Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a lonely 50-year-old woman whose emotionally absent parents “made it impossible for any child in this family even to have a relationship.”
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Dear Dr. Ford:
I grew up in a really tough home. My parents, who died in their late 40s, drank and fought; my three younger brothers and I tried to stay out of their way so that we wouldn’t become part of their battles. I was the “peacekeeper” as much as possible and tried to care for my brothers. Two of my brothers are active alcoholics now, and the other moved across the country and lives in a quiet community in Colorado, where the outdoor life seems to give him peace. I am 50 and never had the courage to marry or have children, and I feel guilty that my brothers didn’t turn out so well, either. I don’t have nieces or nephews, since my brothers never had children either, so I really have no functioning family.
I have a great job in Human Resources, where I manage conflict (what a surprise). Now that I am almost in menopause I am often anxious and sad. I have acquaintances from the community and a few college friends with whom I stay in touch, but actually I lead a lonely life. I can’t shake the anger I feel that my parents took away our normal childhood and made it impossible for any child in this family even to have a relationship. I work hard to stay fit and look good, for professional reasons. But the exercise and hair and nails on the weekends, along with managing my small house and chores, are the only things I do on a regular basis. This summer has been harder somehow, since so many of the people I know seem to be going away for weekends or vacations, and I have no plans. I used to go to Al-Anon, but I often found myself in the role of fixer there, and found little personal help. I tried therapy when I was younger, but I couldn’t relate to the therapist, who seemed to believe that I just needed to chart a happy voyage for myself and get on my way. What can I do to find some happiness now that over half my life is over? I truly seem to get sadder every day.
Dr. Ford Responds:
I’m glad that you wrote, because the story you have to tell is, sadly, not uncommon. There are many people who, like you, have had such bad experiences in childhood that they choose to avoid emotional intimacy later in life. Often, like you, they “fly under the radar” of mental health professionals, not showing up in our statistics for depression or other mental health issues. Your brothers were not so lucky; they sound as if they are part of the very large group of people who “self-medicate” with alcohol and/or drugs to cope with emotional problems. This outcome is not your fault, though having been forced into the role of the “parental child”—the one who tries to do the work the parents are neglecting—you naturally feel responsible for them.
It is very difficult to shake off our childhood roles; even in your job or in your Al-Anon experience you are re-enacting yours.
In many ways, being the peacemaker was the best defensive strategy available to you at the time. It has even given you a career and helped you avoid the devastating effects of alcohol abuse. But the price was very high—you never had a positive experience of being the one who was cared for. Worse, those who were supposed to do this—your parents— impressed upon you the idea that they could not be relied upon. I suspect that the feelings of loss you suffered were so painful that you have not been able to risk the dangers inherent in being close to others. To do so, you believe, you would be exposed once again to devastating loss and disappointment, which is the only outcome you ever knew.
All this was experienced at such an early age, and on such a pervasive level, that the scars you have are significant. Imagine a tree, exposed to years of drought at a tender age—it may be smaller, or less robust, or even somewhat bent, than it would have been under ideal conditions. But with special and intensive care, such trees can be coaxed back to health. They may retain marks of the early deprivation, but they can flourish.
Someone with your background would not have any expectation of this kind of care, and when you went for treatment, you were effectively told to just give your “tree” more sun. Not only was this bad advice, it was also, effectively, a reinforcement of your core belief: you need to fix your problem on your own and come up with your own plan. It’s easy, and you don’t need to examine your deeper feelings or fears. Worst of all, the therapist does not want to join you in a painful, challenging, or emotionally intimate path to recovery.
I can do the same here, and give you a list of suggestions that might lead to small positive changes. For example, Al-Anon, a support group for family members of alcoholics, might, if you try it again, be useful to you. You may want to consider seeing a psychiatrist to be evaluated for clinical depression, for which medication may be helpful. However, I don’t want to ignore the core issue: the fear of intimacy you have been left with because of your history of childhood neglect. I want to urge you to try psychotherapy again. If you were to undergo insight-oriented treatment with a therapist trained to explore your issues and the many levels and complexities that inevitably exist, you might be able to make real progress. In this kind of treatment, the patient and therapist work together on an interpersonal level that requires trust and intimacy that might be very difficult for you to accept or believe in. It might take a while, in fact, at the beginning, for you to resolve the issue of whether or not you can trust that entering into this contract with another person is worth your while. If you can do that, you’ll be halfway there.