The marathon of our working lives can take a huge physical and emotional toll. We can easily seduce ourselves into believing that once we retire we will be much happier without the constant wear and tear on our aging minds and bodies. Sounds logical doesn’t it? Well, as many of us have learned about a whole host of relationships, whether it’s with a parent, child, or love interest, we don’t know what we will be missing until it is gone forever.
I will paint the picture of a retiree’s rude awakening to illustrate how unanticipated realities can be successfully managed despite the initial trauma of feeling blindsided by them. It’s never too late to teach an aging dog new tricks especially if the “proverbial dog” is not a dog at all but a sentient being. This story of personal growth and behavioral change is a composite portrait of many former patients of mine. I have employed this storytelling technique to offer you food for thought in concentrated form. This way I can also guarantee the privacy and confidentiality of former patients.
As will be illustrated by the case study to follow, if we can achieve one degree of separation from what’s happening inside of us and learn to observe and relate to ourselves like curious scientists, a whole new world of possibilities can reveal themselves in the spaces created. As quantum mechanical laws verify, when we observe the contents of our experience one degree removed from these objects, not only do our perspectives change about these objects but the nature of these objects are changed by our observing energies. What may be learned and extremely toxic obstacles to personal happiness entering retirement can shrink bathed in the light of curious, non-judgmental, and reflective self-observation. These are a few bedrock principles that inform my work with patients. Personal growth and change is in no small measure predicated on suspending our disbelief that we can turn straw into gold.
Composite case in point: Joe retired afflicted by what I will call a caboose mentality. No, this is not a clinical diagnosis but, it does describe what it means for many of us to grow up to accept that movements in our lives are dictated by the pushes and pulls of others. The movements dictated by Joe’s parents early in life were dictated in adulthood by his very accommodating bosses, and by his more reticent yet capitulating wife, Rita. Cabooses don’t have engines and therefore, do not run under their own power. If a caboose was personified it would do everything it could to ensure that whomever was directing it did not disconnect from his needs to be directed because of his fear of being stranded on some desolate piece of track. Joe did his darn best to make this self-defeating yet, pivotal mindset a reality validated by those he depended on the most. Joe was so anxious over expectations that he be his own locomotive that he fiercely resisted and distrusted efforts by others to respect and consider his right of self-determination. As I learned later about Joe, if this mindset was the basket he put all his eggs in then, he wasn’t interested in knowing its limitations.
Unfortunately, Joe often operated on automatic pilot. He was emotionally frozen in time; alternately identified with ways his parents regarded and related to him early in life, and how his parents behaved and saw the world. Like everyone else lacking one degree of separation from these identifications it is as if Joe was as blind to how he was repeating the past as we are blind to what is right in front of us with our faces pressed flush against a pane of glass. Also, without that one degree of separation we don’t have the operating space to change perspectives and positions. If you’ve ever had to stand inside a New York subway car at rush hour you understand what it’s like to have your body pinned by other bodies.
The passion, inspiration, confidence, and ambition that drive many of us was an engine compartment Joe discovered with alarm in retirement, that lacked an engine. As a building superintendent for decades Joe was a dutiful and conscientious servant of others and enjoyed his long yet productive days. Joe liked the fact that he was never bored and never at a loss as to what to do as he fielded service requests from the moment he arrived at work until the moment he left; when dead tired he went home feeling he had earned the right to rest. Joe was happy at least he seemed to be as long as the residents of his high rise building were happy with him. Whatever bothered him that he feared looking at was easily wiped out of consciousness by a quick cigarette. Sometimes his buried irritations with the stress at work were triggered and reflexively hurled at his wife Rita when she asked Joe to help out with the dinner clean up. For the most part however, Joe would go home and Rita was more than happy to cater to his passive wishes to be cared for. On the weekends, Rita delegated tasks to Joe and when the tasks were completed, she encouraged him to play a round a golf which he appreciatively took her up on when prodded. Joe told me that he had been content with his life and retirement had not been on his radar screen
Unfortunately, in life change is a constant and all good things come to an end at some point in time. For Joe this watershed event happened about 5 years prior to his eventual retirement date. Life at work became an unfolding nightmare for him. The job he once loved he progressively learned to hate, and the hate ate up his loving feelings. An economic downturn resulted in cuts in the building management’s service budget which in turn resulted in the downsizing of his maintenance staff. Joe’s workload swelled beyond what he could reasonably handle moving at his customary 100 miles per hour. His tenants became impatient and frustrated, and his employer was rather insensitive to his plight. The message was in no uncertain terms: “These are our new expectations, deal with them!” Joe became stressed out, suffered from angina pains, felt devalued and feared being fired as if it would have been a catastrophic event. Joe had some shadowy awareness that if he was forced out of his job he and Rita would manage quite well on his pension combined with her income and yet, Joe was seized by a state of panic that swallowed up his sound reasoning and judgment like rip tides can drown unsuspecting swimmers. Joe could not separate how he felt about himself from how his manager and residents unfairly and unreasonably blamed him for their frustrations and disappointments.
