Finding Your Father in Yourself

It was a strange meeting, but there was a symmetry to the event. A circle closed, like the earth coming round the sun for a new try at the thing called a day. The father coming round the son, too.

How could he? My dad died 19 years ago.

Death is a vanishing, an evaporation of substantiality, an empty place. I no more see my author as a breathing, touchable creature looking back at me. He won’t tap on the bottom of the always necessary ketchup bottle at supper. Milt Stein’s eyes will never sparkle delivering jokes he can’t tell, nor a rare tear reappear for a last bow.

So I thought, until he showed up on Father’s Day, 2019. A strange meeting, as I said.

Shopping with my wife I spotted a set of adhesive, black, cloth mustaches hanging from a shelf.

“Buy me,” the product whispered. Little persuasion was necessary. I figured my eldest grandson would get a cheap boost of happiness. The pint-sized person is easy to please just by showing up. His smile alone juices my serotonin, too. Market this small man if you can and he’ll replace antidepressants.

When we arrived at his home two days later I grabbed W, who reminds me often he is “a big boy.” My little descendant is almost four and, indeed, sizeable for his age. An outgoing spirit who loves to laugh and read, with a specialty in all things dinosaur. A strong personality like his mom.

“I got you something, W.” The lad couldn’t wait. The fake facial accessories were opened right away. The largest attached to my grandson’s upper lip, another clung to my own.

My youngest daughter photographed us. A baseball cap covered my broad expanse of scalp. The picture of me was not me, however.

A revenant appeared, a ghost. Did you hear the door creak? My father snuck in and emerged from the pixels.

More snapshots got taken with my grandson. My wife, daughters, and brothers all remember dad. They concurred in my transformed likeness.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein was present. Here was a man who claimed fame for pitching every day, the make-believe star hurler of the Chicago Cubs. Here materialized the indefatigable and reliable husband and sire he made himself into.

The family joke-of-a-story never failed to amuse us. Had my wife and I created a male child instead of our wonderful girls, we intended to name him Rainer. The old man knew our plans.

I wear baseball caps a lot, but the addition of the facial, felt, fakery did its magic. Dark mustache added, baldness subtracted, I was he. That and no longer being the younger man I look like to myself most of the time. Research suggests we begin to think of ourselves as 15 years below our step on the chronology ladder once we land on the rung marked “Middle Age.”

Unlike me — his oldest son — dad retained a decent head of hair all his life. Somewhere near 60 padre added to his masculinity with a mustache. I must have asked him why, but don’t recall the answer.

The additional hair favored him, so he displayed himself to the world this way for the last 30 years or so of his life. His three boys, Ed, Jack, and I, remember him in this post-prime, but still genuine version.

I now live with my father, I suppose. OK, we all do, but I mean in a new way. He is nearby externally as well as inside. With a few adornments I am a visible reincarnation of him.

Perhaps I’ll go out and acquire several more top lip appendages for those moments I wish my father close-at-hand again. I’d stand before the mirror, of course.

If I have the urge to reach forward the whole enterprise would collapse. Too full of unfulfilled emotion, something life inevitably acquaints us with. But if I could peer straight ahead, smile, and sense a bit of the warmth and love he brought me, then … well, then …

Fill in the blanks however you desire. Maybe your experience would be different. Anyway, this Father’s Day was memorable and surprising.

Go shopping. Buy whatever speaks to you. Bring a camera. You never know who you will meet when you get home.

——-

The top photo of Jeanette and Milton Stein was taken around 1990, the year of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Remarkable Recovery From Unspeakable Grief and PTSD

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Some stories stick with you. The word “heartbreaking” is not enough to describe them; nor do “resilience,” “survival,” and “overcoming misery” say enough.” Yet all those words apply.

The therapist in the tale who helped enable a positive conclusion was Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D. He related this account in a video focused on finding meaning in the aftermath of trauma: PTSD & Complex PTSD: Ways to Bolster Resilience. 

Don’t read further if you wish to avert your eyes from tragedy, but understand this: you cannot know of the treatment that allowed for a redemptive, healing story unless you face it.

The woman: a young, bright, intelligent mother. A good mother. Her husband was away on a business trip. Home held only her daughter and herself. An intruder could be heard downstairs. Mom entered Vicky’s room and they hid in her closet. The burglars left without going upstairs. The event upset both Vicky and the mother, worried such an episode might happen when the husband/father traveled once more to make his living. The adults installed a security system and alerted the police. They lived in a safe neighborhood. No reason to expect another forced entry. Still, the man insisted his wife get a gun, just in case. She did not like firearms, but relented. The night stand next to her bed harbored the weapon.

