Monday, March 28, 2016

When Therapy Fails

The story is so harrowing and potentially dangerous that it would probably have been better if Ask Polly, the New York Magazine advice columnist had not tried to counsel the person in the pages of a magazine.

The letter writer is suicidal, has tried every kind of therapy and believes that Ask Polly is her last hope.

She writes:

I was raped by my father from the age of 6 to the age of 11, so was my sister, and my brother was forced to see what my father was doing to her as well. It took me years to come out and talk about it. Like in many cases, I couldn’t bring myself to tell my story and felt guilty.

I’ve been in therapy for years now. I’ve tested every antidepressant there is on the planet. Nothing works. As of today, my sister and I have decided to press charges against my father; we’re still in the beginning of the process but authorities are confident he will be charged with rape. I really don’t know that this action will make me feel better but I know it is the right thing to do.

Growing up with that history is basically impossible, and to this day I still don't know who I am. I’m trying to get through life the best way I can but it's a hassle. Oddly enough, the thing that's making me most depressed is not being able to be in a long-term relationship with a man. I am a good-looking, accomplished women, smart and funny, but every relationship fails. I don't have a problem meeting men; in fact, they’re always very eager to be with me at first. But they like the version I give them, the cheery, interesting woman I led them to believe I am. Up to the point where I guess they realize I’m not as together as they think, far from it. This happens even if I don't tell them what happened to me (I’ve tried both). I guess they just figure there is something wrong with me. The problem is not sexual, if you were wondering.

The problem is that I want it too much. I want to be loved and for the other person to save me, take care of me, carry me. I know I’m asking too much, but I can’t help myself. I am obsessed with getting married and having kids to start a family of my own, the right one. I know there are other things I need to work on but I feel like the only way for me to feel whole is to have someone who loves me.

Today I have come to the conclusion that it will never happen to me. Because my father destroyed me I will never be happy, I will always be lonely, depressed, and sad. It’s an awful conclusion, but it is the only one I see. I have lost all hope, and I don’t see the point in living anymore.

Please help.


Of course, Polly is not a therapist. She is being called in when therapists have failed. And yet, Polly has undergone therapy herself so she offers up what she believes has worked for her.  It’s going to be a sorry spectacle.

What does she have to offer? Empathy, of course, She lards it on. She feels the woman’s pain. She knows how this woman feels because similar things have happened to her… though, of course, they haven’t.

To be fair, Polly knows that she has never experienced anything remotely resembling this woman’s trauma, but she has acquired the habit of empathy. And she believes that it has medicinal properties. So, she does not even question the fact that her empathy is running on automatic pilot. No matter what the problem, she believes that slobbering on some empathy will make it all right.

In truth, it’s insulting to tell this woman that you have undergone anything similar. Rape and incest are horrific. Being raped by the man who is charged with protecting you tells you that you can trust no one and that no one will ever protect you. It produces severe anomie. If you have never experienced it you do not know what it is.

Most people have not had such experiences and should be happy that they have not. If it has not happened to you, you are cheapening her experience by saying that you feel her pain.

One is tempted to compare this with the trauma that was visited on Elizabeth Smart, but Smart, who managed to put it all behind her, had the support of her family and her community. Alone has none of that.

Keep in mind, Alone presumably still bears her father's name. If there is a trial, her family secret will not be a secret any more. Her family and everyone associated with it will forever be tarred by the revelations.

Alone understands that she needs to have her father prosecuted, but no one should imagine that it will be cost free. Undoubtedly, it will cause her to lose whatever family ties she still has.

Surely, her therapist has asked her, but Polly ought to have raised the point: where was this woman’s mother was while all of this was going on?

Assuming that the woman had a mother, her father’s monstrosity is compounded by the fact that her mother allowed it to happen. Was the mother being abused herself? Did she offer her daughters to her husband to keep him from raping her. Why would they not indict the mother as a co-conspirator?

