Erotic Transference – A Very Short Case Study Part 2

I decided to keep writing about this case because I’m inspired by what I hope is a crucial turning point. I want to be careful not to assume that this is the moment where everything clicks for the client. Having said that, I can see her connecting to our insights emotionally and not just intellectually. She has greater stillness and presence in session (which I hypothesize is largely based on the ADHD medication she got from her doctor after I diagnosed her and the her willingness to be more open in session), She seems to have a greater ability to stay with the deeper issues and feelings. I will attempt to reconstruct crucial moments of yesterday’s session using both my notes and memories.

When the session began the client took a moment to note my haircut and to mention that she needs one. I know that this client likes spending a few seconds at the start of each session with a little small talk in order to ease into things. I am a bit more open with her during the small talk due to her request a year ago that I not hold back so much combined with my realization that she was indeed correct in her observation. (The holding back, I realize now, was based on the counter-transference issues I shared in my last entry as well as an intention to avoid overwhelming her like her last therapist had done). The client seemed ready to work in that she looked embodied (comfortable and in her skin) and was ready to move on from the small talk. I expressed to her that I felt like I had offered an interpretation to the dream so hastily last session that I didn’t give her a chance to share her own thoughts and feelings. My client thought about it for a second and said, “Oh, yeah. I think that you were right though. I mean, I appreciate you saying that but it resonated really well for me.” Though she did not feel the need at the moment to process the dream further, she did use this as a launching point for talking about her current lack of desire to date.

My client’s libidinal energy appears to be present both based on her self-report and her dream from last week; but her desire to “go-through-the-motions-of-dating” is low right now. My client struggled to go much deeper on this despite my invitations. I decided to let it rest and trust that the client was simply following her own wants/needs in leaning away from dating. I quickly hypothesized, however, that this might be a very positive thing. As the client gets less anxious, more focused and more embodied, the desperate energy to date and the fear of “missing out” isn’t driving her as much.

She suddenly looked a bit stuck but still quite grounded (another positive things since she used to feel nervous and responsible for moments of silence in the session). She invited me to lead a little bit and I asked her if she would like to explore the repulsion she has felt both in and out of session in moments where intimacy is approached. To my surprise she did not simply give consent to explore this but sounded generally interested as she said, “Yes, let’s do that.”

I asked client if she could think back to the last moment (a few sessions back) when she was depressed and couldn’t really do much work in session. More specifically to the moment when I asked, “What if instead of working so hard to pull you out I simply accompanied you right now?” My client’s eyes got big (like she remembered)…

Cl: Yes, I had this feeling that I wanted to push you away.”

Me: That’s right. What’s your fantasy of what would have happened if you didn’t push me away?

Cl: Honestly, I know everything would be okay, I trust you.

Me: Yes and I sense you’re saying that from your intellect so let me say something and then you let me know how you feel in your body. I would like to be with you in your feelings here right now.

Cl [makes humorously disgusted face]

Me: [I chuckle] That seems about right. Okay good. Keep those walls up so that we can work with them. Remember you’re in charge of them, okay?

Cl: Yes.

Me: Your face showed disgust.

Cl: Yes, but it feels more like fear. Like it was too vulnerable to show fear so I joked and made that face.

Me: Okay, fear. What do you fear will happen?

Cl: I don’t know. I think it’s like this worry that you only want to connect to my vulnerability because you need it. Like…I’m not sure who it’s for. I don’t mean to be offensive.

Me: I’m good. Keep going.

Cl: It’s just like…I’m never sure if people really want to help or if they want something. Plus, I hate feeling needy. It’s so vulnerable.

Me: Let’s return to the hatred of neediness. I know it’s connected but let’s stay with us.

Cl: Okay. I feel like I’m picking up on something.

Me: Wow, your radar is so finely attuned to people’s feelings and needs that you probably are. Any thoughts on what you’re picking up on?

Cl: No, it’s just a feeling. I can’t quite articulate it.

Me: What if I said you might be picking up on some unmet developmental needs of mine and on how I get those needs partially met in this career and, especially, with the clients I enjoy working with most.

Cl: [Her eyes moisten]. Thank you for saying that.

Me: Tell me about the tears.

Cl: I don’t know. It always helps me when you remind me how you’re not perfect. I feel less alone.

Me: You feel less alone? Closer to me? What’s that like?

Cl: [still watery eyed]. Yes. Good.

Me: [I pause to let my client feel her emotions.] Let’s talk about your relationship to “neediness” in yourself and in others.

From here my client and I revisited her childhood memories which–to summarize quickly–involve a mother who was at times an emotional mess and who got her needs met through my client, and a father who was unreachable. Additionally, my client recalled what a big emphasis her father put on “toughness”. She received praise for her athletic accomplishments and for playing through pain but for very little else.

Me: So with your mom you can never be sure if she’s there for you or for herself.

Cl: Yes, I think it’s still true today to some degree.

Me: What’s that like?

Cl: Overwhelming. Lonely.

Me: [I pause to let client feel it.] And your dad…you had to work for his love. You had to be tough and seek praise but it was never enough.

Cl: Yes.

Me: So there’s no place for your needs anywhere there. Your mom’s needs override yours and your dad unwittingly gives you the message that emotions and needs are to be “toughed out”. So for you to preserve your connection to them you disown your needs. You disown what you earlier described as your feminine side.

Cl: Yes, I get so turned off when I see straight men use feminine hand gestures or if they’re too sensitive. I know it’s bad for me but I have been drawn to men who are skilled and outdoorsy but they always end up unavailable. But yes, I think I hate it in myself.

Me: I’m almost embarrassed to offer an interpretation that’s so on the nose but…you chase your father and reject that which you associate with your mother; namely “neediness” and “emotions” and vulnerability.

Cl: Oh, my god, Yes.

Me: When we start to feel close in session through our vulnerability you’re not just pushing me away, you’re pushing away your own wants and needs and vulnerability. It’s scary.

Cl: [tear eyed]. Yes. I don’t know why I hadn’t though of it like that. It feels so true.

Me: Actually, this is a well worn path for us. But my timing was not right the other times. That and you had trouble staying present. It’s not purely intellectual right now.

Cl: Yes.

