Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Many Grandfathers

   I never knew my biological Grandfathers.  Both were deceased before I came along.  So my knowledge of them is thin.  I know that I grew up on what was my paternal Grandfather’s farm.  When my Grandfather died, my father inherited the farm.  My father wanted to live their and raise children on the homestead.  However, my mother was resistive.  Eventually she agreed, but put two stipulations to moving their.  First, my father was to keep his job at Kodak and never be a farmer.  Second, their children were never allowed to be farmers.  It ended up that my mother became the ‘gentleman farmer.’
   My maternal grandfather died from leukemia soon after World War II.    I have always felt a strong connection to him.   I understand from my Grandmother that he was a grump.  That’s all I know about my Grandfathers.  I also know that I missed knowing them.  
   The result has been that all my life I have captured grandfathers.  I substituted teachers, mentors and friendly advisors for the biological grandparents I never had.  This has been a blessing to me both professionally and personally.  My mentors have taught me about life.  They taught me about people and their motivations.  They taught me how to be a father, husband and a man.  My career has been blessed by having incredible guidance and supervision.  I have had mentors that have loved me and I have had mentors who never knew my name.  
   My most important professional mentor was Carl Whitaker.  Carl Whitaker, M.D. has been called the “grandfather of family therapy.”  He was my teacher, my mentor and my friend.  His style of therapy fit perfectly with my personality.  For ten years we met with Carl via a speaker phone.  Initially, we talked to him strictly about family therapy.  Over time we talked to him about families, babies, marriage and life.  At least once a year, he would come to Connecticut and we’d have lunch.  He once told me that when he did a session with my brother and I after our mother died, I captured him as a foster grandfather.    
   He never minced words.  Sometimes he was loving, sometimes he was tough.  But being yelled at by Carl Whitaker is one experience I never will forget.  Over the course of the decade, it happened twice.  Both times it took me days to recover.  
   The first instance happened when I presented a family with an adolescent schizophrenic boy.  Carl had great reverence for schizophrenic patients.  He understood their pain.  During the presentation, I made the comment that the inappropriate behavior of the schizophrenic son interfered with my therapy.  
   Carl stopped me abruptly.  His voice was filled with anger.  “The schizophrenic never says anything inappropriate.  Just because you’re too stupid to understand it, doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate.”  He meant to chastize me and he succeeded.  I felt terrible.  It took me a few days to recover from his comment.  
   The second time his comment was even more harsh.  We were talking about a family with an elderly Grandmother.  The grandmother had a huge influence on the family and she seemed to be exercising it negatively.  It is our practice to insist that the family bring in all the relevant pieces of the puzzle.  However, the idea of grandmother attending the session had met with huge resistance by the family.  Their most powerful excuse was that Grandmother had a bad heart, and she might not be able to withstand the emotional turmoil of family therapy.
   This seemed to me to be a good reason to exclude her.  “Carl, shouldn’t we respect the family’s fear of overloading the grandmother’s heart.  There is a risk that if grandmother was to come in and be overwhelmed by the discussion, she could have a heart attack and we’d feel responsible.” It was an innocent enough comment.
   Carl was direct.  His tone was stern.  “Listen William, this is a life and death business, and if you can’t handle it, get the fuck out.”  
   Wow!  I felt as if I had been slapped.  Carl was questioning whether I had what it takes to be a psychotherapist.   It took me days to think this through.  I finally realized that he must have great respect for me that he felt he could be that tough.  I concluded that he trusted my confidence enough that he felt he could push me like this.  
   Psychotherapy is a life and death business.  If you are in this business long enough, you will lose patients.  But that is no excuse to avoid doing the work that is necessary.  The families we work with have a right to expect that we are tough enough to handle these risks.  If I am not strong enough to deal with life and death issues, I should be in another profession.  Yet, you never forget when your grandfather yells at you.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Drinking and Crying

One of the lessons I learned about alcohol, I learned at a young age.  On Friday evenings, my parents would occasionally entertain.  In order to maximum their time with guests, I was taught how to make drinks.  Nothing fancy, I assure you.  I will say, I made a great whiskey sour, which was my Dad’s favorite drink.  
In our living room, we had a baby grand piano made by Lester.  It was beautiful, had great tone and deserved better than my brother and I.  I’m afraid our abilites at piano were suspect.  The only reason I can remember the make of the piano is that I spent years sitting there.  I hated practicing.  It was torture practicing scales.  However, we both took lessons at Eastman School of Music in the preparatory department, if that counts for anything.  
My parents had close friends, Bill and June.  June had been a nightclub singer and Bill had been a pianist in a club.  They were both on their second marriage.  I believe Bill had some deep sadness from the loss of his first marriage.  They were both incredibly great people.  I admired them and they were wonderful to me.  
They were frequent guests on Friday nights.  There were always laughs and jokes and great conversation.  I was privy to most of this because I made a great whiskey sour.  Bill would often sit down at the piano and play beautiful music.  It was like he was in a club.  He would drink and play and it was vastly entertaining.  Sometimes June would sing with him.  
As the night rolled on, Bill would get drunker.  This did not inhibit his music; however it did affect his mood.  As time went on, he would start crying.  It happened every week.  He would play and drink and get sadder and sadder.  Every week he would cry.  No matter how much he cried, there were just as many tears the following week.  I realized that crying when your drinking doesn’t count.  Bill’s crying while drinking didn’t decrease his sadness.  
Many of my clients that drink tell me that they cry.  When I inquire, I find that they only cry when they are drinking.  Letting out the hurt is vital to remaining in recovery.  Yet, I am convinced that crying when you are drinking doesn’t count.