Mother’s Day Runaway

Days of compulsory celebration can produce a paradoxical effect. Some people are encouraged, once again, to confront feelings of discomfort about parents who invalidated, neglected, or abused them. The demands for holiday observance now take over the job your family and relatives expected of you early on.

The experience is rather like being caught in a vise: May 13, 2018 on one side, June 17, 2018 on the other, pushing together to squeeze the life out of you – you, who are in the middle.

Of course, you might be the lucky soul who had good, or at least adequate parenting, from those whose love and care did the job imperfectly, (it is always imperfect), but did it on balance. Or, you might be a person who was abandoned, a step-parent who never receives full acknowledgment, or simply a child who lost a parent who did the job and had the beloved mom or dad snatched away by events or illness.

How do you feel? Here is an answer from someone who has made her personal experience universal. She has done so with unsurpassed eloquence.

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

Mother’s Day can be difficult, in so many different ways, but it still feels as though only some of those ways are publicly acknowledged, or socially acceptable. It hit me again this morning, when I was listening to the radio and the presenter played a song for those who find the day painful – it was a song about a son’s grief at the loss of his mother. There are no songs that I know of, about a child’s grief at the presence of a parent; or at not having a different one. There is nowhere to hide from Mother’s Day and nowhere to run to, for those who find it difficult because they have, to use Dr Terri Apter’s phrase, ‘difficult mothers’. If this is you, I hope my post for the therapy website welldoing.org is helpful, or at least is a reminder, during the many triggering moments that…

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Varieties of Parental Inadequacy: Injury Without Abuse

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As the photo suggests, we are vulnerable when little. While we tend to think of physical mistreatment in this connection, damage can be caused without corporal or sexual violence. Injury is also possible in the absence of withering and repetitive verbal attacks. Moreover, an absence of love isn’t always the cause.

What else might constitute inadequate parenting? Here are five categories:

  • A parent’s use of his or her child as a validating object. An insecure parent can look to the tot for affirmation. In effect, the little girl or boy is transformed into a scorekeeper on the adult’s worth. If the kiddy is well-behaved, the caretaker feels better about himself. When the tiny one is distressed, however, the mom or dad becomes rattled. A parent who does not know how to manage his own emotions will attempt to shut down the child’s feelings to reassure himself. A sensitive child — one who is attuned to the parent’s distress — might then develop the habit of scanning the adult for signs of upset. At an unconscious level, he does not wish the emotional collapse of a person essential to his fragile life. Rather than blame the parent and deal with the scary recognition of his shakiness, he is inclined to blame himself. This is often reinforced when admonished that he is doing wrong or “should be a big boy.”

Because of the offspring’s need for the parent’s approval and stability, such a young one tends to sit on his emotions, deadening them. He defines them as inappropriate or bad and perceives himself as a problem. Carried forward into adulthood, people with this upbringing might “fake” their way through life; meanwhile (internally) believing their human desire for comfort is unacceptable. They further assume any affective upset (such as we all suffer) must be kept invisible within the showcase of personal relationships. Fear of doing some undefinable disqualifying thing becomes a pervasive worry. The individual is shadowed by the sense of being “too much” for everyone.

  • Emotional sterility, neglect, and favoritism. I’ve treated the children of parents who did not adequately supervise them, were more emotionally involved with work or community activities than their young one, who were absent on trips of business or pleasure for long and frequent periods, and those who communicated a preference for a sibling or even someone else’s child. All the while there was food and shelter. None of this attends to the kid’s emotional needs, communicates his value, or produces a strong sense of self. It is important to note, however, that in a world of demanding jobs and stagnant wages, the parent may have no choice in the matter of “being there.”
  • Needing the child’s approval. Children need parents with the will power, strength, and motivation to be consistent — hold to limits. A parent lacking resilience or self-confidence is unlikely to take charge when necessary. An elder who is desperate for the offspring’s affection and approval risks allowing his girl or boy to determine the rules, what she is permitted to do, what he is allowed to “have.” Kids are sometimes called “spoiled,” not because the caretaker wishes to instill that quality, but because he is afraid to say “no.” He fears the faucet of the child’s love will be shut. Authority collapses.

