Death Notices

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

When I met my husband, his mother had been dead for four months. After a short time, he took me to meet his father, and to see the home that he had grown up in, the home that he had moved back into during the the last year of his mother’s life.

When he opened the door, and I stepped into the foyer, I had the sensation that comes when you walk into a room that someone else has just left seconds before. A palpable electromagnetic wake – the air molecules moving in eddies behind some recent but unknown activity. A purse plopped in the chair near the door. A gum wrapper folded neatly and placed in a decorative dish. A sweater with a tissue peeking out of the pocket slung over the arm of the couch in the living room. She was still there. Her presence, in her absence, remained everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the house.

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

A cook book with a page booked marked in the kitchen. A paperback novel, its spine cracked, pages splayed faced down on the coffee table.

It would be several more months after that, long enough for our relationship to consolidate, and for me to understand more about the family’s grieving process, before I would ask David and his father politely and tentatively, if it would be helpful to them in anyway, for me to pack up her things. Yes, they said, it would be very helpful. They were clearly emotionally and logistically at a loss.

When his father was away for the weekend – I spent two full days boxing up a woman’s life while David hid out, painting and listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio up in the small spare bedroom that had been set up as a studio. He had worked hard enough trying to support her through a long and painful dying process.

I began on the lower floors, collecting the objects that were most obvious to me whenever I entered the house. Her purse. Her coats, scarves, mittens and hats. The minty scent of her purse and the perfume lingering on her scarves and coat collar were the first visceral initiation into the profoundly intimate act that I had undertaken.

After gathering the downstairs items, I took them upstairs to set up base-camp, assembling cardboard wardrobes and packing boxes in her bedroom. I opened her closet doors, and discovered her sense of style, her clothes and shoes. I saw that she kept her things carefully and in good condition and had thrown nothing out for many many years – dresses from the 1950’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s hung throughout the closet, all in the exact same size. She was long, slim, tall, small-breasted, large footed. Her shoes were comfortable and expensive. She wore dresses primarily. Some slacks, but not so many. No blue jeans. Her smell grew stronger, more personal, closer to her skin as I sorted through the clothes.

She liked bright colors, nice textiles, weavings, hand knitted sweaters, clothing embellished with folk lace-work, needlework and embroidery from every culture and tradition. She had formal wear and cocktail wear that was clearly required by her life and her husband’s life in academia – but most of her clothing was beautiful, simple, comfortable, useful, special, one of a kind. No designer labels. Nothing frilly. Never fancy.

Her wardrobe and everyday jewelry showed signs of her Czech-Hungarian upbringing, her familiarity with Europe, the many languages that she spoke, as well as her extensive world travels and time spent living in Israel, in China. Pieces of tile, or hand made ceramics set in silver or mounted as pins.

And collections. Never just one of anything but many: a drawer filled with embroidered handkerchiefs, chests and closets in every room filled with hand woven fine fabrics and textiles. Hand hewn wooden bowls, baskets filled with delicately painted eggs from all over the world, another with hand made painted tops, another with ceramic mushrooms. A box filled with hundreds of carefully wrapped tiny blown-glass animals. Decorative boxes everywhere, painted, or carved, or upholstered in silk – one filled to the top with jade rings in every size. Another with tiny turquoise pins.

I threw nothing away. I placed items that might not want to be saved or given away, in their own marked boxes for her sons and husband to look through for themselves. In this box I placed her tooth and hair brushes, make up lotions, perfumes, powder deodorant, razors and tweezers. The pill bottles from her long sickness. Her under-the-sink-things, her feminine hygiene products, her underwear, slips, socks, bras and panty hose.

I was told to set anything aside that I might want to keep for myself: I selected some textiles and scarves, a yellow linen dress with flowers embroidered around the yoke, a terry cloth housecoat from the 1950’s that was in the back of the closet and had clearly not been worn much at all and not in many years. A short black dress, with a white satin collar and cuffs, also from the late 1960’s, a blue and aqua hand knitted cardigan that fit me perfectly, and that I knew from her basket of yarn and the buttons in her immaculately organized Swedish sewing table that she had knitted herself. They offered me her 1947 Singer Featherweight 221 sewing machine, which is, to this day, my most prized possession.

As the intimacy of these items and this act revealed itself to me, I realized that although I had begun these labors to support those who were grieving: David, his father, I was really doing it for her. This thoughtful meticulous dignified woman, never met, who would have wanted her things collected, regarded, distributed, sorted, as thoughtfully and carefully as she had selected and tended to them in life. Who would have wanted to protect her family from the overwhelm and sorrow of packing her life away.

I imagined who I would want to wrap up my my unfinished business one day, and how I would want them to tend to it.

There is always an aftermath.

And although I do not believe that grief should be pathologized as a diagnosis or a medical condition, there is no psychotherapist who does not contend with the life-long implications of death or the processes of bereavement in some form every single day.

Memories of a weekend spent with the personal effects of the dead woman who would one day become my mother-in-law, are activated whenever I find myself professionally involved in the shockingly intimate processes of supporting people as they mourn the death of people that I have never met. And my mother-in-law’s specter spurs me, as it did that long ago weekend, to remember that in order to support the bereaved, we must, on some level enter into an internal relationship to the deceased ourselves, to understand who they were, to clean up the mess and the grief, to contain the emptiness and tie up the loose ends left behind with the living.

Over the years I’ve sat with parents grieving children, and children grieving the loss of parents, sometimes both at once. Adoptees mourning the death notices of first family members never met. I’ve listened to the unfolding evolving eulogies of siblings, grandparents, extended family, partners, best friends, classmates, chosen family, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

We can mourn total strangers too. Death impacts many people who may not ever know the names of those they mourn: eye-witnesses, doctors, nurses, soldiers, first-responders and psychotherapists can be changed forever by intimacies with those who have left their bodies behind.

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

And although I remain firmly agnostic about such things – I have on more than one occasion had the sensation that the dead have led a client to my office, so I would care for the the good and bad, light and shadow, that they have left behind in the hearts of others.

And as I support the bereaved, I inevitably wonder: What would the deceased wishes be – how should they, would they have wanted the person in front of me cared for? How would they respond if they were here to witness what I am seeing? How would this client’s mother want me to deal with the rage and pain her death has left behind? How would that dead man want his son treated? How would a deceased husband respond to his wife’s relief at his passing? What might that young woman feel if she saw how her brother suffered after her overdose? How would the dead want me to understand them through the things they have left behind? How would their best-self – or their worst, most-defensive aspects – respond to their survivor’s anger, betrayal, relief, sorrow, terror, pain?

I don’t work from a distance. I frankly don’t know how to – the only way I know to support those grieving and bereaved is to try to learn about the size, shape and feel of their loss as specifically as possible. To use my heart and imagination to understand as much as I can about the person being mourned. To sit with those who mourn by entering into relationship with the dead myself. To allow myself to be affected by their life, their absence, their death.

To be caught in their wake.

I’ve listened to death-tales of suicide, murder, illness, accident, chronic self destructiveness, heroic sacrifice, masochism, police intervention, terrorist attacks, and statistically improbable, impossible deaths, as freakish as lightening on a sunny day.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

I’ve learned how they faced death, who they were before death struck and the consequences that followed their lives and deaths through entire communities of people known and unknown to them.

