410. Stadium Seat Cushion

“I’m a people pleaser, you know. I hate confrontations and avoid conflicts. Like, if I get charged the wrong price at Walmart, I won’t confront the cashier. I just suck it up and get mad at myself instead of the wrong price or the cashier. What’s wrong with me?  I can’t handle hurting others’ feelings, but I can crush my own.”

“You are a stadium seat cushion.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, stadium seating is cheap and durable but not comfortable. So there is an after market for cushions to make the stadium experience less painful, you know, like a pillow on a park bench?”

“Yes! I get the concept. What does it have to do with me?”

“Oh, you see others in distress or discomfort and you throw yourself between their butts and their pain, like a stadium seat cushion, I mean a high quality memory foam covered dense Styrofoam cushion. Top quality with a nice logo like Penn State or the Steelers. Please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery.”

“So I’m a butt buffer for others am I?”

“Yep. And a very good one, consensus Hall of Famer first ballot.”

“You have a way of pissing me off and making me laugh at the same time, damn it!”

“It’s a gift.”

“Seriously, I do throw myself in between people and their pain. All the out reach programs I am involved with… somehow I want to alleviate others’ suffering. But why? I’ll make myself miserable to make others happy.”

“Well, let’s see. Did anyone do this for you when you were struggling?”

“No, not really. I felt abandoned and neglected, which are awful feelings. I wondered why no one would come to my rescue, not even God. I figured I was too damaged, not worth their efforts. Shame silenced me. I  did not want to ask anyone else for help so that I did not attract more attention to my  pitiful state. Eventually I learned to do things by myself, with a vengeance. Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something. You’ll regret it. I’ll prove you wrong.”

“Sounds like you do good things for not so good reasons.”

“What?  I help single moms put clothes on their babies. I help hungry people find affordable food. I…”

“I know what you do. That’s the front end of the statement. The back end is the kicker, though. Why do you do these things? ”

“I told you: to alleviate the suffering of innocent, helpless people.”

“And yet it seems like you are trying to alleviate your own childhood and adolescent suffering, as if your good deeds today could somehow cross over time and assuage the aching heart of your eight year old self.”

[TEARS and HUFFING] “No, you are wrong. I can’t stand by and let others suffer or charge them a fee to alleviate their pain like you do.”

“Ouch! So now I’m the psychic predator who preys on helpless folks with insurance.”

“I didn’t mean that. It’s just that I can’t walk away from needy folks who need so much….”

“Because there is some boundary issue?”

“Well, they get under my skin and in my head. I can barely sleep when I do help out.”

“So you will work harder to solve others’ problems than the actual owners of the problems work?”

“Sometimes, maybe, okay. I have once or a dozen times. What’s wrong with caring excessively?”

“The excess part. When caring turns into indulging the other, you are not helping. Cradle to grave welfare becomes slavery not help.”

“So your answer is to dispose of the people, just let them go cold or hungry…”

“Please, just a moment without nuclear defenses. You know the old saying ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’?”

Image result for man and boy with a fish picture

“Yes, it’s lame. Not everyone eats fish.”

“I don’t. Allergic reaction to fish oil. Ever hear  this one, ‘But man does not live on bread alone.’ ?”

“Oh, no, you’re gonna go all religious on me now.”

“No, in completely secular terms, if you feed and clothe and house everyone you meet on the street, many of them will be back in days if not hours, because they need more than bread, clothes, or shelter. They need hope, meaning and purpose.”Image result for homeless folks picture

“Now you’re gonna play the God card.”

“No, I’m playing the human nature card. We can leave the Divine out of this discussion for the moment. Humans struggle to maintain their environment, even if that is a lean to under a bridge. Swooping in to put that homeless guy in a shelter may not work. Bringing canned meat and vegetables to a chronic alcoholic will likely be met with contempt.  Do some of your kids clothes shoppers complain about colors or styles?”

“Yeah, and that really pisses me off.”

“Why? Humans want what they want; not necessarily what you are graciously offering them.”

“Ingrates are thankless selfish takers.”

“Yep, they don’t see the big picture as they move from cradle to grave on someone else’s nickel.”

“Sometimes I just want to kick them in the ass and tell them to get out… but I do it for the kids. They appreciate the clothes or toys or food even if their stupid parents don’t.”

