Surviving Susie

I’ve told Susie’s story many times, almost always at pastors’ conferences. It seems every pastor has a ‘Susie’. The story is not mine but Joel Freeman’s in his delightfully titled book Kingdom Zoology.* (Susie is not the real name of the person he describes.)

Susie approaches Pastor Freeman with these words: ‘Everyone else I have talked to has ultimately abandoned me..’ They’d all given up on her, but Pastor Freeman had preached about unconditional love, so surely he’d help. ‘I know that you won’t abandon me,’ she said.

Freeman calls himself a turkey ready to be plucked by this damsel in distress. His ‘Messiah Complex’ kicked into high gear. He was flattered that she needed him. He’d ride to the rescue. He wouldn’t give up on Susie.

So he promised his help, day or night, and gave her his home number. The inevitable followed: Susie began calling at all hours including the middle of the night. And she could ‘talk like a windstorm with gusts up to fifty miles per hour!’

His wife spoke with Susie too, but was soon drained and gave up after three days. Freeman persevered and got the whole story – how her life was going nowhere, she felt constantly guilty, had a strange relationship with her mother, and men were out of favour. She panicked at any sound of disapproval from Freeman. But conversations went nowhere. Every idea was destroyed by excuses and circular reasoning.

After five days Freeman snapped when the phone rang at 3.15 a.m. He listened as Susie described a weird dream about Hitler playing a piano, but then he cut in, told her this could wait for a better time, that she could sleep anytime but he couldn’t, that he was tired and needed to rest now, and she could call him tomorrow. With that he slammed down the phone and unplugged the cord.

Susie was far from a happy lady. Freeman says he faced ‘an intense case of verbal assault and battery’. She asked what kind of Christian he was because he’d said he’d never abandon her. He was a hypocrite like all the others. On and on she went, making him feel angry, guilty and defensive. ‘She was an expert, and I was putty in her hands,’ he says.

Freeman leaves Susie’s story there. There were a few more Susies before he learned lessons, including the dynamics of a victim/rescuer relationship. His words made a lot of sense to me as a pastor, though experience also taught me there are no easy answers when someone has desperate problems.

But ‘Susies’ – and I’ll keep using that name to avoid revealing anyone’s identity – don’t just have problems. They use their problems to build a relationship with a willing listener because that attention is significant for them.

Before sharing insights and policies I implemented, let me say that dealing with Susie isn’t just an issue for pastors or others in caring professions. Susie can be a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbour, a fellow golfer or church member – anyone who sees you as the person to whom they can pour out their troubles and use to prop up their challenging life.

Here are my lessons and best practices.

I had to beware my strong desire to care. Thankfully many of us sincerely love others. It’s such a good thing to do, Jesus listed loving your neighbour as the second greatest commandment of all. So, how can you just turn away someone genuinely distressed, overwhelmed with their problems? You can’t. But that’s not the same as becoming deeply involved with their needs. Sharing someone else’s burden too easily devolves into carrying it for them, and then it becomes near impossible to lay down.

Also, there’s a dangerous flattery in being asked to help. Freeman felt that with Susie. ‘My ego was stroked’ he writes. She saw a depth of wisdom in him she’d never found in others. It’s hard to recognise or accept, but in trying to meet another’s needs, we may be satisfying our own need to be needed. A ‘need to be needed’ is insatiable, and can draw us into seriously unwise relationships.

I had to get real about how much I could really help. Initially I didn’t realise three things:

  1. I was often out of my depth. I was trained deeply in theology but very little in psychology or counselling. What my Susies needed was well beyond my understanding or skill set.
  2. The problems were Susie’s, not mine, and Susie had to find and own the answers or they would never be fixed. I could help but I could not solve.
  3. The Susies I knew kept inventing or revealing new problems, guaranteeing the ‘counselling’ would never end. My attention and support were what Susie wanted, not a resolution to her troubles.

Susies can be Simons. In other words, the highly needy people I encountered were not all female. Men were just as unsettled and anxious, but on the whole shunned attention initially. They’d try to resolve their issues alone. When they couldn’t, and anxiety and insecurity grew, then they sought help. Soon they could be as needy as any Susie. George would invite me to meet him for lunch, because, he said, he wanted to encourage me. So we’d get together and George would talk incessantly about his disappointments and problems. Not a word of encouragement for me. (And, though he’d invited me, he didn’t pay for lunch.)

I had to set the limits. I told a more experienced colleague that I was finding myself enmeshed in lengthy counselling with some people. He described how he controlled his counselling appointments. ‘I never meet with someone for more than one hour,’ he said. ‘They know that before we start.’ But, I explained, just when the conversation is ending, Susie will suddenly tell me something new and important about her life. ‘Exactly!’ he replied. ‘And so I tell my counselee that’s great because it’s where we’ll start talking when our next appointment comes.’