Loss and life spreads out in concentric circles – in waves, in ripples through time and across communities.

This has happened several times, maybe more times than it should:

I have listened to people, who do not know each other and who do not know that they all know me, as they sit in my office and describe the life and death of the same person. Like the proverbial blind men describing the portion of the elephant that they can touch – I hear from one what it was like to be an eye-witness to the accident, from another what it was like to miss them in an exercise class, from a third how it feels to lose the most important relationship in their lives, from a fourth the shock of hearing of the death of a professional colleague, from a fifth sorrow of losing an old college friend.

And like my mother-in-law, I have come to know them intimately, through their most personal details, their character and their residuum.

We all cut a broader path, leave a larger wake, send out more ever widening rings than we can ever realize.

I imagine such circles of inter-connection surround us all the time. Perhaps I have as many interconnections with the man at the deli, the crossing guard, the woman in the high heels in the elevator who smells of strong perfume. If my job were not to sit still in my office, and listen to what emerges, unmasked, unfiltered by social convention I might never consider this.

And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The dead have taught me lessons I could learn from no living person.

Just as my mother-in-law departed before I entered the family, many years later my father-in-law died, just four months before our son came into this world. They never met each other either.

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

I was staring into a fireplace – watching the flames, and the logs spark and crackle. My father-in-law’s voice is behind me, a voice-over really- he is present and not present simultaneously. An accomplished scientist, pioneer in artificial intelligence, a biological reductionist my father-in-law believed in nothing romanticized or spiritual about death. Brain and mind were the same thing -and souls were non-existent. And as I watched the fire his voice said: “When you teach the boy about death, or when your own comes it is just like this: The fire converts the composition of the wood into another form of energy. See that spark? It breaks away from the body of the log, is carried upwards in the waves of heat and warmth, it burns out, and seems to disappear. But the warmth stays with you, is absorbed by you and those who are near, you inhale the carbon, the charcoal with all is uses remains long after the fire goes out “

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

Whatever I believe or you believe or don’t believe I have no question that life doesn’t disappear.  We leave trails, waves, wakes, after-shocks, hang-overs behind us.

Our lives keep living, unfolding  long after we are dead.

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions 

Pernicious Hope

Jung hung a plaque on his threshold which read:

“Invited or Uninvited: God is Present.”

The sign that I’ve often imagined placing over my office door, not quite as cozy and inviting as Jung’s, would read as follows:

“Surrender Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”

Although I suppose that a slogan lifted straight from Dante’s Gates of Hell might be a little daunting for new clients.

For some Hope may float, spring eternal, and be a thing with feathers. But very often my job seems to be to squelch, sink or pluck it.

Hope is an angel, but also a demon.

Nearly everyone who walks into this office does so because, whether they know it or not, one way or another, they are trapped in Hope’s dark clutches.

Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it.  It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness.  Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night.  One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within.  Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope.  Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope,- in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Human All Too Human,  71. Hope)

Hope, may be the center of the three theological virtues along with Faith and Charity, but it carries dangerous and pathological aspects as well.

Hope, misdirected, misplaced, can cement our attachments to people and places that are destructive to us. Hope can dangle, like bait, with a sharp hook embedded inside to keep us waiting for transformations that will never come. Hope gone haywire lurks at the root of all addictions – and we all know the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.

Hope can block out necessary grief, forestalling or arresting entirely,  the sweet release of necessary loss and healthy mourning. Hope can deceive us, obscuring realities that we need to face. Hope can keep us waiting for Godot, who will never come. Hope to “get out of” is the root of all denial.

Pernicious hope lures the gambler to go “all in” on a long shot, and invites cowardice to search for means of magical escape. Hoping for divine intervention, waiting passively to be lifted out of circumstances that require our labor and our conscious intention, Hope can bind and paralyze us.

Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. ~ Aristotle, Rhetoric

 Hope can keep us places that we need to leave, and seduce us into leaving places where we should stay.

Hope futurizes, pulling on us to abandon the present moment, and numbing us to it.

Hope insinuates that we can get out of our distress – when our soul’s only salvation may be to go through it.

Where Hope is, fear lurks just below.

We dread the dark lessons, the painful transformations, the inevitable losses  that life requires of us. We do not want to give up on the dirty well. Pernicious  hope tempts us to return to it over and over in search of clean water.

Hope is grippy, sticky, grasping.

It sneaks up quietly and carries a big hook:

Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. ~ Pema Chodron

Hope is the ally of quacks and con-men, and the sidekick of all duplicity. We cannot be tricked if we do not hope for an easy solution or a free lunch. Hope helps Illusion disguise itself as Reality.

Hope can distract, divert, drain our energies away from dreaded but unavoidable  responsibilities, stealing our focus, and our acceptance of the task at hand.

Every defense, every resistance, every form of self-sabotage contains, at the bottom of the box, Hope in some form. 

Many describe themselves as hopeless, who are in truth, being tortured by pathological hopes that they cannot let go of.

To surrender hope is an exhausting and terrifying process. Hope is a habit  that is hard to extinguish, a fix we can’t stop jonesing for. It reasserts itself, stubborn, persistent, sneaky, a craving, a crutch.

The work of psychotherapy is often to chase down and sort through the flock of slippery and Pernicious Hopes in all their diverse and daemonic aspects. To capture one at a time, examine it, to challenge and question its true mission, to uncover exactly which god this particular Hope obeys.

To exorcise it.

And the therapist’s hopes can have as much destructive power as the client’s. To hope too much on behalf of a client is a rejection of where they actually are. To hope to cure a client is inflated and grandiose as that prerogative is theirs alone. To hope to rescue someone from their circumstance is avoidant and can instill more fear in the client toward what may lie ahead, implying that it cannot be faced. Therapists may also hope to escape the painful or frightening aspects of a client’s journey and wrestle with the tempting hope, like Jesus did, that the dark cup will taken from them both.

Surrender All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

And much maligned Hopelessness, always given short shrift, can bring sweet relief. Giving up, surrender, admitting defeat, hitting bottom, allows us to lay on the damp earth, face down, grounded, maybe bloodied, but on the earth, and of the earth for good, for ill.

We can breathe again when Hope releases us from its clutches. When there is nothing left to lose, we are no longer afraid. We can rest, heal up, and when we have gathered our energies, face what is real squarely and without letting Hope deceive us.  Without Hopelessness we cannot embrace our fate or face our destiny.

The great gift of angelic Hopelessness is Acceptance.

To write without hope is the very best way to write.

Dante passed through the Gates of Hell, and descended through its terrible rings before he was permitted to rise up through Purgatory to glimpse Paradise.

True, angelic Hope lives on the other side of Hopelessness. It does not protect us from hopelessness or help us avoid it. It is the gift we are sometimes given when we have withstood hopelessness past the point of what we thought we could endure. It is often hidden, buried, or dwelling just past the horizon line of our limited perceptions. Sometimes it is just the sound of water, the smallest trickle, in the far distance. It is hard to hear, impossible to see, and rarely obvious.

