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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life


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Then came Joe, The Angriest Client. Joe had been referred to me by his doctor, who warned me about a number of complications. Joe had an "explosive" personality, couldn't control his temper, might "go on a rampage" if angered, and could be, in the spur of the moment, physically violent. After 20 years of counseling, I had received many referrals from this doctor, but none of them had that level of danger. "Just take precautions," the doctor advised.

So at five minutes to 11:00 every Wednesday, I began to prepare for Joe. I programmed my telephone speed dial to 911 and placed the receiver next to my arm so that if Joe did go on a rampage, I could hit the speaker button and yell for help. Greg, my colleague next door, agreed to do his paperwork during the hours that Joe was in session and listen for the wrong kind of shouting. (We were psychologists, after all — loud, weeping, angry voices were considered the "right kind" of shouting; calls for the police were not.)

I learned that Joe's father had been a respected lawyer whose dedication to good causes — homeless shelters, recovery programs, free clinics — kept a number of nonprofit companies from going under. Like his five brothers and sisters, Joe grew up in a world that celebrated his father as a humanitarian and relegated his excessive drinking to a "charming Irish temperament." No one knew that Joe's dad came home in drunken tirades and regularly took out his anger on his wife (also an alcoholic) and kids.

Of all the children, Joe was beaten almost daily by both his parents. Sometimes one or the other would drag him up and down the stairs by his hair. Sometimes his father would come after Joe so wildly that his sister hid him in a closet. Joe never knew love; he knew only abuse. Before his teens, he grew so tired of beatings at home that he decided to beat up other people, including his teachers. One time, he had even "decked a nun." Yet despite the fact that he rarely attended classes and couldn't read or write, Joe graduated from high school — probably, he said, "because I had become a problem they were happy to get rid of."

Joe drifted into a life of drug addiction and crime very early. He had been in and out of jail for years and had just completed a parole sentence when he fell in love for the first time in his life. Sharon, the woman he loved, deserved a decent and loving partner, he said, and he wanted to be that person. He didn't have many friends — most were either dead from drug and alcohol overdoses or in prison. So Joe decided to turn his life around. After his doctor told him about my specialty, Joe decided that he himself might be "the most tragic loss you ever treated." I liked Joe — his honesty and openness were both refreshing and astounding for a man with his background — but he was, as his doctor had warned, subject to uncontrollable bouts of anger during therapy. Once he admitted that his fists might not know what they were hitting, if things got out of hand.

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