Saturday, May 28, 2016





He walked into my office over fifteen years now, just after I had a heart attack.
His skin was fragile, transparent, like a fine piece of china, a beautifully patterned, hand-painted cup, this one with spidery cracks down the side, like they get with age. It looked like the slightest touch of his arm would draw blood. His face had deep wrinkles; his brows were wild and bushy. He walked with a slight limp. 
It was mainly the booze. Whiskey. I asked if he remembered when he started drinking. “I don’t remember. I have always drunk.” Have you had any sobriety?  “Yes. Usually no more than a month or so. One time, I made it six months. But she always calls me back. I am under her spell.”  Have you used any other drugs?  “Oh, I have tried everything at one time or another. But it’s the alcohol. She summons me into her arms and I go willingly.”
I was impressed by his insight. But what I remember is his eyes. They were hollow, blurred, blank.  Yet penetrating.  Filled with grief, longing.

The payoff for a family therapist is never in seeing the details, but in being able to see what lies underneath them. What are the rules? What boundaries have been established between the generations? Are they skewed in any particular direction? Whose family of origin is winning out between the husband and wife? Are there any triangulations, any parentification? All of this walks into your office, following dutifully behind each family member.
The technical term is systems theory.  Its main premise is that the therapist needs to look beyond the members that make up any family, to see the abstract organization of phenomena, independent of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scales of existence.  The mantra is “the sum total of the parts is equal to more than the whole.” One plus one always equals more than two.
It’s the “more than” that I was looking for. Unseen and elusive, but always there.
I was 52. A heart attack. The heart surgery wasn’t bad, but the sternal staph infection that followed was. They told me later that one in two people die.
They say heart problems are primarily hereditary, which made sense for me, my father having died at 46. But I can’t help wondering if my work contributed.  Seeing the invisible walk into your office every day for 25 years can wear on you. It’s not just the people. It’s what hides behind them. It’s a risky business.
Another surgery so they could clean out the staph.  When they removed a tube from my throat, the first thing I asked was how the surgery went.  My wife had to tell me it was eight days later. A medically induced coma, they called it.  I’d run a 105-degree fever, so everyone hoped I had some functioning brain cells left. Everyone was relieved when I spoke.
Most of my graduate work involved being observed working with families. This at first is pretty trying, as you are groping around to find your balance, your style, and trying to figure out what the hell you are doing.
I was seeing a family of five, including an adolescent boy who had been placed in a detention home, when everything came together.  I was able to see the invisible. The boy’s acting out was his way of taking attention away from the parents, who were both closet alcoholics.
During the debriefing, the supervisor asked, “So now you get it?” I answered yes. Light bulb. Sudden enlightenment.
His only remark was, “Congratulations. “
Back to the alcoholic, the papery skin, the eyes.
I listened; he talked. Back from prison.  Homeless and living on skid row. Begging on the street. Married and divorced three times. A bleeding ulcer. Pancreatitis. Beaten so many times he now only vaguely remembered the injuries, much less the people or reasons.
“I was promised a job in Kansas City. My wife and I and our child were living in Indiana. We packed up what little we had, spent what money we could scrounge up, and moved. We got settled in and I reported for work. They had given my job to someone else. I went on a two-day bender, got into a terrible fight. When I returned to our apartment, bloody, battered, and bruised, my wife and child were gone.”
He came back from many stories like this one. Promises broken, nightmares of his own making. Each time saved, he was thankful. But not enough to quit.
Just weeks before I was to retire, they came into my office: a husband, wife, daughter, and a 9-month-old child. The daughter was 15 or 16. She was the identified patient. Anorexic. It seemed odd that so much time had passed before the parents had a second child. Turns out the child was the daughter’s. The husband was the father.
In moments like this, you’ve got to have faith in what you are doing. People turn over their lives to your manipulation. It can weigh heavy if all you have is your knowledge. Systems theory, family therapy you can learn. But it doesn’t hurt to put that faith in God, or whatever you call a power greater than yourself.
Days when you feel doubt, whether it be in your work or in your God, are days you have to beware of. Those days can send you spinning: disoriented, lost, down a path you don’t want to travel. You can easily turn to alcohol, pills, depression. I have seen therapists become mentally ill themselves because they couldn’t find a balance between their work and their God. They couldn’t deal with both sides of the invisible.  For me, learning is a lot easier than believing. I don’t know why. Some days my faith is strong, other days weak.
I had the strangest dream during those eight days in a coma. This carnie was operating a ride at our local carnival. He asked me if I would like to get on. The ride looked like a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which didn’t seem out of place.  I lay down and was slowly injected into it.
This was not the ordinary MRI.  I found myself going up and down, like on an old wooden roller coaster. Techno music was playing. Bright lights flashed; some of the colors I didn’t recognize. Faster and faster, going so fast everything seemed to blend together, like a rainbow smudged by the tears from my wife, daughter, and son, dripping onto me.  I didn’t know about those then.
I arrived back at the start. The carnie asked me if I was ready. I understood him to mean “ready to move on.” He had shown me something of the journey. Right then, I heard my wife yell out over my left shoulder: “Don’t go.”
It would have been easy to say yes. The music was enticing, the colors mesmerizing. Everything seemed right.
According to Carl Jung, dreams are a way of communicating and acquainting yourself with the unconscious. Dreams are not attempts to conceal your true feelings from the waking mind, but rather they are a window to your unconscious. They expose the invisible. They guide you to wholeness and offer a solution to a problem you are facing in your waking life.
I have looked for God externally. In cathedrals. In books. In seminary. I never really found Him until I turned inside. Internally. Searching my experiences. My memories. My strengths. My dark side.  Building. Rebuilding. Doing over. And over.
Therapy and faith involve giving yourself over to the invisible. Believing in what you cannot see. Both take hard work.  It’s never quite right.
There are still times I’m not sure what to do with all of this.
Several months later I saw his obituary. There were no marriages listed, no sons or daughters, only that he had lived, and then died. That night I had a dream. He was on the street corner, begging.  When he looked at me, I had this strange feeling that we had met before. I shook his hand and handed him a $5 bill. 
“Thanks,” he said.
Thanks was all he needed to say.

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