Speaking of emotion, you might have noticed an absence of anger. Perhaps Alone is angered out, but still, rage seems called for, if only for one’s emotional equilibrium. Polly says that she is furious and sad, but her long meditation on love and hope drowns the anger in sentimental bull.

So, Alone is quite right to say that she is Alone. She is right to see that she has no family and no community to fall back on. She has no support and nowhere to go.

It will not cross the mind of a sophisticated modern therapy patient, but she should consider attending religious services. She might even volunteer to do some public service work through a religion. Alone is looking for romantic love and believes that romantic love will save her. She would do better, for now, to seek out a sense of belonging within an organized community that is dedicated to offering love.

Alone is desperate for love, but everyone should know that when you are desperate for love your desperation will turn people away. If you want to be loved you ought to begin by giving love, by doing good deeds for other people, by reaching out to them, with no expectation of getting anything in return.

Alone is lost, unmoored. She wants to get married and to be loved, but one suspects that marriage also means changing her name and putting it behind her.

Polly is doing what most therapists would do: offering dollops of empathy. But, whenyou empathize with someone who is so overwhelmed that she does not know what to do, you will also not know what to do. It is like the helpless leading the hopeless.

In case you were concerned about Polly’s capacity for empathy, take note of her effort to get inside this woman’s mind:

You feel stupid for this. You feel guilty for feeling these things, and you're sure that it's the wrong path. You should be strong, you think. You shouldn't want someone to carry you. You should give up and stop scaring people away. You should purge your history. You should empty yourself of bad things and fill yourself with good things. You should know who you are. You should try harder. You should stand on your own two feet instead of being carried. You should rise from the ashes, triumphantly, like people do in the movies. Someday, you’re sure, you have to cross that off your list — RISE TRIUMPHANTLY FROM THIS WRECKAGE, ALL BY MYSELF — but first you have to do everything else. You have an endless list of things you have to fix, and you have to start now. Why aren't you starting? Why can't you just stand up and walk?

Because you can't. Whenever you think about heroically forging forward, you sit down on the ground. You want someone to pick you up. You want this more than anything else. You want to be loved.

I don't know much about what you have been through, but I do know how that feels. You try so hard. You try to be interesting and cheerful, but your eyes still say, "Can you carry me?" I used to be like that. I used to want love more than anything else. And I had no excuse to want love so much. I had no excuse to want to be carried. My pain never came close to your pain. My darkness wasn't in the same universe as your darkness. But I wanted love more than anything else.

In the first place, it’s insulting to tell the woman that you know how she feels. You do not. To tell her that merely needs to screw up her courage because you screwed up yours falls flat as advice.

What does Polly have to offer? You will be sorry that you asked:

Your desire for love is beautiful. This moment of sitting down on the ground and wanting someone else to carry you is scary and dark and ugly and terrible and sad and heartbreaking, and it is also beautiful.

This sounds like Romantic poetry. And it is off the point. Alone thinks that love will solve it, but it is not the love that matters. It is not even the romance that is missing from her life. She should not be told that she needs merely to continue to believe that she will be saved by romantic love, that someone will come along to rescue her. Polly is seeing her as a purely passive receptacle. She should be telling her some constructive actions she can take to become part of a community and to get into the habit of giving.

As I said, she can find a different kind of love within a religion, because it is not laden with desire. But she should not be told that her pain and her suffering and her constant anguish are beautiful, as though we are spectators at her beautiful drama. 

Polly thinks that this yearning for love is who this woman is. Again, that is untrue and it is also wrong. The woman has a name; she has friends; she has a job and a career. These define her and these should define her far more than her childhood traumas, no matter how horrifying they were. To tell her to define herself in terms of a flickering light that is yearning for love is to ignore what she has accomplished and to define her as a trauma victim.

Polly offers hope for a love that will save her:

This light says you also want to give love, even though you can't feel that part as well yet. This light says you want to help other people find their way. You can't tell that yet. You don't know that in your heart yet. This spark wants you to create things that express your hunger for love. This is the divine, to you: the image of someone who comes to save someone else. The picture of someone who is helpless, and someone else who carries them. This is what you believe in.

