What made it special was the director, a Gestalt therapist named Claire, who balanced precariously upon the politics of healthcare and psychiatry. She was a wizard of healing who worked with her staff so that we might be agents of healing rather than stooges of the medical model. For one thing, the psychiatric medications of forty years ago were used as an absolute last resort rather than the overly medicated process that was the norm in many such places.
Anyway, Claire would gather her staff each week for us to do our own inner work through dream interpretation and the exploration of our own angels and demons. One thing she frequently did was invite us to name the patient on the unit that week who we feared the most. As it turned out, the patient we were often most afraid of was usually suffering from a variety of anguish that felt most threatening to us personally. In other words, the person who had the symptoms to which we felt most vulnerable was also the patient that made us the most uncomfortable.
Of course it was never that obvious and we had to work to get at the source of our fears.
I remember one woman who we had on suicide watch because she had tried to kill herself several times and was quite serious about it. We had taken away her belt, shoelaces, sheets, safety razor, plastic dinner knives, and anything else she might use to harm herself.
She was exceedingly quiet and introverted and she bothered me a lot because I could never connect with her. I never had any sense of what she was thinking, feeling, planning, needing, and something about that really bothered me. Then one evening on my shift she did indeed attempt to kill herself.
Walking by her room on my way to someplace else, from the corner of my eye, I saw her hanging from the ceiling. She had used a nylon parka and tied one sleeve to the sprinkler pipe and the other around her neck.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I yelled for help and ran into the room. My first instinct was to grab the parka and desperately try to tear it as if it were a piece of yarn or string. I have a visual memory of grimacing, with sweat rolling down my face as I stood on a chair almost face to face with the woman, futilely trying to tear the blue nylon sleeve. Poor pathetic young man, I think now.
I’m not sure how long it took to come to my senses, it may have been immediately or a minute before I grabbed her by the legs and held her up as I called for scissors. People came running, the coat was cut, I let her down gently, and off she went to Emergency. She lived, at least for that week.
I was so angry. My anger lingered and it confused me. Why did she make me angry? Everything about her aroused my anger and in that anger I felt guilty, ashamed, and well, angry.
In our group that week, Claire brought clarity to my emotional stupor. It was powerlessness that aroused my anger. Otherwise a large, strong, and competent man she reduced me to impotence. My immediate impulse had been to tear the nylon parka, to use my physical strength upon which I depended more than I knew.
The inability to connect with her, in spite of a considerable array of charms, made me furious and that revealed how important it was to me for other people to respond positively to my efforts. It was Claire’s invitation for me to intensify my anger, rather than trying to ignore or moderate it, that helped me begin to understand it.
My anger was aroused by my powerlessness and not anything that the poor suicidal woman was doing. It was powerlessness that I feared and that which drew me into my fear made me angry.
Think about that next time the hot breath of anger is on your cheeks.
The invitation to intensify the anger instead of keeping it at a distance was an unexpected strategy that led me to insight.
What do you fear? It is in the encounter and relationship with that which we fear where our spiritual journey begins to ripen.
I am not talking about giant phobias that can be huge and debilitating, rather, the ordinary and everyday kind of fears we feel: meeting new people, doing new things, exploring unknown places, confronting conflict, expressing our feelings, entering into community, sharing our opinion, saying ‘no’ as needed and saying ‘yes’ as appropriate, risking intimacy, taking a chance that might result in failure, launching ventures with insufficient information…
What do you fear?
Fear, as with most pain, is something we try to limit. We do not like to feel fear and so we do whatever it takes to manage it from a distance with denial, detachment, or suppression. Claire’s wisdom was to enter into it and intensify it in hopes of getting clear with it.
What do you fear?