Recently I went to see an excellent movie: Manchester By the Sea. Here are some thoughts I have about how I would work with Lee.
As a provider of clients who experience intense, severe, and painful emotions; Lee really does fit the bill. General questions that I might consider asking include: What would it take to reduce pain, survive loss, and manage or cope in a way that made things better? What would help Lee feel less stuck? What resources or connections could sustain him better, enable him to bear the weight of his pain, or enhance his quality of life? What could him grieve more fully and to get through this crisis? What is he doing that is working, and what is he doing that is not working? Could he be more likable to himself, sustain the burden or his guilt, or have more fulfilling relationships?
One agenda item I have is getting Lee to stop doing things that could potentially make his current situation worse. Often times I have clients who have severe emotional pain and it is so intense and unbearable that they are looking for any distraction to take away the pain. The distractions sometimes have a short-term effect of feeling better, which makes them hard to stop. However, in most cases these distractions can make problems worse- and are not effective long-term strategies to mitigate the severity of what they feel.
So one treatment agenda is to reduce risk taking or crisis-generating behavior. Specifically, Lee tends to get drunk, pick fights, and throw punches. The natural consequences for this behavior can result in serious injury, concussions, brain damage, head injuries, broken jaw, soreness, swelling, or other various medical trauma. Drinking heavily can result in poor decision-making, hangovers, dehydration, and liver damage. Other natural consequences of his behavior include legal problems, court dates, jail time, being seen as a threat in the community, increased relationship conflict, and isolation. Grabbing the gun of an officer might result in unintended harm to other people. Not only would Lee have the current dilemma of living with the intense and painful losses he has suffered, but he would have to address the above consequences in addition to everything he has already gone through.
Some people actually believe Lee’s behavior is justified. They would say that because he is in unbearable pain, he should be able to act the way he does. Or he should be let “off the hook” because his behavior is understandable. I would encourage those people to consider: Would you recommend your closest confident or best friend- who is deeply hurting- do something that could result in head trauma? Liver disease? Incarceration?
Another “justification” for Lee’s behavior is that he has significant guilt and self-hatred and he is trying to punish himself. After all, the law did not punish him enough! What would be an effective punishment, and how long does he need to punish himself for his actions? Are self-inflicted/ high-risk behaviors actually effective in making him feel less guilty? What if a police officer was shot by accident? What type of effective repair work needs to be done? What lifestyle habits could he change to prevent bad things from happening in the future? What would he need to do to redeem himself in the community? And what would it take for members in the community to find forgiveness, employ him, or tolerate him being around?
How would treatment move Lee towards growth, movement, and decreased pain? There are several ways to approach this- the key being a sensitivity and flexibility to what Lee would be able to handle at the time he seeks help. One is a baseline ability to talk about what happened. As he pieces together his story, there may be parts that are difficult to talk about. Avoiding these topics might show up in the form of escaping, not talking about it, dissociating, becoming numb, becoming argumentative, keeping one’s distance, staying detached, avoiding intimate relationships, leaving, drinking, or even picking more fights. The difficulty is that there are multiple reminders (or stimuli) that will show up throughout his life that he may not be able to avoid. These may include:
- Conversations about young children
- Seeing a house fire in the news
- Talking to his ex, Randi
- Seeing Randi’s newborn
- Getting news that young children die or are dying
- Randi saying “I love you”
For instance, what if he is watching the evening news and suddenly there is coverage about a house fire? What if Lee has a building tenant who loses a child to death, and Lee is present when the tenant tries to discuss it with him? What if Randi tries to contact him again or “shows up” in an unexpected manner? Maybe Lee can try to avoid these situations in the short term, but inevitably life, reminders of life, and young children are the life that surrounds us.
Therapy would work on staying present with emotional discomfort when these topics come up; and doing so in the presence of one or more people. That means not attacking, hiding, or getting drunk. It means being willing to experience grief, pain, discomfort, or tears. It means staying in a conversation and having a willingness to tolerate the stuff that seems unbearable. The more Lee does to avoid it, the worse it is going to get.
Healing results when a person’s grief can be managed, survived, and tolerated. Healing is about experiencing, talking about, and coming to terms with what happened in the presence of others. Healing happens when people can forgive themselves and each other and can make changes to prevent bad things from happening in the future.
Healing doesn’t happen when a person is literally “stuck” in blocking out all things reminding them of pain, and lives a life where they are blind and deaf to such triggers; avoiding any stimulus in real life that will inevitably show up at some point.
Healing doesn’t happen when emotions literally control lives, and people can’t engage a full, meaningful, rich, and productive life as a result. Healing doesn’t happen when there is no compassion for self or others, when there is no forgiveness, and when there are no second chances.