In a perfect world people in glass houses would not throw stones. In the real world they often do. What they can’t tolerate most about themselves they will not tolerate any better in others. Now, Joe came home and blamed Rita for his frustrations and disappointments at work. Joe, “the caboose” could ill afford to alienate his wife whom he depended on to structure and organize his life outside of work and whom he would depend on even more if he retired. So, when Rita put her foot down and said it’s time to retire Joe gave his management company one month’s notice. During this period of transition Rita helped Joe paint an appealing picture of retirement. Anything as Rita pointed out would be heaven compared to the living hell that had become Joe’s daily existence. With increasing frequency, Rita’s existence as well had become a living hell when Joe arrived home from work. Rita looked and sounded like she was relating to Joe but, in truth she employed wishful thinking motivated partly by her concern for her husband’s health and welfare. In equal measure Rita’s words were motivated by her unwillingness to take on Joe’s problems at work on top of her own. Joe could not and would not argue with Rita’s vision of his retirement. He hoped to do many things he had talked about but, did not have the time or energy to do while he worked. He longed to garden, do volunteer work, play more golf and travel. Still Joe was nagged by an amorphous apprehension about the future. Something inside of him knew that he was as prepared to handle his retirement as he was equipped at 65 to be inducted into the army and handle boot camp. But, this inner voice was a faint whisper and not a credible one as of yet. This is how Joe described the years leading up to his retirement when Rita told him in no uncertain terms it was time to retire. Joe was in my office only a few short months after his wife called me in desperation.
Joe came into treatment being run ragged by forces at work inside of himself that he could not resist. He felt like a rag doll in a wind tunnel. As we learned there was a rhyme and a reason for how he discharged these distressing and poorly understood energies through action. But for now Joe was clueless. He could not sit long enough to think about what was going on inside of him. Worse yet, he felt guilty to imagine taking the time to think about what would serve his needs. Without space and the ability to observe himself he was at the mercy of an inner life that shaped a static reality and dictated his every movement. Joe was in essence running from a self that felt as helpless, frightened and overwhelmed as a child who in a crowded department loses track of his mother’s whereabouts. He was in no way equipped to think about and remember that he was re-living associations to experiences he went through or feared going through earlier life. He had spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully fending off these experiences. Joe was quite pained by and understandably anxious in retirement feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities for a self he regarded as rather useless, worthless and out of his control. The beginning of his golden years became a seamless continuation of the end of his working years. Instead of his boss and his clients running him ragged now Joe took on their identities and was doing it to himself. This time the source of his angst was his own interminable “things to do” list that he compiled on the fly.
