From Both Sides of the Couch

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

Rejecting Our Inheritance

What our parents leave us may not always be so welcome.

Some parents may leave their children money or the china or the house. My father (who is still alive, but is a recluse) passed down to me a legacy of depression, addiction, and the tendency to self-destruct. I live in fear of my life ending as his is in the process of — only the female version — the elderly, crazy cat lady who lives alone in her apartment with dozens of cats. My apartment would stink of cat urine while his reeks of stale body odor and cigarette smoke. The demands he placed on me as a child have rendered me terrified of failure and have launched me into a lifetime of pursuing perfectionism.

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He has schizoid personality disorder and I inherited tendencies of that. It was hard for me to be around people, participate in social events, and engage in a friendship. It was much easier to be alone and for many years (when I wasn’t high on some drug), that’s what I did. Years and years of therapy and incredibly hard work have led me to the point where I believe I no longer have the tendencies of someone who suffers from schizoid personality disorder. Right not, I am high on the scale of introversion and that is okay.

My mother, who also suffered from undiagnosed depression, was addicted to painkillers for her migraines (which were also passed down to me). In her defense, the medical community did not have the treatments they now have for migraines. My psychiatrist, Dr. Adena* believes that having been molested as an adolescent by her brother who was ten years older than her, she unconsciously communicated to me a fear and loathing of men. She was also a workaholic; once she started her computer software development firm, she worked fifteen, sixteen hour days, seven days a week and she rarely let up. From her and her side of the family, I developed an intense fear of becoming obese.

Put them together and instead of the fire of affection and love for each other, their relationship was the grey slush melting by the side of the road days after a snowstorm. Dirty. Messy. The stuff that everyone wishes would disappear already. One had to wonder how they could provide a healthy and nurturing environment for one, not to mention two children who were only eighteen months apart.

Early in my therapy, while it was easy for me to see the damage that my father had imparted to me, I had placed my mother high up on a pedestal. I was angry with my father; I blamed him for my inability to be in an intimate relationship because a father is supposed to be the first — and model — relationship for a female child. I blamed his genes for the intractable depression and the addiction to substances and negative behaviors. It was easy to blame him because I felt that when I was sickest, when I needed him to be there for me, he withdrew further into himself.

At one of my proudest moments, the graduation ceremony for my master’s degree in social work, I was waiting outside the venue with my mother and brother, straining my eyes for a sign of my father who had promised he would be there. We waited until the last minute before we had to go in, but he never showed, never called with an explanation. When I spoke to him days later, he didn’t apologize, didn’t really offer an excuse. Just an “I wasn’t up to it.”

I wasn’t able to see the part my mother had played because if I had shunned both parents, then I would have been an orphan. She coddled me, protected me and shielded me from the world. I spent every weekend with her at her home when I should have been forming social relationships of my own. It was easy for me to ignore that she was gulping down painkillers like gummy bear vitamins and chain smoking Larks from the red package.

The first time that Dr. Adena attempted to suggest that my mother was merely human I became angry. My mother. Not a saint? How dare she. Another year went by before I was ready to broach this as a possibility. By that time the work we had done together enabled me to view her more realistically and comprehend some of the mistakes she had made.

It’s been over ten years since she passed away and I miss her terribly. While I would give anything to still have her with me, I have also come to the realization that if she were still alive, there is a strong possibility that I would not have come as far as I have for she was holding me back.

When I sit in the therapist’s chair and I listen to my patients tell me what is going on in their lives, I begin to recognize definite patterns of behavior. I wonder where did they learn that? Who taught them to act that way? It must have come from somewhere.

More often than not the behavior took its roots in childhood. Even if the patient is 40 or 50 years old. Chances are they’ve been repeating this behavior pattern in one form or another for most of their lives, playing it out in different situations — work, relationships, or with family.

Trying to encourage the patient to return to their childhood to explore what occurred is difficult. “What do I need to go over this stuff for? It happened so long ago. I don’t see what it has to do with what’s happening now.” Convincing them that it is relevant takes patience and some concrete examples.

With some patients the revelation happens sooner than with others. They see the pattern that took place between their parents or between one parent and them or involving a sibling replaying in their lives now and it makes sense. With other patients it may take several years but the rewards when it comes together are enormous for both of us. The door has opened wide for more extensive work to take place.

Our birthright, if it contains negative traits, can be overcome, even reversed. The behaviors we learned from our family took years for the roots to set. Overturning them may also take years. So be kind and have patience with yourself. Work hard to leave a healthy legacy.

 

* Names have been changed

 

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

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