Victor displayed a loosely combed dark moustache and beard with grey flecks that matched the hair on his head. It was black, greying and with silver highlights. It was abundant and neat, reminding me of hairstyling magazines. He had olive skin and dark brown, deep set eyes, which made his large nose more pronounced. His lips created an impression of generosity and kindness. He exuded a disarming softness. He was tall, maybe six feet, slender but with a slack belly that sent a different message, and one I couldn’t read, until later in our sessions. He spoke softly and seemed to choose his words carefully, as if rehearsing first in his mind and then speaking, like someone on stage getting the hang of their lines or perhaps a self-conscious introvert. His voice was completely congruent with the overall impression of a gentle man in his 50’s. His opening statement told another story – or perhaps it’s the same story of a people pleaser who has lost his sense of self. The who am I, where did I come from and where am I going questions.
‘My wife sent me here because she’s convinced I have repressed my emotions due to childhood trauma. She says I react in our arguments from a place she knows nothing about. I am a mystery to her. She read your blog post about shame. She printed out the relevant bit for me to show you.
‘You are here for me to fix you?’
‘Make me a better husband.’
‘Easier to live with?’
‘Save her sexless marriage. I think she wants me to be like a girl friend in every way. I tell her this is the way I’m built. I wish I were more like the other men in her life, some of whom are gay. Her father came out in his 70’s if you can believe it. She holds him up to me as an example of a “feeling” potent man. He’s on a pedestal, unassailable.’
‘You don’t believe it?’
‘I think he had a secret life until it was absolutely safe to come out or too late not too.’
‘She wants you to feel a lot of emotions and express them?’
‘Yes but I don’t feel the ones she says I’m feeling.’
‘I didn’t feel sad when my dad died last year. It was a natural process, what’s to be sad about? He was 90 already, time to let go. She insists I was blocking grief. I didn’t feel it. She says I don’t get angry at all. That’s true, it’s a waste of time. She reckons it leaks out in passive aggression.’
‘Forgetting agreements, snide comments, labelling her.’
‘Like you’re crazy.’
‘You’re crazy or you crazy bitch?’ I asked.
‘More like that. She quotes me saying things I never said. I swear on my father’s grave I never said that, that’s just not me, then she says that’s my passive aggressive forgetting. I can’t win. I come home from work. She asks me have I eaten. I didn’t have time for breakfast or lunch. She says that explains it.’
‘Exactly. What? She says my energy is scary and she needs to keep her distance from it in case it engulfs her. Heavy stuff!’
‘Okay that’s enough of why she sent you here. Is there something you came for yourself?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Like something in your own life you would like to improve or change?’
‘Well, I would like to understand my wife better so I don’t get in trouble so often.’
He gave me one of those contradictory smiles without conviction, which said “as if that’s going to happen”. And then I saw his mouth, so unexpected. His gums were an odd dark colour, a bluish grey where they hugged the teeth. He noticed me focussing on them, embarrassed I guessed, so I quickly continued on as if I hadn’t noticed.
‘How about something not related to her at all?’
‘Happy wife is happy life, right? What else is there?’
‘Are you saying there’s nothing else in your life but work and her?’
‘Maybe nothing else as meaningful as those two. Work means nothing. It’s just a job. No she’s it for me.’
‘Do you have any friends?’
‘Heaps of them,’ he said without conviction and with a pained smile.
‘Any of them you could rely on if you were in big trouble?’
‘Nah, they all let me down in the end. I learnt that the hard way when my business failed. I don’t bother now. Just a beer at the club, joking around, that’s it.’
‘How did you feel about the business failure?’
‘Gutted. I was ripped off by my business partner, tried to get the money back through court. That was worse. Lost the friends who took his side. Family gave me some of the start up money. Burnt them badly. A shit storm basically and nothing to show for it.’
‘Do you feel sad or mad about that?’
‘Nah, it’s history mate. Over and done with. Moved on.’
‘I’m guessing your wife says it’s just shoved under the carpet and comes out as snide comments.’
‘Feelings buried alive never die is her favourite quote from some self help book. I get that a lot.’
‘I’ve read it. What do you think about that as a possibility?’
‘That I have buried feelings? Bullshit.’
‘Okay. I might want to come back to that but first can you give me a bit of background, family history, education, employment, lovers?’