Angelic Hope descends as an unexpected visitor, as a moment of grace as something we can never expect, demand, and will turn destructive if we cling to it too tightly.

It comes on its own. And not when it is called.

And we must too often abandon it, surrender it, kill it, in order to receive it again, anew.

And to extinguish hope is no guarantee of its arrival.

It will come in its own time anyway.

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 ~  T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

 

 

 

The Boy Who Would Not Stop For Death

I’ve searched for the hard copy everywhere. A twenty paged paper typed double space, almost exactly twenty years ago, before personal computers were a household or academic necessity. It must be in the storage bin somewhere, yellowing, with old journals, spiral notebooks and my collected graduate school syllabi.

I remember the grade written on top, I remember the professor, now deceased, who I wrote if for. I remember the main source cited: a small black leather bound book from the NYU library titled: Thanatology, the author forgotten. And I remember the boy, a client who was going to die, as we all will. And who somehow knew, although his mother could not bear to think of it or discuss it with him. A charming young boy who may have grown into a handsome young man, who, with luck and treatment advances, may still be with us, or who may be dead by now, but who is certainly still with me.

It was my first introduction to Death as an entity in the consultation room, although I have learned to recognize that specter as it lives and lurks in every treatment. There are those who specialize in bereavement, but the Psyche of every psychotherapist, every client, every human, has its own language to speak to the experience of death, dying, and grief.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

~ Emily Dickinson

He was six or seven, and small for his age, the size of a five year old – likely due to the the ultimately fatal illness that will one day kill him, if it hasn’t already. His mother was stiff, strained, overwhelmed, impatient and brittle. I suppose I would be too. In his short life he had multiple hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and surgeries. As soon as his mother left the room he raised his shirt up over his head to show me the large surgical scars on his little round tummy just north of his outie belly button. He was funny, smart and wild. Acting out in school, not sitting in his seat, joking, distracting other children, disrespectful of any parameters. I spent a great deal of our play therapy together using Virginia Axline’s recommended limit setting intervention:
“I know you want to do X…. but you can’t.” And laughing.

I was a second year social work intern, placed for the year in a child and family clinic. His mother doubted I could be of help to her. She found him unmanageable and increasingly resistant to the nightly medical interventions that he needed to surrender to in order to keep on living. She didn’t talk to him about his illness, or explain the painful, boring rituals she needed to perform on him at home. And she certainly never told him that she needed his help keeping death at bay, and that one day, they would be unsuccessful.

She didn’t play with him either. He performed and clowned and mugged and joked like the corniest Catskills comedian trying to make her smile. She pretended that she wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t funny, that she needed him to listen to her, not to crack wise. But I could tell she was terrified that if she laughed, and played, and got on the floor and enjoyed him – Grief when it arrived, would destroy her. Instead, she brought him to play with me, and strove to keep soft sounds out of her voice when she spoke. She needed to stay cross with him, her brows furrowed, her mouth pinched whenever possible.

And so the silly boy and I played together twice a week. He chased me around the room, holding a big green stuffed monster-man doll. If the doll caught me I was to be buried. The throw rug pulled over my face like a death-shroud. He found a toy bulldozer on the shelf and dug “graves” in small piles of playdough and had the molding clay “swallow up” the playskool “guys” one after another. And then he would have me dig them up, and we would bury them again. The doctor’s kit was in heavy rotation, and I would be instructed to lay on the floor, while he would “cut me open” from my heart to my belly, and take my insides out, and sew me shut again, sweetly covering my shirt with bandaids afterward. In between games, he would giggle and tickle, wise-crack and tease, and bounce and burp, and laugh and laugh.

At my parental guidance meetings with his mother, who refused her own psychotherapy, I would encourage her consider opening up conversation with him about his diagnosis. She did eventually tell him the name of his illness, and explain what was happening in his body that required so many trips to the doctor, so many operations, so many painful practices to keep him healthy.

His prognosis remained unthinkable, and unspeakable. Once, at a consultation I explained that much of his play seemed to be about mastering an innate awareness of their mutual fears. And wondered if she thought it might be hard for him to sit on top of these terrifying questions alone. She decided that I was threatening to tell him, if she didn’t, that he would eventually die and threatened to remove him from therapy entirely. And although it had never crossed my mind to be the one to inform him, and I promised that would never happen, I could suddenly imagine him asking me directly: “Am I going to die?” I began to rehearse a response: “That is a very important question. What do you think?” as I simultaneously prayed that my inner dialogue would never manifest.

In our final weeks together, before my internship ended, we planned our goodbyes together. Specific treats were requested for our final two weeks and a scheduled review of our favorite games. The green monster-man chase, the “burying and unburying” playdough game, and the operation game. And for the final session: something else. He wanted his mother to join us, and for me to teach her how to play all of our games.

At first she refused. I was good at playing she said, she was terrible. I explained that I was always a stand in, the person he really wanted to work this through with was her. She was the only one he really wanted to play with. She asked about the games, and I made no mention of the internal interpretations that I assigned to our play: He like to chased me with a stuffed animal, and then cover me up with a blanket. He liked to use a bulldozer to dig some little guys out of a mound of clay, and, just like the doctor who they saw so often, and who seemed to be a role model, he liked to pretend to perform surgery with a doctors kit, and listen to my breath with a toy stethoscope, and put bandaids on the ow-ie. She agreed. Uncomfortably, but she agreed.

When she came into the session, he was thrilled. And decided to help her out: “So that no one has to be embarrassed, we will play in the dark!” he announced, flipping the light switches, plunging my windowless office into utter blackness. He agreed, after adult protests to open the door a crack to let a sliver of yellow light in from the hall. “I’ve got the green monster-man!” he squealed as he chased her around the room. They resurrected the buried doll-guys, and I heard his mother giggling in the dark as he tickled her while performing a joyful, and unorthodox surgery.

They left together laughing, his hand in hers. And I shut the door. Breathing in deeply through my mouth, trying not to sob, when there was a sudden knock on the door.

The boy stood there: “Hey!” he said, “HIGH-FIVE! Awww, too slow!” and turned to walk back toward the clinic entrance, with his thumbs tucked under his back pack straps. After a few steps, he tossed the back pack aside, turned and ran at me full speed, and flew into my arms.

Twenty years later, I still remember the smell of his hair.

The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Looking Back

Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones

The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols

Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.

I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.

Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.

The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols

When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:

“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”

Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.

Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”

Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.

Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”

Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.

I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.

I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version

Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.

“Your middle name, is that a family name?”

“Yes” I answered, “why?”

“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.

“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.

My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:

“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”

“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”

It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.

Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.

Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.

How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols

I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.

Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.

And we all know what happens to those who forget history.

The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.

The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend

And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.

And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.

According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…
(http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AK/AK_EN_1_4_9.jsp)

But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.

They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.

They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Flooded

Sometimes a flood destroys a world already made and the people in it; sometimes creation itself begins with the primeval water.
~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

I am not going to over-write or over-think this one.

This is going to be way too long, and under-edited. I give myself permission to not have to be ruthless with my thoughts this week as they float up. Perhaps something valuable will drift in among the debris.

