The first patient was in great emotional distress and the only one present at that moment, so I was giving him my undivided attention. I’ve known him for some time, and I see, behind the blustering and sometimes unlovely thoughts, the little boy who was terrified as a child, becoming the man who is pretty much terrified all the time.
He was really on a roll this time, and pulling in all kinds of events that supported his world view: he’s a good guy and people always betray him – or he is sure/is afraid they will always betray him. He’s pretty much equal opportunity about this; unfortunately his comments on one incident were racist – and that’s when the next patient walked in. Walked in, felt the charged energy, heard the racist remark and walked out.
My first patient knew this man had come and left (though not why), and in the middle of all the other stories he was telling me, he kept asking about the second. There were only a few things I could think of to say in response. I could tell what I thought was the truth and say the second had left because he wasn’t feeling the safety he’d come to expect because of the comments of the first, and add to his fear – and guilt. Or I could say (as I did, several times) ‘I don’t know’, which didn’t work at all. All the work we’d been doing to calm him down was going out the window.
Or I could make something up. So I said I’d text the second, make sure he was ok, did that, and then told the first that the second had gotten a call he needed to take. I let the second know I said that, figuring I’d also be handing him an alibi if he needed an excuse the next time they met.
A few days later, the second man came in and told me ‘We need to talk’. He said I had told a lie that was attached to him, and he didn’t like it. At all. He was angry, and he wanted me to know why.
What could I say? He was right. I had lied. Good intentions and all that, but I had lied. I honestly couldn’t understand why that was upsetting, but when I tried to dig deeper, he wasn’t having it. He was, I think, feeling betrayed, but I couldn’t discern if that was so and it was because I had lied – or because I hadn’t confronted and named those racist comments. Or because of something else entirely.
I was… astonished. At first I didn’t even know what he was talking about. He kept talking about The Lie I’d told. My mind was jumping around to things like ‘…but don’t you want to know the context?’ ‘I can’t tell you the whole context without violating confidentiality.’ ‘If you knew the context, you’d understand, and you wouldn’t be mad at me.’ ‘I want to explain; it’s important that you understand my point of view, too.’ I sort of fumbled around in my head, but the only thing I could come up with was ‘You’re right. I lied’. In the end, that was pretty much what I said, as well as ‘I’m sorry’ – which was also confused, because I knew that’s what he wanted/needed to hear, but I wasn’t sorry, really. I wasn’t not sorry, either, but I didn’t understand why he thought that lie was wrong.
Now, I am not at all good at lying. If I try to lie, I live in constant fear of being found out, and being hassled in some way. I’ve gotten better at small lies over time, because that seems to smooth out social interactions. Which seems … wrong somehow. Maybe. Possibly. But I’ve spent too many years with no filter between what I think and what comes out my mouth to not value watching what I say. Sometimes I fumble, which I had clearly done here.
The second man was telling me there were other things I could have said, which was true – especially in hind sight. The fact, though, is I didn’t say them. I lied instead.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since it happened, and I expect I’ll continue to do so. I’d like to share with you what I’ve figured out so far.
- The really good news is that I didn’t get defensive, nor did I try (very hard) to cover my ass. I got that I’d done something to upset the second patient a lot, but I didn’t choose to feel backed into a corner. I had messed up – all unintentionally, and yet still I messed up. I didn’t get it, but clearly I had offended this man. And I had lied. So I messed up, I lied, I offended someone. This is on my mind, and, while I didn’t react with clarity, I also didn’t get defnsive.
- I had, right in front of me, an example of what happens when someone has been knocked off balance, feels strongly about it, tries to figure out what to do about it, and takes time to do that. Taking time is good, because we’re less likely to do and say hurtful, hateful things. It’s tricky, though, because it can narrow the vision, letting us see only one side and not other possibilities, confirm our world view (whatever that is) and increase the need to do something about it. Sometimes waiting strengthens the anger or pain, and the urgent need to do something to make it feel better. Sometimes waiting allows us to see that in the whole of life, this incident just isn’t that important. That’s a pretty liberating idea, and a hard one to grasp.
- I really don’t like the ‘I need to tell you…/you need to know…’ thinking. It’s very narrow and centered on self. It’s not conflict resolution. It’s a kind of bullying. It also tends to block all possible answers to the question ‘What do I want to get out of telling you this?’ Most of the time, all unconsciously, we are thinking ‘If I tell someone how angry I am because they fucked up and hurt my feelings, they will admit they are wrong and say they are sorry and I will feel better’. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen, because the person who hurt us can get defensive and/or get tangled in wanting to tell their side of the story – which, oddly enough, is not at all satisfying to us, the injured. ‘I need to tell you…/you need to know’ is all about me. You are not part of the equation because you are the aggressor and I am… the victim.
- 20/20 hindsight is amazing. Because I was forced to go back over the incident, I could come up with a few dozen other things I could have said. I had a lot of help from the second patient. Was that useful? In some ways, yes, in that I had new ideas should I ever experience this again. In other ways not, because now I didn’t only feel like I had hurt someone I liked and had a responsibility to, but I also felt inept and like a failure because I hadn’t done the right thing. I choose to accept the former, but not the latter. If I accepted the latter, I would feel bullied, I would feel like a victim.
- Perhaps the most important thing I got was this: I am a healer. When I am working with someone, it is important to me to do all I can so that my patient knows that I am in his or her corner. I recognize that there is a lot of grey here. A lot. There I things that I hear that I don’t agree with, some things that I feel pretty strongly about. And my opinions and feelings have no place in the treatment because this isn’t about me. It’s about the patient. In this case, I felt I was caught between two conflicting needs. I think I did well by the first patient, not so well by the second because my need to explain, to justify my actions got in the way. When I said I was sorry I meant I was sorry I had hurt him, but not sorry for what I did. That muddied intention just added confusion. It wasn’t as clear as it feels now, so it didn’t feel authentic. I failed him, because I wasn’t fully in his corner. I was a lot in mine.
There may be a resolution to this (I hope so), but it’s not required. One thing I have finally learned, though my grasp on it is slippery sometimes, is life is not a series of discrete events. It’s movement and flow. Each ‘event’ is like a drop in a river, infinite possibilities within and from it, all moving and changing. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get snagged by an event, and then we need to discern how best to resume the flow. Do we step up? Do we wait? Do we find another way from the infinite possibilities? Whatever choice we make, the idea is to return to the flow. We don’t want to ever get stuck in that snag for long.