‘Are you married? I asked.
‘Yeah, to a saint, according to my mother-in-law. I told her I knew that and when you put the two of us together you almost get a normal person. She didn’t laugh. My kinesiologist, another bossy bird, tells me I’ve got a lot of anger and it’s poisoning me. ‘I don’t have any anger,’ I shouted at her – well that kinda proved it. So that’s why I’m here. Do I have any anger Doc? I just don’t feel it. I feel frustration at my wife’s complaining but I don’t see how I could be driving her that crazy. She needs a shrink, not me. There is nothing wrong with me.’
Andrew was a heavy set guy with a full beard that poorly hid a kind of snarl on the right side of his upper lip. His eyelids drooped a little, reminding me of a blood hound. His face gave an overall impression of contradictory emotions. The resolution, if you can call it that, seemed to reside in his shoulders. I studied him like I couldn’t put it all together.
‘What’s the matter doc, don’t you get complaining wives in here?’
I looked again. The resolution of those contradictions appeared to be in his pronounced stoop. As if someone had tied his waist to a post, pulled down hard on his arms, and then set the position in liquid nails.
‘I do get complaints from husbands as well but I’m wondering, why the beard?’ I said.
‘Bike accident, smashed face, lost me front teeth, they never got the lip right so I hide the Johnny Cash scar.’
‘Damn stupid thing, took a ride on a mates Harley Fat Boy without a helmet. His was too small for my bull head.’
‘Have you had many bike accidents?’
‘Nah that was the only one but plenty of car accidents,’ he said smiling proudly.
‘What do you do for a living?’
‘Council worker, well in fact I give guys like you parking tickets.’ And then, slowly, starting from his belly and travelling up to his face, he burst out laughing. His lip curled into an angry snarl. I thought his kinesiologist was no genius mind reader.
‘Any of them suicide attempts?’
‘Now why would I do that? Not a chance, I’ve got too much to live for.’
‘Say more about that?’
‘What the suicides?’
‘I thought they weren’t suicides.’ I said shaking my head and showing my confusion.
‘Well maybe I thought about it a bit but I find handing out a parking ticket and waiting til the driver returns meets all my needs…. Joking!’
Again the snarl and the laugh and I began to understand he smiles and laughs when he’s angry. Perfect recipe for passive aggression.
‘Have you heard about passive anger, like a cold seething and gritting of teeth kind of rage, one that doesn’t see the light of day?’
‘Like a mad dog in a cage? Is that what you think I am?’ He said avoiding eye contact.
‘No they’re noisy. More like a kid who had every reason to feel anger but was punished if they expressed it openly. Maybe you got slapped around a bit when you raised your voice?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Anger is often blocked from awareness and converted into more tolerable or family-authorized feelings, such as hurt or guilt,’ I answered. ‘The person feeling anger no longer feels it; he feels the acceptable feeling. What sense do you make of that?’
‘Interesting doc. My parents were religious and always blaming somebody for something, complaining all the time about stuff that really didn’t matter to them at all but I felt guilty like it was directed at me.’
‘I would feel angry if I felt wrongly accused.’
‘I do in most places but not in family, original family mum and dad that is, and this one now. I did get slapped around. More like beaten to within an inch of my life,’ he laughed. ‘If you’ve got nothin nice to say don’t say anything kind of beating.’
‘Oh they beat you up with words like that?’
‘Come on,’ he said screwing up his face. ‘The full nine yards.’
‘Sorry I’m confused – nine…?’
‘Lashes dummy, belts you know the whole thing.’
‘Okay. I get it. I’d call that abuse.’
‘I don’t much like that word.’
‘Whatever word we use the experience might have led you to feeling ashamed of natural emotions. Shame is not so much a feeling as a belief about oneself, a mindset that there is something wrong with you. What sense do you make of that?’
‘Interesting Doc.’ Andrew went quiet, closed his eyes and turned toward his left, like he was remembering hearing something and then slumped deeper into the chair, restraining his breathing. I suddenly got the point of the stoop – it choked the anger. Knowing this pattern well, I could guess the damaging self-talk that accompanied the stoop, a shame bound disbelief in his existence, probably replaying what I later learned his father called him – “worthless piece of shit, waste of space, living mistake, piece of garbage”.