This may sound crazy, but I believe that you'll carry someone who can't walk someday. You'll walk right into the smoke and ashes and pick someone up and carry them. You are the one who loves someone who wants nothing more than to be loved. This is who you are.

And you will be loved, too. You will be deeply loved.

How does she know? She doesn’t. She should not be offering up empty platitudes and psycho bromides for a woman who is in so much pain.

But then, Polly has a moment of clarity:

I know that it sounds like I'm speaking in some kind of bullshit fairy-tale mumbo jumbo. 

Polly cannot leave well enough alone, so she continues on her hope and love shtick:

You have to sit down on the ground, instead of trying to stand. And you have to love yourself FOR WANTING LOVE. You have to love what you once thought was weak. You have to be this sad, lonely, hopeful, broken person, and you have to see that her hope is beautiful. You have to try to do this every day, every minute.

The rest is more of the same. I myself find this to be dreadful. If this is the kind of bullshit your therapist offers, look elsewhere.


JPL17 said...

Stuart, this is one of the saddest stories I've ever read. I can't even imagine the horrors of Alone's childhood. How Polly could possibly have thought she could give competent advice to Alone is beyond me. And then of course the advice she did give (to the extent you quoted it, and to the extent I could bear to read it) was worse than useless. In contrast, I thought the advice you would have given her offers her the best chance she has of having a life.

Meanwhile, the point you made about how this shows the failure of therapy is well taken. I truly wish people knew the truth about therapists -- that a small percentage will do you more harm than good, a majority will probably do you little if any harm *or* good but meanwhile will waste your money and keep you in the rut you're in, and only a small percentage of them will actually help you grow. I was extremely lucky, in that I had a miraculous therapist in the late '70s who did more good for me in 3 months than others had in years, and whose life lessons are still with me. But I also have relatives and friends with serious living issues, who have been seeing therapists for years and shown no improvement. How does one know where to find the good ones? It largely seems like hit or miss.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, JPL.. it's an agonizing story... The advice is almost unbearable, as you say.I had hesitated to write about it and I wish that Polly had done the same.

Ares Olympus said...

What's confusing to me is that we're labeling what Polly as doing as "Empathy", while I'm not sure about that. When Stuart says "The advice is almost unbearable" that might also be considered empathy, in disapproving of poor advice.

I have to try to remind myself, what the differences are between empathy, sympathy and compassion... Let's see, here's something...
Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.
Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. ... Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them.

Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.
Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.

My views may be more towards benevolence, and something opposite to empathy, that is I might feel equal "empathy" towards an abusive father as an abused daughter. The problem with being a "victim", and there's no way not to call a daughter a victim, is victims are passive, so if the victim looks within for how she "caused" these rapes, she's never going to find it because it doesn't exist. YET for a daughter to "allow" this to happen to her over 6 years, she MUST already have used her limited skills to understand her father, and how she can protect herself, and how those actions, whatever they were failed. Or if she told anyone, was she disbelieved, or hinted without success? And if her father isn't already charged, that means he must be denying what happened, and that also has to be part of the problem for her peace of mind.

Stuart: Speaking of emotion, you might have noticed an absence of anger. Perhaps Alone is angered out, but still, rage seems called for, if only for one’s emotional equilibrium.

For me the "rage" I'd feel is in the denial rather than the actions. If society told the daughter "Your father will be executed for his crimes" would that satisfy her suppressed rage that we imagine? If her father confessed to his shameful crimes, and ASKED for the death penalty to redeem himself, would that be enough for us?

Stuart's advice for her makes sense for the father as well: "she should consider attending religious services. She might even volunteer to do some public service work through a religion"

Advice for the perpetrator is more scary, to imagine he could find redemption anywhere, only eternal damnation. We don't want him to ever feel better.

Shaun F said...

This was a painful read and the tragedy is just compounded by Polly's direction. Horrible.