The modern-day Ophelia I’m writing about does not resemble Shakespeare’s Ophelia biographically. She was not raised by an intrusive and overbearing single father. She was not socially isolated in a Danish castle. Her boyfriends have been remote but constant, nothing like the viciously treacherous Hamlet. And she has stronger survival skills; she’s built a life for herself over the last half-century. However, what she does share with Ophelia is the same emotional wound. She simply cannot imagine that she matters. Her images of herself are of someone on the outside looking in and the only way she can get invited to the party is if she comes as a server. She is terrified of being unmasked as a fraud because deep down she just can’t accept that she has any value.
If you were to meet Hayley, you would have no idea that she suffers from such excruciating inner agony. She appears to be (and actually is, but she can’t see it) an extraordinarily bright, receptive, soulful woman. Her personal charm and social agility serve as a lovely camouflage. She had to learn to adapt to a variety of environments because everywhere else felt safer than home, and she desperately sought safety.
Her mother was the product of brutal parenting. Her father (Hayley’s grandfather) was a religious man, affiliated with a very conservative branch of his creed. He beat her mother often because she never did anything right enough. Hayley’s mother developed a ferocious temper, and as she couldn’t fight back against her father, she took a lifetime of stifled rage out on her baby daughter. Her mother’s tantrums made no sense to the child, so Hayley internalized that she must be the problem. And more than that, she must be a very bad person. The pain of living with this monster child inside of her was unbearable. To ease the pain and make her little life bearable, she cleverly (and unconsciously) developed the persona of a martyr. To endure the parental abuse (both physical and emotional) and her own inner abuser, she learned to stay very small but not collapse under the heavyweight of the cross that had attached itself to her tiny spine. As a young adult the martyrdom played itself out through all of her relationships whether they were romantic, platonic, or career-focused; she could help everyone but herself.
And then one day she began to listen to the softly insistent tremor of a different inner voice. This voice questioned the martyr’s path. This voice began to express a sense of disquiet and anguish, and then even a little bit of anger. (But the anger was too terrifying so that melted into tears and depression.) She awakened to the reality that although she had many friends on the peripheral edges of her life, she didn’t share intimacy with any of them and she was desperately lonely. Hayley also saw that all of the romances in her life had repeated the same emotional patterns; an invisible divide consistently separated her from her partner. None of her boyfriends had been capable of being entirely present with her; there was always someone or something more important than her in the relationship. Since it kept happening, she had to look at her part in these pseudo-involvements. She acknowledged that she fed the behavior, but couldn’t (yet) understand why. So she decided to try dating someone altogether new and different.
First, she took a class on dating. Then she held her breath and set up an online profile. Her first responses were discouraging; so bad that even she could see that any hope for a relationship was futile at best. One in particular really scared her; his profile and photo were astonishingly like her father's. When she recovered from the nausea of that near-miss she discovered Sam.
He was attractive, well educated, employed, and far removed from her comfortable social sphere. He appeared to be a fresh new experience for her. She and Sam texted and eventually began having telephone conversations. Their talks were long and interesting. She was clearly intrigued. They set up a date to meet each other. He canceled a few hours before the scheduled rendezvous claiming he was suddenly ill. However, he seemed to be fine the next day. She was suspicious. But you never know, so she gave him another chance and they set up another date. He canceled this one a few hours before their agreed-upon meeting time saying he’d forgotten he had to take his daughter to the dentist (at 6 pm she questioned?). As she is telling me all of this, she is also telling me how clear she is being with him. When he apologizes and worries that she is angry with him, she tells him she’s not angry. “How can I be angry?” She says to me. “He’s not real. We haven’t met, so he’s not real and how can I be angry with something that isn’t real?”
“I’m disappointed,” she tells him, “and I don’t like you wasting my time, but I’m not angry.” His response is to become quite contrite, nearly frothing at the mouth with mea culpas. Next, he doesn’t call when he says he’s going to call and she puts her foot down: no more, this is it, goodbye. He becomes slightly indignant saying “wait a minute, there must be some misunderstanding, I’m sorry, I’m not good at texting.” So they arrange another date. She’s very embarrassed to admit that she’s giving him another chance. I say “it seems like you need to play it out, and at this point, aren’t you curious to actually meet him, see who he is?” This time he cancels with a long text message (remember, he claims to be a non-texter) that says he’s seeing someone else and this online dating is too confusing for him. She responds, via text as she now refuses to speak to him on the phone (he’s too charming and she wants action, not words, so she texts). She begins by asserting that she will not be disrespected and gives him a list of the ways she’s been disrespected and exactly what she will not tolerate. (The problem is that everything she says she won’t tolerate, she is in fact tolerating.) She tells me that what she really wants from him is an apology. We talk about this; who she would actually like the apology to be from, how she’ll probably never get it from her mother, etc.
