The Therapeutic Search for Your Past

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Unless your symptoms can be relieved without an excavation of your ancient history, most counselors will encourage discussion of your past. For some patients this is at their fingertips in fine detail and painful intensity. For others only the emotions are reachable, without being joined to specific memories. A blank slate is found in still another group of clients: they own few recollections, feelings, or interest in bygone days. Yet if the healer believes you were damaged early, he must find a way to assist you in the search for them.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of a particular aroma or flavor evoking a childhood recollection. The most famous literary example comes in Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The narrator unknowingly refers to the therapeutic dilemma of retrieving the past when it does not come easily of itself:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.

The narrator tells us how the enormous world of his early memories was opened by the simple act of eating the crumbs of a petite madeleine (a small French sponge cake) mixed with tea, reminding him of this treat offered by his aunt and leading to more and different recollections. Here is the attentive therapist’s key to assisting his patient: a knowledge that the sensory world can help unearth the client’s excavation of his early life. You must dig with your bare hands — get your fingers dirty, literally — if you spent youthful time playing in your backyard in the grass, clay, and soil. There, in the movement, scent, and contact might you find a piece of yourself.

We all recognize our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Thus, the therapist can suggest his client return to his old neighborhood and walk the path he took to school or the playground, or once again ride the bus along a familiar route. I have even known people who persuaded the new occupant of their old apartment to permit a brief tour. If the patient lives far from this place, an imaginary journey is still possible.

Photos of yesteryear can do some of the work — the heavy lifting of evocation. Songs of the time or those sang by babysitters can spring the release of powerful emotions. Proust’s example leads us to recall what foods we ate when we were small, what sounds were present in our flat and nearby, what games we played and TV or radio programs we watched and listened to, what childhood possessions we treasured. None of this is foolproof, guaranteed to open yesterday’s locked door. Yet such efforts sometimes work like a domino game, one toppled piece striking the next and that piece hitting another in turn, as if each object were a newly triggered memory. Nor should consultation with an old friend or relative be ignored. Their recall may trigger your own.

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A similar occurrence recently happened to me. Since crayons will find their way into my grandson’s hands before long, those coloring sticks became a topic of discussion. In my early school years, Crayola Crayons — the Cadillac brand of coloring hardware — were on the equipment list for the summer’s end march to your new daytime captivity. Mom, ever frugal because of her own impoverished childhood, bought an economy size for me, perhaps only the smallest box of eight or the next step up. To my chagrin, however, all my classmates (or so it seemed to me) had larger boxes, several hugging and lugging the giant 48 (or was the number 64?) cardboard container to Jamieson School. Apart from saving me from a possible hernia, I can now remember a sense of shame and loss of status connected with my small Crayola box. Size, long before I understood anything about sexuality, did matter.

Recollections like these are grist for the treatment mill, capable of revealing the origin of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and more. You can also use them as adjuncts to self-understanding outside of therapy. Distant memories tend to be available for retrieval because of an attached emotional charge, whether joyful or dispiriting. The thrill or disappointment or humiliation of a childhood event seems to bind the occurrence to a place somewhere in our consciousness, even if we must struggle to find it.

As Harvard psychologist Robert Kagan said:

The task of describing most private experiences can be likened to reaching down to a deep well to pick up small, fragile crystal figures while you are wearing thick leather mittens.

Searching your past is not for the faint of heart: you do not know what you might find. Yet among the detritus uncovered in your archeological dig, there may be sharp-edged treasures, perhaps even a key to release you from invisible tethers restricting your enjoyment of life’s fullness.

The old joke tells us that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging.

Funny how psychotherapy advice is sometimes just the opposite.

The top picture of the Madeleines de Commercy is the work of Bernard LeprĂȘtre. The photo of the very First Version of the Crayola No. 64 Box comes from Kurt Baty. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Ricketts or Rickets? “What’s in a Name?”

When I heard that the Ricketts family had purchased the Cubs, I immediately began to worry. Rickets (note that the name has only one “t,” unlike that of the Ricketts family) is, after all, a childhood vitamin deficiency disease, typically caused by a lack of vitamin D. The bones, as a result, are softened and malformed. Just what we need on the Cubs, I thought.

Names. The value of names. That is really what I’m talking about. (More about the Cubs later in this essay). Early in their life in school, kids find out that names can be a problem. Kids will rhyme and twist names to make you wish you didn’t have one or could crawl under a rock. I remember a girl called Leslie who was the only female in my high school physics class. The class wit called her “Lester” and the over-matched teacher didn’t rein him in. Doubtless, Leslie felt miserable.

Someone I know has a nephew with the initials “F.U.” What were the parents thinking? In fact, it was pointed out to them, very early, that the name they had in mind would, because of these initials, cause the child endless grief. Did they care? Apparently not. Some parents will argue that they do this to “toughen-up” their little guys. I doubt it.

Most of us are sensitive about our names. We want them said correctly and written correctly. They are us, in effect. I’ve been corrected properly when I called a woman “Judy” whose name was Judith. We want to be noted and respected. We don’t want our names besmirched, mutilated, or forgotten. When speakers thank others in public, they often take pains to list everyone who deserves some credit. They do this with good reason. We want to be thought of fondly and well.

Witness Shakespeare’s Henry V motivating his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, which was to occur on St. Crispin’s Day:

“…He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d…”

Of course, being “named,” isn’t always a good thing. Being named in an indictment, for example; or, during the infamous days of Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, having your name uttered by a witness as a possible Communist. The hearings in question concerned alleged Communist infiltration of the Federal Government and the entertainment industry. These could result in the subpoena of the named-individual to testify before the same congressional committee, not to mention the possibility of being fired from his job and being blackballed from making a living. Unless, of course, he too would be willing to go before the committee and “name names,” thus betraying people he knew and even, sometimes, people he was close to.

