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.