Monday, March 11, 2013
“I’ve been having a terrible time since March 1,” Brenda begins, her hands tightly gripped, tears welling in her eyes.
I’ve been seeing Brenda in therapy for several years now, a passive, anxious woman in her forties who struggles in an unhappy marriage and recounts a childhood filled with fear and uncertainty.
“Do you know what happened that so distressed you?” I ask.
“Because of the sequestration!” she proclaims, obviously surprised I hadn’t known.
Now I am surprised. In my experience current events rarely come up in patients’ therapy sessions unless they are both dramatic and catastrophic – 9/11, the Newtown shootings, the Challenger disaster. I remain silent.
Brenda continues. “It scares me! It makes me feel like anything could happen. What if we’re attacked and there’s no army to defend us? What if all these services are cut and we can’t get around?”
I myself have been concerned about airline travel, long lines and missed connections, but these hardly rate the kind of anxiety Brenda is describing. I continue my silence.
“And I don’t see why they can’t get together, why the two sides can’t figure out a solution! We elected these people! They’re supposed to be smarter than us. They’re supposed to be able to take care of us.”
Now I get it! Now I have a sense of what’s going on for Brenda. I couldn’t imagine that her level of anxiety could have been caused solely by the economic stalemate in Washington. The sequester may have triggered her anxiety, but isn’t the root cause.
“Are the feelings you’re having familiar to you, Brenda?” I ask.
“Definitely. I felt them constantly in my childhood. My parents screaming at each other, throwing things, threatening divorce. And we never knew when they’d suddenly turn on us! I was a nervous wreck. Constantly.”
I know about living in fear as a child. My father had an explosive temper that could be triggered whenever he felt injured by one slight or another. I know the anxiety it created in me and I didn’t have to deal with flying dishes and threats of divorce.
“But there was more than that, Brenda,” I say. “Your life didn’t get better after your father walked out.”
“Oh no, not at all!” she exclaims. “My mother totally fell apart. We couldn’t pay the rent; there wasn’t always enough food for us to eat. It was scary. I never knew what we happen from one day to the next.”
I wait to see if Brenda will make the connection.
She doesn’t. She waits, looking at me expectantly.
I find myself somewhat annoyed by her passivity. This is Brenda. She can’t take charge of her life. She can’t impel herself forward, she can’t act or sometimes even think for herself. I understand that she has been frozen by her fear, but there are times I have the wish to shake her. I also know that my annoyance comes partly from my own background. Although my mother certainly didn’t have Brenda’s level of passivity, she never did stand up to my father. Today I realize I probably should thank her. She didn’t stand up to my father, so I did. I fought back and learned not to be passive like Brenda.
“Do you see any connection between your childhood and your reaction to the sequestration?” I ask, hoping to encourage her along.
She looks at me blankly. I remain silent.
“Why won’t you tell me?” she asks, sounding angry.
“I will tell you Brenda, but I also think that your not being able to see the connection yourself is related to both your childhood and to your reaction to the sequester. You lived in such fear and chaos, Brenda, and when the fighting stopped you were in some ways worse off than before – not sure if you’d be able to have enough to eat or a roof over your head. You’re scared when two sides fight and you’re scared when no one takes care of you. You were never taken care of as a child and you still long for that, so sometimes you don’t do what you can do for yourself.”
“So you think the sequester threw me back into my childhood feelings,” she says thoughtfully.
“Yes, that’s exactly right.”
“And you think I should have been able to figure that out for myself?”
“I wouldn’t exactly say that. I didn’t get the connection immediately myself. I just think that after we talked about it, you might have been more likely to figure out the connection if you weren’t waiting for me to do so, if you weren’t wanting so desperately for me to take care of you.”
“I wonder if I do that with my husband too?”
“That’s great, Brenda,” I say, truly pleased. “You just made an important connection and you didn’t even need my help to do so.”
One step. One step in the long, hard process of change.