Getting Happy... when you wish you were dead
"You know, I've been thinking about the e-mail you sent me and your concern about taking on too much. I think you might be right." I had sent Matthew an e-mail saying I was eager to learn, and was just a little concerned about being in seven group sessions at once. I had asked to talk more about it during this appointment.
"Right about what? That I'm concerned?" I joked.
Without waiting for Matthew to reply, "In any case, I've put a lot of time and thought into it. Yes, it's going to be a lot of work. I think most of my trepidation is around the idea of having to put in the effort, and then there's the thought of having to meet and deal with all those new people.
"But I think it's the right thing to do. If there's any opportunity to have that court program approve what I'm doing over their own diversion program, then what I'm doing had better be complete. And I'm not one to things by half measure.
I was smiling and clearly enthusiastic about my decision. "So I'm good with tackling the whole deal. It's going to be a lot of work, but it's going to be worth it."
"Are you sure about that? I really think you'd be better off cutting back, and just being in two or three groups to start."
"Okay. I get it," I said calmly; prepared to explain my position again. "But you're leading two of the groups, and I'll still be seeing you privately like this. As long as you and I keep seeing each other regularly, I should be able to handle anything that's coming up during group sessions."
Matthew paused, and looked a little like he was chewing a sour candy. "Well, I was hoping you'd be happy about the idea of cutting back on the group sessions."
"We had a staff meeting earlier today, and we talked about your concerns and how much you're taking on. Some of the other counselors were also concerned about you getting the benefit of so many resources at once, and we agreed that you should cut back on the number of groups you're attending."
I was still slouching in my seat, but I was no longer relaxed and enthusiastic. "Wait a second... All of you talked about what I should and should not be doing, then made a decision about me without even talking to me about it? And you were hoping I'd be happy about that?"
"It's not just the counselors. Some of the other group participants expressed concern about you being in the groups. One person is intimidated by you, and one of the other participants thinks you're just in the group to get material for your book."
Feeling sarcastic and disgusted, "Right. Only if I were there to get material for a book, I would never have mentioned the book in the first place."
"I mentioned that to him."
"And isn't the point of group sessions to work at dealing with things that bother you? What's the point of being there if you, the counselors, are going to remove all the obstacles?" Matthew was, I think, waiting for the storm to blow over. He didn't make any effort to answer.
"So because it's easier for you, and because you think I'm getting some kind of unfair advantage by being willing to do the extra work, you've all decided I have to cut back on the number of group sessions. You make this decision without talking to me, you expect me to be happy about it, and it sure seems like I don't have any choice in the matter. So how am I supposed to trust any of you?"
"I understand you being upset. I thought since you told me you were concerned about how much you were taking on, it would be good to help you make the decision. So we've decided which three groups you can attend."
I was utterly overwhelmed by the callousness at this point. My voice was flat as I replied, "Wow. Not only have you decided that I have to cut back, you're also telling me which groups to attend. I'm overwhelmed by the love and support you're communicating." (Sarcasm comes easily when you're thoroughly miffed.)
Rather than be subjected to such inconsistency, I choose to remove myself from all group therapy. Betrayal in this environment is not easy to accept.
I wonder if there’s ever anybody I can trust. This really motivates me to keep looking at what is truly my responsibility when it comes to Maria and me. I keep wondering whether I’ll ever get it right.
In the middle of talking to Matthew, and thinking all of this, I'm hit with a flashback. If you've never had one, they're intense memories. A flashback usually lasts just a few seconds, but it plays out an entire memory that may have taken minutes to experience.
We were walking across the front lawn, headed who knows where, and Joe was nattering at me. As an older brother, he was always crowing about being in charge. And all younger siblings know, that’s irritating every time it happens.
This time, I’d had enough. Joe shoved me from behind, and I got mad. When I spun around to yell at him, I noticed two things. It struck me that we were almost the same size. He was three years older, but I was almost as big as him. And the other thing – he had stepped back. My big brother was afraid.
There was no way I was going to lose again. Joe had the advantage, sure. He was 11 and three years older than me; my big brother. But I was almost the same size as him, and had my fill of being pushed around whenever our parents were there to back him up. This time it was just us on the front lawn, with nobody to back either of us.
We wrestled, we punched, and we fought with words.
“You’re no good. You know I’m going to win,” he grunted as we wrestled. The grass dug into our skin right through our shirts as we fought. Our Dad always wanted the grass cut golf course short so that made it dry and brittle. It never got watered as much as a golf course.
“I’ve had enough of your shit,” as I punched him in the stomach. The rage was boiling out of me. Hitting his stomach felt like punching bread dough. I thought my hand would go all the way through, and part of me wanted it to happen. The wind came whooshing out of him. Then I rolled us over and landed on top, so I scrambled to sit on his chest. I punched him in the face again and again.
