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

50 responses

  1. Thank you for not looking away. For bearing witness to the unthinkable. For hearing the unsayable.

    Some pain cannot be fixed, and yet, the presence of one who understands…it helps.

  2. Naivité may help you to survive. So it does to me. I call it strategic naivité. Belief in the goodness of people, of “fate” (whatever that means), admitting fear and paranoia as the normal background music of everyday life.
    Your articles are wonderful – keep on going. Please.

  3. And….your non-judgement and unfailing compassion to understand what no other could possibly comprehend or attempt to….is truth of your beautiful heart. Hugs to you. Thanks for being you.

  4. Having also spent my professional life hearing about the tragedies that befall people and perhaps never thinking of it in quite the light that you share here today…my first thought was, isn’t this what being awake and aware of reality is about? Understanding this…the nature of human suffering?

    Then I realized that whether I like it or not, this deep knowledge about the capacity for human beings to suffer is not what the typical American or Westerner understands, knows, or wants in their life. It is actually most often actively avoided.

    Somehow this came as a surprise to me…which is rather ludicrous really…but still, you managed to make me realize that my experience, much like yours of at time listening and being aware of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy is really very unusual in our culture.

    thank you again for all your writing.

  5. In Tibetan Buddhism, the legend about Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, is that his head shattered into eleven pieces after trying to listen to all of the suffering of the world. Afterwards, Amitabha Buddha had to put him back together, and also gave him a thousand arms in order to be able to help more beings in their suffering.

    The head shattering part of this legend seems realistic enough, but I think the real bodhisattvas are those who keep listening even though they’ve still only got two hands, and even those don’t seem to be helping much sometimes.

  6. I’ve been following your blog for a while and really admire your writing and authenticity. Just before I read your latest blog post, I finished a long entry in my diary reflecting on my relationship with my therapist, how much I admire her ability to “take” what I throw at her, how much I worry about the effect of what I say may have on her deep down and how grateful I am for her readiness to meet what I bring in with acceptance and empathy. Yes, we have a contract but sometimes it’s impossible to put a price tag on the experience of the therapeutic relationship.

    Thank you for sharing,


  7. I’m sorry you hurt. I’m glad you’re able to remind yourself it’s cyclical -to know it’s not always so awful. The bear won’t always be trying to eat you.

    My T & I talked about cycling today. I’m just now resurfacing from a 2-month submersion in the sea of depression -severe, self-harming, suicidal depression. (It really sucked!) I’ve barely been talking at all. I’m thinking my T was kind of relieved today to hear words coming out of me! even a few giggles from my littles.

    I have DID and one of my inners is a four-year-old girl. She talks more than any of us. Seems she has a lot of spunk ‘n fight in her. I found this image months ago that reminds me of her (I’m going to Twitter it to you, since I can’t attach pictures here). It reminds me that there is some part of me that is strong enough. Hope you like it too.

    ~ rl

  8. Also…you are so wrong that you have no gift to give in this post.

    Isn’t it interesting how most of us avoid talking sincerely about our worst struggles because we are afraid of burdening others? And yet, all the hardest battles are more universal than we realize, and every time someone has the courage to speak honestly about them, all of us feel a little less alone.

  9. I wish that my lovely, wonderful, talented, gifted therapist did not experience what you describe so eloquently; however, I suspect she does. Thank you, for her, for all of the excellent therapists out there.

  10. Sounds as if a good holiday might be in order after which the bears will be less large or at any rate appear so! My daughter was telling me the other day how her friends ask how on earth she can do her job, very like yours in many aspects. I replied that it is merciful that they are not going the job and someone like her is, someone who has empathy, compassion and the abilities needed to help others meet the challenges, make the changes and who doesn’t mind the adrenaline fix! Take care……

  11. Thank you for sharing so honestly. This is something I have been struggling to reconcile. Leaving the joy of being with children, changed by a community trauma and growing into the profession of social work. Leaving education behind. Searching for a balance between knowing, awareness beyond anything I would ever choose yet choosing to none the less. Maybe the joy is in the smell of our own children, the snatched moments of peace, a place of silence and safety from the world.The trust placed in us to listen. The weight of hearing. The blessing, the cost intertwined. It is not work for the faint of heart. May you find peace, joy and rest for another day.

  12. I think, for me, faith enters in seeing our capacity as individuals, to assign meaning, to make meaningless events meaningful from this day forward.

    Thanks for reading.


  13. I wonder how you feel having written this? Journalling and sharing often helps. No doubt you have much support at these times. But if you want some peer support that may be a little different, I will have an open ear for a weighted heart. 
    Warm regards,

  14. Yes – I think it is hard to look directly at it – to accept tragedy without perpetuating, or fetishizing, or minimizing or romanticizing it.

    But, for myself, each round of existential crisis has built up my capacity to bear a little more the next round.


  15. That is an amazing image – I need to find myself a thangka of Avalokiteshvarai’s archetypal exploding and reassembled heads. That really is the experience – and it never stops amazing me how we all, those who bear the tragedy, and those who bear witness, are able to reintegrate into a being with greater capacities than before.

    Thank you so much for sharing that.


  16. Its truly not a daily experience – perhaps, a yearly one. Often the tragedy is spaced out and staggered into bearable mouthfuls, sandwiched in between consolations and joys.
    But some cycles are thicker than others. Some narratives suffering more existentially intolerable than others –
    And sometimes, tolerating the intolerable is what we all struggle to do – no matter what side of the couch we are on.

    Thank you.


  17. It did feel good to write it, to make it into something.

    I had a fairly rough few days in terms of vicarious traumatization -but it brought to mind times in the past when I have absorbed far far worse. So, to the degree my heart feels broken at the moment, it feels broken because I love people who are suffering – which is worth it.

    I am grateful to have extraordinary circles of support in my life, professionally and personally and it is a deep comfort.
    It is a remarkable support, as well, to see and hear that this experience speaks to others, and I hoped, through writing it, to normalize some of the existential crises that we can all face in our field.

    Thanks Brandon.

  18. I’m good today. Ate every damn bear that was foolish enough to stagger into my office!

    Thank you – a mini vacation in the mountains in a couple of weeks!


  19. Yes!
    I was pretty sure that this post was going to be way too dark for others to respond to – and yet, it seems to have helped us all feel a little more connected.


  20. There are alway parts that are stronger than we suspect.

    We all hurt. Hurting is an unavoidable aspect of life and of love.
    Its almost always worth bearing in service of healthy intimacy.

    Thanks for your kindness and compassion.

  21. I could feel your pain reading this. So beautifully written. Also a great reminder that therapists are human too and don’t just view our pain from a distance, untouched by it. Thank you for your honesty.

  22. thank you for your post. I love your authenticity and it is empowering; like you said in one of your comments – your heart feels broken at times because you love people who are suffering. If a person closes themselves off to pain, they close themselves off to love.

  23. Thanks.

    I’m very glad it speaks to others – many people set out specialize in trauma work, while others come to understand, that trauma, is an eventual, and inevitable part of life. It will touch us all, and create spaces where we need each other.

    Thanks for reading.


  24. This is a wonderful piece of writing, and sums up that place so well. Totally agree that is it an inevitable part of life and as we wrestle with and negotiate the existential crises we grow stronger. Thankyou for your honesty.

  25. I think the profession will be very lucky to have you. How do we even recognize joy without its contrast?

    Chiaroscuro- this life is always darkeness and light.



  26. Some days the only way the bear gets eaten is to share the meal. I have known the faintest echo of what you so eloquently describe here and have been grateful to have someone hear my pain and remind me that as helpless and overwhelmed as I felt, I provided a place for the other person to express their pain and be heard. I am certain that each person you listened to left your office stronger and more able to bear their burden. I hope that your speaking here helps you to bear it. Thank you for speaking about your work from every side, both the light and dark.

  27. Pingback: Weekly Psych Rounds 08-06-12 « Shrink Things

  28. Thank you – soon, sooner than we realize is possible the crises initiate us all into a new way of being, new aspects of the Self come forward to cope, function, to life a changed life after traumatic events
    It’s amazing what people can adapt to. How they can use crisis, to change their lives, their relationships and their identities.
    Life goes on, and after big waves of volcanic trauma erupt -the temperature cools and what was red hot and uncontainable turns into solid, if scarred, ground underneath your feet.

    I get to see that part too – which comforts makes it all worth it.

    Thanks for your kind wishes.



  29. Thank you, Lady Torch Bearer. Your courage, honesty and resiliency are a soothing balm to all who suffer. Thank you for returning, day after day, to carry this intolerable burden.

  30. I remember once years ago I was spending a weekend at a yoga ashram and heard someone speak about the Hindu Goddess Kali. She was, I was told, a goddess who ate the darkness, who transformed it, and turned it into something good. I think of Kali from time to time while I’m sitting in my office with patients. I think of the meal we make, together, of the darkness. I think about how it almost swallows us up–and sometimes does–and in the end, sometimes, the darkness transforms and becomes a thing of beauty.

  31. There are so many who work with populations more vulnerable, more fragile, more often more severely traumatized – Many of my supervisees work exclusively with trauma survivors- as I have in the past – As a profession, we so often focus on the pain of others, and sustaining our empathy, that we forget, or minimize the effect that bearing witness has on us. When we remember, recognize, and tend deeply to our wounds, we model for our clients what it means to be self-regarding, to respect our limitations, and to mourn and accept the changes that trauma inserts into our lives.

    Thanks Jean, your comments, enouragement, and support mean a great deal.


  32. Yes, Jason, I know you have metabolized events like these as well.
    And its very true – when the darkness engulf us, the memory that we have seen in ourselves, and others the possibility, but not the certainty that devestation can be transformed into fertile ground – helps us “bear up” through the worst.

    Thanks for reading. 🙂


  33. We all do at some point I suppose. And the flow of crisis resolution means that it normalizes and settles and life continues despite real or anticipated losses.

    Some times for the better, sometimes just changed.

    Thanks for reading Robin.

  34. This certainly normalized, or maybe even minimized my “existential crisis”. Your words resonate! “How do I manage to still feel violated, and disrupted by the darkness in the world?” – “violated” was the exact word I used to describe how I felt in my recent experience of “existential crisis”… I never thot of it in that way, but how true!!!

  35. I just want to say THANK YOU for this blog. A very eloquent version of what goes on in my own head. I’m a therapist at a psych ward in a poor city, and have seen the worst of the worst. People dont come in here for “good” reasons… I had this day a few weeks ago, and I can honestly say, some days, the only thing that keeps us going is the indestructibility of hope, that tomorrow will be a better day

  36. I sometimes think that it’s only when we can face how broken and breakable we all are that we can appreciate how precious and miraculous it is when love, kindness, bravery and healing occur among us all.

    Thank you.


  37. I am emerging from my first period of extreme darkness as a mental health professional and identify completely with your description of being so saturated with other peoples’ misery. A frighteningly high number of service users in the area I work in have committed suicide this year and it has been very hard to be “on the receiving end” of so much trauma in such a short space of time. I had temporarily given up some kind of faith both in myself and in the project of healing. Although your writings give no “answer” it is very grounding to hear your phrase that, this is a sane response to such terrible stories. Although we all “know” this cognitively, there is again (and always) that gap of knowing a thing as a rational statement and knowing it as lived experience. There is simply no comparison and I am very grateful for you sharing this.

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