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  • Parent/child role reversal. A needy parent can use the youngster as a kind of friend or therapist, confiding depression and loneliness, criticizing the spouse, and offering details of a sex life no offspring wants to hear ever. Such kids sometimes become parental surrogates to their elders, taking on the world to protect the mom or dad from emotional disintegration. I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have heard tales of youngsters expected to accompany mom on her detective work to discover a cheating spouse. Some youth are assigned the job of asking for the child support, encouraged to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with a sire, lie to the other parent, or cover money mismanagement by one of the household heads. The pattern does not necessarily end in childhood. Grown-ups are requested to double-date with a divorced mom or dad with the implied plea to compensate for his woeful social life.
  • Parental illness or loss: Parents running on empty. Child neglect is not always intended. The household head who is ill or out-of-commission cannot give attention to the job of parenting. No emotional reserves exist. The common adaptation of kids in this situation is to become a pseudo-adult. When a parent is laid-low by the loss of a spouse, due either to divorce or death, he or she becomes inadequate to the task of managing the home. Now the child must deal with the loss of two: one literally absent, the other a vaporous shadow of his previous self. Any attempt to grab hold of the apparent parent fails. If this youngster is older than his sibs, ministering to the others becomes his role. A lifetime as an emotional caretaker can follow from the assignment of the job at an early age.

The damage inflicted on children in the cases described is considerable. Yet if the standard of adequate parenting is material well-being or the lack of frank abuse, those young ones might be considered “cared for.” When they enter therapy they are often looking for a way to be healed without indicting their folks. In the absence of attention to the full range of parental behavior, treatment misses the point. Grief cannot be expressed except by identifying the wound. The elders are done no harm in the confines of a therapist’s office no matter what the client says, unless they are physically present.

Some injuries leave no visible marks, but must be healed all the same. Think PTSD. The patient’s hurt is patient, waiting, waiting, waiting. The spirit drains away and needless suffering persists.

The highway of life is long, but not infinite. Midnight does come. Don’t postpone confronting your pain until the carriage turns into a pumpkin.

The top image is called Baby Toss, as captured by Mike. The second image is a 1950 poster for the Austrian Socialist Party. The text reads “Happy Family, happy Vienna — Vote SPOE.” It is the work of Matthaeuswien. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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The Most Remarkable Person I Ever Met

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You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street.

It’s not that she isn’t attractive, but it is an attractive middle-age — no competition for her younger, “knock-out” self.

But if you did happen to look closely, the thing that you’d see would be the kindness in her face: a most uncommon capacity for affection, forgiveness, and grace.

She is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met; someone with terrible luck, especially early on, but an emotional generosity that would cause even a sceptic to believe that humanity just might come out on the side of the angels, after all.

Her mother was, of all things, a social worker. But whatever mom knew about social work, she forgot as soon as she came home. Her youngest — my patient (let’s call her Maggie) — was an active, pretty little girl.

Could mom have been jealous?

Mother favored Maggie’s older brother, (let’s call him Tom) a beefy, muscular giant of a young man who was his high school’s resident athlete and hero early, turned bully and trouble maker late. By 14 he was a drug addict, which only fueled an already unbridled, violent streak. That quality initially made him a boxing and wrestling powerhouse, before it made him an ungovernable monster.

But he was clever, only beating on his sister when his folks were at work or away, usually careful not to leave marks that couldn’t be passed off as his sister’s clumsiness. When Maggie complained to mom, mom sided with her male child. And when teachers saw this young girl looking distracted and downcast, unable to concentrate and lost in daydreams, they just thought about how unruly her older brother was, and assumed that his sister practiced a less overt form of disobedience and disrespect.

What about dad? He was a decent, but weak man. While he sympathized with his daughter and believed her stories about Tom (in part because he once — just barely — prevented Maggie’s death by strangulation), dad’s own alcoholism made him an inadequate advocate and defender. Moreover, his job took him out-of-town for days at a time. And when he wasn’t there, Maggie was an easier target for her mother’s verbal abuse, mom’s claims that she lied about Tom, and brother’s use of Maggie as a punching bag.

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The family was divided into opposing camps. Mother held the metaphorical whip-hand, angry at her husband for his weakness and addiction, angry at her daughter for her beauty and closeness to dad. Tom became almost a substitute marital partner for Maggie’s mom, without the sex. He was the one she admired and did things for. He was the one she protected. He was the one she believed, no matter how preposterous his stories were.

Maggie lived in fear of her own death at the hands of a drug-crazed brother, terrified of standing up to people and voicing opinions that might be criticized, and desperate for affection and safety. She learned to follow orders.

