Using Psychotherapy to Heal a Lifetime of Pain and Shame By Tom Medlar, LMHC on 5/16/23 - 11:06 AM

As a child, Darlene would change to lower-watt light bulbs in the small bathroom attached to her bedroom so that the light would be dimmer. “How can you see anything in here?” her mother would ask in dismay. But Darlene preferred to brush her hair, and later apply makeup, in subdued lighting.

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As a young adult Darlene had lived for several years in a state psychiatric facility. One day the psychiatrist and a nurse sat with her and suggested that she apply to nursing school. She thought she was in trouble when the doctor asked to speak with her, and was surprised when he spoke of her potential — and the possibility of her living outside of the hospital. Darlene became a licensed practical nurse (LPN), got an apartment, and enjoyed a career working at a state school for persons with developmental disabilities.

Darlene had weathered a very brief and turbulent marriage that ended when her husband was physically abusive to her. “I don’t know why I ever married him,” she said. “Partly, my parents thought it would be good for me, and partly I was at least hoping I’d be loved.”

Now, as an elderly woman at the nursing facility, she mostly stays in bed, and typically prefers that the shades be down. While she attends a few group activities, Darlene feels relieved when she can finally get back into her bed and the low-lit security of her room.

Therapy as Sanctuary

One day as I sat next to her in her room during a psychotherapy session, Darlene asked that I raise the shades because she could hear it was raining outside. “This is the only time when I feel good, when the weather outside matches the weather inside me," she remarked.

Dim and dreary weather conditions had always matched Darlene’s moods, and provided a sort of comfortable retreat for her, whereas sunshine and groups of people could be anxiety provoking for her. Her Poe-like melancholy was matched by an attraction to poetry, and she would recite to me verses of poems she had long memorized.

Darlene also had a lifelong struggle with bipolar illness that mostly involved depressive episodes, and rare manic periods with grand persecutory delusions (“I’m being nailed to a cross, everyone’s looking at me!”). Oh, what could be more distressing for Darlene than to be under the glaring and judging eyes of others!

As she aged, Darlen suffered from macular degeneration with progressive loss of sight. She ate meals sitting up in bed, and often felt increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by the messy results. She was helped when her meals were changed primarily to finger foods, and she could be guided by touch more than by sight.

Dignity in the Shadow of Shame

Darlene also experienced problems with bowel and bladder incontinence. The need for someone to witness and attend to her humiliating problem felt horrible and shameful to her. She inadvertently made the matter worse, though, by her ineffective effort to clean or hide the results of a bowel accident — causing a staff person to come to me stating that Darlene was “playing with her feces.” After a conversation with Darlene, I could explain her predicament and her sense of shame to the staff, and they were then more helpful with keeping her clean while protecting her dignity.

One day at the nursing facility as I was pushing Darlene in her wheelchair through the hallway, we encountered a new female resident who loudly exclaimed, “Darlene, Darlene, it’s me, it’s Ellen!” With a panicked expression, Darlene looked at me and said, “Get me out of here, now!” Darlene explained that she knew Ellen and that they had both lived at the psychiatric facility at the same time. Darlene did not want anyone to know that she had once lived there, because she felt it was yet another source of shame.

Over the course of several therapy sessions, Darlene and I explored her reactions, and her underlying thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs as they related to her encounter with an old friend who had resided along with her at a chronic care psychiatric hospital many years ago.

We focused on reframing her story of time at the hospital from one of self-perceived shameful illness to a story of triumph. We discussed ways she had achieved many significant and meaningful successes: through her trust in her psychiatric care providers while at the hospital, through her education and attainment of a nursing license, with her subsequent career providing valued care to her patients, and by living in an apartment on her own during her working career.

Darlene was praised for the many triumphs in her life story. We spoke of how others might be impressed by and applaud her achievements, rather than look poorly on them, if she might be willing to share her story, to raise the shades, and let in the light!

Questions for Thought and Discussion

In what ways does Darlene’s story resonate with you personally and professionally?

How might you have addressed Darlene’s dilemma of encountering her “old friend?”

What clinical experiences have you had with the elderly and how have they impacted you?  

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections