“False accusations threatening your future dreams. Confronting the devil in your bedroom. A long-term relationship ending in heartbreak. A complete stranger intending you harm. You’ve had some pretty intense situations in your life,” Greg assessed, leaning back in his chair, “but you’ve also had some pretty extraordinary interventions.”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” I humored his evaluation. Glancing around the room, I eyed his framed certificates with their fancy fonts, along with an array of high honors and outstanding medical achievements.
“What would you call it?” he probed.
I stood and stretched my legs, walking to the closest wall. “Life as I know it.” I stared at Greg’s awards and drank in their prestigious accolades—as if doing so would legitimize him being a safe confidant. “I don’t know why I keep getting out of bed in the morning,” I admitted. “Guess that’s why I’m here. I don’t exactly know what normal looks like any more.”
“And what do you think it should look like?” Greg prompted. He tilted his head and watched as I wiped a thin layer of dust from the corner of his diploma.
“I don’t know, but this isn’t it.” Making my way back to the couch, I plopped down on the worn cushions and let out an exasperated sigh.
“Would you be surprised to learn there is no such thing as normal?” Greg proffered. I raised an eyebrow, yet, otherwise, remained unresponsive. Greg ignored my facial theatrics and continued. “We all live in a slightly different reality because of how we interpret the world around us; and though we often don’t get to choose the circumstances that take place within our inner circle, we do have control over our attitude and how it shapes us.” He spoke with a confidence I wished I could match. “You’re the only one who gets to decide what’s allowed under your skin. It’s really that simple.”
“Easier said than done,” I countered.
“Hey, I said, ‘simple,’ not ‘easy.’ There is a difference,” he grinned.
“If you say so,” I smiled. Lacing my fingers together, I placed my hands in my lap. “I would love to hear how I’m supposed to move forward. Right now, I can barely breathe. Every time I do, something goes wrong. I’m starting to get a complex.” I shifted slightly in my seat.
“For starters, you need to understand we all make decisions based on personal truths,” Greg addressed the root of my problem. “Your truths appear to have been tainted by a long list of hurts and many years of pain. That can make evaluating any situation difficult.”
I pressed my lips against my knuckles and focused on his credibility for a moment. “That makes sense, I guess.”
“What makes your situation more complex is that you’re still looking at life through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl—a young woman who was manipulated into believing she was a horrible human being who didn’t deserve better than what she got.” He made eye contact as I allowed his words to sink in. “Any of this sound familiar?”
“Our perceptions are filtered through a lens I like to call Life,” he elaborated. “All our perceptions—whether good or bad—determine how we understand our future encounters and how we weigh our beliefs against those truths.”
“That’s deep,” I smirked, trying to relieve some of the awkwardness in the room.
“Maybe, but do you want to know what else I think?” Greg waited for my reply.
“Sure, why not?” I relented.
“I think you’re afraid to make decisions that will allow you to be happy. In the battle to gain control of who you are and who you want to be, you’ve been giving away the very thing you’ve been fighting to attain.”
Even though intrigued, I looked at Greg, disbelieving. “I’m not choosing to be depressed,” I rebutted. “Nobody chooses to feel like this.”
Greg ignored my hostility as he answered. “Control is not an outside force. It’s a choice.”
Wide eyed and somewhat offended, my voice changed pitch. “Are you kidding me? I am not choosing to feel anxious and overwhelmed, nor is it my desire to live under the covers, afraid of life. That’s absurd! I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thing.” My brow furrowed.
Greg remained calm. “By not choosing to be happy, you’re allowing outside circumstances to have the final say,” he continued. “That’s also a good way of making sure you remain stuck. Nothing traps us in the moment longer than when we relinquish our power to outside forces.” Greg seemed to know something I didn’t, so I listened. “Let me ask you something. When was the last time you made a decision regarding something big in your life?”
“Big?” I echoed.
“Yes. It can be anything,” Greg expounded. “When was the last time you were the one giving the final word?”
I thought a long moment then shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve learned to just go with the flow. I don’t like Brad being upset with me, so I do whatever is most convenient for him. That’s how I keep peace in our family.”
“Were you always like that?” Greg wondered.
“Like what? A peacemaker?” I clarified.
“One could call it that, or you could consider it being overly submissive or afraid of voicing your own opinion.” He watched as I wrestled with his words.
I shook my head, solid with my answer. “No. I used to be very expressive—and outspoken. I didn’t care what others thought. I’d share my beliefs and desires, whether or not others agreed. Nothing held me back. I was quite vocal.”
“So, why don’t you do that now?” Greg implored.
I released a deep sigh. “I just told you. I like keeping the peace.”
“What you’re telling me doesn’t sound very peaceful. It sounds like you’re afraid to make decisions. Why is that?”
I sat a moment until a mental lightbulb came on. “Because I’m afraid of making the wrong ones.” The words came out slowly. Profound.
“Mmmm.” Greg stroked his chin. “So, if you never make a decision, then no one can accuse you of making a mistake. Am I correct? No responsibility means no blame.”
“Well….” I searched for a better explanation, but I couldn’t find one.