I have learned that these “amazing sessions” are often followed by regressions or cancellations. That progress is never linear. In this case it would more likely be returning to content. But perhaps not. And so I will simply chalk this us as I what I believer to be progress in our quest to help my client accept herself and to be clearer about what she really wants/needs from relationships. Some final thoughts…

In client’s erotic dreams she was happy in her romantic connection with me. She wasn’t afraid of my neediness or her own. In a sense I represented not just what she wants in another person but she wants for herself. The client fears that if she were to begin to own those parts of herself that she would be overtaken and become like her mother. Not only that but the more integrated version of her that accepted her vulnerability would psychically lose connection to her father since his “toughness” is what she identified with (it was an elixir to her mother’s neediness). There are a lot of moving parts here that relate to her connection to her parents as well as her self-identity. In short, though we have made progress the work that is to come needs to involve not just her acceptance of her own emotions but a sort of redefining of the self. I hope I can help my client through that.


Subtle Complicity in Erotic Transference: A Very Short Case Study

The word “subtle” is a very subjective adjective in the context of this entry. So let me preface this by defining what sorts of “postures” or behaviors I do not consider subtle: overtly flirting with a client; seducing a client; carrying on a dual relationship with a client (whether romantic or not); and touching a client for reasons that have to do with one’s own needs. Of course, even within some of these examples there can be gradation and nuance. For example, a spontaneously fond and sparkly smile can be flirtatious in a sense, but for a client who struggles to connect to their own impact, power and presence and/or to interact playfully and spontaneously, it can be a sign of therapeutic progress. But for the interest of conceptual convenience, moving forward I will simply trust the reader to understand the nuances to which I allude here.

The other preface is that I want to be as raw and honest as possible because the case studies from which I have most benefited are those in which the writer is forthcoming not just about their mistakes in session, but the struggles they bring into the session. In short, those who are willing to speak those things that, those who lack depth and self-awareness, would see in black-and-white terms as “taboo”.

The client in this study is a single Caucasian cis-female in her late 30’s. Coincidentally, she too is a psychotherapist. She has been a client for about 2.5 years. Her initial reason for seeking was a desire to understand why she struggled to find and create romantic intimacy. It is often the case that a client’s conscious reason for seeking therapy is connected to deeper and more fundamental issues and this case is no exception. The deeper struggle for this client is that her unconscious organizing principles (avoid intimacy because it is scary, uncomfortable and even repulsive) conflict with her conscious desire to have more intimacy. It might also be worth noting here that prior to coming to me this client had seen a therapist for five years who had terribly invasive boundaries and who expected the client to please her.

The challenges for me with this client (and here is where I will be open about my counter-transference) are that at times she tries my patience by focusing on the minutiae of relationships and dating; in short, her tendency is to want to pull things back into content and focus on surface solutions and quick fixes. I understand this as an attempt to immediately resolve anxiety (that generally creates more anxiety). Though I understand that this is a defense for her (to stave off anxiety and to prevent her from facing the deeper issues), my desire to “cut-right-to-the-core” of things is often stymied by this. Thankfully the impatience has never impacted my ability to care for the client for any extended period of time.

I have also, at times, wanted the client to adopt a worldview and goals more similar to my own despite knowing that my worldview is as flawed and biased as anybody else’s. To be more specific, clients who tend to have what I perceive as more “conventional” goals and world views (white picket-fences, 2.5 children, BMW’s, vacation homes etc) often trigger my bias against unexamined assumptions of what makes a “good life”. If I am to go one deeper here, perhaps they force me to face the part of me that is conventional; that does want a big house (but instead of a BMW, a room for comics and sports, etc).

And finally, I have, at times, found this client to be physically attractive. The attraction tends to come and go (it was there early in the treatment, then generally faded away, and only just recently re-arose). I will be even more vulnerable and say that I have in brief moments, due to primitive defenses that quite likely arose from losing my biological mother during infancy), split women into part-objects. So I might long for their hair or their arms or their hands or random “parts” that symbolize for me childhood longings and deficits. For example, I remember being fascinated as a child by the hair of one of my dad’s girlfriends. The hair was long and soft and, in retrospect, my libidinal energy was directed toward it because it represented femininity and motherhood and comfort. I longed to possess so that I might feel whole.

Having just confessed to a few of my counter-transference reactions to this client, none of these have “taken over” and prevented me from providing a good-enough sense of presence and objectivity most of the time. Or, put another way, I nearly always succeed in grounding myself within minutes or seconds of floating away into my frustration or attraction. I have, in short, not succumb to any of the non-subtle forms of complicity mentioned above.

Let us begin two sessions ago. My client named that she was having trouble feeling connected to herself and to me. This is not an uncommon experience for this client. Her observation aligned with my own in that I too was feeling the distance and the sense that the client was caught up in the dilemma I presented earlier: a desire for presence and closeness vs the ease (but loneliness) of distance. In moments like these I had tended to turn toward basic sensory awareness exercises or toward an exploration of what is happening in the here-and-now (within her and between us) with mixed success. Since I was feeling especially sprightly and confident in my work that day I spontaneously thought of an intervention: I asked the client permission to sit closer to her on a fold-out chair (I tend to sit a few arms lengths away and this put me at about 1.5 arms lengths away). After getting consent I grabbed a large scarf/blanket and had her hold one end of it while I held the other. I asked her to pull it a bit on her end during which I held it firm. Then I pulled it while she held firm. Eventually we moved it back and forth between us in a kind of rhythmic way. My intention was for her to feel my “there-ness” and for her to feel her own “there-ness”; a sort of symbolic representation of how we can impact one another while still having the safety of separateness. She suddenly appeared more present and grew slightly tearful. She said that the exercise allowed her to connect to how isolated she had recently felt in her life. I moved back into my regular chair and we had what I considered to be a productive session. I will even confess to feeling quite pleased with myself after the session.

