Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Time Pressure

Charlotte began treatment with me eight months ago when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although well into her forties, married, with children of her own, Charlotte is very dependent on her mother, talking with her several times a day and consulting her for even minor decisions. She is consumed with anxiety at the thought of her mother’s impending death. 

“I never thought she’d die!” she sobs. “I know that’s ridiculous but she seemed invincible. I thought she would live forever. I don’t know what I’ll do without her. It’s hard to imagine how I can go on.”

Charlotte is an only child who grew up in a middle class family. Her father was an accountant, a reserved, passive man who saw Charlotte as his wife’s responsibility. He wasn’t hostile or ungiving, simply absent, seemingly involved with neither Charlotte nor his wife. 

Not surprisingly, the primary connection in the family was between Charlotte and her mother. Her mother was overly protective, constantly concerned about her getting hurt and insistent that she know where Charlotte was at all times. Charlotte never rebelled. She was her mother’s constant companion. Leaving for college precipitated the onset of severe anxiety, an anxiety that still plagues her.

I am struck with the similarities between myself and Charlotte, as well as the differences. Our mothers were alike, both overly protective and fearful of letting their daughters stray too far from home. As a young child I remember wanting to stay with my mother forever. But I had a very different father, an angry, explosive, tyrannical man. I wanted to get away from him. So I had to leave home, thereby beginning the process of separating from my mother.

I knew that Charlotte also needed to separate, but her process would be more difficult since her mother’s death loomed. Time was running out.

“Charlotte, why is it that you’re so afraid of falling apart when your mother dies?”

“I can’t imagine going on without her! I can’t imagine how I’ll function. I’m not even talking about being anxious all the time, and crying all the time because I’m sure that will be true, I just don’t know how I’ll get from one day to the next.”

Feeling the pressure of time, I push way too fast. “How do feel about your mother making you so dependent on her?” 

“What are you talking about? She didn’t make me dependent, that’s just who I am.”

“It is who you are. But I wonder how you got that way. Everyone in your family, including you, contributed to your feeling what I call ‘copeless,’ feeling like you can’t do anything on your own, despite the fact that you’re clearly a competent, capable adult.”

Charlotte is thoughtful. “Well, my mother always helped me with my homework, she wanted to check out all my friends, she never wanted me to go on school trips. I don’t know about my father. He was just absent. As for me, I guess I liked my mother’s attention. It made me feel loved.”

“So maybe one thing you’re saying is that your mother helped make up for the love you didn’t feel from your father.”

“I know he loved me. He just couldn’t show it. And that’s still true. You’d think this would be a time we’d get closer, but he’s just as unavailable as always, to both me and my mother.”

“So you felt you also had to love your mother more to make up for what she didn’t get from your father.”

“I never thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess that’s true.”    

Several months later, I say, “You know, Charlotte, it is all right to be angry with both your parents…”

“No, no,” she interrupts, “I can’t be angry with my mother now.”

“I understand, Charlotte, but it doesn’t mean you’re only angry with her. Of course you love her and you’ll miss her terribly. But your father was absent and your mother was clingy and what you needed as a little girl sometimes got lost along the way.”

Charlotte sobs. 

I’m rushing the treatment. I want Charlotte to be prepared, ready for her mother’s death. But then I realize I’m doing to Charlotte just what her mother did - as well as what my mother did to me. I’m treating Charlotte as a child who can’t take care of herself. I need to listen to Charlotte, to follow her lead, not assume I know what’s best for her. 

Therapy takes a long time and this treatment is no exception. Charlotte will be however she is when her mother dies and we will deal with that then.

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