The Mask by Linda B. Sherby, Ph.D., ABPP
Elaine, burying her head in her hands, begins sobbing as soon as she sits down. Struggling to speak she says, “Baxter has cancer. That’s why he hasn’t been eating. I may have to put him down. I can’t believe I’m carrying on like this! I didn’t even shed a tear when my grandparents died.”
Sadness floods me as I feel for both Elaine and myself, thinking immediately of Pippin, the regal black and white cat my late husband and I adopted shortly after we moved to Florida. Putting her down two years after my husband’s death was beyond painful. “I’m so sorry, Elaine, I know how attached you are to Baxter, how much he’s meant to you.”
“And this is supposed to be good? Feeling like a wreck, feeling like my heart will break?” she says sarcastically.
I know what Elaine is referring to. I remember when she first walked into my office four years ago. Although attractive with tasteful make-up, Elaine looked like a doll, her face mask-like. Her mother died when she was three, her father when she was seven. She lived with her step-mother until their conflicts became unbearable, then moved to her paternal grandparents, who saw her as an unavoidable inconvenience. Listening to Elaine’s story I felt overwhelmed by sadness, while Elaine seemed devoid of feeling.
Elaine came into therapy because she couldn’t maintain a relationship. She had no difficulty finding men but the relationships never lasted. The men said she was unconnected, unavailable, that there was no passion. Sex wasn’t the problem, it was something else, but she didn’t know what. I suspected I knew. It’s impossible to connect to a doll. Our job would be getting behind the mask. It wouldn’t be easy. She had spent years fending off the pain of all her losses. The mask would have to be peeled off slowly.
“I have no memory of my mother or my father,” she told me. “Just pictures I’ve seen and what my step-mother was willing to tell me, which wasn’t much since she preferred not to talk to me. Of course my grandparents didn’t like to talk to me much either. Besides, they were old, they didn’t want to be reminded of their son’s death. I can imagine that would be painful for them.”
“And you don’t think it would be painful for a three year old, for a six year old?”
“I can’t feel what I can’t remember.”
Finding Elaine’s memories would be crucial to her growth.
While we focused mostly on Elaine’s difficulties with relationships in both her personal and professional life, over the years I asked questions about the past: “Do you remember your first day of school? Who took you? Do you have an image of the house you lived in with your father? Do you remember moving from your step-mother’s to your grandparent’s? Did you have to change schools? Leave friends?”
One session when Elaine came in she looked different. There was a crack in the mask. “I had a dream,” she began. “There was a child standing in an empty field. She was holding someone’s hand, a man’s. They were looking down. When I woke up I felt incredibly sad. I didn’t think the child was me. But then I wondered if it was me with my father standing at my mother’s grave. Could I possibly remember that? I was only three.”
“Let’s stay with your feeling, Elaine,” I say softly. “What is it like to feel that sadness? What does it bring up for you?”
“I don’t know,” she says starting to cry. “I guess I’m sad for that little girl. Standing by her mother’s grave, not knowing that in three more years her father will be dead too. It’s really awful. I guess I never thought of it like that. I guess I never thought about it at all.”
“You didn’t want to think of it, Elaine. You didn’t want to deal with your pent up sadness. But today you’ve taken a big step forward.”
Two years separates the session of Elaine’s dream and her telling me she might need to put down Baxter.
Returning to the present session I say, “I know you’re feeling tremendous pain, Elaine, not only for your beloved Baxter, but for all the losses you’ve endured in your life.”
She sobs. “Please tell me this pain is worth it.”
“It’s worth it, Elaine. If you can’t allow yourself to feel your sadness, you can’t feel joy either and, most importantly, you can’t be truly alive.”