SallyBryce2_s (23K)


  1. The Dream
  2. Fierce Love
  3. Grace or Luck
  4. My Old Man
  5. The Affair
  6. The Reunion


Lily’s eyes are intensely green against the darker green wingback chair and grab me fiercely, “It isn’t like me. I haven’t been depressed in years. Maybe minor ups and downs like everyone has but not like this. I’m immobilized. I want to sit and do nothing. I’ve lost my drive.” She looks outside at the bridge traffic crossing the American River Canyon below, her short dark hair falling across her face, amazingly unlined for 49. “I’m still exercising but I’ve gained nine pounds” she says shaking her head in disbelief.

“What does seem important to you?” I ask.

After a pause she starts “I’m not sure. It has something to do with turning fifty in February. I know I have limits now—my time, my energy. I feel like I want to do something that’s personally satisfying. My two daughters are grown, one is married. Hal, my husband is not going to retire for awhile, maybe never!” She laughs.

She tells me about a dream she had a few weeks before. “The physical sensation was so intense it awakened me and I felt a huge relief to be awake even though shaken. In my dream I was wandering through a house carrying a beautiful naked baby who looked similar to my daughter as a baby but I knew it wasn’t her. It was gurgling and cooing and obviously healthy and thriving.” She is breathing hard reliving the emotion from the dream.

“It felt bittersweet as I had the sense I would not live to see this child grown.” Her eyes fill up with tears.” Suddenly I felt a stab in my heart and the baby went down to the floor with me” She places both hands on her chest. “And I realized we were both dying. Our hearts were joined. We had just one heart together.” Her eyes wide and unblinking are still with the images.

I wait for her attention to come back to the room. “What did you make of the dream?”

“I don’t know. I thought about it for days afterward. Do you think the baby is about my unlived life—the dreams, the potential, the work unfinished, that I may not have the energy or years to see to fruition. Lily’s tears start to spill and she reaches for a tissue.

“It would seem so,” I say shaking my head affirmatively. She nods in agreement and the tears come freely. When she regains her focus I ask gently, “Can we go into this symbol and look for more information?”

I give Lily a sketchpad and put a box of crayons on the table beside her. I ask her to draw the symbol that seems the most dominant for her and after some initial nervous laughter she makes a crude sketch of the baby with a bright red heart. I explain a gestalt method to dialog with the symbol and explain that there isn’t any right or wrong way to do it. “What shall we ask the baby? What do you want to know?”

“What is important for me to do? Where is the meaning for me?” She asks looking at her picture. I direct her to stay open and receptive and “hear” what the image might say if it could talk “It says something like ‘you are more powerful than you realize’” she says. She looks up from the picture at me, now with a more open relaxed expression as an insight is coming to her. “I always wanted to write something. I’ve been an avid reader, a librarian. I always thought I would write something of my own someday.” She smiles and brightens. “I’ve been afraid of it, though.” She tells me about taking a writing course in college almost thirty years ago and the instructor, unknown then, is a well-published writer today. He had read one of her stories to the class and was very positive about it. She has never forgotten that. “It now feels very important to me to overhaul my life, to decide what is necessary to do and do it, to weed out the drains on my energy and time, to claim more of my time for me.”

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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Fierce Love

The funeral is the only time I will see Ryan, after years of sitting with his mother Jan and hearing the struggle of their ten-year bout with cystic fibrosis. Her voice on the phone is steady and calm. “He’s been this close many times before so it wasn’t actually expected, but then…. we had to let him go.” Jan is a courageous mother who never lost hope that her son would survive somehow to have a life. There were always new treatments, lung transplants, stories of others who were making it.

After a warm hug, she leads me by the hand to her only son, a small handsome fourteen year old boy in his favorite jeans and t-shirt, whose peaceful expression reflects that his suffering is finally over. “He’s so beautiful.” She says smiling and crying at the same time. I have sons too and Jan’s love and pain and pride reverberates deeply within me. It is a gift to be present with her.

In my office later, the tears flow, as Jan, a petite red-head with ancestors in Ireland, reveals her regret and guilt. Her husband, Don, a computer programmer, is grieving in his own way, working harder, talking less. Her ten year old daughter Isabel is enrolled in an art program for grieving kids. Jan explores the pain in her heart.

