“So, I’m your Mary Poppins?” I asked twelve-year old Viola.
“I wish,” she replied.
Viola was auditioning therapists for the role of “emotional caretaker/ family mediator” (her WANTED ad was highly specific), and she cast me. “I like you,” she said, “but I also think you’re tough enough to keep them in line.”
By them of course she meant her parents, who had divorced a few years earlier and were at each other’s throats ever since. (Of note, they did not accompany her to the initial consultation at my office, but sent an assistant instead). Viola made them sound like children. And in a way, they were.
They had more than enough resources to raise a child, but privilege seemed to stunt them from becoming grownups themselves. When I finally met them in person, they seemed like characters from the movies Big or Freaky Friday; children trapped in adult bodies.
Viola harbored a dream that her parents would one day grow up and reunite. But repeated disappointments made her too pragmatic to believe this would ever come true. Reality reduced her hope to having dinner with both of them, on her birthday, “just once.” But, bickering, nasty name-calling, and tantrums—usually over text, as the kids do—made it impossible to accommodate even this simple request.
The shipwreck of her parents divorce took place half her life ago, but when Viola washed up on the shore of my office, it was as though it had just happened. There she was on my couch, orphaned and alone, wishing me to reassemble her family.
How can this be?, I thought. This kid can have anything she wants. Why can’t her parents make her feel whole?
Ironically, the relational chaos in this extremely wealthy family reminded me of the families in abject poverty that I had worked with at community mental health clinics. Lack of resources made it extremely difficult for many of those parents to be emotionally attuned to their children. It was hard enough for them to keep their families safe, with a roof over their heads and food on the table, let alone to make their children feel fully seen and heard. And at the time I thought that more money would make all the difference in the world for them. But now, having seen how regressed and self-involved money had made Viola’s parents, I wasn’t so sure that was enough
Certainly money did give Viola obvious advantages, not least of which was the luxury of having a therapist. (This is not exclusively an essay about the necessity of mental health coverage for all Americans, but please do keep that crucial topic in mind). However, financial resources did not make her feel any more seen by her parents than children with far less.
Is this just how it is for all of us?, I thought. Rich, poor, and everything in between, are we all orphans seeking magical nannies to put our families back together again? (If they were ever “together” to begin with.)
Then I saw the play, The Humans, on Broadway, which supports this hypothesis. The brutally realistic characters in the play have everything and nothing at the same time. They are all very much part of a family and also completely on their own; literally lost in the dark. I wondered if every one of us feels we are wandering alone in darkness and if we all harbor a wish similar to Viola’s, that someone will eventually turn on the lights and let us know they are looking after us.
These reflections helped me to empathize with Viola’s parents, whose own parents were either dead or checked out. I encouraged them each to meet with a therapist of their own for emotional support. I recommended two therapists with whom I had worked personally, and who had both helped me through very difficult times in my life. These are the best possible people for them to lean on, I thought, motivated by something deeper and more ineffable than “clinical judgment” alone.
As I reflected on this—by myself, as well as with a mentor and with peers—I realized that the referrals I had made represented my own yearning for support. Professionally speaking, Viola’s case was certainly challenging, but beyond that, I was going through a personal transition at the time that made me feel emotionally shipwrecked as well: lost, alone, and without a family. My mother was moving into a senior facility halfway across the country, only a decade after my father’s death. By matching Viola’s parents with therapists to whom I felt emotionally attached, I wondered if I was enacting my own “Mary Poppins” fantasy, and hoping in some way to put my family back together again.
It became poignantly clear that this was exactly what I was trying to do, when one of my former therapists contacted me to coordinate care for Viola’s mother. As soon as her face popped up on my computer screen, I smiled. I had missed her. I missed the care she had provided, as well as the confidence she instilled in me to carry on with my life. This one brief encounter revived me, making me feel looked after but also capable of moving forward—independently, personally and professionally.
I thought, maybe that’s the next best thing to having the ideal parents we all long for. After all, that’s exactly what therapists provide for people: The opportunity to be seen by a caretaker when we need that—which we all do, from time to time.
Like Viola, we can all actively seek this kind of support. In lieu of perfect parents (or Mary Poppins), we can depend on psychotherapists to guide us through our disappointments, losses, traumas, and broken hearts. They can make us feel less alone as we navigate our ships in the dark
(And hopefully our insurance will help us pay for the mental health care we all need, which unfortunately, too many Americans simply cannot afford without it.)
As we continue to de-stigmatize talk therapy as a culture, we must remember that making the choice to seek relational support is crucial to our emotional wellbeing, no matter who or how old we are.
As I deliberated what to call Viola in this piece, to protect her privacy, at first I considered adopting and adapting the names of Dickensian orphans like Oliver (Olive?), or David (Davida?), or Pip (Pippa?). But then I recalled that Dickens tended to romanticize the concept of adults looking after us, ubiquitously, whether we know it or not—a lovely idea that we unfortunately cannot count on in reality.
But by contrast, the protagonist from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola, takes no one for granted as she comes to realize her relational needs. Upon finding herself abandoned in a strange land she relies on herself to secure relational attachments to fill the gap left by a separation from her twin brother.
We can all take a page from both Violas—the Shakespearean character and my client—and seek relational supports when we need them. Even if they aren’t exactly the same as the families we once knew, or thought we knew.
I won’t pretend that all came to a happy end for my Viola, in the symmetrical and revelrous way it does for the one in Twelfth Night, or in most psychotherapy case studies for that matter. But there were indeed some pivotal moments in our work that convinced her of the possibility that her pain could be known, at least to me, if not to her parents. She also learned to grieve the loss of the family she wanted, to understand her parents’ limitations, and to negotiate with the disappointments of reality as she continued to face life. She now knows that it is possible to find relational safety and security when she needs it, even without perfect parents.
At the end of the day we are all Viola, and we are all Viola’s parents: small children crawling further and further up the stairs, but looking back once in a while, to make sure that someone is watching.
*Identifying information has been significantly altered to protect privacy.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R