‘The wife says I abuse her but I’ve never raised my hand to her. Wanted to plenty times but never done it. I think the dog cops it instead.’
‘I got so mad one day after the dog destroyed my leather welding smock, I nearly killed him.’
‘Jeez man,’ he said screwing up his face again. ‘I dunno, I must have jabbed him with a hot weld in his neck. Freaked out the kid. Bled a bit, the wife took him off to the vet. Never heard the end of that one.’
‘How do you feel about that now?’
‘Put it behind you?’
‘Yep. Best place for it. Can’t hurt me there.’
‘I guess you’ve buried a lot of painful memories ….. but ….’
‘There’s always a but ain’t there?’ He sighed.
‘Mine is an assurance as certain as that parking fine will haunt the driver until it comes out of his pay check or pension – feelings buried alive rarely die.’
‘What the fuck does that mean?’
‘What do you think it means Andrew?’
‘So now you’re telling me I’m a bad person. What and I have to pay you for that kind of advice?’
As I think back to that session years ago, it’s easy for me to see my mistake. The idea that feelings buried alive never die is so rooted in my consciousness, it’s a law of nature to me. I blurted it out but with faint disgust in my voice. I was so badly affected by the dog story I wanted to get him out of my office, clean the space of his shit. So I said it without thinking, and to get rid of him. It had the predictable effect – I was attacking his existence like his father had done. It’s an example of both counter transference and vicarious trauma. Luckily at the time he didn’t hit my shame button so I was able to recover my mistake with some kindness.
‘Oh shit!’ I said and I remember leaning forward in my chair. ‘I am sorry, that’s exactly what I did. I blamed you for burying your feelings and then threatened you with the consequences. Sorry. I must have sounded a bit like your father.’
‘Now that’s a first doc. You admitting you’re wrong. Do you charge extra for that?’
‘That one’s on the house Andrew and with my sincere apology. I made a mistake, I screwed up. My bad.’
‘Wow.’ He said taking in a deep breath. ‘I’m not sure where to go with that. Can I give you a parking ticket. Payback you know.’ He laughed and without the sneer forming.
‘Maybe we can start again and I can tell you about my father taking a belt to me and how I felt about that.’
‘You too huh?’
‘Yep the sins of the father.’
‘“Who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” One of the little gems from my childhood Pete – he told me that my bad behaviour had condemned my grandchildren before they were even born. He never applied it to himself of course.’
‘Your father turned the words of the bible into an abuse of you?’
‘Exodus no less, thirty four, seven I think.’
‘Don’t give up your day job just yet Andrew but I’m beginning to recognise a talent.’
‘What for bullshit?’
‘No, for forensic detail. I think you have a sharp mind, honed in the fire of your father’s abuse. You play the dumb beaten up parking inspector like an Inspector Colombo but behind that mask is a deeply hurt deep thinking good guy.’
‘Funny you should say that, Colombo – the “just one more thing” guy, who was that actor, Peter somebody. I’ve been thinking about studying criminology at Southern Cross Uni. Council would give me time off with pay. Peter Falk, that’s him.’
‘What about the other bit I said, the hurt good guy?’
‘Look Pete I know you mean well but I can’t take that in. Not good with compliments either.’
‘Well that’s going to be my job for the next couple of sessions.’
‘More like years pal.’
That turned out to be true. We moved from cleaning up his brain of all the shit his parents put in it, to filling his brain with new ways of working and then finally developing a career that turned that healing journey into dollars. From parking inspector to forensic accountant chasing down money trails in the dark web for the feds.
I wish I could say I saved his marriage and he lived happily ever after. Maybe in my day job as a couple therapist I might have but he didn’t come to me with his partner. He came alone and stayed alone. She kicked him out, I think once she was sure he would stick with me without her ultimatums.
He never took the chance or perhaps wasn’t given the chance to make amends, so he buried himself in his new career. He must be late fifties by now. I hear he lives alone, up in the hills with a cat for companionship, his vinyl record collection for love, and rural fire service volunteering for friends.
Key Words & Phrases
Life true to oneself; doing vs. being; authority in own life;