The Stories We Live
In therapy—as in Fiction—There’s Always Possibility
Frank slouches in the chair, one leg extended as the other pumps wildly. He’s entirely blue, in work denims and a blue shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket. His thinning hair is plastered to his head, and his eyes shift as he scans the pictures on my wall. Across from him, Linda, his ex-wife, sits ramrod straight, never touching the chair back. The dark circles under her eyes belie her smile. She wears a smoky gray suit and a stylish scarf. Her skin looks almost yellow from tanning.
Linda glances at Frank. “I didn’t think she’d let you come,” she says, referring to his current wife. Frank sighs deeply and shifts his weight, leaning away from his wife. Between them, sitting cross-legged on the couch is Pamela, 13, who wears a black T-shirt that reads “Don’t Be a Dick.” Her white-tipped, straight-black hair slides across her face, shading her blue eyes rimmed in purple mascara. She has a ring piercing her nose and dozens of bracelets on her arms. Looking blankly at me, she dares me to speak to her.
So it begins. Although a first family therapy session, it could just as easily be the first scene of a novel. Both begin when a group of individuals are brought together under circumstances that affect their lives. Both require continuous involvement in the most important questions we ask ourselves: Who am I? How do I make sense of things? How do I make and sustain relationships? These questions are fed by themes that go to the heart of what it means to be a human being—love, loss, betrayal, risk, change, belonging, fear, hope, trust, failure, success.
I was an academic writer for years, but more recently, I’ve become a novel writer to satisfy my own need for a self-defining “something more.” When I sit at the computer, I start a process that’s easier to do than to explain. The words flow through my fingertips as if they had a life of their own, growing into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and, somewhere along the way, maturing into a story. I often wonder where they come from.
In therapy, there’s nothing better than listening to a good story, no matter how painful, because of the experiences from which it grows. When I write, there’s nothing better than telling a good story. In both activities there’s newness, creation, and possibility.
I ask the family what happened that made them decide to see me. “She was out all night and got herself in a big mess,” says Linda with pursed lips as she glances at Frank. “I don’t know what else to say,” adds Frank, looking away. Meanwhile, Pamela is texting a friend on her Blackberry. “Put that away,” says her mother halfheartedly. There’s a hint of a smile in the right corner of Frank’s mouth as he looks at his daughter.
In his wonderful book How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood says, “In life as in literature, we navigate via the stars of detail.” Making a story come alive requires infusing it with so much detail that, beyond mirroring reality, it creates it. The main character of one of my novels could tell the reader that his mother had died when he was a boy, or he could describe what it was like to find a pool of blood on the kitchen floor the morning after, and how he cleaned it as best he could, including the two drops that blemished his mother’s white, patent leather shoes. The first version provides the facts of the matter, but the second puts you in the scene. That’s the kind of detail I want from Pamela and her family because to help them, I feel I must enter the scene; I must understand their reality from the inside out. So I start with detailed questions—What happened? What time was it? Who was with you? What happened first? What happened next? Who did you tell? How did your mother find out? What about your father? Did they talk to each other?—and so on, until I can close my eyes and be there.
Pamela explains best: “I told my mother I’d be at Jenny’s house, and Jenny told her mother she’d be at my house. And so we walked along the canal in the middle of the night, because no one would see us. It was cold as hell, but we were having fun and laughing, and the moon was out. We wanted to see Jeremy, who lives about three miles away. He’s like 15 and has great hair and is just mad cool. His parents don’t really care what he does, and by the time we got there, they were sleeping. He was so sweet to me; he talked real soft and put his arm around me and rubbed my back. I mean, no one ever treats me that good. Jenny got all jealous and pissed, and we had a fight. She said she was gonna go because she knew what Jeremy really wanted. Jeremy just laughed at her and said he was glad she left. We talked like forever, and he kissed me. And, I don’t know, he wanted to do it, and I thought, Well, I have to do it sometime, so I had sex with him; no big deal.” Pamela’s parents hold their breath at this, and Frank looks at Linda, as if to say, “Where were you?”
Pamela: “But then he turned into a total prick; I mean he told me to leave ’cause it was so late. And I didn’t know where the hell I was; I mean, I couldn’t go back along the canal, it was way too creepy without Jenny. So I just started walking down this road. I didn’t know how to get to my mother’s and, well, next thing I know, some cop is, like, shining this spotlight at me. And now, she won’t speak to me,” she says, nodding at her mother. “Whatever,” she concludes.
At the police station, Pamela called her father, who came to get her. It was 2:30 a.m., and Frank was in his pajamas, which somehow made Pamela feel he loved her: “I mean, like, there he was in his ratty, old, striped pajamas; just standing there. I can’t believe he did that for me. And, like, he didn’t even yell.” Frank’s eyes fill with tears when she says this.