“Gratitude is powerful stuff.”Image result for gratitude images

“What do you mean?”

“I mean if you focus on what you have and savor it, treasure it even, then you won’t be envying what others have that is newer or shinier or costlier.”

“Okaaaay. Is there some cosmic lesson in this? I feel like you are trying to give me an epiphany or something Greek.”

“Epiphanies are kinder than enemas, Grasshoppa. What I’m so subtly suggesting is that if you seize upon your current blessings and just bathe in them here and now, you will not feel so compelled to fix others. Your, ready for this one?, existential constipation will diminish, and you will laugh, smile and joke more.”

“That’s it? No secret word?”

“Well, I do have one secret word.”

“And that would be….?”

“PRAY.”

“I knew it!!! Back to God!!!”

“Sort of hard to keep Him hidden, dontcha think?”

“Duh!”

 

 

 

 

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408. Delta/Change

Image result for pictures of waves

I’m in the change business, I say, because folks come to see me to change something– their anger, their grief, their loneliness, their self esteem, their fears, their obsessions, their addictions. They come like big waves every hour.  Truly, if you think of the cumulative effect of such a torrent of dysfunctional waves capped with needy foam splashing through your door five days a week, well, it’s overwhelming. It is. Let me pause  with a redundant comment and take a breath. Whew!! Many of my clients are so consumed in emotional deserts or feeling furnaces that they forget to breathe, so I feel compelled to take deep breaths for them. Inhale– one, two, three, four. Hold– two, three, four. Exhale–two, three, four. Nothing–two, three, four.  Ahhh!! A furious funnel of suction pulls like a rip current as one client is sucked away by life out yonder while another crashes onto my couch. How is it that I don’t also get sucked out into that ocean of pathology?

This is not a deep philosophical question. Rather, it’s about strategies or habits that allow a mental health provider not to become exhausted by the constant pounding of issue after issue, rolling above pain, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, abandonment, self loathing, and much more. No matter how much you sympathize with the client, you cannot jump in their quicksand or dive into their rip tide. You will no longer be of any help to him/her, nor will you be any help to yourself. Jackknifing into their frozen waters or their boiling cauldrons just creates a bigger mess for someone else to respond to later. First responders know this. Don’t become another victim in the rescue.

How does this process of counseling work? I don’t know; I just know that it works more often than it doesn’t. Researchers like to isolate factors that contribute to a good counseling outcome– relationship, empathy, firm boundaries, validation, guiding treatment plans, probing questions, etc. etc. I agree that there are many components, but the whole of counseling is not equal to the sum of its parts. No, something very special happens when two folks share in episodes of vulnerability, peeling back layers of social wallpaper to expose the cracked plaster underneath.  No one needs another layer of wallpaper, as fashionable as it may be. Get to the source, the cause of their sagging, crumbled soul, and the wall paper illusion will curl away. But how does the counselor not also come unglued?

I like to think I am grounded, deeply anchored below the beach sand, safely outside the quicksand, above the wallpaper. Not to sound arrogant or superior, no. Rather, I feel comfortable with others’ big emotions. Some folks have endless patience with jet engine noise or crying babies. That’s not me. However, I can sit with a person in deep pain and not feel an urgency to stop their flow or correct or educate them. Instead I act as the talking mirror and inform them of what I see or feel, trying to accurately reflect them to themselves. At other times I’m the cognitive crane operator lifting heavy loads out of their psyche that they have identified. I hoist up ugly beliefs and past episodes, and  then roll them out for inspection and processing. It’s the client’s call whether to lift or drop it or put it back in the dark waters of their psyche.Image result for building crane pictures

Nevertheless, the arrow of change goes both ways. You cannot be profoundly present with another human being for hours without changing in some way. You can’t be surrounded by the shifting sands of change without changing yourself. Water, wind and sand over time will smooth your rough edges, while invading fissures and crevices. By constantly dealing with disparate selves, your own self awareness mushrooms. If you played golf 8 hours a day, you’d get better, right? If you played chess for 7 hours a day, you’d see things the occasional player never experiences. The same learning and skill development takes place when you provide therapy 8 hours a day.

