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.
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