Maybe something that spills out here will help to prepare other therapists and care takers when climate change driven disasters, in one form or another, emerge in their communities.

And make no mistake: they will.

If the weather can disable this fortress of concrete and steel, no one can be assured they are exempt.

According to Oxfam International “last summer the US declared 1/2 of their counties disaster zones due to storms, floods, fires & severe drought after 12 month of record temperatures.”

Katrina already happened, and we didn’t take it in. Increasingly violent and recurrent tornados have devastated whole towns, and we continued to respond with our standard disaster/trauma responses. Drought has devastated huge swaths of farm country, brush-fires, and mudslides, and deadly heat waves don’t seem to change our tune.

These are not mere disasters.

This is an initiation into a new way of life.

These are the consequences of our consumption, our drive for convenience, our wish to accumulate, the speed that is never fast enough.

We need to face the realities we have created.

As therapists, social workers, crisis interventionists we have to take this in. This is not about helping people process an anomalous disastrous event.

This is about helping everyone, traumatized, or not, prepare for a whole new normal.

This is about practicing for storms to come, for profound challenges to an unsustainable way of life. This is about learning to let go of what does not work. This is about looking at our energy dependence, and learning new ways of living that respond to dwindling oil supplies, our fragile power grid, our hungry batteries, and addictive fuel consumption.

This is about understanding something about how easily it can all be disrupted by the wind, rain, water, and heat produced by a wounded planet trying to re-establish healthy homeostasis.

Has it only been a week? It feels like 40 days.

Monday – a day of preparation and fear:

The wind began picking up in earnest late Monday afternoon and we retreated from the park and playground into the house.

My kids channeled all their fear into fretting about Zelda and whether or not she would be all right. Zelda, a wild turkey I had seen roaming in Battery Park, the week before, had fascinated them. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_(turkey) ) They had proudly told their classmates about Zelda, the turkey who had wandered by herself, from north of the Bronx all the way downtown. She had lived, the only one of her kind, in Battery Park for the past 10 years.

We assured them that wild birds knew special secrets to keep safe, and that we too had prepared in every reasonable way.

We told them the truth: a big storm was coming, yes, bigger than Irene. We might lose power. That the weather centers were saying that water was going to flood areas near the rivers and ocean and in neighborhoods nearby, but that our house was high on a hill and no one thought the water would come this high. We explained that many friends had evacuated, and were all in safe places, waiting. We assured them that if we were told to leave by weather scientists – that we too would leave right away – and would do everything we could to keep them safe always.

Most importantly, we treated this storm as part of unfolding new realities. We said that this storm would be good practice and teach us important things about how to take care of ourselves and others through future storms, and that we should use it learn everything we could.

On high ground – we watched the waters rising, engulfing the neighborhood two hundred yards away and driving out neighbors immediately adjacent to us. Red Hook, a few miles away where clients and friends both live and work, was submerged, flooded out before the sun even set.

As the night wore on, and the wind’s howls became more ferocious – I began to check in with clients who still had power, some trapped and unable to evacuate in flood zone A, some who lived on the Jersey shore. Colleagues friends, and clients were on disaster calls, working continuously through the storm, and beyond, in the city hospitals. Others who were first responders I was able to catch glimpses of in news clips and know they were okay, at least at the time of the report.

For a few people who didn’t have access to TV or radio, I conveyed by text, the wind and weather reports as I heard them.

Our home was safe enough. We never lost power, and were able to follow the reports of cars floating down Wall Street near our office, of the East Village- our previous home and home to many friends -waist high in flood water.

As the night wore on and the wind intensified, and the power outages began we retreated to the safest room in our house, and followed the storm as best we could, through our phones – on twitter, facebook, and the NYC office of emergency management.

Bellevue, where my husband had worked and I had volunteered through 9/11, where we both had many professional and personal connections – had lost power and the hospitals were evacuating. Beyond unthinkable, trying to imagine negotiating those labyrinthine hallways in the pitch black, surrounded by panicking and disoriented patients.

Every harrowing report implicated someone we knew, someone we had treated, someone we cared about, someone we loved.

The wind began to die down around 10:30 pm. The flood waters began to recede around 11:30 and most communities were starting to drain by midnight.

We have lived, and worked in this city a long long time. Between the two of us, we have lived in many neighborhoods, worked in many different communities, and been professionally invested in hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the city and its surrounds.

On my own roster of open cases – I have clients who live in every severely effected area: The Rockaways, Breezy Point, Astoria, Hoboken, Jersey City, the Jersey Shore, Long Island, Red Hook, DUMBO, Coney Island, the East Village, and of course, all of Manhattan below 28th Street.

I, my children my immediate family members were safe and fine, but I had empathic connections to someone in every devastated community. I knew personally, professionally (which are not so separate in times like these) people and their stories of their families, their friends, their neighbors, their associates – I could envision and imagine a woman I never met but had heard tell of with a severely disabled child in a destroyed area of Queens, someone else’s elderly stubborn parents refusing to leave the Jersey shore, the exhausted communities of cops and FDNY and their families weathering the storm without them. I could see in my visual and imaginal memory folks I know and know of living high in towering urban housing projects, cold with no lights, in the dark.

Floods archetypally and collectively represent the washing away of one epoch, and the birth of another: Noah, and before him Gilgamesh, with their big boats, matching doves with tree branches and their same rainbow promises that the Lord of the Universe would abide by a new contract now that the old one had been washed away.

Personally, in an individual dream, floods are symbolic of great waves of unprocessed emotional experience – that floods out our capacity for thinking, for analysis, for strategy.

This flood was symbolically all of this and more.

This was real, happening to real people, in my real extended, personal, and professional community, to human beings and families that I was really connected to, had intimate knowledge of, and attachments to.

There was no opportunity to derealize, to pretend it was happening to random “others” somewhere else. This was happening to my chosen family, my closest friends, my neighborhoods, my clients, my communities, my city.

When you work close and warm using your own Self, in the heat of transference, intersubjectivity and alchemy, cold distancing isn’t an option, even when it might be useful in helping you to keep your bearings, or protect you from getting washed away.

Tuesday – a day of shock and awakening:

In the morning, after little sleep and a little breakfast, we went out to explore what had been lost. We stopped counting downed trees when we lost count on our square block. We went down to the river which, although still swollen, had retreated back to its banks. We traced the waterline by the shattered windows and ruined store fronts that we passed.

My husband and I hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the lingering rain to see if our office had taken in water. Our superintendent had spent the night, turning off the electricals to prevent shorting and fires. He estimated only a foot or so in the basement, although we had been in zone A, and Wall Street, one block away, had been completely flooded.

I reached out to several people on my caseload who I knew had been in significant danger, and sent a mass “bcc” email to all letting them know that the office was out of commission and I would be scheduling walking/talking sessions for clients in Brooklyn, and phone sessions for clients that needed to talk on Thursday and Friday.

Responses came trickling in – many who thought they were “fine” with or without power, or “not effected at all” on high ground. And as many stories of crisis, trauma and loss: photos of clients homes destroyed, tales of watching rising waters out of windows, cold and blacked out apartments, people evacuated unable to return to their homes, people trapped in their homes by water, by downed trees, by cold, dark stairwells.

