This is a serialization of the chapter by the same name from Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. This series began here.

The group had a good sense of what was happening by this point. Heads were nodding as my reaction started to make sense. The insight felt right, but there was still something that just didn't fit. " I understood what would trap me, that if I didn’t speak up it's like I'm held hostage, and that if I do—I'd become my mother. But there's something else."

"What's that?"

" I think her actions are calculated and manipulative."

Elaine chimed in. "What do you mean?" she said.

"I mean I think there is something that is going on with your movements—something directly tied to undermining the attention of the protagonist," I said.

"You think I do things on purpose to bring attention to myself and away from the protagonist?" said Elaine.

"I don't know if you do or you don't—all I can say is that it feels this way to me"

"But you were distracted by my breathing!"

Mercifully, the facilitator stepped in. "Maybe we have a few things going on." she said. "Let's try to sort through all of this. Dan, what is it about Elaine's breathing that bothers you?"

"It's exaggerated. There is a very slight wheeze, and she seems to take two breaths, then a half breath, like she is testing out whether or not she can take a full one, then a full one. She lets the air out the same way. She hesitates to let it all go. It's like she is afraid. So the first part of the breath comes out like she is trying to make sure she will have enough, but then she can't hold on to it. It's like the dam bursts and all the air comes out of her, and she seems surprised. Then she gasps for a breath and the whole thing starts all over again.

The group was astonished by the detail of my description. Even Elaine seemed impressed. She spoke right away. "My doctor just told me I have to quit smoking—he thinks I might have the very beginning of emphysema."

I nodded my head. The facilitator looked at me for a long moment with a coy smile, then spoke. "So Dan, do you know anyone that has a breathing disorder?"

In my mind I see my mother hunched over the phone at her kitchen counter in Florida. She has the oxygen tubes going up her nose. I see the wrinkles distort her face as she desperately draws her next breath. "My mother," I said, "has COPD."

“Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder,” said Elaine. “Very similar to emphysema. Right?” she said.

“Right,” I nodded.

The insight ambushed me. I wasn't ready for it, yet it was perfectly understandable when I said it. I couldn't believe that my unconscious had focused on Elaine's breathing and transferred my feeling of frustration with my mother to Elaine. How could this be? I was both completely tuned in and unbelievably ignorant of the cause of my reaction. I was even more unprepared for what happened next.

The facilitator spoke. "So Elaine's breathing activated your reaction. But what was it initially that bothered you?"

"She seemed to be drawing attention to herself, without regard to anyone else in the group. It was like we were in orbit around her," I said.

"From what you shared with us in the group, that doesn't sound like your mother. Your mother didn't seem to draw attention to herself. In fact, she seemed to be just the opposite. You said she always stayed in the background. She was critical, but not flamboyant. Did I get that right?"

"Yeah, my mother was self-absorbed, but she didn't like attention. The flamboyant one in my family was…"

I stopped mid-sentence. I am at my cousin’s wedding. My grandmother is dancing the tarantella after she used her napkin to wipe the food off her plate and silverware before putting everything into a shopping bag. I stared over at Elaine and continued. "The flamboyant one was my grandmother. I remember as a child I could see she had to be the center of attention. She sang the loudest, danced the longest, and stayed the latest. Everything was about her. It was like she manipulated the situation so people would pay attention to her. Even though she made a fuss over me I felt invisible around her. I remember my father telling me the same thing—she made a big deal over him in public, but it was more for her than him." The facilitator took a moment to check in with Elaine, to make sure she understood that my reaction was activated by her behavior, but that these reactions were based on my perception, which, like everyone else's on the planet, were distorted by prior relationships. To Elaine's credit she acknowledged that she both understood the nature of my reaction and felt I had given her something to think about. I told her that was the difference between her and my mother and grandmother. Neither of them would have ever allowed themselves to attend a group and be open to feedback.

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The Healing Crowd

All about group therapy: what it is, why it works, and which group is right for you.
Daniel J. Tomasulo PhD., MFA, MAPP

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, is an associate professor at New Jersey City University, as well as an assistant instructor at the University of Pennsylvania MAPP program.

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