Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Remarkable Recovery From Unspeakable Grief and PTSD

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Some stories stick with you. The word “heartbreaking” is not enough to describe them; nor do “resilience,” “survival,” and “overcoming misery” say enough.” Yet all those words apply.

The therapist in the tale who helped enable a positive conclusion was Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D. He related this account in a video focused on finding meaning in the aftermath of trauma: PTSD & Complex PTSD: Ways to Bolster Resilience. 

Don’t read further if you wish to avert your eyes from tragedy, but understand this: you cannot know of the treatment that allowed for a redemptive, healing story unless you face it.

The woman: a young, bright, intelligent mother. A good mother. Her husband was away on a business trip. Home held only her daughter and herself. An intruder could be heard downstairs. Mom entered Vicky’s room and they hid in her closet. The burglars left without going upstairs. The event upset both Vicky and the mother, worried such an episode might happen when the husband/father traveled once more to make his living. The adults installed a security system and alerted the police. They lived in a safe neighborhood. No reason to expect another forced entry. Still, the man insisted his wife get a gun, just in case. She did not like firearms, but relented. The night stand next to her bed harbored the weapon.

Time passed. The man traveled again. Late and stormy darkness. Noises downstairs. Was the mother dreaming, reliving an imaginary or remembered version of the home invasion?

No. No. No. Not again.

Yes, again.

The mother urgently reached for the gun and moved toward her bedroom door to go to Vicky’s room, just as she had the first time. Vicky came running and pushed the mom’s door open. It struck the mother’s hand and the firearm discharged. Vicky died immediately. The mother sat with her dead daughter for 24-hours until the husband returned.

No words are possible. The parents’ lives were forever changed. Guilt, horror, marital separation, grief, depression. Even loving friends became unavailable, unable to bear the story. Alienation and isolation. As the mother saw it, a life not worth living. She deserved to die.

What is a therapist to do? He can never undo the tragedy, but perhaps he can help the survivor to find a reason to live, a meaning for the rest of her life. Here is what Meichenbaum did:

The psychologist knew his job was first to establish a therapeutic alliance, to show compassion, and accept, not judge. He needed to allow the patient to tell her story as she was able, permit its unfolding, not push. A plan to prevent the woman’s self-harm was created. The therapist allowed his emotions to be touched. His own tears came as he listened.

The psychologist asked a question to understand more about the loss. The client had said that Vicky was “special.”

In what way?

She was wise beyond her years.

The first session ended and the doctor arranged a second appointment in two days’ time. Meichenbaum made a request. He said he would be “honored and privileged” if mom brought in a photo album of Vicky, but only if she wanted to: no pressure. He wished to get a further sense of who the child was.

Reviewing the pictures together was painful in the extreme. Yet this marked the beginning of the doctor’s effort to embed the only moment the mother focused on (the accident and death) within a broader narrative of Vicky’s life and her own life: to pull his client out of the single instant of horror into the stream of her ongoing existence — perhaps to create a potential redemptive story projected into the future.

This is not to suggest any kind of treatment would ever erase the pain or guilt completely. Yet, it might still be possible to help the mother give Vicky’s memory meaning. And perhaps to transform the patient’s life in the process.

The therapist asked his client another question. Two, actually. He wanted to know what this child (who was “wise beyond her years”) might say to the parent’s wish for oblivion:

What advice would Vicky give and what would happen to the memory of her if you kill yourself?

The mother affirmed the obvious answers which had escaped her: Vicky would not want her to die. Moreover, the memory of Vicky would also die with the death of the one who knew her best. Meichenbaum’s questions led her to realize she might do some good in the world, something to perpetuate Vicky’s memory and give meaning to the child’s short life. Treatment continued. Mom became a public advocate for gun locks and gun safety, thus transforming her loss and honoring Vicky.

In part, Donald Meichenbaum assisted the patient to fashion a new story of her own life different from one ending with two deaths. She became aware her time on earth was not yet completed. And that Vicky’s impact on the world offered a potential future, if only the parent gave her daughter a metaphorical life — gave voice to what her daughter’s death could still achieve.

This is not at all to suggest the mother wouldn’t have traded anything — anything — to get Vicky back. Yet, the mom might yet continue her existence with a constructive narrative of redeeming value in spite of complicity in the child’s loss.

Meichenbaum is famous for asking questions — for creating a Socratic Dialogue with his patients. He did not give his patient advice, but led the conversation so she might grasp the next rung on the ladder of recovery, not simply be handed it. Therapists should know “directions” from the counselor don’t produce as much “ownership” of the treatment process, nor as much motivation to change, as occurs when he helps the client uncover her own way, not just follow advice.

Might you also find your own way? Might the rest of your story be one of value?

What do YOU say?

The photo is titled Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari and it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking for Answers Where There are only Questions: Relationships that Haunt Us

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Shoulders exist to look back over. We can’t help ourselves. Ghosts — those who are absent — hang out behind, in blighted corners of the mind. Oh, they might be with someone else or in purgatory, but they are just as surely gone in either case. Not forgotten, but gone.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light; from the sadness of the ending to your recovery.

We hope to scrape off the sticky relationship-residue, caustic to the soul.  We search for a satisfying explanation of why things ended. You want to know what happened, bottom to top, left to right, inside out.

One fights to squeeze understanding out of the wet cloth of the past. It seems impossible to reach what is behind you. Your arms are too short, your shoulders resist. Hard as you try, no feat of strength lifts the fog or warms the clinging chill of loneliness. Nor does total comprehension come to you. It feels as though sadness or anger shall follow you all the days of your life, and certainly preoccupation with the way things died. Perhaps the objective side of you knows otherwise, but you are hip-deep in the subjective. A future will only be visible when “night-gloom and damp” are burned off by dawn. It seems infinitely far away: an event that is in front of you while you are twisting your body to look at what is receding.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light. Yes, I am repeating myself.

We begin by trying to figure out why he left or why he cheated or why he wasn’t satisfied. Or why we weren’t satisfied when we “should” have been. We despise our mistakes and our stupidity. Guilt wracks us even if there is no reason for self-blame. We speculate for hours and nights and weeks: why did he criticize and judge us or vice versa? Why didn’t we say something when we could have, before the lights of love or friendship went out?

Why didn’t he tell us? Should we have read his mind?

Why did he embarrass us or we humiliate him? Why, despite everything we did to please him, were we “not enough?”

How did it  happen and might it have been otherwise? The “what ifs” are inescapable. What if we had done more or less? Spent more time or less? Smiled less or more? Set limits more or less? Been affectionate more or less? Been more diplomatic? Not given up so soon?

Remember, I am beside you on the walk.

It feels unique. Crucifixion is personal: singled out on a planet of seven billion. The world goes its indifferent way to the right and we are left, the fetid road kill of a random act of cosmic unkindness.

Wallace Stegner knew our pain. His 1967 novel, All the Live Little Things, reveals the topography of the dark night of the soul. His character, Joe Allston, has seen too much, sustained too many losses. A sixty-something married man living in the ’60s, his self-deadening fortifications against pain are penetrated by two emotional gophers who burrow under his Spartan guard: a young man who reminds him of his dead son and a young woman named Marian, full of ebullient life.

Marian accepts the world and does not judge or complain. “Live! Suffer! Enjoy! Wake up!” She is irrepressibly at one with the natural world as it is — with the terrible and wonderful consequences for her personally. She knows weeds and flowers are entangled, and to poison all the weeds of life will just as surely kill the flowers they surround. The platonic, but tender relationship between Joe and Marian opens Allston, nibbles away, and strips him bare, permitting fatherly affection for this young mother. Her glow warms him and he cannot prevent his guard from dropping, his soul from becoming vulnerable. She stimulates a new state of his being: the joy, pleasure-pain of experience, but also the exquisite awfulness love always exposes us to: the terror of loss he tried to bury by not allowing anything to matter too much.

Joe describes himself:

I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of the flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.

If you are struggling with loss you will find a soul mate in this haunted intellectual. Take solace in hearing another’s voice capture your feelings. His is a life bathed in loss, struggle, and resentment. The generation gap between himself and the “flower children” of the ’60s leaves him caustic. He has been at endless war with the creatures and weeds that would undermine his garden. He is the parent you are or you had — the one who judges and cannot surrender.

Joe is cursed by his thought process: he does not let an event pass without reflection and close inspection. Allston’s struggle is, like all of ours, unique but universal. He thinks we expect too much of life. Each one of us demands permanence where none exists. We pave over our heart’s driveway, hoping no pain will penetrate the concrete slabs, no cracks will ever form. One seeks relationships for lasting assurance and discovers the seeds of their endings present in their beginnings. Jobs start and end. Children joyfully explode into our world, only to leave for their own. The championship crown is for this season only. Next year someone else will wear the laurels.

Human lives — all lives — are in transit, so best to realize that every worldly destination is temporary. If one can, at least occasionally, “get” this, then you will make the most of life and its passing beauties. Yes, you will still stare over your shoulder and struggle with all the questions about what happened and what you might have done. The look back is both unavoidable and required to liberate yourself from what you’ve lost. The passage of time does the rest of the healing.

