Rodger, a new patient in his late forties, had been recently widowed. Slim and tall with a cleanly shaven head and face, my eye was drawn to evidence of laser tattoo removal in progress on the knuckles of both his hands. As we shook hands I wondered what I’d glimpsed in his changed expression.
His clean the shaved head and expressionless blue eyes triggered a memory: a Saturday afternoon, July 1977, I’m running in terror, past bystanders who did nothing, trying to get away from skinheads, also strangers who had nothing to do with me but be offended by the colour of my skin. I imagined Rodger might think like them. The irony did not escape me; based on a ‘weird look’ I was judging Rodger on the basis of my memories, biases, fears and perceptions.
As we sat down Rodger said “I wouldn’t have guessed you were black”. His directness heightened my apprehension, “You sound posh, like someone I have nothing in common with. I look at you and honestly I’m not sure I can do this” he said.
“How about we find out about each other and then decide?” I suggested. As the moments passed I noticed his exhaustion and melancholy. “So, Rodger, I said, beginning to wind-up our assessment session, “I appreciated your honesty. What might it be like to work with me, a black woman in her fifties, someone who, in your words, sounds posh?”
“It’s been easier than I imagined to talk to you , but, to tell you the truth, I think it’s going to be tough because you’ll get stuff that someone else, who is not like you, wouldn’t understand.” Rodger replied.
“Why might that be?” I asked.
Finally he reached into his pocket located something on his mobile phone and held it out to me. “That’s her, my Jen, the summer before we found out. See?”
It was a picture of Rodger in swimming shorts, his arms around a gorgeous woman with short hair and dark brown skin. They were both at ease, smiling.
Rodger’s double take was about my appearance but it was not a judgement about my age, or race as I secretly thought. My hyper-vigilance about his tattoos was a judgment based on the story I created about his look.
As human beings meaning-making is part of our survival instinct. The issue is not that we make up stories about each other in the absence of fact and knowledge, but rather whether we are able to notice that our stories are just that, stories, not the truth about someone.
In therapy we go back and forth exploring the stories we carry, those we co-create, and how we adjust or stay stuck in our stories about ourselves, other people, the world and who we are in our lives.
Rodger is not a skinhead racist and but nor am I going to have special insight just because his wife was also of African descent. Yet these inaccurate assumptions about each other are where our work started. Together we are continually adjusting our views about each other as the weeks turn into months. The examination of biases, perceptions and meaning-making narratives is the backbone of recovery and healing.