‘Grew up on the northern beaches, Avalon. Dad and Mum ran their own business in veterinary supplies – Dad a vet, Mum a social worker. Four sibs, youngest one’s a haemophiliac. I’m the eldest. Lots of rescue animals, we even had a baby crocodile in the bath for a while. Just an ordinary family really, living on the beach, local school. Lots of happy memories. Dad and Mum were loving, never critical, all our complaints they changed to requests, always said “can’t not won’t”, that sort of stuff. Lots of family hugs, always felt they had my back even when I went off the rails. Went to Uni, studied aeronautical engineering – wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, built my own car in my twenties based on a Morgan. Still own it. Built my own aircraft, it crashed but that led to starting my own business manufacturing aircraft parts for a big company overseas. They found a cheaper supplier a decade on, in Vietnam and so that crashed. Started another business making car parts for Toyota, GM, Ford. Took on a partner. He was based in Melbourne, me in Sydney. He did side deals with the manufacturers that basically ripped the business out from under me, but of course he got caught when they closed car manufacturing in Australia. He’s got nothing now, divorced, no ideas of his own, end of story. Enough?’
‘Incredible!’ I said, slightly amazed that he could run that off like a recitation. ‘Have you done speed dating?’
‘Well you just flew with that question like you’ve done that sort of intro before.’
‘Okay, you caught me. Yes I use speed dating in my business, teaching small organisations how to grow their human capital even if it means their employees outgrow the business.’
‘To have done so much with your life already I’m guessing you must be around early 50’s.’ He smiled, and I was again distracted by his gums and I noticed a bluish tinge in the colour of his lips.
‘So is this your second marriage?’ I continued too quickly, almost underlining what I wasn’t saying.
‘Funny thing, she’s my first and third wife. We divorced because she wanted kids and I didn’t. We partnered up with others, my second wife already had kids but my first and current wife found out she was infertile, so IVF and all that without success. Her second husband wanted his own kids not by adoption, so then her second marriage fell through. We met up again. I started an affair with her, which broke up my second marriage and we married each other again. Complicated aye?
Just a little bit too neat for me, I thought. I like to hear the flow of emotions about such big life changes and I didn’t get that.
‘You know in that blog your wife quoted there was also another statement about how we could grow up without knowing our emotions, and then we paint a glossy picture of our childhoods without feeling or without sympathy for ourselves as kids. Did she send you that bit?’
‘If she did I didn’t read it.’
‘Okay, well for example, a haemophiliac child coming into your family would have been challenging. What degree do you remember his was?’
‘He was near the moderate end. We only had a few spontaneous bleeds, most were after an injury. I’ll never forget when we both cut ourselves on oyster shells at Brunswick Heads. He was wearing all the protective gear, wet suit, diving shoes, every frickin thing. I just had togs. My toe bled for ages and wouldn’t heal but he had to go to hospital for clotting factor. The oyster shell sliced straight through the rubber and just nicked his heel. Kind of ruined my 13th birthday party. By then we knew all the nurses in the paediatric ward at Tweed, and they were so cool about it all, where Mama and Dad would just panic.’
‘I notice you said “we had a few spontaneous bleeds”. We?’
‘Like you felt it as something happening to you maybe.’
‘Kinda,’ he nodded.
‘Simple blood noses would’ve been scary. Everything once fun and safe suddenly became murder weapons. I can’t imagine you could have kept the rescue animals in case they scratched or bit him. As the eldest you might have lost easy times with your mum and dad, and maybe you had to care-take your younger siblings as your parents became fully occupied with managing a new born, and later an infant crawling and walking into any number of sharp objects. I imagine there must have been life threatening accidents, and hospitalisations. Kind of like a war zone sometimes. Do you remember any of those changes?’
‘Can’t say as I do. It’s logical, makes sense but all I remember is the cotton wool.’
‘How do you remember the cotton wool, the physical stuff or is that a metaphor?’
‘I never thought of it like that,’ he said and turned his head skyward as he thought about it in a new way. I waited quietly looking up to the same patch of sky.
‘Every furniture corner,’ he continued, ‘and anything sharp edged had cotton wool wrapped around it. There were sheets of the stuff in the pantry, boxes of it in the garage with rolls and rolls of blue duct tape. Fences, footpath edges, gates all the stuff outdoors, garden furniture, surrounded by bubble plastic or blow-up camping mattresses. Best thing was the giant inflatable castle we got from K-Mart. It was as big as a dinosaur, and we spent days and nights there,’ he said. And then returning to the metaphor, his voice softer and slower.
