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

Mother Load

“Every Mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother and every mother extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.”
― C.G. Jung

A “big” dream, recalled vividly, from well over a decade ago, from a time when my professional identity was central to me, and I considered myself happily child-free.

The dream has served as a herald, a warning, a reminder, a road sign, a comfort and a counterweight.

My eyes are following a sea bird as it circles strangely in the sky over the city streets. Directly beneath is a young woman, in a old coat, tightly buttoned over a large pregnant belly. She is walking away from me, and I decide to follow her.

She slips into a church yard.

I follow her inside, but she has disappeared.

A tunnel. A man (a priest?) gestures for me to enter. I must crawl on my knees to pass through. I feel a claustrophobic panic begin to swell:

“Tengo Meido!!”

I have fear. Fear has me.

And I break free into a small chapel.
In the center of the room is a large fountain which rests on top of a sacred, ancient spring. A circle of women move around it, in a slow, methodical ritualized dance. They have cut crystal pitchers in each hand, and are pouring the waters back and forth, from the fountain, into their own and each other’s pitchers and back again.

I know this is the dance of the Mothers Who Mourn. And I am soon to be initiated into this dance.

and that although this is a dance filled with sorrow, it is also a dance of beauty and power.

This is the dance that keeps the entire world in balance.

Therapists spend an extraordinary amount of time each day talking to clients about motherhood, their mothers and their own motherhood.

Surely my sample is skewed. Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Those mommies. In this era. In this place.

Mothers in my community who know what I do approach me at school, at the park, on the corner, confessing their failures and their fears, seeking reassurance or direction – assuming I have the power to absolve and point them toward the right path over a quick cup of coffee.

And in my office the mommies tell me their secrets. These other mothers take off their protective armor of seeming perfection when they talk to me.

They confess their darkest mommy moments: they scream at their children, lose their shit, they are exhausted beyond comprehension. They admit that they have had it, are up to here. They are drained, feel ill used, disrespected, reduced. They are riddled with guilt, regret, and inadequacy. They whisper their fears that that their son or daughter is explosive, defiant, passive, obsessive, distractible, depressed, diagnosable, has a learning difference or neurological disability.

They are fearful that they have already failed, or soon will fail at their chosen calling.

Overwhelmed by the perceived power that they wield with every choice they make about the physical and emotional well being of their child. The power to create, to contaminate, to shame, to mold, to shape, to instruct, to guide, to damage.

Every one of them desperate, frantic to do “what is right” whatever the hell that is.

Wincing, braced for cold shock of shame, of blame and judgement by their extended family, the therapeutic community, their neighbors, their spouses, and above all: by Other Mothers.

Fretful that they have not done enough, cannot do enough, have overlooked something essential, that any and every decision they make, or fail to make, will have destructive life long consequences.

All anxiously grieving their failures, or their perceived failures, or straining to defend against failures they cannot acknowledge.

Everyone in need of forgiveness and reassurance whether they know it or not. Struggling to forgive themselves, or unable to acknowledge that they need to be forgiven.

Scared to death that their children will not love them, do not love them, or will know better than to love them by the time they reach adulthood.

All desperate to hear they are “doing a good job” at the central task of their lifetimes.

An old myth of motherhood, ascendant a generation or two ago, now fading still persists for many in our culture:

In order to become adults, women must become mothers. Motherhood as a culturally mandatory initiation rite. Imposed. Not chosen. Expected. Normal.

“It was Just What You Did” all the mothers a generation before us say.

Not a decision to make or agonize over. Think about whether or not you might be good at it or if you want it? Why? It is just the labor, the task, the only opportunity for real mastery assigned to you. Have feelings about it if you like, and powerful attachments, resentments losses and burdens, but its no use thinking about it too much because there isn’t a choice. Like it or not, you are expected do it. A cultural, mythological mandate.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically and on their environment and on their children than the unlived lives of the parents.” – C.G. Jung

Their unlived lives: Who would any of our mothers have been without us to distract, and devour and divert their energies? If they had chosen, would they have chosen us? Who would my mother have been if I had not been born? What parts of herself did she foreclose on to take on this role? What parts of her motherhood did she not live out, did she resent or reject in order to preserve her own identity in the face of an unchosen maternal assignment?

We have surely made some of our mothers better people, stronger than they knew, braver. Some of our mothers were embittered, resentful, rebelling against the maternal mandate by withholding their authentic selves or by venting their rage at their assigned charges. Some of our mothers carried and bore us, but could not or chose not to raise us or both. Some of us taught our mothers to love, others of us had to head for the hills to escape a mother who, starved of any other means of satisfaction, threatened to devour us whole. Even if they made the best of it, even if motherhood is exactly what they would have chosen anyway – if with hindsight they know they would have chosen to have us, or know that they might never had us at all…

We feel their lack of choosing in our bones.
We smell it like the weather.