“It’s the truth, though, isn’t it? You’re giving up control because you’re afraid of the outcome. No one likes failure.”
Emotion welled up in my eyes, and I bit down on my lower lip. Strangely, you make sense. “I’ve never measured up; so, at some point, I guess I stopped trying. I’ve taken the easy way out,” I admitted.
Greg continued fishing for details. “Who were you trying to please? Your parents? Your teachers? Your pastor?”
“All of them, I suppose, but mainly my dad.”
Greg didn’t waste words. “So, did your dad ever tell you he was disappointed in you—that you weren’t good enough for him?” Greg watched as I shook my head.
“Not exactly. I just knew.”
“How?” he nudged.
“I don’t know. Guess it was just a feeling.” I picked at my thumbnails, avoiding eye contact. “It was like that gut feeling you get when something isn’t right.”
Greg didn’t miss a beat. “Well, feelings can be deceiving. They often are. That’s why you can’t base facts on something that’s constantly changing. If you do, false information will guide important decisions, and who knows where you’ll end up.”
“That makes sense.”
Greg continued. “I’m curious. Did your dad ever come out and actually say, ‘Hope, you’re not meeting my expectations’?”
I shook my head. “No. Actually, he said just the opposite—like ‘I believe in you’ and ‘I think you’re really smart.’ But I didn’t believe him.”
I chuckled. “Another feeling. It didn’t sound authentic. Maybe it was his actions or a perceived attitude, but something made me feel like he was just saying what I wanted to hear, not how he really felt.”
“I hear you, but consider this. If we choose not to take people at face value, we’ll spend the rest of our lives second-guessing everything about our existence. Can you see the flaw in that?” I averted my eyes, trying to hide my pain. “You can’t predict a person’s motives, and you’re not responsible for their deception; so, if someone’s not telling you the truth, that’s on them, not you.”
A tear trickled down my cheek. “I don’t have the luxury of not following my instincts. I can’t make a mistake.”
“Why not? You’re human just like the rest of us,” Greg challenged. “What’s the worst thing that would happen if you weren’t perfect?”
“Other than having people think badly of me?” I scrunched my forehead.
“That’s one example,” he nodded. “Got any others?”
“Isn’t one enough?” I could feel the furrows in my brow deepen.
“Maybe, but is that the best ya got? Come on,” he chided. “You can to do better than that. I can think of several things worse than what someone might or might not think of me. Take dying, for instance.” His eyes locked with mine.
“Yeah, well, if you upset the wrong people, you could end up dead,” I agreed. “That’s a very real thing, ya know?” Irritation dripped from my words, a mental picture of Colleen and Buddy flashing through my mind.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Greg perked up. “So, you’re afraid of dying.” The words came out as an observation, not a question.
“No, that’s not it at all,” I rejected his claim. “I just want my problems to go away. I want to crawl into bed, close my eyes, and never wake up. That’s not the same thing.” I glanced up to find Greg studying my face. “Don’t worry. I’m not suicidal. I’m just tired—no, actually, I’m exhausted. I wish God would come and take me in my sleep, then I wouldn’t have to deal with all of this craziness.” I crossed my arms and pouted.
“Oh! So, you’re afraid of living.” Greg amended his statement, equally as confident with his second observation as with his first. “Everyone has problems. That’s part of life.”
I let out a sharp sigh, shaking my head. “Not like mine.”
Greg’s mocking stare stopped me from saying more. “You don’t think anyone else has ever been lied to, lost a friend, or had their heart broken?” His tone meant business, but his eyes displayed sorrow. “I’m not judging you. Anger and fear are both very real emotions—and a very real part of life. People deal with them all the time. It’s those who don’t that end up where you are. Stuck. Overwhelmed.” He let the sentiment stew a moment.
“But, I didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to me,” I verbally pushed back. “It’s not unreasonable for me to want my childhood back. I want to remember what it feels like to be kid—when I used to be happy—when everything about life didn’t hurt.” Tears started streaming down my cheeks. “But I can’t have my childhood back. My innocence is gone—it was taken. Colleen stole everything that was important to me, and no one even held her accountable.” Deep remorse spilled out uncensored. “I wish I had never met her!”
Greg leaned over and plucked a couple tissues from the box on his desk and handed them to me. “That’s what I call a ‘should have.’”
I smeared the tissue across my cheeks and dabbed at the remaining wetness near my eyes. “A what?” I shot Greg a leery glance.
“A ‘should have,’” Greg smiled. “She ‘should have’ never lied about me. I ‘should have’ been treated with respect. I ‘should have’ had the opportunity to fight for his love. See where I’m going with this?” Greg’s knowledge intrigued me in spite of the growing knot in my stomach. I offered a reserved nod.
“‘Should have’ is one of the most deadly combination of words in the English language when it comes to a person’s self-esteem,” he continued. “The reason is pretty obvious when you stop and think about it. ‘Should haves’ tangle us up in rehashing past wrongs, and happiness takes its fair beating when we’re focused on ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys.’”
“If only?” I remained puzzled.