Yesterday the client showed up to session looking more focused and grounded. She also appeared melancholy. I took this as a sign that we might be able to dive right into the work. I was not wrong. My client shyly said, “I think I should tell you this even though it’s hard” before sharing a dream in which we were romantically together; in which she felt “happy, loved and attractive”. She added, “The crazy thing is that even in the dream I knew you where my therapist but I felt safe.” The client and I were able to explore the dream and she realized that I represented to her what she sought: intimacy, warmth, attunement and physical attraction, and thus, she was projecting onto me the idea of the longed for partner. She was intellectually aware of the fact that I am imperfect and that the reality, even in our sessions, is that she both longs to be closer to me while also feeling repulsed by that closeness. Indeed, she realized that part of what made the dream so appealing was that the repulsion was gone. My inner-response to her dream was mostly grounded. The groundedness with which I responded has a lot to do with my experience and confidence in responding to erotic transference. However, it would be a lie if I did not admit to also being aided by my own self-esteem issues in which it is hard to take in or believe that another could be attracted to me. The part of me that felt flattered was outweighed by my knowledge that the attraction was more about what I represented in the nearly-perfect-container of therapy. The client, in turn, had enough self-awareness to know–at least intellectually–that it was not about me either. Thus we collaborated and had what I believe to be a productive session. Indeed, the exploration of the counter-transference even allowed the client to come to her own vital insights: “Maybe I focus on all the tiny things of what goes wrong in my dating situations because it keeps me from really staying with my fear of intimacy”. The client also realized, “Maybe I enjoy sex with unavailable people because I don’t have to worry about the intimacy.” I feel excited for the work that we might sink our teeth into in the coming sessions (experience teaches me that we may take a few steps back or sideways and that this wont’ be perfect and linear but that, even so, these were important seeds to have planted). This therapeutic success was, in large part, facilitated by the client’s courage, self-awareness and by the trust and safety we have built.

But this has me wondering about my part in things beyond my representing a few ideals of intimacy for the client. Is it just projection if I have fed into it? For example, do my postures and/or mannerisms and/or choice of words convey my attraction? Have I subtly seduced the client in these ways? Am I vicariously meeting my intimacy needs through this and/or other clients? Did I unconsciously use the “blanket exercise” mentioned above because I find the client easy to get close to physically? Would I have done the same with a client of a different sex, gender or with looks that did not fall within my attraction template? I’m embarrassed to answer with a “perhaps not”. And as I ask these questions I find myself, once again, humbled beyond belief. I realize that if, for example, the client does not moved on from the fantasy as easily as I might want to believe, that I may need to scrutinize even more closely my part in enabling or co-creating it. And more than that, find a way to use it productively in a session. In light of these questions the therapeutic “victory” suddenly feels more precarious. This is not to say that I am not proud of both myself and the client for how we worked with the issues at hand, only that it could just as easily lead to more challenges for the work and self-reflection, and honest self-evaluation for myself.

The “Innocent Little Girl”, Psychotherapy and The Catcher In The Rye

We were close to forty sessions into the work. My client–a non-binary 22-year-old college student with severe learning disabilities and depression–tearfully shared with me their frustration with their teaching assistant. Per their report, the client had been given permission to miss classes so long as they emailed the T.A. before class. Yet my client was enraged and hurt. They insisted that in other classes they had been able to get away with explaining their absences after-the-fact. They were entrenched in the belief that this made the T.A. an ableist. I felt no compassion. Indeed, I felt anger and irritation.

I could see compassion just over the fence. To hop over it I needed only to reconnect myself with this client’s issues (overbearing parents who fed into their sense of helplessness; interactions with people and systems that didn’t take their learning and mental health disabilities seriously, a culture that is ableist, etc) and thereby place their reaction to the T.A. within a broader context. And yet, even knowing this, I simply couldn’t. If anything I felt anger toward the client. Not a passing sense of anger but, rather, an anger that burned my chest a bit. What ensued was an enactment.

Enactments are not always big and dramatic or even obvious. They can be so insidious as to don the disguise of helpful benevolence. A client comes to a therapist in order to explore why she keeps “chasing partners away”. The client says that her partners start off seeming like “such nice guys” but that over time they become “jerks that don’t want to listen”. The client admits to yelling a bit at her partners but “only after they become jerks”. The work begins and the therapist validates and feeds warmth to the client. The client comes to session, “vents” and then leaves sessions appearing happy and satisfied. The therapist relishes being liked. Time passes and the therapy hasn’t changed much–both client and therapist are getting approval from one another despite being, in a sense, stuck. The therapist realizes that they are no longer looking forward to sessions with this client. In fact, they feel irritated and used and want to run away. They have fantasies about kicking the client out of therapy. The therapist is perplexed. When did this shift occur? What did I overlook? Why do I feel this way? I shouldn’t feel this way! The therapist begins to shut-down a bit in sessions–they are less attentive and present. The client complains that the therapist doesn’t listen and starts to grow irritated and become demanding. The therapist continues to want to flee or even to fight.

The enactment here is that the problematic interpersonal dynamics that brought the client to therapy are being repeated in the therapy relationship. The therapist unwittingly fell into the role of the “nice” boyfriend (perhaps out of a need to be liked) and the client was treating the therapist purely as a self-object to satisfy their unrealistic need for unceasing love, warmth and approval. From a more object-relations (vs self-psychology) perspective the therapist became a part-object (like a breast that provides milk but whose internal representation is detached from the human being to which the breast belongs) and the therapist initially enjoyed being that part-object because it made them feel helpful and needed. Over time they began to feel used. Like a thing. They began to pull away emotionally from the client in the way the people in the client’s life had done.

It is very important here to note that enactments are inevitable. One needn’t as a therapist be perfect along these lines. It is, however, incumbent on the therapist to look for signs of enactments and use them constructively. In this sense enactments can end up being very helpful. But let us return to my own client.

I felt repelled by the client’s tears and by their insistence that their T.A. was being unreasonable. They appeared ready to quit their class just to make a point. Rather than move toward the client I internally moved away. I intervened by asking the client if there were other ways of understanding the situation. Now this would not have been an inherently problematic intervention if it had been coming from a place of true curiosity or caring, but what made it unhelpful was that it was coming from an angry and sadistic part of me that needed them to assuage my anger by showing me that they could be “reasonable”. The client insisted on their point of view and appeared ready to self-righteously quit the class. This being near the end of the session, I succumbed to a feeling of defeat and emotionally bailed on the last few minutes of the session.

That weekend I spoke to friend and colleague over dinner about it. They validated the fact that my anger was not without merit; that the T.A. wasn’t being unreasonable. Just as importantly they also helped me come to some of my own important realizations.

