It all started with a fun game of golf; it was sunny; four friends playing for a beer; we are on the eighteenth hole and my day simply fell apart. One of my opponents hit his ball under a tree then managed a fine shot that resulted in his ball landing on the edge of the green but with a large clump of mud on it. It would have been unputtable, good news for me but then his partner told him to clear the mud. I responded, somewhat competitively, as the match would come down to this last hole, “you are not allowed to clean it, the ball is off the green.” At which point his partner said, “that’s ridiculous” and cleaned the ball for him. At this point something happened to me that was entirely out of proportion to the issue. The difference between winning and losing is the grand sum of $2:50 but my emotional response was way off the scale, I felt incredibly angry, had a desire just to walk away, felt a bit like Dr. Strangelove as I forced my hand to shake the offender’s hand. It took me a while to get things in perspective, however I put on a brave face and ignored the funk. What made this so incredibly difficult was that I was also witnessing my own behavior as it unfolded so I felt a lot of shame about what had happened. I was sufficiently self-aware to know that I was in the grip of a complex, “charged clusters of history that emerge into a present situation but bring energy from the past that is often inappropriate to the situation.” (James Hollis.) But what was it about this particular situation that could trigger me so dramatically? I know that fairness is an old familiar favourite but I had worked frequently with that one and it seemed unlikely that it would capture me so violently. This was a somewhat Vesuvian uncontrollable eruption; why could I not control my emotional and energetic response to something so apparently superficial trivial? The adult self felt deeply shamed and embarrassed, and had little sympathy in the moment for the reactions of what looked like a ten-year old. I also felt some depression that after all these years of personal growth work; I can still react to the sucker punch in this way. However I made the commitment to go deeper and try to figure this out.
The surprise over the next couple of days was that for some unknown reason thinking about this issue resulted in a different apparently unconnected issue coming to mind. Recently I terminated my involvement with a healing centre that has played a powerful role in shaping my current life. First I had been told that the decision-making presentation that I had made for eleven years was being eliminated from the program. More recently I made a difficult decision to give up the facilitation of a men’s group after almost eight years. Apart from some lovely feedback from my group, my departure was unheralded and uncelebrated and I felt comfortable with silently slipping into anonymity yet I noticed some angst that I had received no response or acknowledgment from the person who I informed of my decision; ironically this was the same person who had made the decision in March to eliminate decision-making.
I wonder why this is coming back at this time, am I incomplete around the men’s group or am I still unresolved about having my decision-making presentation eliminated. I know I am sad about it, I loved doing it, I have had four people tell me since that it was the thing they got the most out of in the whole two-day program but I had no say in the matter. I have dismissed these as the consequence of hurt feelings yet like a grain in an oyster they seem to silently creating an ongoing irritation. Perhaps it is time to find the pearl that may be wishing to emerge. It was only when I began to journal about this that the link fell into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The decision to eliminate my presentation was like the person who cleaned the golf ball. In both cases I had no further say in the outcome and there was no discussion. Both were a fait accomplis; I had no voice in the outcome; I was not asked for suggestions, feedback or a contribution; I was told that decision-making was not as important to your patients, and that the program needed to be shortened. My control was ignored. At the time I realize I slipped into one of my coping mechanism in face of authority, I became compliant. ( in my shock began to reflect on the all the gifts I had received by doing this presentation for eleven years.) All I really wanted to do was slip away and disappear, just the way I felt on the golf course.
However after the encounter, I realized I had something to say of value about decision-making that had come from eleven years experience. I spent a week drafting an e-mail, getting it vetted by two friends to ensure there was no judgment, and explaining why I thought patient empowerment was so important when dealing with cancer and medical authority. I was not suggesting that I be reincorporated in the program, I was suggesting that someone else should pick up the slack. The result was no response; my e-mail was simply ignored, resulting in another opportunity to disappear. My final presentation was followed by a five-week trip to Asia which felt very healing. During that trip I decided to offer my services in a volunteer capacity to present on decision-making once a month for anyone who may be interested. Now this is where the story gets more bizarre and almost as funny as an episode of Monty Python. I wrote attaching my original e-mail penned five weeks earlier together with the suggestion for my presentation. The reply astounded me and everyone I shared it with. An amazing conversion seemed to have occurred since I left five weeks earlier. I am told, “decision making is of foundational importance to our patients. Indeed it is a major theme that infuses almost every interaction that our doctors have with our patients. We witness the gift that comes to each patient who becomes (more or newly) aware of their inner wisdom and feels empowered to act and make choices from a deeper place within. Thank you – I truly appreciate your offer to facilitate a group session. I will decline your offer because at this point our clinical team agrees that we have a model that works based on our one-to-one patient interactions that we are now exploring how to bring to patient group work.”
As one of my men’s group observed, “How can doctors define the model for empowerment, they are a big part of the problem1” Another friend laughingly observed, “it as though she is trying to tell you what you just told her and make out she thought of it first.” Although I feel somewhat relieved that decision-making is back on the agenda, the resolution did not make me feel any more visible. The experience on the golf course has helped me see that once I had failed to continue the exploration of my interaction at that time; the universe brought me a less than gentle reminder.
So where is the pearl? Where did this complex first emerge? Once I committed to the exploration, I was sent an amazing dream. I am with my great nephew who is thirteen years old, we are walking home from school and he is telling me that he has just been “hazed” and this included being circumcised. I was outraged and wanted to go back to the school and complain but he persuaded me not to. Instead I set off in search for his mother, my niece. At first I was dismissive of the dream, not seeing any sense in it,( a common reaction the ego has to profound dreams), however I called my dream partner and during our session it became clear to me that this was all about my experience of feeling disempowered and unseen – “losing part of my manhood” is a pretty clear sign.
I wondered about the meaning of my niece in the dream. She is a life coach and perhaps could help guide my enquiry, then in one of those sweet moments of serendipity, I realized I had my monthly phone chat with her scheduled the morning after the dream. Indeed she was extremely supportive and asked if I had done any active imagination with the thirteen year old. I have an image of myself at that age in my absurd school uniform and later that day I began a dialogue that revealed these fascinating insights. At the age of almost twelve I had been sent away to boarding school. I had no choice in the matter, I left a school where I was a top student both in terms of academics and sports, I was active in drama performing in school plays, respected by teachers, given a position of authority over other students and a fairly confident although somewhat shy, independent child. I moved into an environment where I was mediocre to say the least; I was surrounded by smart, mostly older, and more confident fellow students; many had been to preparatory schools designed to prepare them for this experience. I went from being at the top to the bottom of the heap. At first I tried to engage fully in this new environment: I tried to join things – the band, the theatre group but seemed to meet rejection at every point. I played football (soccer) they played rugby. I can still feel the humiliation of my first rugby game when I unwittingly threw the ball forward like a quarterback in American football to the derision of everyone else on the field. Everything seemed alien and I began to sink into the background. I chose invisibility as a way to deal with rejection. My complex around compliance and wanting to disappear began at thirteen. (Interestingly enough the same time I lost my faith in God)
Now I realize that predictably, one of the ways I learn to cope in a world where I felt powerless was to find ways to exert control over my life. In golf the rules are one way to manage the situation; thus major triggering occurs when my control is usurped as it was in the case of cleaning the golf ball and more importantly in my reaction to my presentation being eliminated without dialogue or discussion. Although my reactions were somewhat different, I can see aspects of a thirteen year old trying to deal with unpleasant realities. For months I have been dealing with a mild chest irritation that shows up spontaneously without obvious cause. I have suspected that I have something to “get off my chest”. Perhaps this exploration will be the healing that I have been wondering about.