“Uh-huh. I would be happy with my life ‘if only’ my husband understood me. I would have a positive relationship with my father ‘if only’ he would apologize for our misunderstandings. And let’s not forget the ‘what ifs.’ ‘What if’ I had said ‘don’t leave,’ would he have chosen to stay? ‘What if’ I had never accepted the babysitting job, would my life be any different than what it is today? That kind of thinking keeps us living in the past. It not only immobilizes us with regret, it also prevents us from seeing ourselves enjoying a positive future.”
Tears resurfaced as the reality of Greg’s words hit home.
“Hope, you can’t stay where you are and be happy at the same time, so I’m going to encourage you to choose to let go of your excuses and leave the negative mindset behind. What’s happened has happened. You can’t change it, but you can choose to forgive yourself—and those you feel have wronged you. That’s how you find freedom to move on. That decision is yours. You get to choose.”
I inhaled deeply, releasing a controlled sigh. “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” I sniffed back tears.
“Then, we have a start.” Greg looked at the clock, noting the time. “Let’s pick up here at our next session, all right?”
I nodded, scooping up my purse and placing it on my lap.
“One more thing,” Greg caused me to pause. “During this next week, I want you to think of ways your life has been normal. Focus on the good things you have going for you. Journal it, craft it, write a song about it. Just do something so you can see it. Make it tangible.” The corners of his mouth turned into a smile. “Then I want you to spend a few moments thinking of things you feel can be improved on. When you come back, we’ll look over your list and discuss what needs to happen to help bring about some of those positive changes. Sound like a plan?”
I nodded again and returned his smile. “I’ll do that.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The week passed quickly, and I soon found myself sitting, once again, in Greg’s office. “So, how did your week go?” He shut the door behind me and took a seat at his desk. I found my way to the couch and sat down.
“I did a lot of journaling,” I smiled. “Introspection is as far as I got, though. No musical numbers or broadway hits, I’m afraid.” Seeing his reaction, my smile spread.
“Funny,” he laughed. “So, how are things going at home?”
“With Brad?” I mused.
“Well, life’s been predictable.”
“Oh? Predictable, how?”
“Well, Brad’s behavior goes in cycles,” I expounded. “His fixations rotate through our lives roughly every six months, so I’m kind of used to it.” I tilted my head and released the pressure in my neck, listening to it pop before leaning back against the couch.
“Oh?” Interest toyed with Greg’s voice.
“His most recent fascination is poker, which includes hanging out with his buddies. He’s always trying to invent new ways to outsmart the system. You know, like that MIT movie—21, I think?”
Greg nodded, like he had seen the flick. “Are you referring to card counting?”
“Yeah, that,” I nodded. “Anything for a quick buck!” I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “His obsessions never last long, though. Give it a few months, and he’ll be on to the next thing.”
“OK, I think I get it,” Greg acknowledged. “You’re saying his unpredictable behavior is actually somewhat predictable, because of the cycles he goes through; so in some ways, that gives you comfort. It’s at least a familiar trend.”
“Exactly,” I confirmed. “His moods yo-yo with each success and failure, so I’m taking that to mean he’s on a winning streak right now. He brought me a small bouquet of white daisies yesterday, and he allowed me to cuddle with him on the couch while watching a movie after Calleigh went to bed last night. That never happens any more.” Melancholy overtook my words. “I can’t tell you the last time we were intimate.”
“Really? Why not?” Curiosity rose in Greg’s voice.
“Because, I don’t know when it was.” Embarrassment shrouded my words.
“Really? You have no idea? One week? Two weeks? A couple months?” Greg probed for specifics.
“By my experience, women are usually pretty good at remembering when they’ve been showered with affection. You don’t remember anything?” Greg looked at me, surprised.
“Oh, definitely months! I might even venture to say closer to a year. It’s been a long time.” Sharing my reality made me shrink inside.
“Really?” Greg’s eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline. “And you’re OK with that?”
I shook my head. “No, not really, but he’s rarely home before ten any more, and it’s hard feeling desirable or wanting to be close to someone who’s always arguing with you and putting you down. I’ve actually been keeping distance between us to ensure the wrong kind of sparks don’t fly.”
“I see.” Greg tapped his pointer finger against his lower lip. “This is something I’d expect to hear from a woman in her fifties or sixties,” he continued, “but you’re….”
“Still young,” I cut him off. “Yeah, I know.”
Greg leaned into his desk, resting his arms across its surface. “Hope, have you ever wondered if your husband is cheating on you?”
“Oh, no!” I sprang to Brad’s defense. “Absolutely not! He would never do that. He’s not that kind of person. He’d never risk losing his family over something so stupid.” I shook my head, positive Greg had gotten it wrong.
Greg drank in my reaction, unconvinced. “Are you sure?”
I paused a moment, suddenly wondering if Brad’s faithfulness should be in question. Greg hadn’t been the only person to speculate about Brad’s squeaky clean appearance. Several family members and friends had voiced their doubts and concerns in previous months, but I could never bring myself to believe Brad would hurt me in that manner. “I’m sure,” I finally answered.
Greg accepted my uncertainty and continued. “So, tell me, how did your relationship with Brad get started? What drew the two of you together?” His eyes sparkled as he waited for my reply.
It didn’t take much to elicit my response. “He was my Prince Charming.”