My anger was not just about this one moment. I realized I walked on egg shells with this client frequently; I was afraid that they would crumble in the face of even gentle confrontations. In short, I had been leaning too far into holding back which had created some level of resentment within me. Additionally, this client’s helpless “inner-child” brings up for me the anger and shame I feel about my own inner-child; about my own depression. There was a certain amount of self-hatred being projected onto this client which only added to the very understandable part of my frustration. If I could summarize the enactment here I would say that the client was taking up their position as the helpless kid and I had subtly fed into this over time by not challenging the client frequently enough (here I was being the client’s mother who takes care of things for the child and enables their lack of self-efficacy). When finally a situation arose in which I felt the client was unreasonable, my pent up frustration rose up and I become a kind of quiet version of her father (who would yell at my client and get caught up into power struggles).

I left my consultation with both an understanding of what was happening and the knowledge that our enactment needed to be addressed. I felt reasonably comfortable in my skills but doubted my ability to bring this up from a place of caring.

The next day I was thinking about this client when suddenly the book The Catcher In the Rye came to mind. The protagonist in the novel (Holden Caulfield) is an alienated teenager who is obsessed with the idea of authenticity. He was repelled by the “phoniness” that the adult world seem to embody. When I was a teenager I identified deeply with the character. As I grew older and understood the novel through a different lens I began to see how it was not just a story about a rebellious teenager. Holden saw innocence as the highest virtue–adulthood was dangerous; it represented cruelty and artificiality. The novel is essentially about a sensitive–though, admittedly, immature–young man who is struggling deeply with the idea of growing up. He wanted to preserve his own innocence and, even more so, the innocence of his younger sister, Phoebe. His fantasy of being a catcher in the rye was really about being a part of world in which he had the power to keep himself and others from growing up–the preservation of innocence. I find this so poignant that even now my eyes well with tears. My client reminded me of Holden. Not the rebellious part, rather the part of them that seemed to want, at all costs. to preserve their innocence. This helped me locate my compassion. Instead of anger and sadism I felt warmth toward them (Here I am tempted to get on a soap box and talk about how good novels, graphic novels and films can teach us as much about humanity as psychology books but I’ll leave that for another entry).

In our next session I asked the client if they were okay with me addressing the last session. I explained that I had pulled away and grown irritated with them and that my responsibility in this was in the way I had been patronizingly treating them as a child by not challenging them enough (I left out “from a place of caring” but it is what I meant). I explained that I needed to provide more authentic and caring responses and that sometimes a caring response might paradoxically be one in which I share something difficult. My client reported that after the last session (once they were more grounded) they realized they were “overreacting” to the situation with the T.A. They also said that they felt hurt that I had been treating them like a child and yet bravely and insightfully acknowledged that they felt like a child in that very moment. This insight allowed us to name the dynamic: they frequently acted helpless; I in turn treated them as such, and so on (in a causality loop).

Fast forward to a couple of sessions later. I do not remember the exact context but the client named that their persona was of “an innocent little girl”. I told them how that resonated with me and asked them to talk more about that persona. Though the client struggled to elaborate (my client has processing issues that take them a while to gather their thoughts) they were able to articulate the following, “I want people to see me as an innocent little girl because if they believe that I am then I can believe that I am”. I asked, “And what does believing that you are an innocent little girl do for you?” “I don’t know,” the client responded. “I just associate being a little girl with purity and goodness and I want to feel pure and good”. Sufficed it to say this was a golden insight and has created new opportunities for the work.

I wish I could say that the work has gone smoothly since this session a few weeks ago. I wish this was one of those cases where the narrative is one in which the client and I engage in a harmonious dance leading to blissful termination and the resolution of their issues. The reality is my client’s defenses have been showing up again. However, I feel compassion for this and it lets me know to pull back a little on the gas pedal. The dilemma is that we cannot return to a place where I patronizingly go “too easy” on the client, but neither can I bulldoze the client’s defenses.

This is hard work. It burns me out at times. It takes a lot of thought and feeling. It is humbling. I have fantasies about being one of those therapists who stick with a strictly Rogerian approach or who strictly use handouts and do psycho-education: therapy that isn’t inherently bad but whose efficacy is limited by the lack of specificity. Actually…I don’t. Though that sounds easier in one sense, I think I would hate myself and the career in such a way as to reach a different kind of burnout. So this is it. A career and a calling that that keeps me engaged intellectually and emotionally. One which makes me feel a great sense of efficacy and, at other times, a sense of feeling helpless. One that often leaves me feeling like a husk (even if I do practice self-care). And yet I do believe this is my purpose. Or perhaps I need to believe it is my purpose so as to have a sense of meaning in my life. I’m off to work….

Triumph, Failure & Humility

My relationship to my career as a therapist is complicated. I worry it will sound cliche but for me it is a calling–I derive great meaning from my vocation. However, living in a corporate capitalist system (with a single income) requires that we grind out a living in order move ahead. In short, the volume of work I have to do often burns me out and, sadly, I can begin to resent my work (I like to think that even when I resent the hours I put in that I still do pretty damn good work but it’s not always true). I relish the times when I still feel excited about learning both in and out of session. Since I am in one of those periods I would like to share some of the experiences of the week.

On Tuesday I had an experience that reminded me of the comfort and skill I have developed over the years. I used an intervention that, out-of-context, may have seemed risky and impulsive but within context (of that particular client and our specific relationship) it was actually a very grounded move. Intuitive? Maybe. I often get confused about what that word really means. What I did realize and relish after the session was seeing how my skills and feel for the work has developed over the thousands and thousands of hours I have acquired “in the chair”.

One of the things that keeps this work exciting, however, is that just as you are patting yourself on the back, something will happen to humble you. If you can stay open (not take it personally and beat yourself up) you can still put it to good use. Nevertheless, it is humbling.

I have a client I have seen for coming up on four years. She is a cis-gendered woman who is 22 years old. I have known her since she was a freshman in college (she is now beginning her senior year). She grew up in a home with a verbally abusive narcissistic father and just got out of a three year relationship with a narcissistic boyfriend. This client tends to try too hard to be liked and to please others. She has made strides in this area. However, a few months back I realized that, in spite of caring for her, I was no longer looking forward to our sessions. And now in retrospect, I think I was avoiding looking at that because (and this is no excuse but it is honest): I started to give up and feel defeated. I want to explore both this and what happened in our last session.

