With Feeling

See the yellow fish? He doesn't look too good.

We were talking about truth in blogging, and I felt conflicted that I have to be in this position of reminding you that when I make up an anecdote, that I'm making up an anecdote.

Ordinarily bloggers are honest. But a therapist never wants to reveal case material publicly, for fear of breaching the privilege of patient-doctor confidentiality. To avoid that, I patch together random interactions, invent stories, create personalities.

But when it's about fish, I can tell you, the stories are true.

Sometimes I wonder if fish can be empathetic. I know that dogs are, and cats, maybe. Probably those elephants we talked about have some empathy. I'm not a pet psychologist, so I'm clueless here. Feel free to help me out.

Therapists are empathetic, or they're supposed to be. But even an empathetic therapist can and should be able to detach. If a therapist doesn't intellectualize, doesn't lead with the head and not the heart, then everyone in the room is going to be an emotional wreck. People don't go to therapy for that, to increase their perception that life is basically chaos.

So I can detach when I work, detach with my friends, detach even, from my family.

But as a hopeful therapist, a person who sees improvement in just about every thing, every one (although it can take some time), and every type of situation, the thing that still throws me is death. Not leading with the heart here isn't an option.*

The Story:

FD tells me that my fish jump to attention when I walk by the tank. They swim a little faster, breathe a little harder. Of course they have eyes, you know, so it is not out of the realm of possibility that they recognize me, associate me with frozen krill and brine shrimp, Formula One and Formula Two. Who wouldn't jump, just thinking about yummy stuff like that. Mmmmmmm.

So I can relate, I guess, to fish developing relationships, in their way, with people. We just talked about elephants a few days ago, and I imagine that elephant keepers (keepers?) commune with their pachyderms, whereas if someone like me spent a week with an elephant, it's unlikely we'd have much of a relationship. The beast would sense my fear, my disrespect when it came to his bodily functions.

But pretty tropical fish that swim around in water, well, we attach emotionally to them, and it would be nice to think that they care, somehow, too. When I come home from work I go straight to the tank to say hello, to see how they're doing. When I get up in the morning I'm quiet, so as not to wake them. In exchange for this, they swim around and look pretty, try not to die.

I had Blue, just Blue (don't panic, he's fine), for over a year because having one healthy fish was fine to my liking. But as you might remember, he got a little too big for the tank, so I asked FD and Number 3 Son to move him into larger quarters. A little construction, no small task, actually, and Blue had the ocean to himself.

Such a large tank all to himself did seem silly, or so they all told me. So with the help of my son-in-law (a real fish nut, you should see his tanks), we created a community for Blue. He did pretty well, too, once he established his territory (the conch) and seemed to enjoy the company. I was really worried since Blue is a fish with really sharp teeth, and fish like that, should their appetites kick up. . . well, you just never know. But he never gnashed at the new fish.

One night about a week ago, I got home, hung up my coat, and took a hard look at the tank. The yellow tang, a little guy (you usually see humongous ones in the stores) looked sick. He had a brown spot where one would guess his heart should be, and he was leaning against a rock on the floor of the sea.

I tried to hand feed him, but he didn't look interested. He didn't even sniff at the food. I called my son and reported the symptoms. "Brown spot?" he replied with a sigh. "You may as well fish him out and put him in a plastic bag and freeze him, Mom."

Why the freezer, I don't know. But I couldn't do it. I had just watched a Boston Legal episode on euthanasia* and it made me consider the whole business of assisted suicide, even when it comes to fish. So writing this I let Little Tang gasp for life, holding onto a thread, and felt more than a little sick, myself.

When he passed on, he would go the way fish are supposed to go, downstream, I thought. And it would take me awhile to get over him.

Soon Little Tang gasped his last breath. When I discovered him he had wedged himself under the rock, making it difficult for me to fish him out with a net. I stuck an algae scraper into the water, a long stick. Usually Blue runs from it, hides. But this time, when I tried to poke the tang out from under the rock with the stick, his protexia went nuts. Blue bit at the stick, swimming around frenetically, as if to say:

Haven't you done enough damage for one day?