Time passed. The man traveled again. Late and stormy darkness. Noises downstairs. Was the mother dreaming, reliving an imaginary or remembered version of the home invasion?

No. No. No. Not again.

Yes, again.

The mother urgently reached for the gun and moved toward her bedroom door to go to Vicky’s room, just as she had the first time. Vicky came running and pushed the mom’s door open. It struck the mother’s hand and the firearm discharged. Vicky died immediately. The mother sat with her dead daughter for 24-hours until the husband returned.

No words are possible. The parents’ lives were forever changed. Guilt, horror, marital separation, grief, depression. Even loving friends became unavailable, unable to bear the story. Alienation and isolation. As the mother saw it, a life not worth living. She deserved to die.

What is a therapist to do? He can never undo the tragedy, but perhaps he can help the survivor to find a reason to live, a meaning for the rest of her life. Here is what Meichenbaum did:

The psychologist knew his job was first to establish a therapeutic alliance, to show compassion, and accept, not judge. He needed to allow the patient to tell her story as she was able, permit its unfolding, not push. A plan to prevent the woman’s self-harm was created. The therapist allowed his emotions to be touched. His own tears came as he listened.

The psychologist asked a question to understand more about the loss. The client had said that Vicky was “special.”

In what way?

She was wise beyond her years.

The first session ended and the doctor arranged a second appointment in two days’ time. Meichenbaum made a request. He said he would be “honored and privileged” if mom brought in a photo album of Vicky, but only if she wanted to: no pressure. He wished to get a further sense of who the child was.

Reviewing the pictures together was painful in the extreme. Yet this marked the beginning of the doctor’s effort to embed the only moment the mother focused on (the accident and death) within a broader narrative of Vicky’s life and her own life: to pull his client out of the single instant of horror into the stream of her ongoing existence — perhaps to create a potential redemptive story projected into the future.

This is not to suggest any kind of treatment would ever erase the pain or guilt completely. Yet, it might still be possible to help the mother give Vicky’s memory meaning. And perhaps to transform the patient’s life in the process.

The therapist asked his client another question. Two, actually. He wanted to know what this child (who was “wise beyond her years”) might say to the parent’s wish for oblivion:

What advice would Vicky give and what would happen to the memory of her if you kill yourself?

The mother affirmed the obvious answers which had escaped her: Vicky would not want her to die. Moreover, the memory of Vicky would also die with the death of the one who knew her best. Meichenbaum’s questions led her to realize she might do some good in the world, something to perpetuate Vicky’s memory and give meaning to the child’s short life. Treatment continued. Mom became a public advocate for gun locks and gun safety, thus transforming her loss and honoring Vicky.

In part, Donald Meichenbaum assisted the patient to fashion a new story of her own life different from one ending with two deaths. She became aware her time on earth was not yet completed. And that Vicky’s impact on the world offered a potential future, if only the parent gave her daughter a metaphorical life — gave voice to what her daughter’s death could still achieve.

This is not at all to suggest the mother wouldn’t have traded anything — anything — to get Vicky back. Yet, the mom might yet continue her existence with a constructive narrative of redeeming value in spite of complicity in the child’s loss.

Meichenbaum is famous for asking questions — for creating a Socratic Dialogue with his patients. He did not give his patient advice, but led the conversation so she might grasp the next rung on the ladder of recovery, not simply be handed it. Therapists should know “directions” from the counselor don’t produce as much “ownership” of the treatment process, nor as much motivation to change, as occurs when he helps the client uncover her own way, not just follow advice.

Might you also find your own way? Might the rest of your story be one of value?

What do YOU say?

The photo is titled Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari and it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking for Answers Where There are only Questions: Relationships that Haunt Us

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Shoulders exist to look back over. We can’t help ourselves. Ghosts — those who are absent — hang out behind, in blighted corners of the mind. Oh, they might be with someone else or in purgatory, but they are just as surely gone in either case. Not forgotten, but gone.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light; from the sadness of the ending to your recovery.

We hope to scrape off the sticky relationship-residue, caustic to the soul.  We search for a satisfying explanation of why things ended. You want to know what happened, bottom to top, left to right, inside out.