Image result for man in leather chair pictureThe therapist can give away skills and empathy and knowledge, but he cannot give himself away. The next hour’s client needs something entirely different, and so you must adjust accordingly.  This one needs hope, that one needs firm authority. The angry teenager needs to complain about his parents’ ineptitude. The perfectionist needs to learn that perfect does not exist. Grievers need comfort and faith in the future. The divorcing partner needs validation and objectivity and the name of a good hitman. And sure, they all need God.  Some go there; others don’t. I have to start with God or I’ll be swept away in meaningless pain.

I love this word origin for delta, a letter used as a symbol of change.Image result for images of letter delta

c.1200, Greek letter shaped like a triangle, equivalent to our “D,” the name from Phoenician daleth “tent door.” Herodotus used it of the mouth of the Nile, and it was so used in English from 1550s; applied to other river mouths from 1790.

An open tent door. How cool! Somehow in my associative mind, I think that going into the open tent is like going to counseling. It takes courage to enter this private space. There is an acknowledged boundary, i.e., the tent walls. The chief or leader or shaman operates in that space. Ideally one leaves something negative on the tent floor and takes something positive away in the exchange process, in and out of the delta, tent door. Image result for nomad tent door pictures

Insurance companies will never get this concept. Rarely do they ask the consumer if he/she benefitted from the counseling experience. That would be too obvious a question. Instead they have scales and expected time frames for disorders. If the client improves rapidly, that’s okay. Metroplaco United saves money. However, if anther client has complex issues or isn’t moving the measurement numbers, well, it must be time to discharge. I don’t worry too much what the bean counters want, though. I do my thing the way I believe it should be done. The human heart changes if and when its owner decides to change. You can take that truth to the bank, my blog dogs.

 

348. Broken Vessel

While sitting with a client a week after her suicide attempt, I was struck by her brokenness.

A week before she had called to say she could not wait for our first session at the agency where I was working in the 90’s.  She was drunk and decided to swallow the fifty or so anti-depressants she had left in her prescription. It was an odd emergency cancellation call.

“I won’t  be able to make our schsleduled appointment cuz I’m gonna kill myschelf.”

“Okay. Could you do me a favor before you kill yourself?”

“Sschure.”

“Would you unlock your front door?”

“Okay. Anything elsssh I can do for you?”

“Nope. Just thanks for calling. That was super nice of you.”

“Oh Ssshertainly. Bye bye.”

I immediately called 911 and canceled the appointment I was in the middle of. Yeah, I had just met a lady with a circus of diagnoses in person and this craziness on the phone had exploded. “I gotta go, ma’am. It’s an emergency. I know we just met, but …”

 I met her as the medics carried her to the ambulance.  “Who the hell are you?” she slurred as we passed. I happened to look down and see her pathetic, impossibly childish, yellow suicide sticky note on the floor of her apartment building’s lobby.  It said, “My parents never loved me.”

Later at the hospital she had her stomach pumped and some crisis counseling. “I’m the guy on the phone. I’d still like to meet with you after your get out of here. Is that okay?”

As I listened during our first scheduled session, I visualized her as a ceramic vessel that had been shattered long ago.  I felt like I was figuratively “picking up the pieces”, as if I were a psychological archeologist.  I recalled the satisfactions I had derived from rebuilding broken furniture, kids’ toys, my old cars, etc.  I also sensed a fertile symbol here and a very powerful emotional image to manipulate.  I floated the broken vessel image with “Sherry”.  She accepted it as accurate.

“Yeah, my life is a shattered mess with lots of missing pieces.”

Before our next session I located a hammer and several old coffee cups, two plastic grocery bags and a tube of Elmer’s glue.  During this session I asked “Sherry” to pick a cup she most identified with.  She selected one with a floral pattern and a few minor chips.  I asked her to explain how she was like this vessel.  She mentioned its usefulness, attractiveness and sturdiness.

As the session progressed, she seemed to hold the cup with unconscious affection.

After a while I asked “Sherry” to recall the major traumas in her life.  She did so, noting that most had been abuse suffered at the hands of men in her life.  I then asked my client to wrap the cup in the plastic bags to guarantee we could retain all the pieces.  Giving her the hammer, I instructed “Sherry” to voice the three biggest hurts she had experienced as she pounded the cup in the bags.  As she did so, the force of her blows increased with each hit.  I believe she would have turned the cup to powder if I had not set limits.