Not surprisingly, as she got older she drifted into her own alcohol abuse and escape from reality; and into relationships with men who initially looked to be protective, but inevitably turned out to be unkind at best, abusive and selfish at worst.

Her therapy process was a long one. She needed to grieve the events of her childhood: the weakness and death of her father, rage and weep over the abuse she suffered, grapple with a mother who was no mother, and a brother who was a criminal and her tormentor. Maggie had to learn how to value herself more highly and stand-up for herself more routinely.

Meanwhile, Tom’s life of antisocial behavior eventually became impossible for even Maggie’s mother to deny. He spent time in prison when he wasn’t ripping-off friends and associates, selling drugs, and abusing his own wife and children. The children came to hate him. And in middle-age, the combination of 40 years of drug abuse and diabetes began to show. Increasingly isolated and alone, he reached out to the sister who had finally gotten him out of her life.

By now Maggie and her mother were closer, the same mother who all but trained her son to go after Maggie like an attack dog. To some extent mom apologized. And when the mother became infirm, Maggie cared for her.

Now Maggie confronted Tom. No longer the bully, he had become a man in a more dependent position. Tom had almost no friends, lived alone in poverty, and received subsidies from the state to pay for his medical needs, groceries, and rent.

His diet ignored the encroaching diabetes and its increasing claim of his lower extremities, to the point of becoming wheel chair-bound. Much of his money still went to drugs. Every day meant another chance — a requirement, a necessity — to score. His government check came at the beginning of the month so that by month’s end, having purchased drugs to remain high for as much time as possible as soon as possible, he had little to pay for food.

Maggie confronted her brother with his physical abuse. He told her that he had no recollection of it, but didn’t say that he disbelieved her. Indeed, Tom said that he knew she wasn’t lying, but blamed the drugs for his lack of memory. Was he lying? Was Tom in denial himself? Or had the drug-induced haze of his teens given way to a drug-generated brain damage that genuinely robbed him of his ability to recall those events that she remembered so painfully?

With the mother’s death, Maggie’s brother was the only surviving close family member. And, in his distress, the most extraordinary thing happened. Maggie was kind to him, affectionate, and tried her best to help him make his life less miserable, a life that represented the just deserts for his misanthropy and criminality.

For the most part, Maggie no longer put-up with her brother’s crap. She challenged his lies, sometimes going as much as a year without talking to him because of his persistent abuse of his own body and reluctance to put himself in treatment for his addiction.

But, when they did have contact, she was able to laugh with him and worry about him and feel sorry for him. Not because he had earned any of this, but simply because her basic human decency and loving nature could not do otherwise. When he had surgeries, she always came to his bedside, even though she lived in another state.

Inexplicably, whatever lingering anger Maggie had for her sibling vanished. She had come to see him as someone who was in the grip of an addiction that was costing him his life, but no longer capable of doing anything to free himself.

At the end, when Tom’s organs started to fail, he called her and let her know that the doctors said he would be dead in a matter of days. She traveled again to the in-hospital death vigil. Even Tom’s children wanted no part of him by this time. And, for two weeks, Maggie (nearly bankrupt herself) lived in a motel near the medical facility and spent each day and evening at Tom’s bedside, ministering to the brother who had tormented her and crushed her; holding his hand and soothing him in whatever way she could.

Near the time of his death, nurses and staff came up to Maggie individually and made a simple request: “May I hug you?” Maggie embraced each of them as they told her that they had never before seen the kind of devotion and cheerful tenderness that they’d witnessed in those two weeks of Maggie’s shining presence at Tom’s mattress-grave.

“We see so many families that can’t seem to be bothered, that call and ask whether the relative is still alive, that just can’t bear it or don’t take the time.”

The hospital staff saw Maggie as extraordinary. And they didn’t even know her history of abuse or that the man who lay dying was Maggie’s abuser.

And when her brother died, Maggie wept for him.

You may be asking, how can all this be explained?

I know that I would not have behaved as admirably as Maggie did.

In trying to understand it for myself, here is the best I’ve been able to do.

First, I must eliminate two explanations. Maggie’s behavior was not a function of some deep-seated and thoroughly-considered study of moral philosophy. She was not an abstract thinker, steeped in the world of ancient wisdom and people like Socrates, Epictetus, and Kant; but lived instead in the real world of practicality and daily challenges.