One fights to squeeze understanding out of the wet cloth of the past. It seems impossible to reach what is behind you. Your arms are too short, your shoulders resist. Hard as you try, no feat of strength lifts the fog or warms the clinging chill of loneliness. Nor does total comprehension come to you. It feels as though sadness or anger shall follow you all the days of your life, and certainly preoccupation with the way things died. Perhaps the objective side of you knows otherwise, but you are hip-deep in the subjective. A future will only be visible when “night-gloom and damp” are burned off by dawn. It seems infinitely far away: an event that is in front of you while you are twisting your body to look at what is receding.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light. Yes, I am repeating myself.

We begin by trying to figure out why he left or why he cheated or why he wasn’t satisfied. Or why we weren’t satisfied when we “should” have been. We despise our mistakes and our stupidity. Guilt wracks us even if there is no reason for self-blame. We speculate for hours and nights and weeks: why did he criticize and judge us or vice versa? Why didn’t we say something when we could have, before the lights of love or friendship went out?

Why didn’t he tell us? Should we have read his mind?

Why did he embarrass us or we humiliate him? Why, despite everything we did to please him, were we “not enough?”

How did it  happen and might it have been otherwise? The “what ifs” are inescapable. What if we had done more or less? Spent more time or less? Smiled less or more? Set limits more or less? Been affectionate more or less? Been more diplomatic? Not given up so soon?

Remember, I am beside you on the walk.

It feels unique. Crucifixion is personal: singled out on a planet of seven billion. The world goes its indifferent way to the right and we are left, the fetid road kill of a random act of cosmic unkindness.

Wallace Stegner knew our pain. His 1967 novel, All the Live Little Things, reveals the topography of the dark night of the soul. His character, Joe Allston, has seen too much, sustained too many losses. A sixty-something married man living in the ’60s, his self-deadening fortifications against pain are penetrated by two emotional gophers who burrow under his Spartan guard: a young man who reminds him of his dead son and a young woman named Marian, full of ebullient life.

Marian accepts the world and does not judge or complain. “Live! Suffer! Enjoy! Wake up!” She is irrepressibly at one with the natural world as it is — with the terrible and wonderful consequences for her personally. She knows weeds and flowers are entangled, and to poison all the weeds of life will just as surely kill the flowers they surround. The platonic, but tender relationship between Joe and Marian opens Allston, nibbles away, and strips him bare, permitting fatherly affection for this young mother. Her glow warms him and he cannot prevent his guard from dropping, his soul from becoming vulnerable. She stimulates a new state of his being: the joy, pleasure-pain of experience, but also the exquisite awfulness love always exposes us to: the terror of loss he tried to bury by not allowing anything to matter too much.

Joe describes himself:

I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of the flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.

If you are struggling with loss you will find a soul mate in this haunted intellectual. Take solace in hearing another’s voice capture your feelings. His is a life bathed in loss, struggle, and resentment. The generation gap between himself and the “flower children” of the ’60s leaves him caustic. He has been at endless war with the creatures and weeds that would undermine his garden. He is the parent you are or you had — the one who judges and cannot surrender.

Joe is cursed by his thought process: he does not let an event pass without reflection and close inspection. Allston’s struggle is, like all of ours, unique but universal. He thinks we expect too much of life. Each one of us demands permanence where none exists. We pave over our heart’s driveway, hoping no pain will penetrate the concrete slabs, no cracks will ever form. One seeks relationships for lasting assurance and discovers the seeds of their endings present in their beginnings. Jobs start and end. Children joyfully explode into our world, only to leave for their own. The championship crown is for this season only. Next year someone else will wear the laurels.

Human lives — all lives — are in transit, so best to realize that every worldly destination is temporary. If one can, at least occasionally, “get” this, then you will make the most of life and its passing beauties. Yes, you will still stare over your shoulder and struggle with all the questions about what happened and what you might have done. The look back is both unavoidable and required to liberate yourself from what you’ve lost. The passage of time does the rest of the healing.

You can visit this psychological “yesterday,” but don’t stay, lest your backward glance prevent you from escaping the fog of grief and moving through to whatever the new day will offer.

Remember, we never get all the answers. Even if we were able to question the long departed, like Odysseus in the Underworld, the answers received might or might not satisfy, in part because the departed don’t know themselves: both their answers and their self-knowledge are imperfect.

After a while, the questions matter less. There is solace in this. Other people, other causes, laughter and loveliness can enrich you, reducing the need for the scoring key to yesterday’s test.