I’m listening to this narrative unfold, (which has been going on for several weeks) but not only listening, I’m getting drawn into the plot so deeply that I don’t notice my counter-transference clouding every thought and word coming out of my mouth. When she told me of the third canceled date, I assumed she’d finally had enough and had severed ties. I was just about to congratulate her for being firm and standing up for herself; good for you, three strikes and you’re out! But before I spoke, I saw her face and knew there was more. She had made another date. They were meeting at a restaurant across the street right after our session. She reasoned that “if he doesn’t show up at least I’ll have a nice dinner. And he’s confirmed several times today and I’m curious to meet him and I want an apology.” I tried to conceal my disappointment and disapproval but the cover-up was pretty lame. I said “ok, well let’s look at what we know about him, we know he’s a liar” (I felt a nasty tug in my gut when I said that, but didn’t listen) “and we know he likes to grovel. So try and be conscious of what’s going on inside of you and what you really want.” We talked some more. As she was leaving I said, (I cringe as I admit this) “I’m sorry, I’m being terribly irreverent, but the Sex Shoppe is just down the street if you want to pick up some dominatrix gear” (referring to his penchant for groveling). She laughed and jokingly said, “I charge extra for that.” I told her to have the evening she needed to have. I now see that during the session I was unconsciously playing the role of her disapproving mother. I might as well have been rolling my eyes in contempt as she spoke to me.
Next session she came in upset ostensibly over an incident at work. She was more distressed than I’d seen her in quite some time. As we talked about it, I found myself trying to censor all of the platitudes that were dancing around my brain in response to her pain. I was listening but not connecting to her litany of the injustices a mature woman faces in today’s workplace. (Something I have experienced and should be able to relate to.) It just didn’t feel like that was what this pain was really about. After that conversation exhausted itself I asked about the date. I’d been waiting for it to come from her, but it hadn’t, so I took the initiative. She said it went well. As she continued to talk she suddenly collapsed mid-sentence and was flooded with tears. Between the sobs and gulps for air, she said that she was so ashamed that she gave him so many chances and felt pathetic. My stomach turned in on itself as my heart broke and I said “I did that, I’m so sorry.” When she was able to speak we talked about the shame. She said she felt that all of her friends think she’s stupid for the way she was handling Sam’s inconsiderate behavior; giving him so many chances, not standing up for herself, not giving him the boot. Because she has spent her entire life trying to never look stupid, this was especially tender for her. Hayley’s embarrassment was excruciatingly painful, it filled the room. We acknowledged the shame and tried to work with it; give it an image, locate it in her body, talk to it, accept as much of it as we could. (By the way, this is very difficult, very intense work. The shame was not a willing participant. Hayley was extraordinarily courageous.) Then, under her breath, almost as an aside, she mumbled that she was mad at me. I gently asked about her anger with me. She said, “when you said he was a liar, it really offended me, I would never date a liar.” I apologized again and said “I was wrong, we don’t know if he’s a liar. I’m so sorry. That was my own stuff.”
During the week that followed this session, I was miserable. I would like to say that I carried her shame, but in truth, I felt the depths of my own shame. I felt tremendously stupid. I was terrified that I had screwed up so badly that I had destroyed our relationship; a relationship that had taken years to build. I was sure she would terminate. I was chastising myself for liking her as a person too much and losing my therapeutic perspective. I felt I had let her down horribly; basically failed her and myself.
When she came in the next week she thanked me for the last session. She thanked me for the apology. She talked about finally understanding what if felt like to get something viscerally, not just in her head. This was a colossal shift for her. We have spent countless hours trying to connect her brilliant mind to her vibrant body and soul (as Whitman wrote in I Sing the Body Electric: “And if the body does not do as much as the soul /And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”)
Her lightning intelligence allowed her to understand concepts; she was generally quick to respond with clever and “right” answers. She easily wandered into a world of descriptive words and knowledgeable phrases. Her understanding was authentic, but it stopped in her head. An example of this is the way she could very clearly articulate to Sam how she would not be disrespected, as she was simultaneously engaging with his disrespectful behavior. Her brain understood, but she could not live or embody her mind’s awareness. There was a severe blockage somewhere around her neck. She wasn’t able to feel her response or get a visceral understanding. The separation felt like it was made of ancient rusted iron chains that we could not penetrate. The apology became the magic words that oiled the links and opened the drawbridge.
I realized then what had been enacted in the previous session. I was the brutish mother who finally admitted that I was wrong, acknowledged that I had hurt her. Words she would never hear from her mother, yet needed to experience for her personal healing. Clearly, the events that led to my apology were nowhere near as ghastly as what she had suffered as a child at the hands of her mother. But the emotions were the same. She had felt as vulnerable, powerless, and overwhelmed with shame as she had when she was five. The difference was that this time she was actually heard and seen, and she mattered. Her emotions were honored, not dismissed. Sadly, Ophelia did not live long enough to have a similar experience.
I now see how important my anguish was to her healing. An apology has to mean something; the wounded needs to feel that the wounder has suffered. The injured needs to know that she does in fact matter on a very visceral, intensely emotional level. I’ve had clients tell me that they wish they could go through the breakup alongside their partner, just to make sure that he/she was suffering, writhing in as much pain, as they were. At the end of the day, I think it’s about mattering. We need to know that we have substance; that we matter and truly deserve to be alive. We deserve the space we are taking upon earth. For some, such as Ophelia, that is nearly impossible to believe. And for some, the way to counter the disbelief is through profoundly emotional contact. For others, imagination can build the connective tissue.
We had done years of work with imagination, images, drawing, dreams. Perhaps that work allowed us to fall into the abyss of emotional chaos and stumble upon the magic words; I’m so very sorry.