Our session was going “okay”. At least in the sense that the client was reporting things that clearly showed some of her growth: dating situations in which client bowed out because she noticed that the person was domineering. For whatever reason (probably because I had the energy and I am relishing the work right now) I realized that this client annoyed me by not pausing to let anything I said “land”. Or, to be more precise, she gave no evidence of anything landing. I quickly checked in with myself. I thought about how my client very likely has ADD and that this was a variable at play. However, I also felt in my gut that there was something more. So I brought it up with the client. The client admitted that she tried to prove herself in life and that a part of her was probably trying to show me that she was a “good student” by hurrying up and giving me an answer or an opinion. Then the client surprised me.

She told me that she remembers that I use to do more “reining in” during sessions. That I wouldn’t let her “get away” with staying on the surface. She said that lately she noticed that she was getting away with not using the session time and that I was allowing this. She was right. I hadn’t felt good about my work with her in a while. I was bored. I had given up. I made sure she knew that she was right. I told her I had become complacent with her and had not been doing my job as well as I could.

It’s important here to note that I felt grounded as I admitted that. That is to say, I did not feel defensive. I did not feel dysregulated. Strangely it felt as though my young client had validated my experience (which relaxed me) and brought me face to face with what I had been avoiding. I thanked her for the feedback and asked how it was to give it to me. She told me it was “scary” since she is used to men who invalidate her experience and then try to argue with her. I thanked her for being brave. I then asked her if we could stay with the topic at hand. She agreed in spite of her fear.

I asked her if we could look at how we were co-creating the situation. I made sure to create a safe context (due to client’s tendency to feel as though she is to blame for things) by quickly bringing in the idea of circular causality. The trick here was to get her to see her part while ultimately acknowledging that it was my job to have spotted it, not hers. Or rather, that I had indeed become complacent by not bringing up my transference-counter-transference issues earlier so that we could have addressed them months months ago.

I told the client that over time I had grown tired of my interventions not landing. I explained that part of why I grew tired of this so fast is that I bring my own issues to the table that make me impatient to see that I am impacting people; that I have a compulsive need to know that I am helping. I explored with client how we had seemingly landed in a circular trap. I grew tired through my belief that my input was not landing and mistook it as me no l,onger having an impact on her; she began to realize she could avoid facing difficult things since my exhaustion kept me from challenging her. Her avoiding difficult things, in turn, made me tired and bored. And so on and so on (the circle can be entered into from any point as it is not a linear causality). The client agreed that this made sense. For good measure, I reminded the client that though we had co-created this dynamic, that it was my job to have looked at it and brought it up sooner but that I now realized I was being even more avoidant than she was being.

The client and I ended the session with a resolution that I would go back to reining things in; to doing a better job of controlling the flow of the session. She asked me to challenge her again. She asked me to even challenge her when it looked she was simply “speeding by” my feedback. I agreed to this as well.

I’m proud of myself for having turned something harmful into, hopefully, something helpful. But why did I wait so long? And to be clear, I’m not being hard on myself. I ask it from a place of curiosity. And the answer is both simple and complex. My abandonment issues find subtle ways of expressing themselves in my work. I sometimes fall into a fall sense of comfort because the work version of me really is far more grounded and confident than the outside-of-work me. But even so, my issues still sneak in there and impact the work. Furthermore, my burn out, which is no fault of the client, also made me grow tired and complacent. I wonder if I would have looked at my part in my boredom if the client had not challenged me. Of course, the client challenged me in part because of the work we have done. And I think that is the point of this whole entry–this work keeps you humble. Even as you appreciate yourself for the work you’re doing you’re reminded that it is easy to sleep-walk; to be complicit; to collude. The client and I were involved in a re-enactment. Together we saw or way out of it. But I don’t know that I could have done it without the courage she accessed in order to confront me about it.

Edit: And as if to prove my own point I just realized something I missed an opportunity in our interaction. Now that the client and I have made our dynamic explicit, the responsibility of naming it could be a shared responsibility. Though it is my job to create those opportunities, I need to ask the client if she is willing to make it a more collaborative process.

Blue In Green by Ram V & Anand RK

The story is practically mythological: the artist strikes a deal with the devil in exchange for greatness. This myth has a sibling: the artist who, by necessity, must suffer and cause suffering in order to create. A metaphysical toll that must be paid to the universe: a portion of one’s humanity for passage into genius. It would seem difficult to tell an old story in a way that is fresh. Of course, Ram V (These Savage Shores, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, Swamp Thing and others) is not your typical creator. In the world of comics he is establishing himself as a storyteller who must be read. And Blue In Green must be read.

Blue In Green touches on more than one theme. Yes, it is about the price that greatness demands, but it is also about family, music, trauma, and our fear of being alone and forgotten. Like many great works it defies genre. It flits with ease between horror, crime, drama and fantasy. And perhaps the most ambitious part of the book is the way it tries to create music out of words and images. It is, all at once, beautiful, horrific and haunting.

Erik Dieter is a once promising jazz musician who fell short of greatness. Erik believes he lacks that ineffable thing that can turn hard work into genius. He is haunted by both his past and his mediocrity (the latter being inexorably linked to the former within the context of his story). He teaches at a music school. He is lonely–disconnected from both himself and his family. He receives a call from his sister that his mother has died and he returns home. We learn that his sister has been caring for their mother for years and that Erik has never visited her during this time. Abstract and surreal flashbacks show that Erik’s memories of his mother are confusing faded and traumatic. Eric is haunted by a sense of meaninglessness.

The collaboration between writer and artist (Ram V and Anand RK) is exquisite. The light sneaking through the blinds is soft and contemplative. It exists in servitude to the shadow which reflects the darkness of Erik’s thoughts. The next three panels show sequential art at its best as we witness Erik’s mother changing from corpse to dust. In the last panel we see Erik’s face, haunted and frozen as he contemplates that he is–even while still alive–“a quantity of nothingness”. Words begin to drift outside of of their boxes (Aditya Bidikar is the letterer) and the handwriting gets messier. A sense of unease pervades. Something is beginning to fall apart.

That night Erik enters his mother’s study where a demon-like creature stands over a desk with scattered photos at his feet. He confronts Erik with just the right words to unsettle an artist whose worst fear is of being washed up and forgotten: “Do you play? Do you suffer for it?”


The cool detachment of Erik’s life is reflected in the blue and grey coloring (John Pearson is our colorist). The aggression and horror of the red threatens to overtake Erik. The slanted lettering adds to the malevolence.

Erik awakes the next morning wondering if it was all a dream. He encounters a photograph of a musician on his mother’s desk. He feels a connection to the photo, a pull to find out who the person is and how that person fit into his mother’s life. And so he embarks on an adventure through the old clubs that comprised New York’s jazz scene. Erik’s horrifying adventure will reveal something about his identity, his family and about how far he is willing to go for greatness.

Anand RK (artist) and John Pearson (colorist) deliver art that is gorgeous while also being unsteady, uncomfortable and chaotic. They are the horn players in this modern jazz piece.


Ram V’s writing is the steady rhythm section, keeping you anchored as the art (and Erik’s world) descend into horror and madness. He does a masterful job of creating a ghostly and disconnected man who is compelled–for better and worse–to search for greatness and meaning in the darkness.

Ram V is a creator in the world of comics and graphic novels who has been accruing both praise and awards in the past few years. Acclaim can as quickly forgotten as it can be created, but I am confident that Ram V’s voice will, like Alan Moore’s and Neil Gaiman’s before him, be remembered for decades to come. He brings to his creations humanity, intelligence, soulfulness and, let’s get down-to-earth: he’s a hell of a story teller who is unafraid to take the risks necessary to create impactful and original art.

Anand RK is a revelation to me. I can’t pick up Blue In Green without staring at the art (even when I’m not “reading” the book). I can only hope that I see his name continue to show up in the comics universe so that I can continue to gaze at his work.

I give Blue In Green lots of stars: like ten or eleven. Out of how many? Who cares? Pick it up and let me know what you think.

A familiar ache in my chest struggling to find relief in shallow breaths. Intermittent sighs—my little screams of desperation. Mind and body at war. Heart tells head that I am all alone. Head tells heart that this is not true.

I sit quietly at a restaurant table with two old friends. They ask one another about their children. In M’s responses I can feel his resentment at how hard he has to work to pay his family’s way. I can also hear the joy he gets at spending time with his sons. He avoids expressing the emotions directly, choosing instead to use humor or that’s-the-way-it-goes shrugs. I ache to hear him speak plainly: to hear him say that at times he wishes he could run away; to cry; to scream; and, finally, to hear him say he wouldn’t actually change a thing.

S. too speaks of the incessant financial burdens of having children. But rather than anger, in him I sense a loneliness that, for better and worse, is assuaged by his children. Outward expression of his real thoughts and emotions are blocked by a shrug similar to M’s.

The loneliness I already felt going into this dinner is amplified by their inability to own the deeper aspects of their experience. I realize that I’m code-switching: speaking their language; staying in the content of things. It also occurs to me that despite my best efforts to listen and respond, that I have not once been asked about myself. I cannot decide how I feel about this. A part of me yearns for the attention and another recoils at having to share using the code of old high school friendships, “Ah, you know—tired from work but okay”.

I do my best to stay engaged. Comments are directed at me that further “other” me for not having made a family. I judge myself a coward for not speaking up and claiming my space. Then it occurs to me that I’m not being cowardly, I’m being discerning. I am flooded by memories spanning thirty-five years—moments where I dared be sincere and was met by blank looks and the awkward changing of topics. It is wisdom not cowardice. Strangely, this realization brings me closer to them. I remain lonely but I think of how M shows his love by doing my taxes and doing me favors; how S, when he is alone with me, goes out of his emotional comfort zone by sharing some of his emotions.

I am filled with gratitude for M and S but also for the friends I made later. Friendships without taboo topics. No codes are necessary. You show up as you are. Were my object constancy better this realization might shatter the loneliness, instead it merely takes the edge off. Still, my inner-critic begins to doubt. “Well, it’s true—you don’t really know what it’s like to have kids. Maybe it’s your own fault you felt cast aside. Maybe it’s just your trauma.”

I get home. Comics. Bed. Sleep.

The next evening my phone chirps. It’s a text—a poem from E. In it he beautifully and soulfully shares the melancholy and profound meaning he derives from his role in his family. He invites me into his world; gives me the benefit of the doubt that I can understand. I am moved to cry at both his courage and the validation that the loneliness of the night before wasn’t all about me.

The World Of Black Hammer (aka a story of today’s depression)

Since I was a child, books and stories have always been there for me. At times they add joy to my life. At others they are like a life raft–the last line of defense between life and death. I much prefer the former but am grateful for the latter.

Jeff Lemire is my favorite creator in the comic book world. I don’t think he’s objectively the best–his prose is not as polished or sophisticated as Neil Gaiman’s or Alan Moore’s prose and his art-style is very divisive. Indeed, in his self-created titles his art is often criticized for looking rushed, unrealistic and unpolished. Lemire is my favorite because of the heart at the center of his work. His work is, to my mind, like music that is off-center and raw: music that insists on getting thoughts and feelings across despite its technical limitations. Indeed, the limitations somehow add to the experience because it requires more of the listener and/or the reader.

Lemire’s self-created independent graphic novels are these beautifully flawed masterpieces that tell stories about the sorts of people who are so frequently forgotten. Unremarkable people with unremarkable lives. The lonely. The grieving. The broken-hearted. The trapped. The dying. The abandoned. He finds the beauty in their lives and in their surroundings reminding us that there is beauty in even the bleakest of people, times and places

I love Black Hammer but it is not my favorite Jeff Lemire creation (it should be noted here that Lemire serves as the writer but not the artist on this). I choose it as my topic because it shows what Lemire can bring into a world that is not often associated with “heart” and “depth”: the world of superheroes.

Critics who praise the work point out that the world-building is superb. They are correct. They praise the self-awareness that Lemire brings to superhero tropes and the way he uses this awareness to bring warmth rather than cynical satire to the genre. They are right. The only issue I have with this praise (praise that even I have used) is that it speaks only to the choir. Who cares about world-building and self-awareness of superhero tropes if you’re not already a lover of superhero comics? How does this translate to a wider audience? To me the real genius of Black Hammer is the way Lemire subtly brings in elements of his small stories to a grandiose work about superheroes.