Nor was this woman very religious. Thus, her actions didn’t spring from reliance on holy text, a profoundly held belief in God, or even something as simple as church attendance, which she had long since given up.

No, the best I can do is to say that some few people like Maggie are just “good.” Not the kind of good that is relatively convenient. Not the kind that gives money to charity or volunteers at the soup kitchen, as “good” as those actions are. They are good at a level that confounds understanding — so good “by nature” and by choice that they don’t seem bound by man-made rules, expectations, or necessities.

They are the kind of people who put their lives at risk to save strangers and then think nothing of it and never say a word about it. It is as if their brains and their hearts don’t work as they do for all the rest of us.

In a funny way, they are alien — as if from another world.

Certainly a better world, if such a place exists.

When I tell you that being a therapist is privilege, in part, it is because it has allowed me to know just a few people like this.

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The top photo, Caring Hands, is described as follows: “An Iraqi girl from the Janabi Village waits in line with her dad to be examined by an Iraqi doctor, Yusufiyah, Iraq, March 02, 2008. The Medical Operation was conducted by U.S. Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and the Sons of Iraq (Abna al-Iraq).” The U.S. Army photo was taken by Spc. Luke Thornberry.

The next photo, also from 2008, is called A Caring Mom, taken by  A Frank Wouters.

The final image is Helping the Homeless by Ed Yourdan. The author writes:

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street (in New York City). It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance…

With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right.

I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thought about for some time…

What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man; they gave him the food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him…

All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Searching for Sanctuary and the Kindness of Strangers

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Sometimes it is the next door neighbor or the checkout lady at the store. Sometimes it is a friend’s mom or dad. Sometimes it is an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent or a teacher.

Their role is to provide a glimmer of hope, kindness, and a little bit of the love that by rights should come from the parent, but doesn’t; just enough to make life tolerable; just enough to get the child through the bitterness of life at home with some small sense of self-worth and the hope that the future might be better.

Benign and caring adults are remembered all your life, even if you passed through a less than dire childhood.

I can recall two men in my own life who showed kindness and an interest in me, whose connection felt good to me, who offered respect and seemed to enjoy the times that we talked. One would play catch with me on occasion, something I dearly treasured because my father was often at work. Mr. Maddock, our next door neighbor, was a handsome man with two sons of his own, but always had a good word and took the time to say it.

Another, Bob Hanel’s dad, a man tall and slender, talked baseball with me when he walked down the alley with his small dog. “Such a big man and such a small dog,” I remember thinking. He was blond, like his crew cut son. The younger Hanel, my older buddy Bob, became a dentist, I believe.

And, now that I think of it, there was the owner of a soda shop/candy store on Lincoln Avenue near Washtenaw, Mr. Sharon, who was loved by all the kids who frequented his establishment. A roundish and white-haired man with a warm and soothing manner, and a ready smile. He called me “son,” a common mode of address from a “stranger” to a male child in the ’50s and ’60s that implied a certain kind of protective relationship between a man and a boy.

A heart condition eventually laid Mr. Sharon low and he had to sell the store.

Ironic that his heart should have caused him trouble, because — for me at least  — his heart was the best part of him.

I’m sure that adults who fill this saving role in the lives of troubled kids think nothing of what they are doing. They probably don’t know how tough it is for the child.

Parents usually succeed in hiding these things from the public. The household ethic is to keep up appearances. And the warning is never to talk about what happens inside the house while out of the house. Most children keep to this admonition, honoring the parents’ concern for reputation over reality, not wishing to disappoint mom or dad by an act that would be considered disloyal.

So much can be achieved for kids like this, just by being stable, smiling, asking a question, offering a cookie or a soft drink.

It means the world:

My last name begins with the letter “M.” Jane’s begins with “N,” so she sat behind me in the first grade. We lived just a block from each other. We became friends.

The first time I was allowed to go to Jane’s house, I was amazed at how different it was from my home.

Janes’s mother was out of bed, dressed, made meals, did laundry, cleaned their home and took Jane and her siblings places outside their house. I felt terribly sorry for them. Everyone knew that moms were supposed to lay in bed all day and give orders!

Making meals, cleaning, laundry, etc. were what the maid did. They didn’t even have a maid!

As I later realized, my mom’s illnesses were the kind that no doctor could diagnose, nor persuade my mother that they did not exist.