My client noted an immediate emotional release; however, she appeared overwhelmed at the task ahead of her.  I asked her to open the bag and inspect the pieces.  “That looks like I feel”, she observed, “ a broken mess”.  Then I gave her the glue and asked her to rebuild the cup.   “The glue is therapy”, I observed. She quickly gave excuses why she could not comply.  I told her she might not ever want to complete the task, and that she could stop at any point in the process.

At our next session the mug was again in one piece and my client had several remarkable lessons to relate about how she rebuilt the cup.

“I started with the big pieces, then worked from the bottom to the top.  I had to wait between gluings to allow the first pieces to solidify. You can’t rush some of the mends.”

“I had to look for patterns to follow; the flower prints helped. So did the border.”

“I had to give up the notion of a perfect rebuild since some of the cup was powder now. I guess the first blow is likely gonna be a powder blast.”

“I was proud of myself.  I thought ‘if I can rebuild this shattered cup, I can do this therapy thing too.’”

“I want to keep this as a reminder of where I started. I mean, I won’t be drinking coffee out of it, but I can put flowers in it on my mantel.”

“Sherry” went on to question some old assumptions and behaviors, and worked on changing her view of herself.  Oddly enough, her suicide attempt was triggered by a promotion at work. She assumed that she would make a mess of the increased responsibilities and found out as a fraud. She had been alcoholic and self-destructive, beating life to the punch.  Ironically, or so it seems to me, the hammer of destruction had truly been in her hand over the past few years.  Visualizing this truth seemed to be the beginning of the healing process.

On other occasions I have used this technique with traumatized clients.  As far as I can tell, each application has been very satisfying and growth-enhancing for the client.  On one occasion the client chose not to hammer her marriage cup symbol.  In another case a child of abuse chose not to fully rebuild the cup she symbolized as her abuser, leaving several pieces unglued that could have easily been reintegrated. There is a certain beauty in repaired brokenness, don’t you think?

Jeremiah 30:17 says, “I will give you back your health and heal your wounds”, says the Lord. “For you are called an outcast, ‘Jerusalem for whom no one cares'”. And so it goes, back to unity and wholeness and harmony.

 

 

260. Paint by numbers: Good intentions, old regrets and the unpolluted future

“Cliches, Anyone? Two for a dollar. Get you some red hot clichés. Right here. Buy one for your girlfriend, Buddy.” I have many well worn phrases and stories that I’ve passed out in therapy sessions like old buttons that fell off some threadbare pants or an ancient stringy sweater. Some are my own fabrications in the truest sense. I made them up, I think. In an old post, 205, I mentioned the turtles, coke machines and ducks analogies/parables that have come to me in sessions, figuratively speaking, I mean. Animals don’t make therapy appointments. People do. All sorts of people, and I have to try and figure out how to connect to their pain using only words.

One time I recall a guy telling me that he felt like a man with a knife in his heart. “I’m a dead man walking. See, if I leave it in, I die. If I pull it out, I just die faster.” He was an overly dramatic convicted drug dealer in the county jail waiting to go up state.   I processed his powerful image and thought there ought to be an answer in metaphor land that could solve this bloody morbid riddle. Hmmm. It dawned on me that if one pulled the knife out ever so slowly, allowing the wound to  heal every millimeter or so, that in metaphorical theory physics, one could pull a knife out of a human heart without death resulting. I offered him this solution. Fortunately for both of us he accepted it in theory. In practical terms, however, it would be difficult to get dressed daily with a knife handle sticking out of your chest. Then there’s the dry cleaning bills. And the jokes…”Ed, you look stuck.” “Yep, I just can’t get a handle on this thing.”

Other clients explain dysfunction in their lives with vaguely broad statements like “I’m a people pleaser. I’m a peacemaker. I avoid confrontation.”  Word play helps here, so I’ve found. Not to be cruel, but I point out honestly, “You know I’ve noticed that people pleasers are never pleased. Why is that?” “Cuz we’re too damn busy keeping everyone else happy.”  In a similar manner I’ve been known to say, “Peace makers are never at peace, you know?  They’re always shuttling about making everyone else comfortable, carrying the mail back and forth between two or more pissed off parties.” Well, you’d think that I shot the Pope. “So you don’t like peace, is that it?”  “No, I believe in peace based on truth and transparency not a peace that is based on not hurting anyone’s feelings.”  Ohh!!!   And to the avoiders of confrontation, I share, “If you avoid anything long enough, do you know what you get?”  “What?”  “A _______Void.”  “Truth, Brother. Hard as a kidney stone. Amen.”