Your twisted neck wearies of its unnatural position. “Face forward,” wisdom whispers. “The race is in front, not behind. Life goes on. Comfort exists in what is still possible. Joy may yet be yours.”

The photo is called Looking Back. It is the work of Bill Nicholls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Jefferson and the Loss of Someone You Love

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I was not prepared for the shock of it. It was an event I’d feared since my father’s heart attack when I was 12 and had thought about frequently as he aged. But the notion of the stroke-out death of my 88-year-old father in the year 2000 would be a surprise — would catch me up-short — was not anticipated, despite all the people I counseled in their grieving. It was the difference between knowing about a thing and living it.

Nor could I have imagined the almost animal-like pain, the inarticulate state of being words can’t describe, and the feeling of emptiness following; something like an ache at the cellular level, a kind of psychic moan.

And then fatigue, for months, as if, in his death my father had taken my life’s energy with him. My children eventually asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?”

And even when you do recover you are never quite the same person you were before. One’s life becomes “before and after:” before you went to school and after, before you learned to drive and after, before you married and after, before you had children and after.

And yet, the event itself, the death of a parent before the death of his child, is a commonplace. It is the way things are supposed to work. Beyond a certain age, we all know it will almost certainly happen. We see it happen to others. But this observational experience does not bring it home, make it real.

I can still tell you the name of the first person I knew to lose a parent. My classmate Marilyn Levin, some time around sixth grade. The event made an impression, a scary impression. And then, in high school, Michael Karsen’s mother died. You note these things with a shudder and don’t know what to say to your classmate. Perhaps you say you’re sorry or say nothing or ignore the person — avoid eye contact. All because it is so terrible and, you think, “It could have happened to me. It still could.”

And finally, if you’re lucky, it happens only much later. By which time, again “if you are lucky,” you have gotten old enough that your children recognize you are aging; that at some point you too will die. And now you have another reason to stay alive: to spare your children the pain of your demise.

No, spare is not the right word. Postpone is.

Life is like a relay race, batons passing from parent to child, to their children, and on and on. It has been going on since the beginning. It is the least remarkable thing about life, that it ends. And yet, it is the most serious and dreaded thing, as well.

If you live long enough, then you realize life eventually becomes a series of goodbyes, departures. Not the life of your childhood, which was a constant flow of hellos, arrivals.

But what if you lose your spouse at a very early age? That is not “supposed” to happen. The third President of the United States knew about this. When he was 39, Thomas Jefferson’s 33-year-old wife Martha died. The couple had been married just 10 years.

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Both of the Jeffersons enjoyed reading aloud to each other. One of their favorite books was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Martha was trying to read a portion to her husband as she lay dying, trying to convey her feelings about the separation soon coming. When she became too weak to speak the words, she began to write them:

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on —

When even this became too difficult, her husband picked up the pen and completed the passage from memory (see the image just above):

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

Jefferson is reported to have fainted when his spouse died. He was carried from her bed. For three weeks he didn’t speak or leave his room. Only his daughter Patsy was finally able to bring him out of himself. She later wrote:

He walked almost incessantly night and day, lying down only when nature was completely exhausted on a palette that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. When at last he left his room, he rode out, and from that time he was incessantly on horseback, rambling about on the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods, and those melancholy rambles. I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson kept the small piece of paper on which he and his wife had their last literary dialogue. The paper and a lock of his wife’s hair, captured in an engraved locket he had made for the purpose, remained in a secret drawer next to his bed. Jefferson never remarried, although there is evidence that he did have a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson Locket

Thomas Jefferson became President 19-years after Martha’s death. He would die on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend John Adams, the nation’s second President. It was precisely 50 years after these men signed the Declaration of Independence, a document drafted by Jefferson.

Thus, the nation lost two of its founding fathers in 24 hours. But that is a different kind of loss and a different kind of story.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Jerry, Raya, and the Shadow

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Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?

My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.

Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.

Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.

His parents were Holocaust survivors.

He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.

Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.

Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.

I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.

My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).

When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.

I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.

It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.

Maybe I did.

Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.

At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!

In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.

It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.

It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.

Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.

But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.

Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.

It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.

These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.

It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and  place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.

Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.

The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.

When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”

And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.

I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.

I wonder who they are now.

It would be nice to know.

The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Upside of Depression and the Downside of Medication

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Are there advantages to being depressed? Something good about something we think of as so bad? A recent New York Times Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer makes just that case: Depression’s Upside.