’In another way we must have padded ourselves like American footballers. Just so we could walk through his life without thinking about the next scratch or reacting to the current one. We kind of took on the role of the paediatric nurses, the superficial appearance of calm though I think they were genuinely calm. Inside I doubt that I was – that’s logical aye but I don’t feel the truth of that.’
‘Maybe you padded yourselves to protect him. I imagine the three of you encircling this finest body of brittle glass. Your armour was an extension of him and he was an extension of you, like another limb even. Where he ended and you began wasn’t that clear. Would you think about that over the coming week so we can pick up the thread from there next time?’
‘What? The session’s over just like that?’
‘The time just flew, sorry. I didn’t want to continue without you having thought some more about the boundary between self and other, you and your brother, you and your businesses, you and your wife. Your life is precious,’ I concluded.
He was a bit discombobulated. I knew I was sending him out without padding but I told myself he needs to hold his own life as vulnerable and separate from the life of his brother.
Victor returned a month later. There were no visible signs of change. Same glorious beard and head of hair, but his belly seemed smaller or maybe just tighter, sucked in. I wan’t sure what the difference was.
‘How are you Victor,’ I asked in that same soft voice he uses. ‘Really, how are you deep down?’ I repeated as I looked at his belly.
He took a deep breath and his belly relaxed, returning to its previous, I thought, unhealthy slackness.
‘I’ve been holding my breath a lot since I went and saw my doctor.’
‘What happened there?’
‘Well I hate doctors as you might have guessed. I figured they failed my brother when he bled to death, so I never go, especially if I was on death’s door. But something you said last time got me thinking. Maybe I should look after my body, maybe my life is precious.’
He broke off with a big sigh and took a deep breath.
‘I’ve been worried about the colour of my gums, the beard’s been my camouflage. You noticed it I think?’ I nodded.
‘I figured the colour was just from caffeine and cigs,’ he continued. ‘The family dentist said I was probably right but the wife googled it whilst I was with you last time. The first results scared the shit out of me, and told me the dentist was a fucking idiot. I went to a specialist oral surgeon on the Gold Coast. Cost a mint but I figured I should get the best look in I could. Turns out it’s probably not a dental problem like gingivitis.’
‘I had been thinking about it too,’ I said.
‘Ah so! I hoped it was something exotic like Peutz-Jeghers syndrome or Von Recklinghausen’s disease. That would have been interesting.’
‘You sound so calm about this. How do you feel about it?’
‘Bloody terrified. But I’m an engineer so if it’s in a box it can be fixed. The surgeon referred me to a diagnostic physician in Brisbane, and he had the answer from one look. It’s Addison’s disease. At least it’s a bit exotic sounding. I’m in good company. US President John Kennedy had it,’ he said trying to laugh and lifting his chest with pride.
‘So what does this mean for your life?’
‘Prognosis?’ He replied matter of factly.
‘And the energy of emotions, for instance. What sensations in your body tell you it’s terror you’re feeling?’
‘I know it’s your job but I’m not ready for that stuff. I’m in shock if truth be told. The wife’s taken it badly but says it confirms a whole lot of symptoms she’d noticed and nagged me about for years. I have had to review a lot of my life struggles as result of the symptoms – like two business failures for a start and now a marriage on the rocks, kind of the last straw.’
‘Like low blood pressure, fainting and fatigue. I had put them down to stress. I would have made other choices like of a business partner in Melbourne, if I had the adrenaline. The wife has often complained that I was a man without texture, flat emotionally she says. If she’s really pissed, a carbon copy of life she calls me. She webmed diagnosed depression but now reading up on Addison’s it’s probably a simple engineering problem – a lack of hormones that would have helped me manage stress.’
‘I imagine this is going to take some time to integrate and rebalance the account book of your life?’
‘That’s an interesting turn of phrase – accounting for my life, like on judgement day?’
‘More about rebalancing your ledger so that it fairly reflects where you had choice, and where you did not. You didn’t choose Addison’s, nor did you deserve it, nor is it the disease you had to have so that your brother would be saved.’
‘Oh that’s a bit left field for me Peterman. I just need to take the hormones and that will correct the problem.’
‘It will and you’ll have a new lease on life. But it won’t change the little boy who armoured his brother and grew to be a people pleaser with poor boundaries, flatlining on love.’
‘Jeez mate. Go easy will ya. I’m still in shock.’