He was right. My counselling was going on so long because I’d fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Susies were dropping juicy morsels whenever they sensed the conversation might end to make sure it didn’t end. I had to set limits and keep to them.

I couldn’t be the permanent crutch for someone’s life. I had congratulated myself that those I supported had told me things no-one else knew. ‘And no-one else can know’ they’d say firmly. I was wrong to agree to that total confidentiality. There can be legal obligations to disclose facts to authorities, and counsellors should have accountability and support for their work. But, even setting those aside, the consequence of being the sole prop for someone’s life is the inability to remove yourself. Their stability now depends on you, and you can’t leave them with no support. You wish you’d never got into that position, but you did. And so the relationship runs on indefinitely.

One of my friends shared how he defined in advance the number of times he’d counsel someone. Usually it was a maximum of four or five. During that time he’d set his counselee steps to be taken towards wholeness or problem resolution. Those might be new behaviours, or sharing their struggle with another person, or apologising, or something else appropriate. If, by the next time they talked, nothing had been done about those action steps, the meetings would stop until action was taken. Side-stepping issues and excuses were common, but they were usually unacceptable reasons. Unless someone would make positive moves towards wholeness, the process couldn’t continue. In general, my friend’s method had wisdom. The alternative may be never-ending counselling.

Susie’s behaviour can become seriously inappropriate. It feels presumptuous to believe someone else will behave badly. But it’s naïve to assume a needy person’s attachment will stay within proper limits.

One of my Susies lived on my route home from church, and, because she didn’t have a car and might have to wait for a bus on a dark, rainy night, I’d occasionally give her a lift. After a while I became aware that she was stranded without a ride home more often than before. I learned too late that Susie was declining other offers of transport, telling people I’d already promised to take her home. That wasn’t true. The final time came one night when, as I pulled in beside her house, she reached her hand behind my head, leaned over and made a determined attempt to kiss me on the mouth. She caught me by surprise, but thankfully I reacted quickly and avoided contact. I told her in an angry voice that what she’d done was unacceptable and not at all wanted by me, and she needed to get out of the car immediately. She did. I drove home, still angry, and immediately told Alison what had happened.

She wasn’t the only Susie who became amorous, and I began to invite my female pastoral team colleague to sit in on meetings. Needless to say, the counselee wasn’t thrilled, but it wasn’t her decision to make.

Anyone who thinks they’re invulnerable to inappropriate behaviour is either naïve or wears armour.

You have to make decisions you can live with. You need to be able to find peace with your conscience.

It wasn’t common but occasionally I’d get a desperate call in the middle of the night. I had a phone right beside the bed, so would struggle into some kind of wakefulness and listen as someone described how terrible they felt. Alison would tell me next morning how calm and attentive I’d seemed; not at all what I was thinking at the time.

The call one night was from one of my Susies. I knew her struggles very well. But this time she was calling me at 1.00 in the morning from a phone box near the shore. In the dark that was not a safe place for her to be. I listened, I reassured, I encouraged her, and gave other counsel as best I could. All the time a voice in my head said ‘Get dressed, drive down and rescue Susie’. And another voice said ‘Do that and you’ll have to be her rescuer every night she feels troubled’. I listened to the second voice. I shared all the hopeful, positive things I could with Susie, she became calmer, and I gently brought the conversation to an end. As I settled down to sleep, I didn’t know for sure what Susie would do next. It could be the worst. If that happened, would I be able to live with my conscience? I believed I could. Thankfully Susie went home to her bed.

Families matter more. I’ve put that statement last in my list, not because it’s less important but because it’s more important. I want it to be the most remembered paragraph of all. I’ve never forgotten a cartoon drawing I saw years ago. It portrayed a clergyman heading off for work, with his wife and children farewelling him. Her parting words to him were: ‘How about switching things round today: be mean with those you meet doing your work, then come home and be nice to us’. Ouch! That cartoon likely made a lot of pastors feel guilty.

Someone once told me, ‘We hurt the ones closest to us because they’ll forgive us’. That’s true, but it’s not how it should be. Our families may be understanding and forgiving, but putting them behind everyone else who claims our time is simply wrong. It’s verging on cruel. When we look back over the years, it’ll be our biggest regret. Unless, that is, we change while there’s time. Susie is not more important than our families.

Let me finish with the story I heard directly from Pastor Tom. He’d counselled his Susie many times, but her problems and worries were endless. She’d call him at all hours. But one night – when the phone rang at 2 o’clock in the morning – he’d had enough. He told her: ‘Susie, go and stand outside, look up at the myriad of stars in the sky, and tell yourself that the God who made all this is well able to look after my problems. And then go back to bed.’ That said, he swiftly put the phone down.

We could all question the rightness of that approach, but I suspect we understand why Tom said it.

*Freeman, Joel (1991/3), Kingdom Zoology, Word (UK).