People rescued and assisted by kind neighbors and strangers.
I fell in instantaneous love with every Samaritan who selflessly assisted a client in need.

Wednesday- a day of giving, taking and disconnection:

After a fear-free nights sleep, we woke up activated:

Wednesday was Halloween, and I could not stomach the thought of talking my kids door to door, in fancy costume, begging for candy – when there were people unhoused and unfed and unclothed in our own communities a few miles away.

We went through closets and gathered all of our extra blankets, coats, wool socks, sweater, canned goods, bottled water, hurricane candles, extra batteries, flashlights.
On line I found Redhook.recovers.org run by OWS, and was directed to a church that was gathering supplies and taking deliveries to Red Hook and the Rockaways.

I contacted all the people in our co-op and our neighborhood, sent notices out on email and facebook, asking for donations of batteries and flashlights, blankets, coats and sweaters.

I asked people to drop off supplies in our vestibule, and said that we would be glad to transport any supplies all week.

One family, among our closest friends, responded immediately, ran up to their apartment and brought down their canned goods.

All others stared at us blankly. “I don’t think we don’t have any extra batteries… ” one lied vaguely. Some were more direct: “I am going to keep my own bottled water.” Some offered useless items instead: ” Hmm – I might have some summer clothes…”

No thanks – they need food, warm clothes and coats because its cold outside and their homes are gone, also batteries and flashlights and water.

People looked at me as if I was doing something unbecoming, annoying, impolite.

I tried hard not to judge their response and also not to turn it in against myself. I knew from other disasters and from 9/11, that this was my typical activated response to the devastation around us.

My professional practice as a social worker and a therapist is to imagine something about the core needs of others and cultivate the most supportive, effective response. Its what I do all day – why should others react in the same way that I do?

I’m certain many that rejected my outreach found, and will find in the long weeks ahead their own ways to respond over time – with goods, services, time, money.

Everyone is allowed their own response to shock, me included.

Maybe they didn’t have the opportunity for this to feel real to them, maybe they had no experiences of or relationships to people in the communities that were directly impacted, maybe this didn’t feel personal to them, yet, this time.

Maybe we can’t respond to anything easily or effectively if we haven’t forged a personal connection somehow.

We stopped by our local mini-mart and they donated a full cart of canned goods for us to transport, bless them.

The kids worked hard through the day sorting, bagging and boxing supplies along side of us. They gave generously, appropriately, and I was touched by their maturity, industry, and autonomy. Proud to bursting.

But, at the end of the day, and for the rest of the week, our vestibule would remain empty. Not a single donated can or a battery or an old coat.

And this thought too: I must also consider, and with thoroughness, that my rush to offer up goods and services may not have been particularly helpful at all. Perhaps my boxes of canned goods and rice and beans and coats in all sizes and blankets are sitting somewhere, in a cold basement or the back of a van, or an evacuated shelter – burdensome and unused.

Perhaps I simply created the illusion of being useful, because I needed to be of use.

There are times when the most useful thing is to sit still, and stay out of the way.

And perhaps others succeeded at that where I failed.

By nights end I need to check in with my husband: “Do I seem crazy or off-putting or too agitated when I am asking for donations? Because I feel like people are staring at me like I have three heads? Is anxious impatient energy pouring off of me? Was I inappropriate or demanding?”

“No” he said, “you were asking normally – I think you just have to ask a lot of people and thats how it goes – between our friends, our things, and the mini mart we gave them a lot of stuff, and I’m glad we responded the way we did. You are just always the canary in a coal mine – and remember what happens to them!”

Thursday – a day of gathering and outreach

On Thursday we began hearing from chosen family – our children’s god mothers and god fathers – whose homes were without power. It was growing colder. The darkened parts of the city were feeling edgier, less safe each night. Walking uptown to harvest power was creating irritable crowds at the power outage borders – as hundreds searched for places to charge their phones, buy hot foot and drink, and more batteries before heading back into their darkened homes.

They came to stay until power and heat were restored – which comforted us as much as them. It felt healing, soothing, strengthening to have our tribe gathered.

We were anxious about our clients well-being. Without an office available, I scheduled any client that wanted or needed to talk on Thursday. I had walking/talking sessions for clients who lived in Brooklyn, I had sessions behind the locked gates of our community garden, I had phone sessions in my room while one of the godmother’s turned our daughter’s room into her temporary office. For the first time ever: a half-phone/half-text session emerged as a treatment modality when the cellular system refused to allow our phones to stay connected.

It was both comforting and exhausting to try to cobble together jerry-rigged pseudo-structure out of the chaos, and brought into sharp focus how much injury the city, its inhabitants – and its infrastructure- had sustained.

When a twitter friend forward me the information that Zelda the turkey had survived, with a photo of fat, happy turkey on top of a dumpster – everyone in the household cheered as though Noah’s dove had just returned bearing an olive branch.

Friday – a day of gratitude and taking stock

The house remained warm, kid- and friend-full, and I spent the day feeling enormously grateful for the reading on ecotherapy and ecopsychology and climate science I had been led to explore over the past several months.

I felt prepared by the reading I’d done, startled by the timing of the events, heartbroken for others, for but not surprised, or stunned.

Even more grateful that I listened to my own inner leading and had organized a study group of smart and thoughtful clinicians that will soon be gathering together to look at the way that our disconnection from a wider awareness, and our denial of the consequences of our collective behavior effects our community’s and our culture’s mental health.

I need more than ever to find words, in the company of a like minded group, to speak to clients about our collective denials, our estrangement from realities, our defenses against science, our minimization of disturbing realities.

It was a day for me to starting waking up to our own disturbing realities and secondary losses as well: two self-employed private practitioners, with our office out of commission, it was becoming clear that we would feel a significant blow to our businesses and household finances.

Many clients have sustained unfathomable losses, and will need pro bono and reduced fee support. Some may move, as many did after 9/11. Others will lose their jobs, some have lost businesses, many have also lost, and will lose several weeks of income themselves. Paying for therapy becomes a low priority or an impossibility.

I have made a policy of never abandoning a client because of financial crisis, I reduce or suspend fees, perhaps reduce sessions if large balances are still accruing, or schedule on an “as needed” basis, until the crisis is negotiated.

I hope I can afford to maintain that policy going forward while also caring for my family.

A weekend of celebration and passing it on:

Saturday with our extended chosen family gathered we had a full day of joyous celebration, and permitted ourselves to forget all that was happening around us.

Because a fantastic force of nature, far more generative and creative and consequential than Sandy, arrived on this planet 8 years ago when our daughter was born, and that deserved to be celebrated no holds barred.

Sunday we returned to reality, and used our car and our gasoline to shuttle donated supplies to Red Hook, the Rockaways and Breezy Point.

Monday and beyond….

