by Ogden W. Rogers, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSW
He was a man of few words.
In his late 60s, I chalked it up to his depression. His case had been transferred to me after almost a year of treatment. Examining his file, I noted that he was a toolmaker who had come to outpatient treatment after a brief hospitalization for vague suicidal ideation. Between the therapist and the consulting psychiatrist, he’d been tried on the usual array of pharmacologics without much improvement, and there had been some consideration of late of using E.C.T. His symptoms, while moderate, had been persistent.
The first sessions were torture for me. I would ask a question; he would grunt a “yes” or a “no,” or a phrase of but a word or two. He was always downcast and concrete. I saw little available in him for psychotherapy and was resigning myself to be supportive but generally saw him as someone with a very “organic” depression.
I asked him if the medicine was changing his sleep, his dreaming, looking for some glimmer of improvement. He brightened just the slightest and told me that he didn’t dream, but the damndest thing had happened recently—he’d had a dream that had started in recent weeks and repeated a number of nights, and he thought it was just crazy.
In the dream, he is walking along a beach and he sees a sand dollar and he picks it up. In the distance, he sees a silver dollar, and then another, and another. Collecting each in turn, he then comes upon a hole and he sees what he thinks is gold glimmering in a fathomless below. He tries reaching vainly into the hole, but he cannot reach its bottom.
He tries digging with his hands to get closer, but it is useless, as the sand just keeps shifting. He cries in frustration, and the dream always ends this way, with him waking up.
“There’s something at the bottom of that hole,” I said.
“I know,” he said, “but I can’t get it.”
I asked him about the beach. Looking down at the floor, he sat silent. Then he shrugged and laid a deep sigh.
“It’s Normandy—except all the bodies are gone, and I’m there all by myself.”
I looked through his record. There was no mention that he had been in the Army or the war. I told him that I had not known he was a soldier. He told me that it was all a long time ago. He didn’t talk about it. I asked if he ever had.
“When we got back, we were just glad to be alive. We were all tired of the war. We didn’t want to talk about the war. Nobody really had anything to say that anybody should listen to.”
I looked at him. “You know,” I said, “given this dream, and how you feel, I think we should. Listen, I mean. Can you tell me about the war you were in?”
The man of few words began to tell his tale. He went on for seven weeks without a stop. Horror and joy. Courage, fear, greatness, pettiness, good, evil, boredom, wonder. So much gold in the hole.
All I had to do was listen.
Editor's Note: This story is an excerpt from the book Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work, by Ogden W. Rogers.