‘I figure I’ve got nothing to lose by calling it what it is. You won’t be coming back for what I have to offer if hormone treatment saves your marriage and turns your life around. You have a simple engineering solution and that may be all you need right now.’ This was not my finest hour for subtlety or kindness.
‘Well, thanks for that. You’re a real bastard aren’t you?’ He said this with a huge smile on his face and then he got up as if to give me a hug. I wasn’t sure about the double signals but gave him the benefit of the doubt and hugged. He soon moved to pull away but I found myself holding him tighter, and then he was sobbing in my arms. He told me his brother was named William. He had bled to death exactly 20 years to the day. He died from a ruptured artery inside his body as he slept.
Two months later Victor returned, proving me wrong and floored me with a big change of appearance. He was clean shaven and his hair cut short. He gave me a big smile and showed me his gums and the inside of his lips. The colour had changed with edges of pink pushing out the grey.
‘So what do you think Peterman. Good look don’t you reckon?
‘I am flabbergasted Vic. Is this just from the hormone treatment?’
‘It is, but I also went to an integrative medico in town and her blood tests proved I undermethylate, put me on a range of mineral supplements and vitamin B12. That’s made a big difference to how my head works. And there’s more under the bonnet.’
‘Trusting a medico is a big change for you after the tragedy with William. Tell me about the methylation thing though?’
‘It’s a biochemical problem. I don’t produce enough brain chemicals like serotonin for instance but there’s a lot of other nutrients like folic acid that were not getting into my system. What’s really interesting to me is that it’s a multi generational genetic disorder and as you know haemophilia is also hereditary. So in a way it’s made me feel the same as William but also very different. It’s helped me appreciate William and yet separate from him. My life is just as strange and just as precious.’
‘That’s a deep change under the bonnet. How do you feel about that?’
‘Bloody excited. It’s like I’ve got my life back and strangely William isn’t there like he used to be. Not like the ghost or a cloud that used to hover over me. Bloody liberated.’
‘And what about the good wife?’
‘Turns out she’s probably an overmethylator so has had all these anxiety symptoms from too much of a good thing in her brain. Perfectionist, high achiever, bloody great nagger sweating the small stuff.’
‘Has that changed?’
‘Well there’s a new problem for us. She won’t go to my integrative medico. Partly because I’ve got my libido back as a result of my treatments, and she doesn’t like it. She was very happy in a sexless marriage, can’t remind her she’s childless, and in a way is pissed off with me for all those years without my mojo. I think we will need your couple therapy stuff.’
‘I think you are right about that but I can’t be that guy.’
‘Why on earth not you old bastard?’
‘That’s the rules. Can’t do both. Same as if you’d come as a couple first, I couldn’t break off and see one of you as a client.’
‘Well that’s a bugger. Can’t you bend the rules?’
‘I have in the past, it doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t work. The person in your spot can feel they have lost an ally and the person in the other spot quite reasonably thinks I could be biased, or worse, in a coalition with their partner. I recommend a fresh start with a couple therapist neither of you have met before. You can continue to come and see me on your own, any time.’
‘Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen mate because I can’t see the need. It’s my marriage that needs help now. I’m fixed.’
I have travelled with a few folks suffering chronic and debilitating illnesses. The initial confidence in the cure and the renewed vitality, hope and libido is eventually modified by the natural limits of the treatment. Then there is a crash, loss of hope and finally an honest appraisal of what the future holds. I expect to see Victor again.
 “When our emotions are shamed, they are repressed. Repression involves tensing muscles and shallow breathing. One set of muscles is mobilised to block the energy of the emotion we’re ashamed to feel. Sadness is commonly converted into a false smile. I have often smiled when I felt sad. Once the energy is blocked, we no longer feel it. However, it is still a form of energy. It is dynamic. Repressed anger intensifies. Our anger explodes because it cannot be repressed anymore. In reenactment, the emotional energy is “acted out” or “acted in.” The behaviour that set up the shaming event is repeated with surrogates who reenact the original shaming scene, or a person shames himself in the way he was originally shamed. This can occur through destructive self-talk, or it can happen when a person cuts himself or drives himself mercilessly, refusing to take breaks, get proper rest or take legitimate vacations.”
 there is a complete absence of real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood vicissitudes, and no conception of their authentic needs—beyond the need for achievement. The internalisation of the original drama has been so complete that the illusion of a good childhood can be maintained. A child who has been denied the experience of connecting with his own emotions is first consciously and then unconsciously (through the internal identification with the parent) dependent on his parents.