“You might be older, and they might not want me around,” I growled as I sat firmly on his chest, “but you’re gonna stop bossing me,” my fist was an exclamation mark on his head, “or I’m gonna beat you silly.” It hadn’t hurt much when I punched him in the face, but this time I hit him in the side of the head. The jolt went all the way up to my shoulder. Instead of rocking to the side, his whole head went sideways like he was touching his ear to his shoulder. A sense of victory and power flooded through me.
Suddenly the fight stopped. I had won. Or maybe it’s more right to say I realized I had won, and there was no more need to hit. How very different life might have been had I simply taken the victory and stood up then, but I didn’t.
It felt good sitting on my brother’s chest. He was trying to get me off and couldn’t. It was my first victory, and I was enjoying the sensation of feeling bigger and stronger. I didn’t have to hit him anymore; he was crushed and we both knew it. I could see it in his face. I felt like the king of the world. I knew I wouldn’t have to take any more of his crap.
Then something crashed into me and the world went black.
When I woke up, I saw I was clear across on the other side of the flower bed; maybe fifteen feet from where we’d been fighting. My father was picking Joe up, dusting him off and helping him stand.
It didn’t surprise me that our dad had intervened. Our parents always made it clear I was second rate; someone to be tolerated or ordered about. It didn’t even surprise me that my father – a 250 lb man – had knocked me flying. It wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time I had won a fight. It was the first time he’d had to clobber me to save Joe.
I rolled up onto my left side and watched our dad brush off Joe’s back and pants. As I started to get up, I knew it was all over. My world – my victory – was finished. I would never be allowed to win, to succeed. It was unfair. I knew that. And I felt a hole open inside me.
“You want a fight?” he asked as he put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Now come fight us,” he said in a fit of anger and wounded pride. He had just seen his son beaten, and not by a neighborhood bully or some worthy opponent. No, his son had been beaten by me; the dirty third. The kid they had to keep in the family because he was born there. The one who was never supposed to be good for anything except taking up space.
There stood my big brother with a happy, surprised, what just happened? look on his face. With our father’s arm around Joe’s shoulders, that bewilderment shifted into haughtiness. He crossed his arms. The look on his face said I can beat you now.
“Right, and I’m supposed to come fight the two of you. Like that’s fair,” I said in shock and dismay. The hole opening inside me was rimmed with betrayal. It was one thing to stop a fight, but this felt like being disowned. That’s what made the hole: I had just lost my family.
In a last ditch effort to save something of my self, an idea came to me from all the movies and TV shows I’d seen. “Sometimes a brave man knows when to walk away from a fight,” I said, trying to hurt my father at the same time that I hid my own pain and tears.
Then I turned and started walking up the sidewalk. I figured I’d walk away to let things cool off. I didn’t know how long it would take before I’d be able to go home. And I had no idea whether there would be a punishment waiting for me when I got there.
We lived across the street from a big railroad yard. It was good because it taught me to sleep through anything, and it was always an interesting place to play and explore.
Now it looked different. The main part of the yard was filled with freight trains. They always moved slowly. I didn’t care about them. But between our house and the main yard was a small gully. Two sets of tracks ran through it for the Amtrak trains. They moved fast.
After I walked a little way up the block, I crossed the street. There was just a field between us and the railroad yard. No fences.
I walked across the field thinking. Joe would be unbearable now. Clearly I was not part of the family. Nobody wanted me.
I walked down into the gully and sat on the tracks. I thought about how fast the trains moved, and wished for one to come. I picked up stones just to throw them. I laid my ear on the rails to listen for a train.
I wished for a train.
I came back to the room with barely a twitch. I took a deep breath, sat up a little, and focused on Matthew. How long was I gone? Had Matthew said anything, or asked me something? I don't know. He was simply sitting in his chair looking at me.
"Okay. I think I've heard everything you've said. But here's the thing: You and the other counsellors made the decision based on what serves you best, not me. So, from my perspective, you can't be trusted.
"My answer is that I'm out of all the groups. There's no benefit in trying to work with people who can't be trusted."
At this point, Matthew got a little angry. He was clearly upset by what I had said.
"It sounds like you're saying you don't want to be here anymore."
"I don't know. You've certainly taken the wind out of my sails."
"Okay. Let me ask you this: Do you feel you can trust me enough as a counsellor for me to be of benefit to you?"
"I don't know, Matthew. I have to think about it."
"Well, in that case, I'll just close your file."
This struck a chord of fear for me. That I was attending counselling sessions had already been mentioned in court. Matthew knew that. What would it mean if I stopped attending? And since Matthew was clearly angry with me, I had little hope that he would be kind or helpful in how he communicated with the court.
"I don't know. I didn't say 'close my file.' I just need time to think about it."
I left the office feeling worried and pressured. I didn't want to work with Matthew anymore, but I had the court process to think about. Working with him could also provide good material for Getting Happy... when you wish you were dead. At the very least, he could be an example of the sort of counsellor to avoid.