Yes, she kept a constant vigil during the many hospitalizations and she learned everything she could about the disease. Working hard to normalize Ryan’s life she fought with the school to let him continue despite poor grades and many absences. She encouraged friendships with boys from the neighborhood and church. Despite the enormous drain the disease made on their finances she found ways to buy the video games and computer and special foods that delighted him. She was never more than a cell phone call away.

Now that Ryan is gone she remembers how she nagged him incessantly to do his treatments and take his medicine. He was frequently depressed and sick and wanted no more hospital “tune-ups”. He acquiesced to her pleading for surgery to implant a gastric tube to help his nutrition Everyday was a struggle. She anguishes now recalling her single purpose effort to save his life and the constant conflict that marred their final years together.

We plan to travel to an imaginary secret garden like the movie of that name and look for answers. We relax together on twin recliners with soft music playing and I create an image of us working our way through paths overgrown with vines, opening a rusty gate, and finding a beautiful flourishing garden within. Once inside our fragrant and lush sanctuary we ask the difficult questions.

On this day Jan finds peace there. “I feel Ryan’s presence. It is so perfect. I just know he is alright. It feels like he’s telling me he’s fine now.” Then on another day she comes back to the room after our visit to the garden and her face is radiant. “I know something now” She says simply. “Ryan lived for me. We struggled so because I carried his life. A lot of times his staying alive was more important to me than to him. I learned today that there’s soft love, but there’s fierce love too. Ryan understands that now and so do I.”

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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Doug and Eileen came for couples counseling. He wants her to stop the divorce proceedings from going to the final stage and work on getting back together. She wants only to cooperate in parenting their two sons Nicky 5, and Michael 8 and let the divorce go through. She is too thin, with deep-set intense eyes that continually watch me, and long wisps of brown hair like a veil covering much of her face. In a pair of jeans and a tank top she seems too exposed in my poorly heated office. Her voice is soft and quivers when she speaks.

“I had him arrested for terrorizing me.” She leans forward and her voice gathers strength.

“I beat the rap in court but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me”. Doug is a compact beefy man, a paving foreman on the State road crew, with sandy balding hair and blue eyes. He brags about his court-ordered anger management program and how he’s learning that he battered Eileen for the fifteen years of their relationship, not with physical violence but with put downs, name calling, and abusive control tactics. He describes how he would threaten her by putting holes in the wall and breaking dishes. He rubs his knuckles. “I broke my hand a couple of times”. He smiles and shakes his head in disbelief.

“You called me names just last week”, she counters, pushing her hair back and glaring at him.

“But Eileen, I took responsibility for it. I told you later it wasn’t about you. I apologized.”

“I’ve been through a lot.” She turns to me “. He was in treatment twice for drugs and alcohol — crank, mostly” Her voice drops.

“I’m clean and sober. I go to AA every week.” He looks exasperated.

“I just want him to leave me alone.” She’s appealing to me. “He calls me three times a day to tell me he loves me. He pressures me constantly. I want him to stop”.

“I love this woman more than anything in the world. What’s wrong with telling her? We make love every week”. There is a long silent pause. We both look at her. She stares at me blankly. There is no denial forthcoming.

“Doug is the only family I have. He stays over some nights to be with the boys when I have to work the early shift.” She slumps in the chair and looks at the floor.

I tell her she will end up with another man like Doug if she gets divorced and doesn’t get any help, that she has to learn a new way to be in a relationship, that she needs her own therapy, and a support system.

“I can’t.” She says quickly, “There’s no way.” Eileen continues to stare at me without responding. Her dark eyes start to water and then she begins weeping, grabbing several tissues in her fist and mopping her face. “I just want him to leave me alone”, she sobs.

“I wish it were that simple. You have to learn how to get what you want. This is your work.” I say carefully, gently. There is so much to lose here before there is any hope in something better. The road for her is long and steep.

“I don’t know.” She seems disappointed, confused, her voice fading.