Like a heart and lung machine assumes cardiopulmonary functions for patients until they can restore their own capacities to manage these duties, I assumed the duties of container and observer of what was going on inside of Joe until he was willing and able to take on these responsibilities for himself. What Joe was able to separate himself from, observe and reinterpret over the course of 15 months were mindsets instilled in him by parents who unwittingly used him as a container for what they needed to disown and disavow. Consequently the boundaries were erased and everyone was confused as to where his parents ended and Joe began. Until Joe entered treatment he had never once thought to question that his mother’s unrelenting need to tell him what to do early in life was not the result of demonstrated and processed evidence of his incapacity to learn to be self-directed and self-sufficient. By reconstructing history through the lens of Joe’s observed recollections that we used like a super slow motion video recorder, space was created to reveal new perspectives on history. Joe realized that his mother’s responses to him were likewise driven by inner forces she did not understand, control very well or see accurately for what they were. Without conscious awareness of her motivations Joe’s mother did not realize that she treated Joe as she wished her mother had treated her. Joe’s mother, had very much been left to her own devices prematurely as a child and it became very clear as we contained, observed and processed Joe’s recollections of his youth, she had never given up on what she had missed out on but was too late for her to expect from anyone. Instead, she tried to give to Joe without recognizing that the opposite of what she received; an infantilizing mother was no better suited for Joe’s needs than a mother like her own who rushed her out of the nest. As long as Joe did not claim authority over his own life, Joe’s mother would not be forced to reclaim her desires projected onto Joe and perhaps, finally face her own forestalled grief. When Joe married Rita Joe’s mother was still vying now along with Rita for who was best equipped to tell Joe how to run his life. As Joe’s story unfolded itself we learned that Joe’s father was equally instrumental in writing this narrative of the boy who became a caboose.
Joe’s father was a traditional provider. He worked to earn money to provide for his family’s needs. Joe’s father treated his son’s needs and dreams as he treated his own; as if they did not exist. To make matters worse he reacted with rage when Joe was playing and kept his father waiting. This happened even when Joe did not hear his father because he was so engrossed in play. Joe’s father reacted automatically as if Joe had disrespected him. Joe was often yelled at by his father and recalled feeling very guilty, worth less and frightened in the wake of his father’s temporary loss of regard for him. Worse yet, Joe was confused because his mother, who never scolded him for getting lost in his play, was silent when his father yelled at him. She too related to her husband like a caboose to his locomotive. She would not challenge his authority either. Now Joe felt worthless to both parents. He felt uncared for and useless in his own right as he learned to distrust and devalue his own perceptions. Joe would apologize reflexively to his father and the presumed damage to his father’s love was repaired by Joe completing whatever chore his father assigned to him. The coup de grace to Joe’s identity as a center of initiative and action was that Joe’s father demanded his son’s respect at the expense of his own self-respect. Joe’s sense of self was molded by a father quick to interpret any acts on Joe’s part that displeased him as disrespectful. Joe learned through our work together that his father was dependent on Joe’s obedience because he did not respect himself. Joe’s father was unaware that he was paradoxically both envious and angry at his son for not having to surrender the protective maternal cocoon, and equally desirous too ensure that Joe not grow up. Joe’s father had not forgiven his parents for thrusting him prematurely out of the nest, and had not forgiven himself for still wanting to return to it. Meanwhile, he wished to live vicariously through Joe’s protracted childhood and saw any autonomous behaviors on Joe’s part as unappreciative of his indulgences and a justification to blame his son for the grievances he still harbored toward his own parents.
In therapy over time it became clear to Joe that this notion he was a “caboose” was a case of mistaken identity. Joe learned to recognize and neutralize his automatic tendencies to blur the boundaries between past and present and become confused over who Joe was as a child and who he was capable of being as an adult, despite sometimes feeling like a helpless child. When Joe became stuck in a time tunnel of unconscious recollections he would confuse Rita or myself with his recollected mother and father. To help Joe free himself from these obsolete and paralyzing identifications I taught Joe meditative techniques and self-talk strategies. These tools returned him to and anchored him in the present moment, and neutralized the impact of his emotional time warps that wracked him with self-doubts over trusting and valuing himself to direct his life. Testing the realities of these archaic obsolete, self-limiting, and self-defeating mindsets became easier for Joe. He began to use his retirement in satisfying and meaningful ways. The better Joe treated himself the more deserving he felt of such treatment. His new self-confidence, fueled by a self-image consistent with his actions, created a self- fulfilling prophecy of well being.