Their unlived life lurks there. What would it have been?

If Jung has named a psychological truth, then we all live out the previous era’s unlived lives. We are all exploring the identities our mothers lost, had taken away, rejected, or foreclosed upon themselves.

In this era, we have defined ourselves by the very choices that mothers before us did not have.

The present day rising myth of motherhood as discussed on blogs and chat rooms, splattered provocatively on magazine covers and style sections: Chosen Motherhood.

We believe that we are empowered by our choosing and that choice is freedom. We believe in the myth that our children will be happier and will love us better as a result of all of our choices. We believe that we, since we have chosen our maternal role, will be better, less conflicted, more fulfilled, more conscious mommies. After all, it was our choice! The Mothers of Full Intention will compensate for the shadow of the earlier era’s Unchosen Mothers.

Jungian theorist Guggenbuhl-Craig would say that all of us are led or at least influenced by the collective myths of our era. He would also warn us that one-sided, incomplete myths have pathological and damaging consequences.

Motherhood of Choice and Unchosen Motherhood are both incomplete myths. They are different myths, with different omissions, with different unintegrated shadows, and each half-myth does its own damage:

The myth of Unchosen Motherhood acknowledges that women’s choices are significantly restricted by lack of opportunity, by economic reality, by poverty, by hardship, by oppression, racism, by imperialism. Yet, it minimizes the responsibility within the constricted range of choices that mothers did and do have.

Existential therapists, such as Viktor Frankl might speak at this point of attitudinal values. Jung might insist on the autonomy of the soul. They would do so to remind us that under even the most oppressive circumstances, we can maintain a choice about how to internally respond to external realities, to organize a consciously chosen attitude of submission, acceptance, or resistance, to the realities that may externally oppress or restrict us. The myth of Unchosen Motherhood casts a shadow of fatalism, victimization, passivity, abdication, thoughtlessness, resentment, and ambivalence.

The present day myth of Chosen Motherhood has its own destructive aspect – We have chosen it, so we must find it completely fulfilling and we must do it to perfection. We have accepted it after lengthy deliberation and as a sacred calling, and therefore we must pursue it and hone our skills to make sure we are good at it. Why on earth would you ever choose to do something that you didn’t think you could succeed at?

The everyday, constant, inevitable, unavoidable failures of motherhood take on a crushing weight for the Mothers of Choice. The shadow of this myth is control, inflation, perfectionism, anxiety, magical thinking, and over-protection.

A complete myth includes, incorporates its own shadow. There are many complete myths of motherhood, this is one:

A woman finds herself unexpectedly pregnant before marriage. The father of her child is not her intended husband. She and her husband are homeless at the time of her son’s birth.

Although his childhood seems in general too normal and unremarkable to bother commenting on, there were some red flags. On one memorable occasion, the boy snuck away from the family on a trip to the city defying his mother’s instructions to stay nearby – After frantic city-wide search she finally found him. He showed little empathy for her fright or understanding of what he had put her through. She thought it was normal testing at the time, but perhaps this was an early sign of what was to come.

In adulthood, he grew increasingly distant from her. He began consorting with religious and political extremists. She approached him once during a large wedding party where everyone had clearly been drinking a great deal, he shunned and shamed her: “Woman! What have you to do with me?”

He was completely uninterested in marriage, his mother would never see grandchildren if he were her only child. Over the next few years his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was homeless, wandered through the cities and country side. He didn’t work, didn’t seem to have a penny to his name, and apparently begged for food and lived off of the charity of others. He kept company with a troubled crowd of vagrants, drifters, criminals, revolutionaries and prostitutes.

When she sent his brother one last time to try to bring him home – he rejected her yet again saying: “I have no brother. I have no mother.”

Eventually, her son was arrested, tried and executed in front of her for crimes against the state. Some witnesses say that just before he died, he asked a close friend to take care of her. Other accounts indicate that he did not mention her at all.

Do you think if she’d made different choices, it might have turned out differently?