This week, we have returned tentatively to work, in a building intact, with power but with no phone, wifi, or heat. The night time view from my window is eerie: One window looks out on buildings filled with light and flickering TV screens. The other window faces a chasm of darkness, pitch black, unlit, unoccupied buildings

Clients seem to fall into four different categories of response
(I have seen similar responses before, including my own, in the days and weeks after 9/11):

1) Those who are totally and directly affected, and know it, but who are very busy coping, and not feeling much yet. They are in the throes of loss of home, loss of businesses, loss of community, loss of neighborhood, loss of place and root. They are wandering through their days, displaced, unmoored. At particular risk are those who have survived trauma and disaster before:

Standard disaster/post-trauma/crisis intervention training is extremely helpful here – and there has been a great deal written about that elsewhere. But it is probably not complete or sufficient in and of itself, as climate-driven disasters are likely to continue to unfold, in some form or another. This is about all of us coming to terms with a new way of life.

2) Those who were not in the direct path, but feel disturbed, disorganized, anxious about what is to come – or guilty and hesitant to permit themselves to “feel bad” when they are so “lucky” – or who sense that everything has changed although they have “no right to complain” because “nothing bad really happened” to them:

For these clients it is important to validate that it is healthy, and normal and appropriate to feel distress when your community is profoundly wounded. Some worry that their non-personal distress is a sign of personal weakness or low grade hysteria rather an expectable experience of empathic connection to those around them.

“I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices had cried out in terror….” Obi Won says when a distant planet in a nearby galaxy explodes. The quote is resonant and memorable collectively – as if we too can imagine sensing such massive, collective, disturbances with Ben’s sensitivity. How much more powerfully do we feel such disturbances when the millions crying out are those we encounter every day, when we have been seated side by side with them on the broken commuter trains and subways?

3) Those who were not affected, or were secondarily affected, who are involved in advocacy, who are working to assist others and those actively grieving the injuries to their community and environment:

– sometimes to the point of burnout or exhaustion.

These clients first and foremost need their perceptions validated and their grief supported. This is particularly difficult for therapists struggling with their own estrangement and denial. These may, or may not need help discerning their own limitations, their need for self-care, and managing survivor’s guilt.

Too often, these responses are pathologized as mere activations of events or injuries from childhood, when they are a healthy, appropriate and related response to real events in the present.

4) Those who were not directly externally affected, and who are not internally affected by the disaster either:

Some might report that they had a relaxing time away from work, might describe the city slow down as a “vacation”, some might even describe having a good time partying and see the event as having little or nothing to to with them.

Some may have cursory awareness of the losses around them, but are not moved, distressed or upset for anyone else, or for the community – beyond being glad that they themselves were not in harms way.

Others among the unaffected, living just miles away, may have paid no attention whatsoever to the disaster around them, have not read a paper and ignored, or avoided coverage of the event, and do not even know what has happened all around them.

To be sure, some of these have marshaled panicked defenses: flung themselves into manic hedonistic binges, strapped on their narcissistic armor or thrown up walls of primitive denial to manage their own fear.

And many who imagine they are truly “fine” have suffered from (or will suffer from) other, displaced symptoms, stemming from the lack of sufficient relatedness to others to their communities and the planet. These are often clients who feel anxious, estranged from meaning in their lives, friendships and in their work, who have significant difficulties forging and sustaining empathic and reciprocal relationships.

These are clients who often don’t seem to know what other people are “for”, what their own central purposes and values are, and sometimes seem at a loss as to what it is they want from therapy itself.

How disassociated have our lives and our culture become that we can imagine that it is normal to be unaffected by devastation in our community a mile or two away, or by a feverish planet creating recurring superstorms?

Denial prevents us from preparedness, prevention, and harm reduction with regard to climate change- exacerbating the toll in disasters like these.

Why didn’t people leave evacuation zones?
Why did people stay with their children in harms way?
Why do we want to rebuild in flood-zones when the water levels are rising?
Why have we not listened to the obvious, clear scientific consensus and mounting evidence?
Why do we ignore every warning?

Just like addicts and their cohorts living in collective denial – clinging to short term comforts while accruing disaterous long-term consequences: our culture, communities, and individuals need to begin to face painful, grief-filled realities in order to reduce harm to ourselves and the living world.

Addressing, confronting, and working through treacherous resistance is the therapists purview.

This IS our job. We do this everyday. We know how to work through and around unhealthy defenses.

We need to offer up our skill set to help our culture and our clients respond to reality or our clients will continue to suffer.

More than they have already.

For myself and my practice:

I want to support my clients’ and the planet’s attempt to heal from the injuries our inflated consumption and denial has inflicted.

I want to mourn with my whole community when we are brought low and humbled with profound losses of life, of our way of living, of property, home, rootedness and place.

I want to appreciate the dark and painful relief that comes when we are reminded that we are not so powerful and we restored to our proper place and size on a planet that lived and thrived for thousands of epochs before humans and will spin and live richly far past us.

I want to cultivate gratitude for and strengthen the resilience and health in others, in my community, and the world around me.

There are people doing amazing good for each other.

There is one kooky, wild turkey happily roaming free in the middle of a concrete jungle.

There are birds, bearing olive branches, all around us.

There is comfort and empowerment in that.

Please help Hurricane Sandy victims in NYC by donating to New York Cares http://www.newyorkcares.org

or by donating to The Red Cross.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Autotomy and Remembering

The limbs of a starfish assist escape because they can be shed.

(Shuker, KPN. 2001. The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p. http://www.asknature.org/strategy/7120557f65475a9a7d8656fd02946964)

Some people live their whole lives in one zip code. They remain near and close to their family of origin, and their extended family. They find their earliest attachments to be hospitable, enduring, and nurturing. There are people who still have their best friends from kindergarten, from high school, from college and from twenty years ago.

These lives have, for the most part, offered a kind of narrative continuity, consistency, a sense of going-on-being, where the people who know them now, knew them then, and can watch and mirror what has changed, and what hasn’t.

These are lives that unfold progressively, epigenetically, perhaps each chapter moves forward with a tidy security – or perhaps with a suffocating, repetitious, entrapping or even boring continuation of themes and relationships carried over from the chapter before. The joys, challenges, losses, and unavoidable abject sufferings of life take place in a more or less, consistent, continuous context.

And there are others, different – not better or worse – who have great, insurmountable, or repetitive breaks in their narrative. Life stories that start over again, and sometimes again and again, with little or nothing remaining from one chapter to the next. Life itself has offered minimal constancy.

Survival has required that limbs must be shed in order to carry on.

These life narratives unfold like a collection of short stories, episodic, mini-narratives which carry their own arc. A turn of the page and a new story begins with a new setting, new characters and events that make little reference, and hold little knowledge of the story that preceded it.

I think of them as starfish.

So many come to this city to get away from someplace else, to escape relationships and connections to those who could or would not follow them in. They have fled small towns and provincial, tradition bound communities for the expensive freedom and anonymous diversity of urban life.

Others ran for their lives, their freedom, and their sanity from families or communities or countries that would have done them in, annihilated, abused, repressed, devoured or destroyed something sacred in them had they not escaped over the bridges and tunnels into the great, teeming cement labyrinth. Others came, what-the-hell-do-I-have-to-lose, from homes that collapsed out from under them. Everyone essential died. Or abandoned them. Families fragmented, degenerated and blown to bits, like dandelion seeds, scattered around the world, every man woman and child for themselves.