My family had more money that Jane’s. In retrospect, it must have been a hardship to keep feeding me, year after year, yet Mrs. N never even hinted that I should go home. Not even once.

Jane’s father came home every evening and had dinner with the family. Very strange. I wondered why he wasn’t always at work like my dad.  Jane’s father wasn’t all that fond of my omnipresence, however.

I’m guessing Mrs. N never let him tell me to go away.

Over the years, Jane and I became inseparable. We spent almost every waking moment together. We  did this at Jane’s house, rarely at mine. My home was bigger — had more room and more quiet. Neither one of us wanted to be there, although it was never discussed, simply understood. We played at her house, we ate dinner at her house, every weekend I slept at her house. This went on from age seven to approximately age 16.

During all this time, I never realized what a gift Mrs. N was to me. It was only much later that I came to understand that this woman probably saved me. I had a safe place to go. I had a place where no one criticized me. Where people were alive, not constantly “dying.” It was a relief not to be in the tomb I called home.

My mother believed that if something was easy for her, it should automatically be easy for me. One day she wanted me to swallow a Coricidin capsule. I couldn’t. My usually “bed-ridden” mother chased me around the house trying to force me to swallow. At last I was backed into a corner in the kitchen and told that I was going to swallow that pill or “I am going to know the reason why!”

It wasn’t a pretty day. Pill swallowing was enormously difficult for me. I don’t remember if I ever got that pill down.

As soon as I could, I fled to Jane’s house. Mrs. N made no comment about the incident. I’m not sure if it was then or a little later she suggested that if I put a tablet in a little applesauce, it might make it easier to swallow. It worked and mother never gave me grief about pills again.

As a young adolescent, I would run away from home, usually leaving in the middle of the night. I’d walk the streets of our neighborhood. Eventually, I’d head for Jane’s house and climb in the front window.

The first time this happened, Mrs. N was up waiting for me. My mother had called her looking for me. Somehow Jane’s mom knew that I’d show up at her house. She immediately called my mother, who had called the police. Mrs. N then said she would put me to bed with Jane.

For a couple of years, I ran away a lot. The police told my mother not to call them anymore. Eventually, she stopped noticing that I was gone. So, when I was ready to come back, I’d just crawl in through the window in Jane’s house, not my own. Mrs. N let me.

No critical comments.

She never, ever told me I was a bad kid who should stay home.

She never told me not to do it.

She simply accepted me.

On rare occasions, she would very subtly say something that led me to believe she didn’t approve of the way my family treated me. However, she never put down anything my family did.

Twice a year my father would take me shopping for seasonal clothes, to up-scale stores like Marshall Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue.  I had nicer clothes and many more of them than Jane and her siblings.  When, on occasion, Mrs N would be taking Jane and her other children shopping for clothes, she took them to what we called “schlock shops.” Basically, these were the counterparts of today’s Loehmann’s.

She would take me also. I wonder if she knew how wonderful it was to have a woman’s point of view and a “family” experience?

Mrs N never said a word, really. There was just her unending acceptance. I actually thought it was normal, unremarkable. After all, Jane and I were best friends. She never let me believe that I was getting anything special.

Mrs. N allowed me to be in every part of her family life throughout my entire childhood. I never wondered, until this very minute, if she loved me.  Perhaps so. Perhaps not. I was not exactly a lovable child. Yet, she saved me. I don’t know if she did it consciously. Although I think she knew how desperately I needed her.

The years went by. Jane moved out-of-state. The only time I saw Mrs. N was when Jane came home for a visit with her husband, and later, their children. Once again, I fell back into Jane’s family. I hung-out at Mrs. N’s house whenever I could. She was still welcoming and accepting.

When I got married I asked Jane to be the matron of honor in our very small wedding. My husband and I had no plans after the ceremony. The next thing I knew, there was a luncheon following — given by Mrs. N at her home.

Mrs. N died a while ago. In adulthood, I often tried to tell her she saved me and how much I had come to appreciate her. She pooh-poohed me. Yet, she was always there for me, without my really knowing it.

That, I think, was the greatest gift of all.

The above image is I Wait, an 1872  photo of Rachel Gurney by Julia Margaret Cameron, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f9/Parents_with_child_Statue_Hrobakova_street_Bratislava.JPG/500px-Parents_with_child_Statue_Hrobakova_street_Bratislava.JPG

Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.