After having to cancel his next session due to work travel, Stan attended session 3 two weeks later. When he came in the door, he found himself looking for the tiny dog. He wasn’t disappointed. The dog raced into the reception area, barking. As soon as Stan said, ‘Hello, Charcoal,’ the dog’s tail began waving gently and he went to sit under the treat jar. He twisted his head around to look expectantly at Stan, who obliged by offering a treat which the dog accepted delicately, crunched quickly, and then trotted back down the hallway.
His counsellor stuck her head out of her office and invited Stan to come in. Once he was settled, she said, “Catch me up, Stan. What’s happened since our last session?”
Stan cleared his throat. “I’m realizing the anxiety is always present. Always. I’ve figured out the panic attacks are just the ever-present anxiety boiling over. He looked a little sheepish. “I have also figured out that what I’ve always called ‘stress’ is actually anxiety.” He paused.
The counsellor sat quietly, watching him.
Stan looked pensive. “I talked to my mom about the genogram. Her reaction totally floored me. She just cried. She asked me to print as big a copy as I could, and then she asked me to leave it with her for a while. She said she wanted to look it over, and when she was ready to talk, she’d call me. It took her until Sunday. You know, just three days ago.” He fell silent.
“What did you learn from your mom that you didn’t know, Stan?”
“She had taken that print and she had scribbled all over it, adding information, moving people, changing dates, and putting notes all down the side. When she called and said she was ready, she told me to bring her a Starbucks and be prepared to stay for a bit.”
“What was the visit like?” the counsellor asked curiously.
Stan paused. “Uh…enlightening?” he responded uncertainly. “I’m not sure. I kind of feel like that afternoon was a cross between ‘too much information’ and ‘holy sh*t I wish I’d known some of this stuff way sooner. I really just want to say I was gob smacked.”
“What feels like the most important or momentous thing you learned?”
“My mother is an orphan smuggled out of Romania in a suitcase in the 1950s. A couple found her as a newborn in a cardboard box, not even washed yet, at the train station. They didn’t have any papers for her, so they traveled around Europe for a few months and then paid some doctor in France to falsify a birth record. They brought my mom home to Canada. She told me her first clear memory is of her father’s mother holding her by the chin and talking to her mother in a nasty voice. ‘She doesn’t look like my son and neither of you have blue eyes. Stop lying to me. Whose brat is this, because she sure isn’t my son’s.’
My mother was crying as she told me this stuff. She thinks she was about 4. I guess from what mom says, my grandfather’s family literally tortured my grandmother about it. My mom remembers hiding under her bed as her father’s mother screamed at her son’s wife. My grandparents ended up divorced over it. Not because my grandfather bought his mother’s bullsh*t but because my grandmother couldn’t handle what the situation was doing to my mother. According to my mom, my grandfather refused to move away from his family so my grandmother left him to his family and moved herself and my mother to the other side of the country. In the 50s, that was unheard of and they were dirt poor. I knew that my mother’s childhood was tough, but I just had no idea.” Sam looked sad. “I totally get some of her weirdness, now. It’s always just bugged me, but I totally get it.” He looked at across at the counsellor. “I bet you hear really strange stuff like this all the time.”
“I hear from others what I’m hearing from you, Stan, though the actual details vary. Learning something new about your history and your family’s history has shifted something for you. I hear compassion for what you used to call ‘weirdness.’ I wonder what else has changed for you because of that conversation?”
Stan took a deep breath. “My whole family is riddled with trauma, and I think that’s where the addiction and anxiety came from for most of them. I just felt so sad listening to my mom. I didn’t really have a chance to have a normal nervous system. I also realize now that I’m telling you about listening to my mom that there’s rage in there too. How could my grandfather have been so blind to the cruelty my mother and grandmother endured?” He paused. “I can tell you one thing for sure.”
“I’m more determined than ever to deal with the anxiety. I don’t want to pass this on to my own children, should I have any. Is it possible to stop that?” he asked apprehensively.
“It is,” the counsellor responded. “There are things that you can do including learning how to manage your own nervous system, making lifestyle choices that are mindful of your family history, and taking the time to learn how to be a good steward of your child’s nervous system, so you break the cycle.”
“Well, then I’m glad I had a panic attack,” Stan declared. “I might never have learned about this and done something about it if it hadn’t been for that experience. So. What’s next?”
The counsellor laughed and said, “Your very favourite thing…mindfulness.”
Stan groaned. “No, really. What’s next?”
“I’m serious. We’re going to teach you how to take charge of your nervous system through the practice of mindfulness. I promise – it’s not what you think it is. I’ll send you a couple of YouTube examples that I’d like you to try. Keep practicing the self-rescue strategies, and we’ll pull it all together next session.”
As Stan was leaving, he was pleased to see Charcoal waiting expectantly under the treat jar. Handing over the treat, he grinned to himself and made a mental note, ‘I think I need a dog.’
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