Time and water and mood states work well on a spectrum.  Huh?  Time exists in three general concepts– past, present, future. Water exists in  three states– ice, liquid, and steam. Moods exist in shrinking depression, flexible adaptation in the moment, and in expansive anxiety. Interestingly enough, depressed folks tend to move slowly and perseverate on their frozen pasts. Healthy people move appropriately in the flowing liquid now, where healthy life is lived. Anxious folks live in the what if future as they come unglued and scream out gaseously like superheated teakettles. They bang against the windowpane of tomorrow trying to avoid their present emotions; while their depressed first cousins soak in ancient ice baths. It’s only the present folks who can breath freely and move and feel genuinely.

I remember a woman who tried to stop time. Her husband died suddenly at 42, leaving her a widow mother of five children. Shock and grief overrode her reality. Understandable, right? I mean after an emotional tsunami, what else do you expect? She developed a coping strategy based on fantasy, magical thinking really. If she did not change anything in her house, if she hoarded everything, then maybe her husband would come back from the grave one day and just resume life as it was in 1972. Believing this myth was less awful than believing the waterboarded truth that she was a widow with five young kids depending on her to meet their endless needs. No furniture could be moved, no walls painted, no appliance changed out. Obviously this myth was unsustainable, but like any good cultic belief it could be edited as needed,  and  it was. The organic parts of her life continued to grow and decay despite her fervent worship of the myth. Kids grew up. She ticked on like a broken clock whose hands could only stutter in place. She stored her wedding ring in a soup can that innocent cleaners took to the dump.

Irvin Yalom wrote a book called Love’s Executioner. He suggested that it is the role of a therapist at times to execute love. Now there are two or more meanings for the verb execute but not for executioner, the noun, i.e., the killer. Who wants to tell a nice widow mother of five that her husband is never coming back and she needs to find another way to do life? Like the drug dealer above, this honesty would be a chef’s knife through her weakly beating heart. Sometimes the disorder is kinder than the cure, though both are deadly.

I knew another woman who was so bitter about men who had hurt her throughout her life. Her solution was bitter isolation in a bunker lifestyle. A vicious guard dog named Sarcasm patrolled her property day and night. “Bitter Acres. Go Away!” her sign announced to visitors who never came. Listening to her strategy of eking out a miserable life till she died a miserable death, it occurred to me that bitterness is like a barbed wire bra worn to defend against potential perpetrators…but the only one to be hurt for sure is the wearer of the contraption. “That’s easy for you to say. You were never raped by a relative, were you? And you don’t have to sit across the holiday table from him every Christmas and try not to vomit while he spouts his Christian platitudes and conservative right wing politics.”

No, thank God, all I have to do is try to meet the survivors at the bonfire where pain and grief and worry are incinerated. When the dead are too many or too big to be buried, a fire of bones is in order.

 

 

 

 

205. Something about turtles, soda machines and ducks

Unless it’s a snapping turtle, they aren’t intimidating. They are slow and almost helplessly defensive; they retreat into their shells when danger approaches. They close up like an elevator door with a low whoosh as they exhale. In come the legs and tail. Nothing hangs out for a predator to nibble on. They are reptiles, as I’m sure you know. So there is no mammalian warmth possible from even the cutest of turtles. Nor can  you get milk from a healthy pregnant female. I like most turtles, especially the small ones that you can pick up and investigate closely. Big tortoises are cool, as are mature sea turtles, but you can’t easily get next to these creatures. Something about turtles is prehistoric, dinosauric if I may say so.Juvenile Blanding's turtle

No matter, you can’t get milk from a turtle. I tell some of my stuck clients this odd advice. It’s up there with “You are not a duck”. Quite often I have clients who want what they cannot get from another person– spouse, parent, child, friend, boss, employee, etc. They try and try to get what it is they want or believe they need– a compliment, deep intimacy, respect, a promotion, work ethic, or something else that is not present… but should be. These folks get so hung up on what should be, i.e., their expectations of the other person, that they can’t see the forest for the trees. They lose perspective. To grab their attention and burn an image into their brains, I ask, “When are you gonna stop trying to get milk from a turtle?”

“What do you mean?” is the usual response. So I explain.

“Turtles don’t give milk, no matter how hard you try.”

“I know that.”

“Okay, but if your partner were a turtle, you’d send him cards or feed him grass or play nice music or clean his cage… all in the hope of getting him to give you milk.  You can moo and graze and watch videos about cows, but that turtle is never gonna give you milk, even if you strap on a set of artificial udders.”

“Uh, but he should meet my honorable, reasonable requests. It’s just common sense and common decency here.”

“Right, and he’s had six years or is it sixteen to figure out how to give milk. How much milk have you gained?”

“None. He’s a reptile. I just don’t  want to admit it.”

“You just did.”

“I know and I  hate you for making me see this truth.”

“Oh well, Irvin Yalom called therapy ‘Love’s Executioner’. I like that title. Attachment assassin.”

“Thanks for peeing in my corn flakes, doc.”

“No additional charge, my friend. It’s just what I do.”

And so it goes time and again. Insight comes from sharp pain. Wisdom comes from cords of splinters under your skin.

When soda machines and public phone booths were common sights, I used to allude to the guy in the alley at the Coke machine. I approached him one night as he kicked and punched the soda machine while cursing it and calling it everything but a Coke machine. I said, “Whoa, Buddy, what’s going on here?”

He replied, “Dang stupid possum scum took my dollar and didn’t give me a Coke.”

I inquired further, “When did this happen?”

He said, “About six months ago.”

At which point I noticed the machine was not even plugged in.

Naturally my clients ask, “Did that really happen?” My conscience compels me to be honest. “No, but you get the point, right? If you’re still kicking the Coke machine, after a while the problem is not the machine’s.”

“Okay, doc. I don’t want to be that stupid guy. You know, for a minute, you had me going.”

Then there are my feathered friends. Once I had a lovely young lady client who was so confounded and disillusioned that she made bad choices that brought her into my office. She seemed determined in her belief that she was unlovable, doomed, and irredeemable. Despite some impressive achievements in academics and sports, she felt no real value for herself. It was a hard sell for me to reflect her beauty, truth, and worth back to her. I suspect she feared a landslide or an avalanche of crushing consequences if she accepted the first grain of my truth.

We got along quite well. I sensed she needed more fathering and endorsement in her young life. One day I told her, “You know what your problem is?”

“No. What?”

“You are not a duck.”

“Say what?”

“Nope, not a duck.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, do you know the story of the Ugly Duckling?”  Shockingly she did not. “Oh my gosh. Uh, this bird is picked at, ridiculed even, and develops low duck esteem because it is not as pretty and developed as the ducks around it, you see. It is cast off and has to eat alone, full of little bird angst and pain. Until one day it sees these glorious big birds gracefully glide onto the pond’s surface. These regal birds come to the Ugly Duckling and recognize it as one of their own. Turns out that this bird was not a duck but a baby swan. A cygnet. And that is your problem: you are a swan who is trying to be a duck.”

A funny half smile/ half sob developed on her lovely young face. Tears mixed with honey and vinegar welled in her rims. Something in that childhood story touched the child in her. “I’m a swan,” she whispered to herself.

“Yup. In so many ways. Stop trying to be a duck.”

“I will try.”

“Good. Now get out of here.”

Over the next few months we had a few emails back and forth. I knew she was healed when she signed off, “The Swan”.swan couple portrait in the marsh at sunset -

192. Forgiveness and perfection

The guy across from me was telling of his false starts in life, his addictions, and his desperation to make it all right. I listened attentively, validating as he went along. Then I shared a thought, “Forgiveness is key to the redemption process, you know. Otherwise you are assuming that perfection is not only possible, but that it is the normal order of life.”

He paused. “That’s the most profound thought I’ve heard in years, Man. I’m gonna sit with that for a while. Cuz I don’t ever forgive myself; I loathe myself. Which makes me want to get morphine and numb out, but then I hate myself even more for being a deadbeat addict. I want to be a good man, a good husband and a good father.”

“Yeah, well those are  possible in our imperfect, broken world, but you can’t be a perfect anything. However, you can pursue excellence. ”

“Okay, wow. This means something strong for me.”

“I can see that. Sometimes there are light bulb moments in counseling. They are fun, cool, even holy.”

“Tell me some more on perfection cuz I’m messed up about it.”

“Let’s see, I used to say that perfection is a living room you can’t live in, a car you can’t drive, a coin you can’t spend or a stamp you can’t send.  It’s a museum not a life. On the other hand real life is  meticulously messy and thoroughly incomplete and wonderfully disappointing.”

“Man, this is news to me. I never thought these thoughts before. Where did you learn this stuff?”

“From life, you know, experience and interacting with suffering persons. From my faith. and my own failures. There’s a lot of overlap between Christian beliefs and what is good in psychology. Like forgiveness, it’s a fundamental piece of the New Covenant that is Christianity. It’s essential to resetting the brokenness and separation from God that results from our sin. But even secular forgiveness produces a similar outcome of relief and a resetting of relationship. Think about this:  if your wife forgives you, then the waters of your relationship can begin flowing again. You are not dammed up any longer. Your relationship can move and dance again. In Christianity it’s an even bigger thing… you are not damned any longer when you accept your sinfulness and repent of it, then accept Jesus as your savior. Your soul can dance forever, not because you are perfect but because you are forgiven by a perfect God.”

“Man! I went to church as a kid, but I never got that concept. How is that possible?”

“Hey, I sat through Algebra I and II in high school and Business Calculus in college, but I can’t tell you a thing about them. I passed them all, but I have not a single lasting memory.”

“Yeah, yeah, you weren’t invested in it; you didn’t apply it so it wasted away. I get that.”

“Pretty much. I couldn’t be a NASA engineer…not that I ever wanted to be one.”

“Hmmmm. I don’t have to be perfect, so I don’t have to be angry at my brokenness? I like that, it’s a relief already. How did I get to these beliefs, I wonder?”

“Well, I imagine your family modeled some of this to you… you know, all or nothing behavior where all equals perfect and nothing equals obliteration by shame.”

“My mom was like that, always doing and doing, and then she’d drink alone every night. Not drunk so much as  just unavailable. I think I’m a lot like her, sort of going through the motions but not really living in the moment or enjoying what I do. I’m always looking for the approval and endorsement of others. When it doesn’t come immediately, I get pissed. But I won’t show it to anyone. I put up my mask of ‘everything is fine’.”

“I guess it gets lonely behind such a mask.”

“Oh yeah, only my wife gets in behind it, and then I want her to fix my life, make it all better. But that’s my job. I get so twisted up  and confused that I want to use again to reduce the anxiety and self loathing. So I cycle around and around. See, in my family it was not the work you did that mattered; it was how much money you made. I got into my field cuz people said I could make a lot of money without much schooling, and I did.”

“Okay, but your soul dried up, right?”

“Something like that. It wasn’t rewarding to me even though I was good at it. I was impatient for more, something bigger.”

“And that’s what the morphine gave you?”

“Absolutely. It erased my daily anxieties and self loathing till the next day. But the next day I’d start lower, you know, like standing on the beach as the waves hit you and undermine the sand beneath you.”

“Yeah, you get shorter with each receding wave.”

“So I don’t have to feel this way any more? ”

“Yeah.”

“But what about when the anxiety hits the roof and I start coming unglued?”

“You get with a sponsor or mentor and sweat your way through it. The anxiety will subside when other trusted folks show up.”

“That’s something I’ve never done, ya know, shared my fear and self  hatred.”

“Well, that’s the way through it, Man, not around it or under it. THROUGH IT. You can do it. ”

“Whooooowwww. I hope so. I can’t wait any longer to start my life.”

“Hey, make no mistake:  you have started your life. These lessons are gonna be burned into your brain, tattooed on for the rest of  your days. This is not sleepy Algebra class. You will make use of this agony one day. Take that to the bank.”

“You make it sound simple but not easy.”

“Simple as sawing your leg off rather than dying of gangrene. Simple? Yeah. Easy? No way.”

“Okay, where’s the saw?”

“That’s next week, tough guy. Power or manual?”

“Definitely manual.”