There is the martian superhero, Barbalien (yes the funny absurd names are ways of having fun with famous already–existing comic book characters from the big companies DC and Marvel). Barbalien saves lives. He saves worlds. Yawn! That is what superheroes do, right? But it is not his super powers that make him compelling; it is the fact that he is gay. Barbalien was ostracized and shunned on his planet of Mars. He comes to earth hoping to find acceptance only to be shunned again. His story arc is about rejection, alienation and loneliness. Barbalien is an alien regardless of where he chooses to live. But his courage is inspiring–the way he continues to try and create love regardless of what happens to him. His story arc is beautiful because it is about an individual who continues to try find acceptance within himself, undeterred by the lack of acceptance from others.

Randall Weird–a NASA astronaut that, by falling into the “Parazone” ends up seeing the pattern of all things past, present and future. My non-comic book reader rolls their eyes about the Parazone and the sci-fi space travel stuff. That’s okay because, once again, his superhero arc is far less important than his backstory and the burden he carries upon him. Bullied as a child (once again Lemire has fun with his name since he was indeed considered a “weirdo”) and misunderstood by his fellow heroes, Weird is a deeply lonely man. He utters abstract and nonsensical things because he can see what no others see. He is the perfect metaphor for the mentally ill; for the people we avoid because they make us feel uncomfortable. Lemire, however, allows us to see how burdensome it is for Weird to carry all of the knowledge he has. We watch Weird carry the weight of the world on his shoulders not because supervillains abound but because he sees the bigger picture. Weird flits between times and worlds often finding himself lost. He is misunderstood and called a coward because he often flees the traditional superhero-supervillain battle in order to deal with the greater cosmic issue that lie beneath the surface. He cares deeply for his fellow heroes even thought he is teased by them and ridiculed by them. He is…a beautiful, fragile and misunderstood man.

I will not go through every character. I have bored my reader enough. I wish merely to show how much depth Lemire can bring to a genre that often lacks it; a genre that has been watered down by countless movie adaptations and CGI effects. A genre that one could argue has become a sort of blight on society.

One might point out that Lemire is hardly the first creator to bring metaphor and depth into the comic book world. The X-Men, for example, are popular in part because they represent the outsider as well: the disabled, people of color, etc. But even the brilliant X-Men titles are held hostage by the fact that they are part of a sixty-year major label franchise that can only take so many risks before being wrangled in by the constraints of capitalism. Since Black Hammer is a self-created smaller label work Lemire can go to places that even the most brilliant writers of X-Men aren’t allowed to go.

I don’t know what the point of this essay was. You see earlier I was sitting on my couch, burdened by a numb depression. I read about Colonel Weird and I began to cry. I remembered how often Lemire’s work helps me cry; helps me feel something. And I realized that this gift he has means a lot to me. Even more than Grant Morrison’s mind-bending creative genius and Alan Moore’s harsh cynical brilliance and Neil Gaiman’s unprecedented epic world building. Lemire writes stories about me and for me. I don’t mean that to sound narcissistic. I mean, I know he’s not writing for ME, it is that it FEELS like he is. I didn’t expect to feel so much while reading this title. I expected to be entertained by a mildly intelligent and warm homage to the comic book world. And instead I found myself, once again, reading literature that kept me company and helped me feel seen. And the best thing of all is that when I am in a healthier state of mind then Colonel Weird and Barbalien and company make me laugh and smile because they are also fun and absurd and….well, they’re funny as hell too.

That’s it. That’s the genius. These characters who can make me laugh and cry and feel understood when I’m suicidal and bring joy when I’m happy and…these are people who have been brought into my life by Lemire. It’s not the first time and I doubt it will be the last.

So maybe what this is…maybe it’s my love letter to Jeff Lemire. Who knows, maybe I’ll print it out and give it to him if he ever does a signing in my area. On second thought, I don’t want him to think I’m some creepy stalker so…this will forever be the unsent love letter to Jeff Lemire.

I feel an intense sadness as I approach the end of The Sandman. No, it is more than sadness, it is grief. I wish to hold on for dear life to those characters. To that universe. To the stories. Stories that allowed me to travel through different ideas, emotions and worlds. I don’t know that life would have meaning if it didn’t end. I don’t know that books or stories would either. But that doesn’t change the fact that endings can hurt.

There is a heavy feeling in my chest. And yet I also feel there something harder to describe. What is it? I can only describe aspects of it: a sense of awe and wonder; a desire to share side-by-side with a desire to hide; the dread of resuming my life without Dream, Death, Delirium, Destruction, Destiny and Despair (that last bit reads rather absurdly given my status as a human being).

I discovered books and reading at a very early age. It is rather a miracle given that my grandparents spoke Spanish and that I was not read to. Families have their own stories—little mythologies. The story my grandparents told was that my desperate need to learn about dinosaurs somehow gave me the power to make sense of the words. I don’t know that this could possibly be true in any logical sense, but to quote Dream, “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes…” The fact is probably that I had some genetic talent for words (certainly not math!) and that my visiting relatives read just enough to me to help me cultivate that gift. But my family chose the story that will endure: the story of a lonely boy who needed so desperately to go off into other worlds that he willed himself to it. That one is sad and lovely and sweet and inspiring and, just as importantly, shared by others who found refuge in their imaginations. It helps explain things in a way that feels more meaningful. And that is part of what good stories do: help us make sense of ourselves and the human condition in ways that captivate.

The Sandman is a tale about tales. It was written for me and for anyone who understands how important stories are, even the ones that are never shared or written down. I feel like I’m about to lose something. And I’m not sure if I am writing with any purpose other than to put off the inevitable fact that this book I cherish so deeply is about to end.

And yet…it won’t will it? I will carry it within. Others will carry it as well. And the books will be borrowed and bought and shared and the stories will live on after I am gone. Saying that does not remove the grief, but it somehow puts it in a warmer place.

Gentefied (on Netflix)

As with most things I write in relation to the arts, this is not intended to be a review or a critique. Though I may be speaking as an adult, beneath it all there is a happy child who is asking the adult to express his joy for him. I will try not to fail him. However, I will also speak for the adult.