The essence of the argument is that some episodes of depression allow for and encourage a kind of analytic rumination that is productive. Put another way, the tendency in depression to focus on a problem, mulling it over to the exclusion of other thoughts, permits the sad person to find a solution to his difficulty and change his life in a positive way.

The counter-argument, however, is that the ruminative process is both painful and unproductive — that it often creates a kind of self-flagellating preoccupation with one’s trouble rather than a process that leads to something good; that unhappiness and focusing on pain and its concomitants simply feed on themselves to no helpful end.

In my clinical experience, therapy with people who are depressed over loss or injury often breaks down into two phases. The first of these is a grieving process, where the person expresses and processes (or sometimes purges) the feelings of anger, sadness, emptiness, desolation, and hopelessness that come with the loss of something of value — a love, a job, high social status, a capability, a fortune, etc.

The second phase involves learning from one’s painful experience about how to live differently, make different decisions, associate with different people, become more assertive, overcome fear; value things differently in life such as money, material things, status, accomplishment, friendship, and love.

Naturally, neither of these two phases is absolutely discrete — they blend into each other and overlap each other. As a practical example, someone who has had a series of bad relationships will typically need to grieve the unhappy end of the most recent one and, in the process, learn how he happened to choose a person or persons who made him so miserable; then changing whatever needs to be changed internally and externally so that different and more satisfying choices occur in the future.

People who are like the hypothetical individual just cited usually come into therapy in emotional pain and seek relief of that pain as promptly as possible. This desire is entirely reasonable — who wouldn’t want this? Some of them request medication, which is often the fastest way to “feel better.”

But many are leery of psychotropic drugs and see them as artificial, hoping that therapy will produce a more lasting fix without dependency upon a foreign substance. Indeed, while a good therapist will strongly encourage the use of medication for someone who is seriously depressed, i.e. suicidal, unable to work, sleeping away the day away (or almost unable to sleep); that same therapist will also know that medication sometimes serves to “de-motivate” the patient, giving him or her a relatively quick solution that allows that person to tolerate an intolerable situation. In the New York Times Magazine article mentioned above, Dr. Andy Thomson describes this problem eloquently:

I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage. I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great. I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’

Clearly, this woman was aware that she needed to be in some amount of discomfort in her relationship with her husband in order to be motivated to get out of it. The drug made her feel better, but, it also reduced her incentive to change herself and her life. It was, in effect, a kind of band-aid, rather than a real cure. It anesthetized her and, in so doing, robbed her of something that was essential for new learning and behavior change to occur.

Unfortunately, most people who come to therapy are neither as courageous or insightful as the woman just described. Once they feel significantly better, whether due to therapy or medication, it is common for them to be less interested in continuing treatment. They have recovered from the event that precipitated their entry into therapy, but they might not yet have learned enough to avoid making the same mistakes that contributed to the problem in the first place.

Such a person can reason that the cost of therapy (both financially and in terms of time, effort, and the difficulty that comes with changing one self) is now greater than emotional pain from which they might still be suffering. Put another way, at this point, doing therapy “causes” more difficulty and pain than not doing therapy, just the reverse of what seemed true when they started the treatment process.

At this stage, those who continue in therapy have something that an old mentor of mine, Truman Esau, used to call “therapeutic integrity.” What he saw in some of his patients was an almost heroic desire to make themselves better regardless of how much the actual process of doing so was difficult, uncomfortable, or painful.

These patients didn’t shy away from problematic truths about themselves or others. They worked hard to stretch and challenge themselves, knowing that it was crucial to improve. They didn’t simply want a quick fix. Like the woman in Dr. Thomson’s example, they recognized that some pain was essential to being motivated. They knew that there was no such thing as “a free lunch,” and were willing to do whatever it took to repair and better their lives.

If you are in therapy now, it will be important for you to be sensitive to this shift from the often intense distress that brought you into therapy, to the point when the therapy itself might seem distressful. This can mean that the therapist is not skillful or that he is pushing you too much, but it just might also signal that some of the most difficult life changes you need to make are still ahead of you, even if the cost of making those changes seems greater than when you started treatment.

If you leave therapy because it is hard and unpleasant work, the problems you have won’t care. They will simply continue to reside in you, work on you, and trip you up. It is not enough to get over your last disappointment or unhappiness, but to change yourself enough to avoid future problems.

Few things that are worthwhile come to us for free.

The above image titled Depression is the work of Hendrike, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.