On any given day anyone can walk through the door of my consultation room. Every time the door opens to let someone in, even if I know who they are and what their issues may be, the experience is new, revealing. I work with individuals who come from a variety of backgrounds and present with a variety of problems. I was once introduced at a speaking engagement as someone who “treats the human condition.” I thought about that statement for some time. In many ways it is true but I realize now that I should rectify the statement– I care for normative human frailty – in one way or another we all have times when we suffer.
Jon is an example of that frailty. A mid 40s highly successful attorney, Jon came to see me on the advice of his medical doctor. He was suffering from symptoms of panic, having difficulty sleeping and was arguing, in his words, “Just a little too much” with his wife. His medical doctor, someone who knows Jon for many years thought that this was completely out of the norm for Jon, asked for a psychological evaluation. The first time Jon and I spoke his speech was pressured, his cheeks red and his shoulders pointed sharply to his ears. He sounded apprehensive and even looked anxious. We spent most of our first session trying to evaluate the problem and to teach him a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to calm himself. He was not ready to unveil the underlying reasons for his nervousness until we met the second time.
Jon was raised in a family of achievers. From second grade he and his siblings were told that they would be attending Princeton as undergrads and Harvard for grad school. SAT scores were expected to be a minimum of 1550 and GPA no less than a 3.8. When I said that it sounded very stressful he replied “I didn’t feel it that way. It was just the way things were.” I asked him about his work, the hours he spent there and the stressors in his office. He spent about 14 hours a day at work and felt that he had to be among the highest rainmakers in his firm. Here too Jon denied any stress again saying that it is “just the way it is.” I asked about his social life – “no problems.” He plays tennis regularly and the family is active participants in their religious community. They travel regularly and are in Israel at least twice a year for holiday and sometimes as many as four times a year.
“What about your children?” I asked.
“They are all good kids and do well in school” he responded.
Often simply by talking about possible stress points a person will calm a bit. I asked several pointed questions. Jon did not yet react until I asked about his marriage. He hesitated. AHA!!! I thought. He went on to explain that his wife is beautiful, smart, educated and herself an attorney but not presently working. I pressed a bit. He hesitated some more. I was sure that this must be it. With all the pressure in his life there is a problem here that, like the proverbial straw, is breaking Jon’s back.
Slowly Jon explained. “I earn a lot of money and it should be more than enough but there are times when it just doesn’t seem enough.” I stayed quiet nodding for him to continue. “I found that my wife buys stuff and doesn’t tell me about it. She buys clothing and home items and more food than we need. ” I asked Jon if he ever spoke to her about it, he said “no.” I asked him how he found out. “I opened the trunk of her car and saw about a dozen shopping bags from different stores.”
Jon and I worked on his fear of discussing the problem with his wife. He soon did speak to her. She admitted that she shopped out of boredom and it quickly was controlled. And Jon learned to control his anxiety too.
A therapist’s office is where issues of trust are commonly addressed. People in distress have a pressing need to present the narratives of their lives. Most of their pain revolves around shattered faith in parents, children, lover s, their work and themselves. There is the child, abused by a parent who in an attempt to displace the pain sabotages all other relationships, or the trusted employee who having worked for 25 years is terminated “at-will” for a less expensive new hire. There is the spouse who believes, sometimes with justification that they are being cheated on by a partner and the drug user who has confidence in no one. There are those who simply lack self-assurance, anxious without any clear trigger.
So much of our lives are built on trust. So much of our lives are built on the illusion of trust. And so much of our lives are built on deception which leads to the lack of trust.
I checked the trunk of my wife’s car.