As I say goodbye the memory of thirty years ago comes back to me. There are bruises in the shape of a man’s fingers on my neck. The terror of his accusations and his threats still live somewhere in my body. Like Eileen I feared conflict and wanted to believe his promises, his apologies, his remorse. It was lonely without the support of friends and family I’d forsaken to avoid threatening him. I too felt disorganized and confused without him telling me what to do and how to think. I am grateful all over again for my escape, knowing that I am graced or lucky or both.

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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My Old Man

Jerod was angry that his mother brought him to therapy. At fifteen, he didn’t see any problem with failing grades, ditching school, partying, long unaccounted hours away from home. At the first session he rejected the idea that his absent father was a problem. “I don’t think about him much”. He volunteered a few facts—that he was an alcoholic, his whereabouts were unknown, he had a lot of DUI’s, was in jail a couple of times, paid no child support, and hadn’t seen Jerod in four years. “He’s a jerk. That’s about it.”

I agreed with him. “He is a jerk.” He sat with his elbows on his knees looking down at the floor and his face, bored and expressionless, brightened just a little and he actually looked at me through long greasy hair. I felt encouraged. We may have made a small connection. Time would tell.

Today, four sessions later, Jerod brings a bundle of CD’s. He copied some of the lyrics off the internet and wants to read them to me. I remove a big pillow behind my chair and reveal a boom box on the floor. “Want to play some?” I ask.

“Hey!” He gives a half smile.

He sits down on the floor and loads the machine pushing buttons until the right song comes on. He says it’s (the group) “Good Charlotte” and the song is “Emotionless”:

Hey dad...are you happy out there in this great wide world?,,,do you think about your sons? you miss your little girl? you ever wonder if we’re all right? And the chorus: it’s been a long hard road without you by my side...why weren’t you there all the nights that we cried. As the music plays Jerod stretches out on the floor, leans back against the couch and closes his eyes. He’s inviting me into his world today and trusting me with his feelings. It’s feels like a gift on this overcast January day. Next it’s “The Saddest Song” by the group Ataris. It’s a father speaking to a child: “I hope I get the chance to make it up to you. We got a lot of catching up to do.” Jerod says, “I imagine my dad saying these things to me. I don’t think he ever will.” His eyes are damp.

I tell him how touched I am by his sharing this music with me.

“My mom hates this stuff. I’m always playing it. You don’t mind it?”

“I really like it. I want to know what it means to you.” It’s a turning point.

I know there’s going to be time to learn more about Jerod’s values, his ideas for his life, figure out some new strategies for his future, but for now we are considering another Good Charlotte song, “The Story of My Old Man”: Monday he woke up and hated life....drank until Wednesday and left his wife.

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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Bill isn’t sure what is different this time when his wife goes to work on a weekend, but he has a suspicious urge to search her e-mail and the cell phone record, and guessing her code he listens to the last recordings on her voice mail. “My heart is pounding; there’s a rock in my stomach.… I can’t believe what I find.” Bill describes the evidence and the confrontation that night with his wife of three years. At first she acts indignant and angry that he spied on her, but she finally confesses to having an affair. “I’m here because there’s no one I can talk to about this.”

Bill at 41 describes Heather as a beautiful 43 year old woman who needs a lot of attention. It is her third marriage, his second, and he was ecstatic when they fell in love. In the beginning they spend a lot of time together sharing about their difficult early marriages, and their troubles growing up. “Maybe you can understand this… She is my best friend. I totally believed her lies, at least for awhile. Now I can’t believe how incredibly stupid I was. Being compared to this other guy—what a kick in the teeth! I don’t know if I can recover from this.”

Today we are surveying the damages like the aftermath of a tornado--sifting through the rubble, grieving about the loss, acknowledging the magnitude of the storm, salvaging what is still unbroken, remembering how it was before. It is too soon to decide whether to rebuild. The emotions are complicated.

“I’m so angry; this is really a huge betrayal. I want to blame everything on the guy who seduced her. I need comfort but I can’t get it from Heather. We make love, as crazy as that sounds, and then afterwards I cry with her. She is very remorseful for the pain she’s causing me and the damage to our relationship. I don’t know where to go with all of this. I don’t want to stay in the same house one minute: the next minute I know I can’t leave her.”