I felt blamed. Yet it did seem that Blue cared about his little buddy. And he wasn't going to let me show any disrespect for the dead, or as someone insensitively suggested, steal his midnight snack.

I gave it a rest, came back and fished out the dead fish. Again Blue objected. But he was powerless.

I knew it would be hard for me to sleep. FD came home and I told him the story and shared that the other fish might be at risk. When one fish goes. . .He said, "Maybe you need to syphon some of the water. Aren't you supposed to change some of the water every couple of weeks?"

When the kids lived at home, it did seem that they made a huge mess syphoning water relatively frequently. But since it's been just me and Blue for so long, we had it so that once a month was just fine. And miraculously, it never got messy.

So I got a little defensive, but FD put the bug in me. Although it was late, after midnight, I started a water change, just 10 gallons, but enough to keep everybody safe. And the next morning, no question, the three remaining fish seemed healthier.


(a) I was right to feel guilty,
(b) taking responsibility made everyone feel better,
(c) whether or not fish have feelings is still anyone's guess.


**You can argue that every type of loss feel a like a death, and you would be right.

**The Boston Legal episode I'm talking about has the best treatment of parents cutting off an addicted child I've ever seen. Episode listed on the ION station as WCPX 13, it's about Shirley Schmidt being best man at her ex-husband's sixth wedding, assisted suicide, and an amazing treatment of addiction in family relationships.

I think it's the episode responsible for hooking me on this show, which, by the way, is awfully preachy this year. And for Republicans, insulting. I posted on the cut-off in families with addictions, if you're interested in this at The Second Road.


Blognut said…
Sorry about your little fish. I do wonder something. Was that a multiple choice question or a multiple choice statement at the end there? I have fish, but know very little about them except that I like how they look. I do think that they just sometimes die though, like people, and we can't be blaming ourselves for what is outside of our control. I think maybe you can let go of that guilt.
rosysunset said…
So, detaching is leading with the head, but with death you feel you have no choice but to lead with your heart? That's really interesting. Is that how you feel with your personal experiences or with patients too?

Sorry about your fishy. :(
therapydoc said…
With death, there's so much to feel, so much to talk about.

If a person is discussing the loss of another, a child, or a spouse, etc., and anger is the primary emotion, not sadness, it's not up to me to change that or reframe anything.

With death, a person goes through those phases of feeling until eventually it is accepted, whatever "it" is. So if I'm the therapist, then my emotions go with the patient's emotions. I'm along for the ride. It's not up to me to intellectualize.

And I relate the same way with my friends and family. Yes. Unless asked for other input.
Blognut said…
I've seen so much information about the stages of death, but it seems to me that it doesn't just progress nicely from one step to another. It seems more like one has to revisit some of it, like anger or depression, several times along the way. It isn't so neat that you're completely done with one step before you move on to the next, is it? The heart doesn't "think" in the same linear way that the head does.
therapydoc said…
Exactly, which is why accepting where we're at beats fighting it all the time.
Isle Dance said…
They have feelings. I just know it. :o)
Alice said…
I've kept simple goldfish for a long time now. They apparently have very good eyesight, with an optimum range of about 45cm (i.e. they can focus on you best if you're within about 45cm away). They often recognise at least the person who feeds them.

The plastic bag and freezer option is my preferred method too. Plastic bags full of water are soft and flexible so most comfortable to move fish in, and slowly freezing makes a fishes' body shut down so it gently looses consciousness before it dies.

If you're sure you're going to lose one anyway, the freezer option can save days of agony and give diseases less time to get transferred to other fish.

Always difficult to make the decision though.
therapydoc said…
Thanks, Anon, Alice. So freezing the fish is like the morphine drip? Any docs out there? Is it true? Those of us who are always cold still have to wonder.
Alix B. said…
How is the other fish? Was the water contaminated?