From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

Unlikely to Change: Our Parents

Parents may not change, but we can still express our feelings

This Mother’s Day was the tenth one for my brother Jake,* and me without our mother. Yet my father didn’t even so much as pick up the phone to inquire how I might be faring on this sad milestone. Several of my friends did, as well as my brother which I greatly appreciated. But my father; he’ll never change. Unfortunately for some inane reason, I used to keep the flames of hope alive.

When I finally call him, the conversation will go something like this:

:”Hi Dad, it’s me.”

“How are you?”

“Fine. You know, Sunday was Mother’s Day.”

“It was?”

“Yeah.”

“Well you got through it. What else is newsy?” (Newsy is his cutesy way of asking what’s new and hearing that comes out of an almost 80 year old man makes me nauseous.)

“Nothing Dad.”

“Okay, bye then.”

“Bye.”

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My father was what is now known as a functioning alcoholic until I turned thirteen; then he lost his job on Wall Street and got sober with the help of AA. He had been medicating an intractable depression with the booze, and now without Johnnie Walker Red, he became paralyzed by the symptoms of depression and he never worked again. He also never reached out for professional help.

When I became so ill with the anorexia and the psychotic depression in my late twenties (my parents divorced when I was a senior in college), it was my mother who I remember visiting me during my endless inpatient admissions, making sure I ate, and being my cheerleader and my best friend. I have virtually no recollection of my father participating in the dance of my recovery, through the countless ups and downs.

One of my major accomplishments was graduating with my master’s of social work. The graduation ceremony was held at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, home of the New York City Ballet and other great cultural performances. In the middle of the plaza, outside the performance halls, was a fountain where my mother, brother and I had arranged to meet my father and then head into the auditorium. I kept craning my neck in the direction of the subway looking for him but he never showed. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to please him, I interpreted his absence to say that a social work degree wasn’t good enough — I should have gone to medical school.

I hear numerous stories about parents from my patients; ones of sexual, physical, and emotional or verbal abuse. All can scar a child horribly and make it difficult for them to see themselves as valuable adults who are trauma survivors. A history of abuse can affect patients in many aspects of their lives; the ability to form healthy intimate relationships, to achieve in school, and subsequently, to attain and sustain fulfilling careers.

If the parent who was the abuser is still alive, the patient may be holding on to the belief or hope that their mother or father may change. I tell them that their mother, if she is 50, 60, or older, that she has been acting a certain way for a reason and it is unlikely to expect a radical change. But I will still make the offer of a family session so that the patient may directly express her feelings to her parent; feelings that she most likely has kept hidden for many years. I tell my patient that if her parent agrees to come in for the session, that in itself is a positive sign.

Sometimes, if the parent that the patient wishes to express her feelings to has passed away, I’ll take an empty chair and put it beside her.

“Go ahead,” I encourage her. “What would you like to say to your mother?”

This technique, while it may be slow to start, can produce a torrent of emotions. So many feelings; so much hurt, rage, passion, love come pouring out in such a short time. Afterwards we process what occurred. “I never knew all this was inside me,” is a typical response.

Knowing from my own childhood and my work in therapy how difficult and thorny it is to even begin to face our feelings and mislaid expectations around our parents, I feel privileged to be a part of this delicate process. On each patient’s forehead, I see the stamp, Handle with Care, for each individual will have a different experience. It is my job to take them through this journey arriving safely at the end with greater insight and understanding.

As for my father, I’ve come to a place of acceptance. Jake and I work as a team, keeping in touch with him to ensure that his basic needs are met. My brother and I (and we have spoken about this), do what needs to be done out of a sense of obligation and guilt, and not one driven by love. It’s a sad situation, but it is reality, a reality driven by our past.

I’d better call him. When I wait too long between calls and he hears my voice, his dry, sarcastic sense of humor kicks in.

“Hello Dad.”

“Who’s this?”

He hasn’t lost a step.

* Names have been changed

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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