Something subtle changes for Bill in the two week interval between our meetings. Without realizing exactly how or when, he finds some hope, some optimism. Maybe it’s Heather’s total honesty, the forthright way she answers his incessant questions, and her patience with his mood swings. It matters a lot to him that she wants to stay together.

“I know I didn’t meet her needs.” Bill is a manager in a call center by day and spends a lot of time with his guitar and drinking with the friends he jams with on weekends. While Heather enjoys his music, like his first wife, she grew to resent his nights away from her. He doesn’t communicate how much she means to him, how important she is to his life.

“You don’t care about me!” Heather complains often, “I’m just a convenience to you.” He hadn’t realized how precarious the situation was until it had crashed.

Heather is willing to find another job that would eliminate the ongoing contact with the married co-worker. Bill isn’t sure if he can ever believe her again but he is willing to work on being more affectionate and making her feel more loved and see if they can make it work. It will take a lot to rebuild trust. They agree to see a marriage counselor. “Maybe there’s a gift in this hit.” Bill says referring to a concept he learned in karate.

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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Karen had done the unthinkable and had cut off all communication with her mother, now seventy-eight, for the past six years. She had wrestled with the guilt, missing family get togethers, and the constant debate in her head about whether this was the best way to handle the lifelong conflict and tension between the two women.

“But it’s wonderful!” She admits. “Never having to hear her endless complaints, her criticism, her sarcastic innuendoes….it’s a huge relief for me”. Karen describes how she had grown up under the harsh judgment of a mother who had trouble enjoying life including her two daughters It had taken her several years of therapy and this six year sabbatical away from her mother to find self-support and belief in her abilities. “I was incredibly hard on myself—just like she was. Now I call myself a “recovering perfectionist,” She laughs. A rounded woman in comfortable denim pants and a printed blouse, with a full mop of graying curly hair, Karen is an accomplished software programmer even though she didn’t finish college. “I’ve got to make peace with her now”. She stares at the pink tulip tree outside the window on this bright spring day and searches for the words. “She’s dying. My sister says Mom’s refusing any more treatment for her breast cancer. Time is running out for us to heal this thing… if we can.”

Karen’s husband Sam agrees to accompany her to a suburb of St. Louis to the same small house where she lived as a child. We discuss a phone call to begin the process.

Karen forces herself to make that phone call, after agonizing over it for two weeks, not wanting to return to counseling without having done it. She is surprised by her mother’s reaction and weeps now as she relives it: “Oh Karen it’s you! I never thought I’d live to hear your voice. Thank you God! My prayers are answered.” There is no recrimination, no accusations, no attacks. There is only a plan to meet, to catch up, to finally be together. This is so different from the last encounter with her mother, the final straw before their abrupt separation, when Karen is blasted for her poor parenting and criticized soundly for her son’s problems in school.

Now, a month later Karen describes that long and difficult journey and the outcome. “I go for days without sleeping very much, and gain at least five pounds with continuous eating. I was really jittery. I had a lot of fears. . I had so many feelings—actually a lot of grief and sadness about the separation, about my Mom’s impending death, about how our relationship had gone.” The plane trip is torturous, and she resists the urge to drink, and finally upon arriving at the house her heart is filled with dread and hope and too many feelings to sort through. It is a blessing to have Sam’s support.

She explains: “It is like this… you think you are up against the wall, but then you discover you’re on the other side of the wall, and you don’t know how or when you got through it.….” Karen realizes that she and her mother love each other regardless of their differences. More importantly, when the older woman begins complaining about the gardener’s “butchering” of the roses, how the doctor doesn’t spend any time with her, how her sister’s present arrived a week after her birthday and wasn’t what she wanted, and finally wonders aloud why Karen doesn’t color her hair, Karen knew something had changed inside herself. When this litany of complaints no longer triggers her anger and doesn’t cause her to regress to feeling like a child, she knows that she has really truly made it. “That’s just Mom,” she says with a shrug.

Please note: This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is a coincidence. Sally Watkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, can be reached at 916-409-5060 or through her website

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