Where Therapy Starts: Witnessing Another’s Suffering

I was reminded of a basic human need — a therapeutic need — in the middle of a boulevard. Recognizing another’s pain happens routinely in therapy, but this unfolded outside, in public, on a windy winter afternoon.

Imagine a wheelchair-bound, middle-aged black man. His clothing dark, his appearance unremarkable but for the machine he sat in. I hardly noticed him and he was not aware I was standing a few feet behind and to his right. We shared only the patience of waiting for the electronic sign to brighten and whiten — for the Michigan Avenue traffic to stop in Chicago’s downtown.

The walk signal came on and the red light turned green, permitting cars and pedestrians westward travel on Lake Street. Perhaps another second passed before a northbound SUV ran the red light in front of the chairbound man, within a few inches of the chairbound man. He’d just started to maneuver off the sidewalk. Had he owned a motorized device, a quick start would have put him in the SUV’s path. There was no hit and run, thank goodness.

Even from behind his upset was evident. The driver of the tall car must not have seen the artificially short man, diminished by his seated position. The near-victim of the near miss shouted something indistinct in a voice lacking force. He raised a left fist, impotent because it lacked a goal. The hand held only frustration and great sorrow. The vehicle was past him, the driver oblivious. People stepped into the street. No one recognized the close call, the tragedy averted, the remaining distress.

Not quite. My wife did and so did I.

I caught up to him in mid-Michigan Avenue, said I saw what happened. He described the event, needed to tell his story even though I gave my own report. The man related the brief tale twice. I mentioned I was glad he was safe and put my left hand on his right shoulder. He thanked me. The sitting soul needed to talk, needed someone to mark his words. All this in a few seconds, in the time required to cross the boulevard. The stranger wished me a pleasant weekend and again repeated thanks and his hope I’d have good fortune ahead. His speech carried some urgency and offered more gratitude than I expected.

What had I done? Nothing remarkable, but something necessary.

A man in a wheelchair is an easy target. Imagine his life. People are always passing by, speeding up, trying to get away. You have no stature. In a measuring world you are deficient. Your presence sets others to flight, instigates multiple small rejections. You are identified not by your human qualities but a machine; as an encumbrance, an obstacle to be negotiated, a thing. Does such a one feel helpless? This person appeared to. I could not climb down into his head, but I wondered later if the incident made him feel less of a man.

I deserve no special credit here. This is not about me. This is about humanity, our needs. On big city streets we are invisible or objectified, even the handsome and beautiful. But we are people, not furniture, not newspaper kiosks, not light poles. We suffer, we laugh. We create, we love. We live and die. All this is personal, treated as impersonal. In between the two sides of Michigan Avenue a man was witnessed. An anonymous individual became a person. Dignity returned to him in some small measure. At least that is what I imagine.

In giving the stranger my focus, perhaps I provided a bit of repair to someone who was otherwise not even an afterthought. Therapists do this in session. We validate and acknowledge; we listen, note the hurt and give it weight, meaning; extend a metaphorical helping hand, a meeting of the eyes, an affirmation.

Recovery often sounds complicated and often is. But remember too, life is full of simple things; simple but valuable things a therapist offers: everyday gestures that do not always happen every day.

We humans do not ask so very much.

The top photo is of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair. It is the work of jimbowen0306 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How I was Made Invisible


Claude Rains is a name you probably don’t know. But, he was my hero for a brief moment in my early life.

He was The Invisible Man in the 1930s movie of the same name. True, the horror movie reruns I saw in the  ’50s and ’60s showed that the serum he’d developed not only achieved the desired vanishing effect, but drove him crazy.

But, I figured, that really was no big deal, since my parents were already driving me crazy at the time, alternately ignoring me and giving me crap. Not much to risk, or so I thought.

It seemed to me that invisibility was the solution to a good many of the problems faced by high school freshmen, and certainly that included my own. I wanted to be in control of my image: seen when I wanted to be seen and transparent all the rest of the time. But, mostly what I got was others’ awareness of me when I least wanted it; and total anonymity to the point of disappearance when I hoped for someone to pay attention.

The potion I sought would, for one thing, allow me to pass through the awkward stage my mom said I was going through without being noticed. By that, I took her to mean that I was no longer the charming, attractive kid she’d given birth to, but someone she wanted to trade in for a newer model and another chance.

Tact was not her strong point.

The “blending in” I desired would allow my body, my facial features, my acne, and my psyche, all to resolve themselves without anyone having to see me in the various humiliating stages of transformation. Since mom was also an amateur barber, her occasionally ruinous haircuts would also go undetected by my peers.

Today a kid might consider cosmetic surgery as a partial remedy. But even if I could have paid for all this, I actually didn’t want to miss school. Moreover, I realized that if I were in the hospital it would give my family the chance to pack up everything and move to another city without my knowledge. No, I needed a solution that allowed me to foil any such attempt on their part.

Indeed, part of my invention was intended exclusively for school and those moments when you had to do something you were uncomfortable doing, like giving an oral report or answering a tough question in class. With a fast-acting invisibility serum, these problems would be easily solved. I’d be there one minute, gone the next.

First I persuaded my parents to buy me a chemistry set. I set the chemicals up in the basement. All the vials and test tubes and Florence flasks and Erlenmeyer flasks were carefully arrayed. The subterranean chamber was not just out of my parents’ way, but literally beneath their possible oversight.

All the oils and liquids would be burned in my unstinting effort; even the proverbial midnite oil. Nothing could stop me now.

After several weeks of frustration and failure, I managed to create a solution that would make ink disappear. This proved a problem when I accidentally obliterated a paper I was writing for history class. Still, if I could make my writing go away, true invisibility of its corporeal author wouldn’t be far off.

Finally, I had something that I thought would work, but I had to try it out. The place to start was clearly in the kitchen, where mom was preoccupied with cooking.

I walked quietly upstairs on tip-toes, so as not to allow her to hear my approach. Then I stood immediately to her right, just inches away as she struggled with the frying pan and what was to pass for dinner on one of the stove’s burners.

Cooking was always a losing battle for her, causing home-cooked meals to become more a necessity than a pleasure for the rest of us. I passed my hand in front of her face. She didn’t look up — didn’t seem even to take notice of me or turn in my direction, instead keeping her eyes on the spattering, blackening scene of her daily defeat.

So far, so good.

Then I walked to the living room, where dad was engrossed with a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game and reading the newspaper simultaneously, quietly steeling himself for the teeth-grinding effort he would soon have to make in order to down my mother’s culinary preparation.

I walked in front of the TV back and forth — same result.

It could only mean one thing. I was invisible, undetectable to the naked eye!

The next day I went to my morning English Class, taught by Patricia Daley, daughter of the great (but now late) Richard J. Daley, then Mayor of Chicago. Interestingly, that day she was talking about civic responsibility, not English. The moment of truth arrived when she asked whether I could name my congressman.

My usual thought would have been, “why me?” Of course, at 14 I had no idea who my congressman was. But this was the chance I’d been waiting for, a test of the invisibility serum out in the real world.

I reached into my pocket, pretended to cough and took a swig out of the vial that was hidden in my fist. “Give it a few seconds,” I thought to myself.

“Please stand up, Gerald.” Miss Daley always asked us to stand whenever we answered questions orally. I dutifully complied. I knew that I probably needed a little additional time for my concoction to work.

A few more seconds passed.


What was happening? Had the vanishing juice failed me? I was totally humiliated in the face of my tittering classmates. I could only state that I had no idea of the correct answer. Not only didn’t I have a response to the question, but the kids were amused by my struck-dumb silence.

As I sat down I looked at my hands on the desk. I couldn’t see them. Was it my imagination that light passed through me or the blinding glare coming from the wall of windows on my left?

Back home later in the day, I again tried the experiment of the night before. Mom and dad both ignored me once more. I didn’t even eat the food she prepared, figuring that would probably get her attention. Mom watched only my dad, as the lava flow of his catsup bottle made a pork chop resemble tomato soup. No, nothing was said to me or about me. Dad simply poured the catsup all over his meal as he always did, trying, as he delicately put it, “to kill the taste.”

I racked my brain to figure out the contradiction between what happened in class and what happened at home. I could be seen in the school room when I wanted to vanish, but not in “the friendly confines” of our house where I wanted to be noticed. What was the deal? Another day of school would soon be upon me. What could I do?

Finally, the answer came to me. I thought back to the old movie and Claude Rains. He realized that in order to be utterly undetected, he had to take off all his clothes, otherwise people would know he was present by seeing the headless figure of his wardrobe walking around, as in the drawing at the top of this page.

At least, that is what I told the arresting officer the next day when I showed up at school naked!

The above image is a comic book cover of the Classics Illustrated version of H.G.Wells’s The Invisible Man published on June 14, 1942. It is sourced from Geoffrey Biggs at Wikimedia Commons.