Linda’s face is white. I say to her: “Must’ve been hard when you found out Pamela had called her dad.” Her head bows. “You must’ve been petrified,” I add. With this, she shakes her head and begins to cry. I give the Kleenex box to Pamela and suggest she share it with both her parents.
The Joys of Not Knowing
In the twinkling of a story, I feel myself being drawn to them. I care about them, I’m curious about them, and I’m ready to go down the road with them, wherever it may lead. It’s the same way I feel about 50 pages into a novel I’m writing. By then, I’m completely committed to a sustained relationship with a whole new group of characters whom I don’t know very well, but who are enticing; characters who are slightly deformed below the surface, try to hide what they most need to share, make decisions they find hard to justify, struggle nobly, are connected to each other in painful and transformative ways, and sometimes defy life’s odds and flourish despite all of this. Together we work toward some resolution, partial though it may be.
Even though I’m the author of the story, I find myself watching and wondering what will emerge from the characters I’ve assembled as they wrestle with life’s circumstances, much as I do with every new client family. I live with almost as much not-knowing when I write as I do when I sit down with a family for the first time. I know how to begin, and usually I can see past a few bends in the road ahead, but how I’ll get from point A to point B and how things will transpire along the way remain largely a mystery.
When I was younger, this not-knowing made me a hesitant writer. I wanted to know where I was going, and I took it as a lack of creativity or imagination or worse that I stank as a writer, even when I didn’t. I was the same as a beginning therapist. I thought it was my job to never be caught short or get stuck or in any way be lacking in cleverness and insight. Why else would a family come to see me? Wasn’t it my job to lead the way—to understand the road ahead and know where the potholes were; to have resolved life’s problems so I could help others resolve theirs?
The late family therapy pioneer Harry Goolishian helped reframe not-knowing as an asset in the psychotherapy—a means of remaining open to the story as it comes at you. He once said in a conversation that it takes at least 15 years to create a therapist. At the time, I was five years into my career. Hearing this, I thought I didn’t have to know everything yet, but I was doubtful that it would take me 15 years to become what I already was—a pretty damn good psychotherapist! Now, more than 30 years into my career, I wonder how Goolishian could ever have thought that a therapist could be created in a mere 15 years! It’s a lifetime’s work, full of all the anxiety and possibility and reward that come with not-knowing and entrusting oneself to the process of being with others.
In like manner, I was a young Presbyterian minister when I wrote my first book, which was accepted for publication and then rejected upon further review. The publisher said airily, “I’ll get you on your 10th book!” It would be 15 years before I coauthored my first published book and another 15 before I published my first novel. Some things need time.
As a therapist, I’ve found that timing and pacing, and the attendant patience, are the most important things I do. If I move too quickly, it doesn’t matter how insightful I am. Sometimes I know what I need to say to a family in the second visit, but I may not be able to say it until the fifth. Similarly, an author can’t get further ahead in the plot than the characters can manage.
After the first visit with Pamela and her family, I can tell that a nasty divorce, the father’s remarriage and gradual withdrawal from his daughter, and the bitterness of the mother left handling everything by herself are at the crux of their difficulties. But the family isn’t there yet. “How can we get her to stop doing these things?” Linda asks, plaintively. “I just don’t understand what she was thinking,” Frank says, shrugging his shoulders.
Alone with Pamela in the third visit, she confesses, “As soon as I did it with him, I knew it was a mistake.” When I ask how she knew, she says simply, “Because I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I won’t make that mistake again. It’s not worth it.” I believe her. Despite this incident, Pamela has a good head on her shoulders. She’s managed to avoid pot and alcohol, despite her friends’ urging. She has plans. She wants to become a veterinarian. When I ask if her parents know any of this, she twirls the bracelets on her left wrist and huffs, “They don’t have time.”
The time seems right, so I ask. “What was that all about?” She glances at me and then looks away. “I don’t know. Y’know, my dad got married and he’s all lovey-dovey with her, and my mother’s angry all the time and just yells at me when she’s not trying to go out on dates herself. I mean, I’m just there. Nothing seems to matter, so I thought, ‘What the hell?’”
To most adults, this comment is a classic example of “attention seeking,” the catchall dismissal for the confusing behavior of distressed teens. While there’s some truth to this, I see something more complex in Pamela’s desire to be seen. I know because I’ve asked “What the hell?” myself more times than I want to admit. In fact, it’s the question one should ask under certain circumstances, as in Pamela’s case. When you feel invisible to those you love, when you feel that nothing matters and you’re “just there,” the obvious question is “What the hell?” If you don’t get a good answer, then it’s no longer a question, but an answer. Without realizing it, Pamela is a budding existentialist trying to figure out what it means to be here in the world when the pillars that have held her up are no longer there.
