Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

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The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.

Ghosts.

Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.

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Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”

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We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.

 

12 thoughts on “Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

  1. Well, you got my attention with the title (…Starting Over, Fixing Things…) and then you REALLY got my attention with the Golden Gate Bridge. Have you ever walked over that bridge in the fog (which is what usually envelopes it)? Quite majestic on approach and quite majestic up close….scary, too, if you’re afraid of heights.

    But I digress. I don’t know about restarting therapy but I do know about the need to attend to relationships. It is so easy to take care of the chores and the routine tasks of life and so easy to let friendships lapse. Sometimes the friendship is necessarily lost because of the lapse and sometimes when you reach out, you discover that the friend you once knew doesn’t really live here anymore. But sometimes? Sometimes the friendship is deeper when it has simmered on the back of the stove for some years. At least that’s what I’ve discovered.

    And, wow, big time score with the TS Elliot lines. Shivers. That’s all I can say. Shivers.

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    • I’ve driven over the bridge several times, but never in the fog; nor have I walked it in the fog. Sounds like an act of faith may be required if you can’t see anything but oblivion. As to friendship, like many of the questions I ask in these posts, I am asking them of all of you and asking them of myself. Thanks for taking me seriously, JT.

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  2. What a beautiful beautiful post….
    I have often thought it is one of the dangers of social media that it gives us the impression of keeping in touch and sustaining friendships and therefore ‘releases’ us from having to make the effort in other ways. But knowing what our friend is doing , what they’re eating , what their pets or children have been up to, is not the same as knowing what they’re thinking and feeling.
    Your post made me wonder whether I should get back in touch with that friend I mentioned in a post, who hasn’t spoken to me for two years. We are still technically Facebook friends and can see what each other is doing, but have had no communication. I find it really difficult to let go of friendships but I think the truth is we are better off without each other, she and I. We have the same diagnosis and though it shouldn’t matter, it causes us no end of problems. But there are others I could be better at keeping in touch with; it’s not as though I have rafts of friends but it’s still v difficult to maintain regular contact with most of them. Though I never make new year’s resolutions perhaps I can nevertheless set myself the task of how I can do that better….
    And in a cheeky reply to JT, TS Eliot always hits the spot, he never fails 😉 I have started to think recently, that had they existed then in the same way, he would have been a fantastic spoken word artist 🙂

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    • I’m glad you raised the particularity of “knowing” someone. I agree entirely. How much I learned, especially as a kid, of seeing how my friends lived, what was on their walls, who their parents were, how furniture was arranged, what they ate, how they ate, etc. As I suggested to JT (above), I understand that some friendships are indeed, “of their time.” We don’t grow uniformly, at the same pace and in the same direction — which, of course, raises questions about our “permanent” relationships like spouses and children. Thank you for always thoughtful comments.

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  3. I enjoyed this post. Those chalk drawings are incredible!

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  4. Dr. Stein, thanks for your insightful, heartfelt, and well written article ❤

    "Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?"

    Your question brought to mind an incident that occurred while visiting my mother on Valentine’s Day 2009. My visit was yet another attempt to mend the divide between us that had caused me many a tearful night. I expressed the resulting pain in a poem, “More than a Chair.”

    A droplet of water / slipped from the glass / of icy tea / pressed to my rose-pink lips.
    The droplet hit the seat / between my legs / clad in blue jeans / perched on the antique chair.
    Watch out, the chair, she cried / six feet away / sipping ice tea / topped in a crystal glass.
    On the salmon-pink seat / mushroomed a stain / a water mark / trapped in linen fibers.
    She hurried to the chair / dropped to her knees / towel in hand / erased the water stain.

    Teardrops soak the pillow / and white bed sheet. / No one to dry the tears. / No one to wipe away the sorrow.

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  5. You captured the heart of the matter, heart in both senses. So sorry you had to go through that incident and more. Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  6. we fear the intimate, healing touch of others, we hide from our pack need for safety, we can conquer the world on our own and yet when contact does come around we cling to it good or bad preferring the quanitity to the quality, we worship words over feelings and emotional, we have forgotten the sound of the voices of those loved and cherished to us, I look around my therapist’s safe space and wonder in awe at the possibilities she lays out for me, treasure trove of an Aladdin’s cave yet in my terror of vulnerability I sit on my hands and I don’t touch and the connect becomes black and white, two then one dimensional and the fireworks splutter and go out, but I still hold the image in my head of what could and can be, we all sit in horror judgement of being vulnerable yet it is in reaching out and in words saying out loud what our vulnerable feels like, tastes like, looks like, in that reaching out into the unknown, to person and possibilities unknown, that is when we find the incredible strength of oak trees and red woods and the healing touch of willows

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  7. Yes, there is strength, Rosie. No free lunch and lots of danger, but strength to seek the “maybe” in life. Maybe is all any of us get for taking a risk, but if we operate on the “maybe” then we get to a reality of “sometimes,” less than 100%, when things to work out. We know, in any case, that in making the effort we are alive. If there is no risk then we do achieve 100% of something making us unhappy. Thanks for you comment, Rosie.

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  8. I find it very touching that you occasionally call former patients. Some of my most meaningful encounters have come about by my taking a chance, departing from the customary, or simply stepping outside my bubble.

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    • Thanks, Evelyn. The calls have stopped since I stopped practicing, but I did, indeed, do what I’ve described, with no adverse consequence as far as I know.

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