Maybe there are more in New York City than in other places.

Or, maybe, there have just been more in my office.

The leavings-behind and losses of emigration, adoption, coming-out, addiction, abuse and recovery, divorce, deaths and die-offs, abandonments, disasters, severed family relationships, the sudden eruption of mental illness in ourselves or those we depend on, wars, epidemics, all of these, and more can create fissures in time, in our sense of unfolding Self, cause us to shed skins, sever limbs, and to start life over again.

Any form of severance or cut off, letting go, of giving up, of going away from a relational environment that we have been profoundly attached to, or stuck on, involves leaving some aspect of ourselves behind.

Sometimes we must cut-off toxic environments and unrepentant abusive family members to preserve ourselves. Sometimes we develop inflamed, excruciating emotional “allergies” to people we have loved but can no longer be near. Sometimes we are cut-off or cast out, or a life-structure simply collapses or disappears out from under us with out our having any say in the matter.

Attachments to those around us take pieces of us with them whether they are lost voluntarily or involuntarily.

Like our evolutionary relatives, slugs, starfish, sea stars, lizards, spiders that leave bits of themselves behind when survival mandates it, we human beings, perhaps further along in the evolutionary chain, nevertheless rely on atotomic functions to preserve ourselves too.

Autotomy (not to be confused with autonomy, but sometimes utilized in service of preserving it) from the Greek auto = “self-” and tomy = “severing.”

In “Awakening the Dreamer” Phillip M. Bromberg discusses Nobel prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska’s poem titled “Autotomy” which relies on the image of a sea creature called a holothurian as it splits itself in two – half dying, half alive, in order to grow again another day.

Bromberg uses a Latin phrase borrowed from the poem “Non Omnis Moriar” – “I shall not wholly die!” – as the reflexive motto of dissociation in the face of repetitive or traumatic loss:

Others may validly discuss such severances in terms of post traumatic dissociation, or attachment theory and disorder. I am less interested in diagnostics, pathology or prognosis, but more an experiential Winicottian construct: exploring the disruptions in the fragile sense of “going-on-being” through time, as a self that is at least partially recognizable and somewhat knowable to those around, and to oneself.

My grandmother-in-law, a holocaust survivor who by 102 had lost and reconstructed several lives, used her own language to describe people without such consistency:

“They are like ‘this’ in the world” she would say, showing us the back of her hand, a bent, arthritic index finger standing up as straight as it could, the other three fingers and thumb curled in a knotted ball in her tiny palm.

One finger standing alone, in a solitude which carries its own burden, but also still in historical and enfleshed connection to the other digits, now unreachable, cut off and out of sight.

Those “like this” in the world carry stigma in our culture, just for surviving their losses.

Kohut might talk about the loss of “self-objects”: people who help us to see and feel ourselves and give us a contextual, reliable, accurate sense of our selves, through time, across developmental stages. When specific “self-objects” are lost, shattered or eliminated, access to specific internal representations of ourselves are lost as well.

How full, how complete, how round, and how thread-bare can our memories be when there is no one there to participate in the act of remembering with us?

After grad school, I worked in a long-term day treatment for adults with severe and persistent mental illness, and was shocked by how little the treatment team knew, (or had bothered to find out) about the histories of the clients we served. Most lived in mental health residences. Many had lived their entire lives in state institutions like Willowbrook until Geraldo Rivera stormed the gates. Few had any involved family members. Many of the clients were unable to articulate anything understandable about their lives, scrambled thought process and daily dream-time disrupting any ability to sort historical memory fragments from the archetypal images produced by hallucinations, internal stimuli, delusions, and projections.

Their charts and psychosocial histories were barren: family history “Client says he has a sister, no longer in contact” or “Unknown”. Some clients had been served by the same agency for over ten, fifteen even twenty years, with their treatment providers passing through and being replaced every three or four years. Not only were their historical narratives lost, but when each new clinician updated the “expired” paperwork, huge chunks of their recent, therapeutic histories would be lost too.

I found myself writing voluminous progress notes and enormous histories in longhand fountain pen, stapling stacks of extra pages into the standardized forms. I would hunt down every piece of data I could find on their behalf pulling old charts from the archives, requesting ancient medical records from hospitals. I would find clues, 10-year-old phone numbers, a mention of an aunt with an unusual name who may be more easily located by 411. I spent hours and hours when the whole building was emptied, making phone calls, pouring through records, finding pieces of the past to help the clients I was serving remember who they are. When I could find something they were thrilled – “I remember her!!” or “Yes! That was the phone number of my old counselor he was nice” or even “That was where the bad things first happened…” a piece of themselves, a lost bit re-collected, re-contexutalized.

One (fictionalized) small, smelly client with poor hygiene wore many coats, and had been mute at the agency and at his residence for over 5 years. His peers called him “The Smell” as he never spoke a word or made a sound. He came to my office to draw pictures with me regularly, to play Winnicott’s squiggle game together. One day, after many months, he wrote out a phone number.

Which I called.

The woman on the other end was a relative who hadn’t heard from him in years. I told her he was silent and we knew nothing about him. “Oh, he gets like that when he smokes crack” she said instantly. “He’ll talk his damn head of when he isn’t getting high.”

He met my request for a urine test with a drawing of a big, piss-yellow dragon guarding a castle in the distance – an initial refusal – which eventually led to a nod, a signed consent, pee in a cup, detox, and several years ahead of amazing art work, joyful, loud effusive wise cracking and talking his damn head off.

Really.
It was even annoying sometimes, but in a good way.

The subsequent regeneration, however, can be particularly dramatic. As long as the shed limb is not devoured by the predator and still contains a section of the central body disc of the starfish that shed it, this limb has the ability to regenerate into a complete starfish.”
(Shuker, KPN, The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature)

I knew, and know, that those big fat long-hand documents I had written would only live in their charts for a time, that they would end up culled, archived, updated by other clinicians who would understandably and wisely, leave the office at the end of the work day. In 5 or 8 years time much of the detective work, and re-assembly would be forgotten by the institution and maybe the clients too. If, and when clients lost gains we had made together, if “The Smell” ever fell silent again, there may be no remaining documentation of what we had regenerated. And I would not be able to stay there long-term and help him, or any of them, remember.

But I do still remember.
And I will remember for the rest of my life. Ridiculously perhaps, on some mystical,non-sensical plane, I believe it matters that I do. Clients I haven’t seen or heard from for decades do come back, call, leave messages, send notes, or check in to be sure that I am still able to remember them.

Being re-membered, over the course of our lives, lets us experience ourselves as whole.

We need to be in relationship that re-members us in order to re-member ourselves. Therapists are people who have committed themselves to re-membering.

Ideally, therapists commit to remember, long after the appointments have stopped. This therapeutic promise outlasts the treatment. Maybe even for our whole lifetimes, or as long as our capacities permit.

There are healthy and broken people living lives of constancy.
There are well and wounded people living through intermittence and discontinuity. Any one can be dis-membered.

Yet, even if only one limb remains, if even a piece of the central body remains, we can re-establish cohesion, wholeness.