You can visit this psychological “yesterday,” but don’t stay, lest your backward glance prevent you from escaping the fog of grief and moving through to whatever the new day will offer.

Remember, we never get all the answers. Even if we were able to question the long departed, like Odysseus in the Underworld, the answers received might or might not satisfy, in part because the departed don’t know themselves: both their answers and their self-knowledge are imperfect.

After a while, the questions matter less. There is solace in this. Other people, other causes, laughter and loveliness can enrich you, reducing the need for the scoring key to yesterday’s test.

Your twisted neck wearies of its unnatural position. “Face forward,” wisdom whispers. “The race is in front, not behind. Life goes on. Comfort exists in what is still possible. Joy may yet be yours.”

The photo is called Looking Back. It is the work of Bill Nicholls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Jefferson and the Loss of Someone You Love

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I was not prepared for the shock of it. It was an event I’d feared since my father’s heart attack when I was 12 and had thought about frequently as he aged. But the notion that the stroke-out death of my 88-year-old father in the year 2000 would be a surprise — would catch me up-short — was not anticipated, despite all the people I had counseled in their grieving. It was the difference between knowing about a thing and living it.

Nor could I have imagined the almost animal-like pain, the inarticulate state of being that words can’t describe, and the feeling of emptiness that followed; something like an ache at the cellular level, a kind of psychic moan.

And then, for months, the feeling of fatigue, as if, in his dying, my father had also taken my life’s energy with him. My children eventually asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?”

And even when you do recover, as I did, you are never quite the same person you were before. The death of a parent is truly a life-changing event, one of those moments that one subsequently thinks about in terms of before and after; like other demarcated moments in life. Things like before you went to school and after, before you learned to drive and after, before you married and after, before you had children and after.

And yet, the event itself, the death of a parent before the death of his child, is a commonplace. It is the way things are supposed to work. Beyond a certain age, we all know that it will almost certainly happen. We see it happen to others. But this observational experience does not bring it home, make it real.

I can still tell you the name of the first person I knew to lose a parent. My classmate Marilyn Levin, some time around sixth grade. The event made an impression, a scary impression. And then, in high school Michael Karsen’s mother died. You note these things with a shudder and don’t know what to say to your classmate, so perhaps you say you’re sorry, or say nothing, or ignore the person — avoid eye contact. All because it is so terrible and, you think, “It could have happened to me. It still could.”

And finally, if you’re lucky, it happens only much later. By which time, again “if you are lucky,” you have gotten old enough that your children recognize that you are aging; that at some point you too will die. And now you have another reason to stay alive: to spare your children the pain of your demise.

No, spare is not the right word. Postpone is.

Life is like a relay race, batons passing from parent to child, to their children, and on and on. It has been going on since the beginning. It is the least remarkable thing about life, that it ends. And yet, it is the most serious and dreaded thing, as well.

If you live long enough, then you realize that life eventually becomes a series of goodbyes, departures. Not the life of your childhood, which was a constant flow of hellos, arrivals.

But what if you lose your spouse at a very early age? That is not “supposed” to happen. The third President of the United States knew about this all too well. When he was 39, Thomas Jefferson’s 33-year-old wife Martha died. The couple had been married just 10 years.

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Both of the Jeffersons enjoyed reading aloud to each other. One of their favorite books was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Martha was trying to read a portion to her husband as she lay dying, trying to convey her feelings about the separation that was soon coming. When she became too weak to speak the words, she began to write them:

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on —

When even this became too difficult, her husband picked up the pen and completed the passage from memory (see the image just above):

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

Jefferson is reported to have fainted when his dear wife died. He was carried from her bed. For three weeks he didn’t speak or leave his room. Only his daughter Patsy was finally able to bring him out of himself. She was later to write:

He walked almost incessantly night and day, lying down only when nature was completely exhausted on a palette that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. When at last he left his room, he rode out, and from that time he was incessantly on horseback, rambling about on the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods, and those melancholy rambles. I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson kept the small piece of paper on which he and his wife had their last literary dialogue. The paper and a lock of his wife’s hair, captured in an engraved locket he had made for the purpose, remained in a secret drawer next to his bed. Jefferson never remarried, although there is evidence that he did have a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

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Nineteen years after Martha’s death, Thomas Jefferson became President. He would die on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend John Adams, the nation’s second President. It was precisely 50 years after these men signed the Declaration of Independence, a document drafted by Jefferson.

Thus, the nation lost two of its founding fathers in 24 hours. But that is a different kind of loss and a different kind of story.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

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

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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.

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt