Kids are helpless. Whatever they receive they get from adults including food, clothing, shelter and neuroses. After five years of full-time practice I began to hate this truth. It was, for me, simply too depressing to hear stories all day, every day, of what people had done to their children. It also began to erode my faith in the essential goodness of my fellow man. I began playing a secret game as I listened to my patients’ histories. I called it, “Where’s the free will?” As they told of their life choices — marital partners, careers and lifestyles I would ask myself, “How much did the emotions play, versus the intellect, in making those choices?”
I had a patient, “Sherry,” who had chosen a dimwit, “Harry,” to be her loving, wedded husband. Prior to the marriage Harry already drank too much, lived with his parents, couldn’t keep a steady job, sold dope on the side, had a mean streak and showed her little kindness. But she said, in his (and her) defense, that he was very handsome, was great in bed, and loved his dog. They’d been married less than a year. He was cheating on her, drinking more than ever, had quit work completely and, two weeks prior to her appointment, he beat her up when she threatened to leave him. Now she was afraid to leave, having no place to go.
I determined that in picking Harry, Sherry’s emotions beat out her intellect by a score of 100 to zero. Her choice was based on rushes, gushes, wishes, and hopes. She didn’t have one brain cell working to aid her in seeing that Harry was a user and a loser. And now the bastard was beating her up. While sitting on my leather chair, feet on the ottoman, I decided that human beings have scant amounts of free will. Hell, sometimes I couldn’t find any!
I’d silently see that Sherry’s parents and all my patients’ parents, and everybody else’s parents going all the way back to the nincompoops, Adam and Eve — who screwed everything up to begin with — precipitating the need for all the Sherry’s, Mary’s and Larry’s to come sit in my winged-back chair or lie on my couch. My patient, Sherry, was programmed in her unconscious mind to be romantically attracted to the likes of a Harry and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
I became jaded and cynical. I began to take personally the unfairnesses heaped on my patients and became angry at the unfairness of their lives. The phone rang at all hours and off I’d dash to mend another mind. Meanwhile, (the evidence is there) my mind was beginning to slip. I developed this recurring fantasy that there was only so much mental health to be had in my consultation room and as my patients got better — I got worse. “They are sucking my bone marrow,” I said one day to a colleague. “You better take a vacation,” he replied.
One night my doorbell rang at 1: a.m. It was one of my women patients. She was drunk. “I just thought you might want to know that I’m going over to that son-of-a-bitch’s apartment (her estranged husband) and kill him. I have a gun.”
“Come on in and let’s talk about it first,” I said. (Shit!)
Of course I knew she wanted me to talk her out of it, why else would she be here? But this took over two hours as she sobered up, finally listened to reason and finally gave me the gun. (It was in the trunk of her car and it was loaded.)
When practicing in a small town it is impossible to see only those patients who are capable of psychoanalysis. Not only is the cost prohibitive, because it takes years, but also many people simply do not have the capacity for insight which is necessary for that mode of therapy. But I had to make a living, so I took what came in the door and much of that was “crisis intervention:” The suicidal, the histrionic, the first time offenders appointed by the court, the “acting outers” and marriage problems. Practicing psychoanalysis is pure joy. Crisis intervention is a pain in the ass, at least it was for me. (Some psychotherapists, God bless them, thrive on it.)
I desperately did need a vacation, a long one, but I couldn’t take it because I’d come to believe my patients desperately needed me. I had regressed from being a psychoanalyst to being a savior. Perspective is a gift. I’d had it, but lost it. The forest disappeared and the trees overwhelmed. I quit.
Of course I couldn’t just quit. That would be an abandonment of my patients, which truly would have harmed some of them. But I did quit taking on new patients and two years later I was a full-time businessman and part-time shrink. I’d regained my perspective by cutting back on my practice and was able to cope with the unfairness of “people making” because I was exposed to it in smaller doses. Good for me. Good for my patients.
To be candid, it was also nice to again make money I could depend on. When I began backing down from full-time practice Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the economy was in shambles, interest rates were at record highs and many of my patients were struggling to make ends meet. So “Dr. Savior” carried them to my own detriment. One, a realtor, took six years to finally clear up his bill. But, again, that’s enough about me. Let’s get back to parents.
Parents can continue to adversely affect their children’s lives, even when they’ve become adults, by discouraging them from seeking psychotherapy. Most parents think that when their past behavior toward their children is scrutinized their images in their children’s minds will be radically altered. Therapy, therefore, is threatening to them.