The therapist has a special function in relationship to people living in the throes of discontinuity. It is this: To create a continuous environment, that exists over time, and may need to endure over a lifetime, that allows the core, the central body, to identify itself again, to resume its task of re-generation, to find its inherent capacity for “going on being.”

The therapeutic relationship becomes the seat of consistency, the embodiment of abidingness – continuing on, persisting, enduring in order to honor and assemble the tales of all the lost bits and pieces as they emerge.

To regenerate, we re-member, together, over time.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Bear Will Eat You

This one is just for me.

No great idea, no over-arching theme revealed. No burst of poetic inspiration.

No gift from me here.

This is the dark-side of the moon – the cost of the work – the damage it does to those of us who practice.

Damage is not all that it does, but make no mistake: damage is done.

There are seasons that cycle through your practice:
Cycles of joy, pride and celebration.
Cycles of sorrow, pain and loss.

And there is darker more disorienting stuff than that.

Cycles of hate, paranoia, terror, nausea, horror, and cruelty that set your world on edge and claw at your sense of reality.

Sometimes all the birds are flying in the wrong direction.

Days and weeks when you hear things that you can never un-hear. Impossible and unjust traps of fate as destructive as the one that Oedipus encountered. As intolerable as the torture of Job.

Rashomon days.

When the stories you hear overwhelm and contradict, and undermine your ability to believe easily in anything simple, or reliable, or good.

When your head swims with the horror of how cruel and destructive we can be to one another, and nothing makes sense at all.

Certainly this was true of the months and months of crisis work in NYC after 9/11.
Each day, a round of fresh horror.

But, even without mass tragedies – be warned that when you approach this field there will be weeks when you will sit in one Kobayashi Maru after another – un-winnable scenarios, from which there is no escape.

There are days, where the darkness you bear witness compounds thicker and heavier with each narrative that spills forth in your office.

Days when the road to hope becomes so steep, it rises up ninety degrees into a sheer, impassable wall blocking your path. No way to move forward. No place to run.

Tragedies so entrapping that they can tear clean through the fabric of living.

I will tell you one such story – disguised beyond recognition – but exactly as impossible and intolerable as one I encountered my first year in the field – many many years ago.

The client had her first psychotic break at age twelve, following a violent rape by a stranger. She has spent a life time in and out of hospital, day treatment programs, residential treatment facilities. In her early 20’s she had a child, which she knew she could not raise, who her sisters and mother raise and care for on her behalf. The woman remains close and connected to her child and family. Shortly after her daughter turns twelve the family stops returning the woman’s calls and refuse to let her come to the house, causing her great distress. Eventually, many many months later a sister calls to tell me that the twelve year old daughter has survived a violent rape by a stranger who broke into their apartment and was arrested. She was hospitalized medically to recover from her injuries for over a month. She seems to have also had a psychotic break as a result, is hearing voices, pre-occupied with internal stimuli, and has now been admitted to the same adolescent psychiatric unit that her mother was after her assault and decompensation. They could not bring themselves to tell the child’s mother, and asked that I do it, as they are hoping that a visit from her may help her daughter.

On the street, in the news papers, at the coffee shop – we find ways to distance ourselves from stories like these: My neighborhood isn’t like that, we don’t have mental illness in the family, such things could never happen to me.

Just like those of us who have never had cancer can hang onto our magical thinking that cancer will never happen to us either.

But that kind of distancing is an abandonment in a therapists office.

And remember: tragedy, like mercy, rains down evenly on the just and the unjust.

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, a (fictionalized) day or a week can look like this:

10:00am – A woman’s child has disappeared. The police search.

11:00am – A husband mourns his wife’s recent suicide and cares for their child who found her body.

Your capacity for hope, for faith, for belief in humanity, shaken into crumbs and dust.
You may be dangling by your fingertips but you know that you are needed.

12:00pm – A fresh, out of the blue stage four cancer diagnosis.

1:00pm – Lunch and email. No good news. An email from your son’s teacher concerned about his talking in class. An urgent and contentious co-op meeting called that evening to discuss a potential high-stakes lawsuit.

Reeling, unable to process it all. Lost, bewildered.

None of these are new cases. All of these people you have been working with for years and years on other things – finding more job satisfaction, improving their marriages, resolving their conflicted relationship with their parents.

All are blind-sided.
You are half-way through your day.

2:00pm – A man with chronic debilitating physical pain losing hope.

3:00pm – A survivor of long ago child sexual abuse abuse forcibly subpoenaed to testify as more recent victims seek to prosecute the perpetrator.

You stop looking at your schedule. You don’t want to know what is going to come next. You close your eyes between sessions and hope that the next person is the actor who may have just landed a long sought after role, or someone who has just met the love of their life.

4:00pm – A woman, recently moved in with a man she has trusted for many years has been hit by him.

5:00 – A man finds out that his romantic partner of 20 years has emptied their mutual bank account, has had a secret life, and left him with nothing.

6:00 – Dinner. You can’t think straight.
You have no advice to offer, you know no way out but through it all.
You are afraid to even check your email, your voice messages, your text messages.

There is nothing you can do in the face of such broken-ness but to break as well.

It is the only sane response. The only place to connect. To be broken together.

If you care for these people, and you do, deeply, you must let it break you too.

You struggle with your personal responsibility. Should you have seen it coming? Is that what that dream they had was about? How could you, should you have protected them from this? Could you have stopped something, diverted something, prepared everyone for the shock?

Darkness wins sometimes. Or can at least, successfully dominate for a long season.

And by this point in my career, I am exhausted by the naiveté of those who insist that everything is meaningful and simple, that our choices cause our fates, that Love is always stronger than hate.

I am just as exhausted by my own naive wish that life be always sensible, causality clear and obvious, and controllable. How, after all these years, after all I have seen, can I still be stunned by senslessness? How can I still be loyal to a split off archetype of how things “should” be? How do I manage to still feel violated, and disrupted by the darkness in the world?

Some bears are too big to eat.

Some stories, especially when told by those you have invested in and cared for and nurtured, leave scars on your brain, and break your heart in too many different ways at once.

Later, maybe, they can be wrestled with. Meaning can be forcibly extracted, or shoved down the throat of senselessness. We cannot choose what happens to us, or to others. But many learn how to make tragedy meaningful in the aftermath.

But only in the aftermath.

For now, you can’t look away.
The job is to look. To hear.
To sometimes let love break you.

7:00- a man whose beloved but unstable twin brother has relapsed again and committed a violent offense while high.

8:00 – A woman whose partner has delivered a still born child

9:00 Home. To curl briefly in the bed with your sleeping child and smell their breath and hair before watching some stupid, mindless anesthesizing TV with a glass of wine.

And you feel guilty/thankful, that this time, for this round, it isn’t you.

And you know it has been before. And it will be again.

You remember how much it meant – when it was you – to tell the story to someone who wouldn’t look away.

You fall asleep, and dream compensatory, consoling dreams.

In the morning, you spend time with your family, work-out, feed yourself a healthy breakfast. Put on your lipstick, and head back in.

And hope today you will eat the bear.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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