Gentefied is by no means a perfect show. It is, however, a show with so much heart that it moves me to that place where smiles and tears live together as friends. The show feels like home. It reminds me of my grandparents and my life growing up with them. It reminds me of how my Latinx clients (especially my Mexican or Mexican-American ones) and I slide between English and Spanish (“Spanglish” for “pochos”); how certain words are cozier or simply mean more in your first language (even if you’re comfortable with your second one). I did not grow up in a lower socio-economic neighborhood (that is one difference) but my extended family did, and weekend visits to them were the only vacations my family ever took (literally EVER took). Everything feels familiar.

There are so many ways to sum up a show, all of them imperfect. But I think one of the things that stands out for me is the way it focuses on how a Mexican family tries to survive a world in which they have no say in the rules–not even within their own community. They are put into a position where they have to adapt to survive but to adapt often means giving something up that they hold close to their hearts: an ideal; a value; a piece of their cultural identity. The taqueria at the center of the show works as the center piece for this. Their traditional Mexican food and their lower socio-economic clientele can’t cover the increasing rent prices as the neighborhood grows increasingly gentrified. It is not just the restaurant that is being threatened: it is their legacy, their values, the way the restaurant is a hub for the local community. What does one do with this? Turn the taqueria into a hipster fusion joint with higher prices? Maybe. But what does that mean for one’s identity? How would it make one feel to suddenly price out your friends and family and community? All of these are tied to a bigger question: What does it mean to be a “true Mexican” in this country? These are the nuanced questions the show deals with even if on the surface it seems like a cozy and simple show.

In terms of representation this might be the most important show that has ever been created about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans because it is not trauma-centered. Historically a show or film that has Mexicans at its center is going to focus on the brutality of their community, on crime or imprisonment–on how hard it is to stay on the “right path” in a world that disdains you. It is as though our pain is the only thing deemed interesting to the wider community. These stories are important. I have nothing against them. But it’s also important to see Mexicans represented like everyone else: decent folk doing their best with their day-to-day lives. The focus here isn’t on gangs or crime but rather on lovely but imperfect restaurant owners and artists and chefs and musicians, etc.

When the character Erik is first introduced, my own internalized racism arose: I thought he was going to fall into the role of the Mexican-American young adult who is respectful at home but is involved in shady shit on the side. He speaks with an edge. He has tattoos everywhere. Instead Erik ends up being a sensitive, intelligent kid who stayed out of trouble by staying close to family and becoming an avid reader. He ends up creating a reading library at the restaurant: a horrible business plan to be sure, but a heart expanding reminder that this hard-on-the-outside young man cares deeply about the children in his community. Chris is the character who is often teased for being “white-washed”–his dreams involve going to Paris to become a chef. He is more traditionally handsome. He is college-educated. He is the readiest to adapt and change–to eschew some of the traditional values for Americanized capitalist ones. But look closely and you will see his internal struggle: his awareness that he holds privilege over many of the other Mexicans in his life and how that puts him in a lonely limbo: teased by the Mexicans and rejected by the whites (this character most closely resembles my own experiences with my culture growing up). Then there’s Ana: the lesbian artist who is torn between staying true to her roots while realizing that the only way she might make a living is to be exploited by white hipsters who want to show their progressiveness through their investment in her. It is not just that the show is not trauma-centered, it is how matter-of-factly it shows these characters as they are. In other words, even their path to where they have ended up is not part of the narrative. These are not “the special Mexicans” that stayed out of trouble. They are an actual representation of MOST MEXICANS.

Just because the show is cozy in many ways does not mean that our community is presented in an idealized or perfect way. Issues like the homophobia and anti-blackness in the Mexican community are right there alongside the values that are beautiful. These are the ways that our community needs to evolve and grow, not to survive the majority culture, but to improve itself.

I promised I would speak for the kid and not just the adult. The kid feels relaxed. He pretends that the grandpa on the show is his grandpa. Because the show is not trauma focused it helps him remember the good things about his childhood and not all of the painful ones. It also gives him an opportunity to feel proud of his Mexican-ness (something he struggled with in his actual life), to look back with pride. The kid watches enraptured with his dinosaur toys alongside of him and a smile on his face.

If you are not Mexican or Mexican-American this show will probably not feel as cozy or speak to the kid in you. It may, however, show you the beautiful and challenging sides of Mexican culture. It may (I hope) give you an appreciation for it. It may, if you are honest with yourself, allow you to look at your internalized prejudices. But I also hope it allows you to identify with people different from you. One of the paradoxes of looking at our differences with an open heart is that it somehow brings us to a grounded sense of our commonalities (that paradox has proven true for me time and time again). I hope it forces you to look at what how the USA’s version of capitalism is broken and how the “American dream” is a load of bullshit.

Okay, I lied: this is a review. The kid in me gives his verdict: Yay!!!! There it is, this show gets a “yay”. What more do you need to watch it?

I wanted to do one half-way decent thing. Nothing that deserves a fucking medal or anything…just something that isn’t selfish. So I reached out to the woman I had been talking to from the dating site–the one I hadn’t reached back out to for the last two days. I know the last person had ditched her at a restaurant–had told her he was going to the restroom and then disappeared. I know this hurt her. I was feeling heavy and guilty about my inability to reach out but was scared to tell someone I had just met that I’m broken as all fuck.

I decided to tell her this morning. I made it clear that my (over)share(?) was not so that she would help me, it was because I wanted her to know that I was in a bad depression and that when I started speaking to her I thought I had turned a corner but I was now afraid I had not. I told her I knew that seeing me involved her getting a babysitter and I didn’t want to put her out since I was likely to cancel. I told her that I was not ditching her, that I could barely speak to anyone in my own life and that it had nothing to do with her. I didn’t expect a response. I just hoped she could let it in that none of it was her fault. It may not be my job to heal her insecurities but it seemed a decent thing not to contribute to them. Then she responded:

Hi X. Thank you so much for thinking of my feelings and reaching out, you have no idea how appreciated that is. And don’t worry about oversharing. It would be no more oversharing for you to say you were sick in bed with the flu. I struggle with depression too. So I do understand. I’m still here if you want to start talking again. *heart emoji*

I’m not sure if we’ll speak again. But it felt nice that two relative strangers were considerate and sweet about the feelings of the other. It felt nice to be reminded that there are others out there who don’t see depression as a plague. I want to feel better so badly. I hope it’s enough that I could do one thing that made me feel slightly less ashamed.