What they don’t realize is that when therapy is conducted properly over a lengthy period of time, their relationship with their children will almost certainly improve, it certainly won’t get worse, even though much will be discovered regarding the parents’ past mistakes. And, yes, with the encouragement of the therapist they will, for a time, be verbally crucified by their children for their ineptness — but not to their faces, only in the therapist’s office. Redemption will then follow as the patient begins to understand that his parents are simply human beings, full of flaws like all human beings, and in most cases he will see they did the best they knew how. They did to their kid, without malice, that which was done to them. I am unaware of any permanent rifts, and very few temporary ones, between patients and their parents because of psychotherapy. One of its goals is to understand and forgive. That’s not the stuff of rifts. It’s the stuff of healing.
What patients eventually learn about their parents is that the treatment they received from them was administered unconsciously. They will also learn to remove their parents from the unrealistic pedestal of power that every child erects. It was supposed to be there in childhood but not any more. They’ll learn that their parents are limited in their capacity to give and receive love and that they are psychoanalytically unaware. They’ll learn that their parents are simply people, you know, dunderheads. And most importantly they’ll learn in therapy that almost everyone is a psychoanalytic dunderhead — it’s a matter of degrees and it’s time to give parents some slack.
Parents can not possibly control all of the psychological influences that relentlessly bombard their children. Even if the mother stays home until the kids go to school (which is the ideal), she can’t protect them from negative influences from neighbors, relatives and other kids. If she must return to work after her baby is born there is no way she can really know how her infants and toddlers are being treated by the babysitters and at the day-care centers.
When the kids start school they’ll be exposed to dozens of peers and, of course, teachers who become parental figures. There will also be clergy, scout leaders, coaches and other kids’ parents who will also affect, for better or worse, the children’s impressionable, developing minds. Television and the Internet will also be customizing influences on their unconscious. Even the most vigilant parents can’t monitor every remote button pushed or icon clicked. Parents can only control their own actions, or non-actions, words or silences, regarding their children’s emotional well being. When “life” enters the equation of child — rearing, parents (even the atheists) do a hell of a lot of praying.
There are adult “children” who truly resent their parents for their previous transgressions, slights, mistakes and, perhaps, absenteeism when they were growing up. Today their parents are getting up in years and their adult children have learned what buttons to push to make their parents feel guilty. They harangue them endlessly and feel justified in doing so. To those parents I offer the following advice:
• Listen to all of your adult child’s complaints regarding your behavior when he or she was growing up. If you think they have a point (and they probably do) sincerely apologize.
• Repeat number one above about three more times.
• If that doesn’t silence them, and in most cases it won’t, suggest that they seek psychotherapy. If you are able, offer to pay for a portion of it — but only a portion. They must contribute or they won’t be totally forthcoming to the therapist.
• If they refuse to listen to this suggestion, then you’ve got trouble. They are going to spend the rest of your life berating you. Their wounds are deep and they want revenge. Return to number one above, one more time, adding these words at the end: “I did the best I could all things considered. Now kindly leave me alone. I don’t deserve this.” (And you probably don’t. But even if you do, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it now.)
In psychotherapy we learn that we are all childlike, emotionally. For instance, there is a huge intellectual difference between the little boy in first grade and the nuclear physicist he becomes. Not so much so emotionally. What hurt his feelings at age 6 will likely hurt them at 56.
One of the wisest things I ever heard about this reality was said by Barbara. Her parents had experienced much of life, had literally traveled around the world and were formally educated. Her dad had a PhD and was a scholar. Her mom had a master’s degree and a successful career. He had flown B-29 bombers during World War II. Her mother had grown up on the edge of the Everglades — alligators and poisonous snakes were frequent visitors to her backyard. Life had often tested their mettle but they always persevered, overcoming whatever obstacles were placed in their paths. These two people were mature adults, and I was proud to have them as my new in-laws.
Shortly after Barbara and I were married her parents made plans to visit us for a few days. I told Barbara that I had a tennis game scheduled for the night they were coming so I wouldn’t be there to greet them when they arrived. “But I can cancel if you think I should.”
She looked at me with her new wife eyes and said, “They’re just babies, too, you know.” The dunderhead psychoanalyst cancelled the tennis game.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores.