Yes, mom - do you always have to ask me that!" Her voice held an all-too-familiar huffiness and anger as she disappeared into her room.

In the kitchen the table was set with only one plate. My heart sank, taking an all too familiar plunge. A small pot with macaroni and cheese and a side dish of frozen peas and carrots, now simmering, sat on the stove. I sank into the chair at the kitchen table and struggled to find balance. I lectured myself in my head as if I were my own patient. It felt appropriately schizophrenic.

I heard Dana’s footsteps coming down the hall towards the kitchen and I turned towards my daughter, who was increasingly becoming a stranger to me, and asked if she would be joining me for dinner, something that I had always insisted on.

"I already ate. Stacy and I are going to the mall."

Her outfit alarmed me. I quickly sorted through my feelings trying not to project my emotions from the intensity of my last session today onto my daughter who was just trying to find herself.

"Not dressed like that you aren’t!" Okay, I didn’t find balance.

"This is how everybody dresses!" She stomped her foot emphasizing her adolescent rebellion.

"Just because everyone else does it, doesn’t mean –"

"I have to do it too!" she cut me off finishing a fairly standard lecture lately. "Well, maybe I want to. Maybe I want to be like everyone else and not some kind of freak."

"What makes you think you’re a freak?" I infused my tone with love and compassion, fighting off my fear and anger that threatened to push Dana even further away from me.

"Oh you wouldn’t understand." Her words were flung up into the air as she spun away from me in a fit of rage and rebellion. Her bedroom door slammed a few minutes later sending a small shockwave through the house.

My gut ached as I watched my child, my once fun-loving and adoring child, slip away from me. I felt so helpless, so alone as tears streamed down my face. The image of Lizzie sitting in the over-stuff chair in my office flashed in mind and I reached out to her in spirit as a kindred soul.

Scene 3 - Therapist’s Office

I stared out the window through the gaps in the venetian blinds, trying to let myself be distracted. It was difficult for me to sit as a patient while I talked, but that’s what I was - a patient. The therapist had a therapist!

"Georgia, you know how this works. We talk through our pain and issues so we can go forward, but if you want to pay me to just stand looking out my window, that’s okay too."

Regina’s voice broke through my struggle. She was more than my therapist, she was my mentor, as well as a dear friend and the strongest woman I’ve ever known. I felt pathetic at my helplessness after everything that she’d been through in her own life and survived. My problems seemed simple compared to the boulders that were thrown her way. My pain fought against logic and I slumped down into the chair and started to cry.

"Why didn’t they love me! Why didn’t they protect me!"

I took a tissue from the box she extended just as I had done with Lizzie.

"Perhaps they didn’t know how." Regina was in therapist mode but her voice was laced with concern for me as a friend. She was good at setting healthy boundaries.

"Bullshit!" The word sprung from my gut. Perhaps it was true but it didn’t feel like it right now.

Regina sat silent, letting me deal with the anger-infused air around me. I felt as if someone had sprayed me with a toxic chemical and I struggled to breath. I always felt a toxic wave come over me when the subject of my parents came up. After all they were the ones I needed protection from.