Back to the Cubs, we are told that there is little possibility that “naming rights” to Wrigley Field will be sold. If that were to happen, however, the fans of the Cubs would have their attachment to a name sorely tested. But, of course, one can only hope that the “Ricketts era” will bring the World Series that we have all been waiting for, and that many have died waiting for after leading long lives that began in late 1908 or later, and ended anytime since. And we’ve heard other, older names carrying the same promise: the infamous “College of Coaches” that was supposed to transform the Cubs in the early 1960s, the hiring of Leo Durocher to manage the 1966 team that finished in 10th place, the purchase of the Cubs by the Tribune Company and the installation of Dallas Green (named General Manager) to produce a retooling that would lead to the World Series; and, who can forget how Dusty Baker was touted as a savior a few years ago, only to be replaced by the naming of Lou Pinella, savior next-in-line, to replace Dusty in the dugout.

Will the Ricketts name be worth the paper it is written on? Will it be a better name than Chicago Tribune? Shakespeare gives us a hint, in the form of Juliet’s words to Romeo, who, after all, has a last name detested by her family, and visa versa:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

So, it would appear that the real question is whether the “Ricketts Era” Cubs will pass the smell test.

Shakespeare knew everything.

Gone in 60 Seconds: How to Lose Three Girlfriends in a Minute

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I was a dashing little boy. Resplendent in the Indian (Native American) head-dress my parents gave me and the cowboy holster and six guns that I wore around my waist. Of course, the contradictions among those elements of attire didn’t bother me. Perhaps they were an early indication of my tendency to see both sides of an argument.

I was a six-year-old. I didn’t wear my western outfit to school, but I was still pretty cute: a curly-haired, fresh-faced, sweet little boy, with large hazel eyes. And I had three girlfriends! Count ’em: three! Way more than any of the other little boys in my kindergarten class. Was it at Avondale School or Jamieson? I don’t remember that.

Little did I know that I was about to meet my Waterloo. Little did I know that the great disasters of life are largely unforeseen; and that fortune can turn in an instant.

The teacher gave us an assignment to draw something. I don’t recall just what it was. But I was good at anything having to do with art and quickly finished off my mini-Picasso masterpiece. That gave me a little time. And so I walked over to the place where two of my girlfriends were hard at work on their own artistic products.

What exactly did it mean to have three girlfriends? I was six, for God’s sake. I never saw them outside of our kindergarten class. I doubt I ever held hands with even one of them. Still, there was a sense of security, a point of pride in “having” three pretty little females each of whom also thought I was her boyfriend, and each of whom was just as clueless as I was about what that might mean.

I can still see myself standing in front of the first two charmers, who were, by the way, best friends. And I can still hear the question one of them asked me: “Gerry, whose picture do you like the best?”

Remember, I was six. Maybe even five. No life experience. A piece of unripe fruit, yet to be churned by the cruelties of the human food processor of daily life. I was pure and naive. And terribly, terribly honest.

So I answered. I chose one. I don’t remember which one. I only remember the aftermath.

The unchosen female immediately burst into tears. “You made me cry. You aren’t my boyfriend anymore!”

I was stunned. It might even have been her question that prompted the answer she was blaming me for. I considered using the Nuremberg Defense (“I was just following orders).” But before I could say anything, the next hammer dropped.

Her companion, girlfriend #2, looked at me and said: “You made my friend cry. You aren’t my boyfriend any more.”

My stock was falling like the Dow Jones Industrial Average on “Black Friday.” I was down two-thirds on my net girlfriend-worth. I was sweating. I didn’t know what to do. I must have mumbled something about being sorry. But the hard-hearted pair facing me had rendered their unchangeable verdict. The Gerry Stein Fan Club was quickly disbanding.

In my desperation I did what most anyone would do. I ran over to my one remaining girlfriend, the better to secure my position with her. God knows, if she asked me what I thought of her drawing, I was prepared to tell her that not even Rembrandt could have done half as well.

Unfortunately, in my haste I wasn’t especially careful about where my feet were going. And the hard wood floor had recently been polished, making traction tricky and braking balky. I over-ran my target and accidentally stepped on my remaining girlfriend’s foot. This damsel, now in distress, quickly began to cry. And you already know the rest: “You made me cry. You’re not my boyfriend any more.”

Dazed, stunned, disillusioned, and confused, I probably would have walked into traffic if we hadn’t been in a secure environment. Everyone else continued to busy themselves in drawing and conversation. I alone was crushed, alienated from humanity, feeling for the first time in my life the cruel indifference of a world that goes on about its business, ignoring the human road-kill still to be observed in its peripheral vision.

Little did I know my moment of lifetime peak popularity with the opposite gender had passed.

Somehow, life went on. I did, of course, have girlfriends again, although always one at a time. I eventually recovered enough to get an education, do some things of value in life, win a few awards, marry, and have children.

Over the years, my perspective on this event changed. I came to realize that I’d done something pretty remarkable. That I set a world record for most breakups within 60 seconds time. You can check it in the Guinness World Record Book.

Like Joe DiMaggio’s achievement of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games set in 1941, I’m pretty sure this mark will stand the test of time. There is a little bit of solace in that, some compensation for my kindergarten disaster, my childhood tsunami.

And now you know why I became a psychologist!

The above image is called Bath Time Smooches by Kyle Flood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.