As a writer, I always assume that Pamela’s question, or some form of it, is what lies behind the details of any story—“What the hell was that all about? What the hell is life all about?” What I love about writing is that I can sit alone and wrestle with this question; that I can move the characters in certain directions and explore this question either through what’s said or what’s left unsaid—not because I’ll find a definitive answer, but because life and living is in the questioning itself.
When I meet with Frank and Linda alone, I learn how much they love their wayward child. Despite their clear dislike for each other, both feel committed to her—the one good outcome of their marriage. Frank struggles: “I don’t know what to do. I want her to feel at home with me and my wife, but no matter what I do, she pushes me away.” Linda has issues, too: “I know I’m way too busy—I’m working, I just started dating someone new. I feel I deserve to be happy for once, but I don’t want Pamela to suffer.” Turns out, in their own way, they’re asking the same question Pamela is. It actually helps when everyone has a little of the “What the hell’s going on?” inside, because it makes them more open. Something—maybe anything—is possible.
The fifth visit is different from the first. No longer focused on the original incident, they’re ready to start working with each other. I tell Pamela’s parents what they already know: they have a wonderful, yet confused, daughter. I note the extraordinary changes they’ve faced in the last 18 months, what with a separation, divorce, new relationships, moves, and recent difficulties. It’s no wonder that everyone is struggling to find some connection. I tell them that I think about them a lot and that my worry is that Pamela is drifting; that she’s unmoored, that she’s floating, and that she’ll latch onto whatever gives her a sense of belonging, no matter how risky or ill-advised. I ask Pamela if I’m saying anything she disagrees with. She says, “No.” Her parents, sitting in silence, clearly are worried.
Dad plans weekly individual time with Pamela at a favorite coffeeshop. Mom says she’ll slow down on her new relationship and refocus on her daughter’s needs, rather than her daughter’s problems. They leave renewed. I’m cautious.
Things went well for several weeks, until Pamela and her father had an argument and he withdrew. This pattern persisted, despite everyone’s best efforts. In the end, Pamela learned to accept the father she had, even as she mourned the father she’d always hoped to have. Linda struggled mightily to keep Pamela front and center, but her own needs often took precedence. They fought continuously, but they never gave up on each other. In time, Linda and Pamela recognized that the similarities in their personalities meant they’d always clash, but they’d always hug later, and that would be enough. Pamela leapt into the unending drama of adolescence, at times furious, at other times depressed, but also happy—something she’d feared she’d never experience.
Gustave Flaubert once said, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” As an author, I create the characters, the problems, and the partial solutions. I know how things are connected and, even though I face limitations with my characters, I’m the one who writes the final line and places the final punctuation. This, of course, is nothing at all like psychotherapy. While I may see the larger patterns and possibilities, and while my influence is considerable, I don’t have more power than the people who come together regularly in my office do. I can help them pick up the pen, but they must set it to their own page in their own way.
The Possibility of Change
When I leave my office at the end of the night or turn off the computer and let the page fade to black, and take the time to think about it, I notice something else that’s shared in my twin identities as a psychotherapist and writer. No matter the plotline or clinical problem, when it’s over and I look back on it, I’m always surprised that, at a basic level, it’s all been about hope. I don’t plan this, but as surely as robins return to my backyard feeders each spring, hope shows up. I don’t have to invite it. It comes. By hope I mean openness to possibilities, no matter how small, no matter how fleeting—openness to the promise of what may come and that it might not only be different, but better.
As long as psychotherapy and writing are about stories, they’ll be about hope, because the stories we tell are made up, and therefore anything can happen. To be hopeful is to believe that the story can change and that we can be the ones to change it. When I help a character in one of my novels discover something about his or her life that was completely unknown 100 pages earlier, I’m giving that character hope.
Recently, I met alone with Pamela, and she told me how unhappy she was about herself and her life. I said that along with my concerns about her depression, I was concerned about the scope of the story she was telling about herself: it was far too small to contain all of who she was, especially the parts that were shiny and exciting and wonderful. I said we needed to work on making her story bigger, broader, and more open, not only to include who she was, but who she might become. She smiled at this.
When I began my psychotherapy training and was asked why I wanted to get into this work, I said what everyone does, “Because I want to help people.” I could just as easily have answered, “Because I hope.” I think I write for the same reason. When I tell a story, I create a world—a world that may be painful and dark at times, but a world that, more than anything, has openness and possibility. As a writer, I try to give that world shape and color and texture and nuance and everything that makes up life. When I listen to my clients, I try to help them in similar ways: to see a little differently, attend to themselves more gently, awaken what might have fallen asleep, imagine what might be, and take the first small step forward, even if it seems foolhardy.
The smile on Pamela’s face wasn’t broad—just a slight turn at the corners of her mouth—but it was enough. Similarly, the period at the end of each imperfect sentence I write is enough, because it gives me confidence that another sentence is about to begin.
Illustration © Art Valero / Images.com
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