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Book Excerpt: Weightlessness Part 2

The following is an excerpt from Theaters of Trauma, the acclaimed book by Dr. Richard Raubolt.  All rights reserved.  Part 1 of this piece is here.

The real work of Ceely’s therapy could now begin in earnest: writing her own life story without the lies, distortion and misrepresentations she had heard about herself for so many years.

Over the next two years we explored the relationship Ceely had with her mother. With my encouragement she returned again and again to the scenes that were first devoid of personal memory, but slowly with each retelling more of her own emotion emerged. What was originally seen as help and guidance from her mother she now experienced as cruel, humiliating, dangerous and traumatic. Ceely had trouble understanding the full extent of the pervasive on-going traumas of her pre-adolescent and adolescent years. Still caught in a web of shame about her weight she could relapse into spirited, if brittle, defense of her mother.

When we seemingly hit an impasse and her weight began to increase, even while in therapy, I offered Ceely an interpretation that served as a turning point.

In a measured, calm but firm voice I said: “Ceely, you are desperately trying to hold on to a past that never existed. You continue to protect the myth of a caring, loving mother but your own body betrays the lie. Your weight increased then, as it does now, in silent protest against your mother’s exploitation. What you can’t say, even think for very long, your body reveals. You were and still are in a fierce battle where you will not give into your mother’s tyranny. No matter how extensive the violence, your body would not give in or be defeated. You have been fighting the only way you know how, and that is with food.”

Ceely glared silently at me for a moment. Then pounding her fists on the same arms of the chair that she used for support, she screamed: “Damn her, damn her to hell!” Once this rage erupted, she was on fire with burning images, stories, accusations and memories. No longer silent, she grew hard and defiant. As she found verbal expression for her feelings, her weight began to slowly edge downward, although my focus was never to direct her weight loss.

Ceely was talking, allowing herself to dream of a future, standing up for herself with confidence and in doing so her depression was lifting. She also stopped obligatory visits with her mother, since criticism of her weight continued, unabated by the years. For many years before I ever met her, Ceely had been on anti-depressant medication. She now wanted to discontinue the medication and I agreed that it was time to revisit the issue with her psychiatrist. Ceely, however, made the decision on as her own and following advice on the Internet and from friends with nursing experience, she began to taper off the medication. Then a point came where her anxiety grew, and she agreed to schedule a medication review. Ceely met with her psychiatrist and a few days later, in our session, I realized it did not go well.

The session began with Ceely saying: “This is what I worried about all along but trusted you. You led me to believe that what my mother did to me was bad and that I didn’t deserve what had happened to me. You told me my anger was a healthy response to my mother’s actions. Now, I find you were wrong.”

I was stunned. What, I wondered, happened to so drastically alter Ceely’s perception of me and our work together?

I did not have to wait long as she continued: “My psychiatrist told me I was having trouble going off the medication because I still needed it. He said I would continue to need it until I forgave my mother. He told me you were wrong and the anger I feel is just another symptom of the depression.”

Upon hearing what was said to Ceely, I admit I was feeling anything but forgiving toward this physician. I took a few deep breaths to regulate my outrage at the intrusiveness of this man, so I could more effectively address Ceely.

After a pause, I said: “Forgiveness is a complicated and confusing process. There are many factors to consider and since the subject has been broached, we would do well to explore them. Let me say this to begin. I don’t believe someone can be ordered to forgive, nor do I believe forgiveness is a valid indicator of emotional health. Since I have told you what I thought before, as you point out, I will again be honest. The rabbis of old have a saying: ‘Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end up being indifferent to the innocent.’ I believe the conduct of your psychiatrist suggests there is truth in this saying.”

Ceely reacted by asking: “Are you saying that he was indifferent to me?”

I answered simply: “Yes. He offered you a simplistic self-righteous judgment that undermined confidence in yourself, me and this process of therapy. You went there for his medical opinion about medication and you were instead greeted with a morality lesson that implied condemnation.”

After a few minutes of silence, Ceely said: “We have a lot to talk about.”

Yes, we did and the talking continues. In the back and forth, we discovered many lessons together, with so much more still to learn. We came to believe that forgiveness is a decision and is most authentic when it is carefully thought through and recognized as existing along side of conflicting emotions. Forgiveness is not about forgetting or allowing for abrogation of responsibility for acts of cruelty or violence. Even without her mother’s atonement, Ceely could mitigate her mother’s influence by refusing to condone her behaviors, accept blame for them or continue to reside in the shame that was instilled. Forgiveness is also not about squelching ambiguity, ambivalence, anger, hurt or even the desire for justice.

We recognized it could be necessary, at times, not to forgive if forgiveness means passive surrender for the sake of acceptance or forgiveness in order to avoid conflict at the cost of self-respect or capacity for self-defense. Anger can provide healthy protection against being victimized. Such anger becomes damaging only if it is frozen as bitterness or resentment that precludes developing a responsive, emotionally fulfilling life. Someday, Ceely may forgive her mother, with or without her apology, but that is her call to make. The success of such an intimate process as therapy must never hang on only one measure.