I have sat with, and listened to and heard tell of thousands of mothers over the years:

French mothers and Asian-American mommies. White mommies, mothers of color, mothers in transracial families. Mother’s of wealth and privilege, mothers of limited means, mothers by choice and by accident, single moms, widowed moms, gay mommies, queer mommies and male mothers. Divorced and divorcing mothers, adoptive moms, and adoptees who are mothers. Mothers of kids with special needs, of gifted children, of children with severe disabilities. Mother’s of infertility, mothers of miscarriages and still births. Women who yearn for motherhood and those who are repulsed, reject or fear it. Motherless mothers. Non-custodial mothers, mothers of children born to them but being raised by others. Full time at home mommies, working mommies, free-lance mommies setting their own schedules. Mothers on public assistance, mothers with live in nannies. Mothers alienated, cut off, or rejected by their adult children. Mothers of children incarcerated, institutionalized. Mothers with emptied nests. Unknown mothers, mothers never met.

Dead and dying mothers. Bereaved mothers of deceased children. Masochistic mothers, pathological mothers, devouring mothers, enraged and indifferent mothers. Addicted and alcoholic mothers. Mothers with dementia who no longer recognize their offspring. Abusive mothers, abused mothers. Mothers who spank. Mothers who negotiate. Mothers who hold the line and soft mommies who cave. Organics only mommies, fast-food mommies. Mommies who are too angry. Mommies who are too nice. Mothers who do too much, and those who do too little. Those who would give “everything” and those who feel they have given “enough.” Moms who co-sleep who Ferber-ize, who breast feed, who pump at work, bottle and formula mommies, sling and stroller mommies.

Mothers reluctant, begrudging, regretful, neglectful, exhausted, blissed-out, competitive, smug and superior. Lost mothers. Terrified mothers. Defensive mothers. Mothers who have fled, and those who dream of escaping out from under the burdens of motherhood. Mothers utterly fulfilled.

Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

There are probably some very wrong ways to mother, but there is no right way.

None of our choices will protect us, or our children from loss, from suffering, from life, or from death.

We choose, and we can’t choose.

We all have fear of what we cannot control or prevent.

Like Demeter, Isis and Mary of the Pieta, a mother’s capacity to mourn is also a source of great power, a central function of her love, and her only salvation in the face of all that she can and cannot choose.

And it is this maternal dance of mourning that keeps the whole world in balance.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Four Realms

Long, long ago, a supervisor taught me a list of the five things to talk about in psychotherapy: I think her more traditional list might have included “work” and “sex-life” – it’s gone a bit foggy – I kept forgetting her items and, eventually, unconsciously, filled in the blanks and reorganized the list to better suit my own approach.

The Past. The Present. Dreams. Intimacy (& The Therapy Itself).

It became a way to orient myself in the room, points on my compass.

These are the realms to explore, the ground to cover in therapy.

Most people arrive for their initial session planning to only visit one realm, and hoping to avoid many, if not all, of the others.

Some therapies explore only one or two areas, some spend years in a single zone. In my own therapy, around the fifth year into the process, I said to my analyst:
“I think I am finally done telling you what happened.”

Better late than never – ready to enter the room, and the present.

It doesn’t matter where we start, we will arrive at the central conflicts no matter which route we choose – all paths lead up the same mountain.

But sometimes we get stuck. Hit an impasse, cling to neighborhoods we are overly familiar with, avoiding all uncharted territory.

A broken record sensation emerges:
“I feel like I’m just talking about the same old things..”

Our real needs have crossed the borders and are hiding out in one of the other dominions.

Pick one, any one of the other realms, travel out of your comfort zone – onto stickier, messier, unknown territories, and explore the wild regions in order for the work to come alive again.

The Past:

This is the land of our ancestors, of childhood, a place where small people live among giants. Family trees grow here, planted in soil shared by many other trees. This is therefore also the realm of historical, generational, socio-political, cultural, national and biological inheritances, of formative forces and events, from in and outside of the family.

We don’t visit this land to judge or blame the inhabitants, we pass through to understand where we come from.

When we travel through this country, my function is to empathize with the forgotten child that you have most likely “adult-ified” in your recollections, to help you rediscover what a child’s age-appropriate needs are, to recall your first language.

The templates for most of the survival mechanisms you use, effective or not, were forged here. We will need to understand what tools you relied upon, who you inherited them from, and who taught you to use them.

Some learn a set of survival skills in the forest and then move to the desert, suddenly lost and helpless. Others, unable to leave their childhood world, struggle to launch and relocate.

In order to move to other lands, to approach the realm of Intimacy or live in the Present, we need to know about our inherited world, how it works for us, how it limits us, and how to forge new tools.

The Present:

This is where we live most of the time – the land of work, school, house-holding, industry, things to do, annoying bosses, disobedient children, speed-dating, messy roommates, and conflicts with our immediate environment.

This is also the realm of devastating crises, of life-altering diagnoses, of recent trauma, of fresh bereavement (although death also takes us quickly to the past, and to the land of dreams), divorce, job-loss and the ever-persistent stress.

Many focus on it exclusively, as the safest, most public, most conscious and obvious part of ourselves. When it is in disarray or disrupted, we are unable to rest, to work. This is where our symptoms trouble us, or trouble others.

This is where our personae lives, where we wear masks and uniforms, this is where our ambition is fed, or thwarted, where our status and power are inflated or threatened.

The therapist’s role in this leg of the journey is manyfold: offering support, shoring up healthy coping, teaching mature self-care and communication skills, being an “objective observer” to “bounce things off of” (mirroring), watching for emotional patterns and interpersonal habits.

If we have spent sufficient time in the past, it is easier to place present thoughts and feelings in a larger context, making way for more self-understanding and self-compassion.

Dreams:

If you would like to forge a deeper relationship with your own psyche, strengthen your intuition, discern more about your unknown Self, this is the place to start. We can include day-dreams, fantasies, wishes, and the ideas and images which float up during meditation, or artistic, creative symbolism. If you are the type: psychic impressions, oracle readings of any sort, religious visions, lexio divina, signs from God or the spiritual realm, synchronicities of all kinds, also reside in this province.

This is the realm of symbol and imagery. This is how we access the land of primary process – this is the soup, the collective and personal unconscious. Here there is no-sense, and nonsense. This is where all of our irrational, preverbal, archetypal bits are stored. No opposites, no linear time or order, no cause or effect. Everything is masked, coded, costumed, and cloaked. Our dreams and unconscious imagery compensate for our conscious socialized identity, reach for unfinished business, point out blocks and obstacles, personify unacknowledged aspects of ourselves, and sketch out pathways for our future growth.

My tasks in this area are clear: to help you to amplify and explore the multiple, even paradoxical, meanings associated with the symbols you have produced. The symbols may have meanings that are personal to you: “I’ve always been terrified of spiders” as well as collective to our culture or our species: fear of being tangled in fate’s web…

There is often rich guidance to find here: directions, reminders, instructions, warnings, clues, solutions and inspirations.

Intimacy:

Intimacy is another realm entirely.

Sexuality lives here, of course, but so does any emotional, personal transaction – between friends, partners, and family members – that demands that we be openly vulnerable in front of another.

This is where raw honesty, the most primal hungers, and terrible, excruciating exposure reside.

This is where we are laid bare, with only our teeth and nails for protection.

Approaching intimacy is difficult and hazardous, frightening and exhilarating. We sense we are entering an entirely new world of communication. We may say things out loud and carefully, that we were sure we would keep private forever. We fear we might die of exposure.

There are terrible clashes, where starved, naked, terrified people approach each other, ready to fight, ready to run, and show each other their raw hunger and deep wounds seeking tenderness, wishing to be seen and fed.

Some fear they will be devoured by cannibals. Others, that their own scarce supplies will be stolen. Many focus so exclusively on the hunger of others that they forget to feed themselves. Some steal and run.

And sometimes, miraculously, deep alliances are formed after many cycles of approach and retreat. Wounds and hungers are met, tenderly and with respect. Mutual satisfaction is negotiated. Shame is conquered. This is where we see and hear what is most vulnerable in the other, and meet it with our own undefended need.

And a way is found to feed, to rest, to heal deeply and fully together.

The Therapy Itself:

The therapy office rests in the crack between the worlds. I may unwittingly embody characters, or be drawn into rituals with you from any of the realms.

Any of these worlds can emerge in the treatment room, and do. That is what the therapeutic space is for.

But when we take time to talk explicitly to each other about the therapy itself, we are actively practicing rites from the realm of Intimacy.

We stop together, locate ourselves on the map, decide how the journey is unfolding. We expose our feelings for and on behalf of each other. Needs, specific to our relationship, are expressed, heard, and negotiated. We may adjust our pace, sort out our differences of opinion or our conflicting desires and instincts to head in diverging directions. Angers, hurts, failures and disappointments between us are acknowledged. Appreciation, closeness, trust, and affection are earned. Other characters from the past, the present, and the land of dreams, may cast their shadows here – as both of us work to sort out our projections onto each other. We talk about how we are functioning as traveling companions, and decide who should drive and who should navigate for the next leg of the journey.

The purpose of the entire journey is this: To become brave and confident orienteers, to chart as much of the undiscovered country as we can, ever-mindful that vast stretches of wilderness will always remain.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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