Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Life Cycle

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 17, 2015

Carey, fifty-three, male, was sharing his recent life events with me, catching me up, so to speak, as I have not seen him in a few years. His eighty-six year old father passed away, after a long and chronic journey of debilitating heart disease. He has been to many weddings of his friend’s children, and most recently, he attended a baby naming for the baby girl born to his niece. Of all these events, he said, “the most meaningful, by far, was the death of my father.” The weddings, the baby namings, the marking of life events, “it is hard to know” he says, just how important they are to him, but marking the death of his father, to him, felt meaningful and significant.

I am curious about the meanings, the way he integrates these life cycle events into his mental framework. From what I have gathered initially, I understand him to be saying that sometimes he phones it in, and sometimes he draws from the gathering a certain strength and gratitude for the people who showed up. However, he continues to explain to me the “politics” of these various gatherings. There are those who speak to each other, and those who do not. There are those who used to be very close, but after some bad blood, they barely tolerate one another. There are those who had bad blood, but act as if nothing happened, and yet, there was no repair ever attempted. There are warm feelings and there are cold feelings.

For Carey, a sensitive person, he feels all of it, leading to him feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. And yet, he struggles with the gratitude he feels around the support with regards to  his dad’s death. He does not want to shun community, but at the same time, he feels the lack of authenticity and the pain that often looms large during these “festivities”. He struggles with the opposing pushes and pulls of joining versus holing up. “It is hard for you to experience the group dynamics without letting the challenges penetrate your insides,” I say, helping him to understand his temptation to withdraw, to have a psychic retreat, as John Steiner would say. “On the other hand” I say, “when you do sense authenticity and genuine concern, then you are grateful that you did not withdraw, so that you could feel the human compassion of another.” highlighting this dialectic. “Yes, ” that is right Carey says, crying as he thinks about the pain, the long history with people, and the subsequent disappointments, along with the deep tenacity and concern in some of these relationships. “It is hard for me to maintain equilibrium,” he says, suggesting that he feels all of these contradictions at the same time, causing him both gratitude and despair. “At the moment, I am feeling more despair than gratitude. I don’t know why, but I am. I just want to cry.” Carey says with uncharacteristic emotion, and deep feeling, bringing tears to my eyes. “And so despair dominates right now,” I echo. “The sands are shifting, but I understand where you are right now,” I say, reminding Carey of the dynamics of feelings, which parallels the dynamics of life.

2 Responses to “Life Cycle”

  1. Shelly said

    I want to know Carey. In general, men are afraid to show their feelings and be sensitive. I don’t know that many guys who care enough to process hurt and the pain of conflict of inter-relationships. I like the idea of a “psychic retreat” which you mention in this piece. I think we need to practice more of these little “breaks” from the pain of our daily relationships which cause us angst. Some of my most difficult and family conflicts were indeed handled by “psychic retreats” and they were wonderful and restorative. I do understand that Carey can’t possibly live that way on a long-term basis, but for a short while, such breaks are very helpful to get away from overwhelming family dynamics filled with pain and angst.

    • Yes, Winnicott talks about the capacity to be alone, as a way of taking care of oneself. Licking the wounds, as animals do, is sometimes essential to move forward. Psychotherapy sometimes provides an opportunity to retreat, in the presence of another, given that the other, the therapist, has no particular agenda. The retreat provides for healing and reflection. As for Carey being male, yes, on average, men tend to not tune into psychodynamics, and in general, feel less pain when they are around painful relationships, but since this is “on average” there are many men who break the stereotype. Thanks.

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