Caroline* contacted me seeking support for her 9 yr. old son Jacob* related to Caroline divorcing Jacobs father a year ago. I remember their initial appointment exceptionally well because there was a random torrential downpour of rain – so my two new clients looked like they swam through a river to get to my office for therapy. Jacob, drenched to the bone, was all smiles, almost glowing. As a small pool of water accumulated near his feet, he engaged me in delightful 9 yr. old conversation (my favorite kind) and was able to tell me about his life at home and school – even what he was going to be for Halloween. He eloquently verbalized how he felt about his parents and what it was like trading off weekends at different houses. His confidence never wavered – and neither did that smile.
Caroline was a stark contrast compared to her son– and that has always stuck with me too. Caroline looked weighed down not from the rain, but from the world. Everything from the lackluster light in her eyes to her posture and voice made it evident she was carrying her fair share of mental and emotional weights, hidden by professional/mom/life responsibilities.
She asked to see me alone next session to provide me with more background information regarding what Jacob was going through. I agreed and we met for a second session. As session progressed Caroline reviewed the horrific details of a painful divorce and a long drawn out custody battle with her ex-husband. Caroline explained that her marriage dissolved after multiple extra-marital affairs on her ex-husband’s part and many attempts to reconcile on hers. We were nearing the end of our time when I gently reminded Caroline session was ending and that we would need to continue another day. She went to get her purse from the waiting room and Jacob returned with her. As Caroline took care of her payment, Jacob smiled at me and said, “Thank you for seeing us today.” I smiled and laughed slightly as I replied “You’re Welcome”. What a polite kid – I thought to myself, he didn’t even realize these sessions are supposed to focus on him yet mom took up all his time today…..
In actuality – Jacob was wise beyond his 9 years and I was just late in catching on.
Caroline came in for a third session, and once I closed the door she burst in to tears. She said she was incredibly worried about Jacob. She said his lack of emotion regarding her ex-husbands inconsistent visitation schedule, no-shows during back to school night and appointments were incredibly troubling. Not to mention Jacob’s lack of reaction to her ex’s new girlfriend and her toddler daughter. Caroline described that no matter how many times Jacob’s father showed up late or rescheduled a visitation Jacob ran with excitement and glee in to his father’s arms. I inquired about Jacob’s behavior returning from time spent with his dad (poking around for the more obvious signs of behavior changes, disruptions in sleep, difficulty transitioning). Caroline replied that this was EXACTLY the problem. Every time Jacob came home – he was happy. He gave her a big hug and kiss, put his overnight bag away and would go in to his room and play or ask what was for dinner – and Caroline believed it was all a front because how could her son be so happy after spending time with such a MONSTER! Caroline purged her disbelief all over my terry cloth sofa – disbelief that her son could truly be okay and happy. In fact Caroline was convinced that Jacob’s hidden contempt for his father had created a wedge between them – in her eyes her sons “denial” was the elephant in the room and she was scared if she didn’t continue to tip toe around it- her son would just completely fall apart one day when he realized the truth about his father!!!
… Cue Jacob (unbelievable timing ) knocks on my office door.
Jacob walks in to the room and hands his mother her phone, “Mom – Dad said he’s going to be late because Tibby has to go to the doctor for a bad ear infection. I text him back no problem and he can pick me up at Nanas since we are going there after”. He kisses Caroline on the cheek, turns around and walks back out – closing the door behind him.
Caroline’s eyes began to well up with tears. They silently flow down her cheeks and neck, dripping on to the phone clutched in her hand, knuckles almost white. She presses her lips tightly together and then covers her eyes and shakes her head. We sit like this for a couple minutes and then Caroline begins to laugh – the laughs are intermingled with sobs and then more tears.
She wipes her face with a Kleenex and looks up at me, “I’m the Elephant” she says.
I smile, and begin to feel a wave of emotion hit me as well. She smiles and shakes her head back and forth. “The elephant in the room is me. It drives me nuts that after everything my ex has done, my son still loves him. No matter how many times my son is disappointed, his love remains unwavering. All along I’ve been waiting for my son to break down and show this hidden hatred for his father, but in reality I’ve jus been creating those feelings in me. Jacob is going to be fine….. Jacob….IS fine.”
I get up and give Caroline a giant hug. (Therapists love to debate how to appropriately integrate touch in to their practice while maintaining boundaries and professional safety – well this was a text book no brainer for me). Caroline walked out to the waiting room to get her purse and returned with wise beyond his years Jacob. Caroline scooped Jacob on her lap and gave him raspberries on his neck while she rummaged through her purse for her wallet.
Jacob let out a big laugh and looked up at his mother – almost in disbelief. He searched her face and discovered something he obviously hadn’t seen in a while. He flashed be a big grin as they left my office.
Caroline saw me individually for several more therapy sessions and then occasionally for maintenance therapy. I never saw Jacob again. Every time I reflect on Caroline and Jacob a smile creeps across my face.
Sometimes our clients do not need us to identify the “elephant” in the room.
Sometimes we just need to provide the room, the space, the holding – and let our clients do the rest.