Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Why Can’t I Leave?

“I’m such a mess,” Janette says. “And a coward. I hate myself. He does it again and again and I do nothing. I couldn’t believe it when I asked him last week where our tax returns were and he said he asked our accountant for an extension. My stomach dropped through the floor. He tried playing innocent, like he just didn’t have the time to get all the paperwork together and our tax guy was swamped anyway, etc., etc. But I knew better. I was so mad I started hitting him with my fists. He kept trying to worm out of it, but he knew I knew.

“So then he got all apologetic. Sorry! As if that could fix everything! I’m so mad. He goes to his Gamblers Anonymous meetings, he has a sponsor – supposedly anyway – but he keeps betting on those damn games and losing more and more of our money. It’s our money I remind him, but I’m just talking to myself. I know, he’s an addict, but that’s not an explanation. Besides, it doesn’t matter anymore why he does what he does, the problem is that I stay.”

I remain silent. Janette and I have been here many times and she indeed knows the problem.

She sighs. “I know, I’m reliving my childhood, my father an alcoholic, my mother a gambler. You would have thought I’d know better, but here I am, stuck in it all over again. I do hate myself. I’m furious at Joe, but I despise myself for my inability to get out. I know, I should feel more compassion for myself – that’s what you always say – but how can I feel compassionate when I’m so stupid.”

I feel Janette’s frustration, as well as my own, not so much at her inability to leave her husband, but at her unmerciless attacks on herself. “I doubt it’s that you’re stupid, Janette, but rather that you can’t give up hope. When you started this session you said you couldn’t believe it when you realized Joe had been gambling again. I think you couldn’t believe it because you keep hoping Joe will change, just as you hoped that your mother would change and your father would change.”

“Well,” Janette, asks defiantly, “Isn’t that proof that I’m stupid. If you keep hitting your head on the same brick wall, hoping that it will stop hurting, you must be stupid.”  

Janette’s response intrigues me. “That’s an interesting response, you didn’t say hoping the wall would break, you said hoping it would stop hurting.”

“So, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure, but can you talk about your anger at me?”

“I’m just mad. Mad at me. Mad at Joe. Mad at you. We’ve been going round and round on this for a long time, and I’m still here.”

I wonder whether the “here” means with me or with Joe, but I ask, “How does it feel to feel mad at me?”

“Pointless. Just as it feels with Joe. You’re not going to change.”

“How would you like me to change?”

“Tell me how to get out of this damn marriage.”

The response that goes through my head – hire an attorney, file for divorce and don’t go back – shows me I’m more annoyed than I realize. “And if I can’t tell you how to get out of your damn marriage, what do you feel?”


“I believe that you’re angry, but I wonder if you also feel scared and powerless?”

“I’m scared that he’s going to go through all our money. But I’m not powerless. All I have to do is be brave enough to leave.”   

“What about when you were a child, Janette, when your father was drinking and your mother had gambled away your school lunch money?”

Her eyes fill with tears. “Why’d you have to bring that up?” She pauses. “Yeah, I was powerless then and I hated it. But if I started “sniveling” – that’s what my father called it – he’d just start screaming at me for being such a baby.”

“So that’s what you’re doing, Janette, you’re screaming at yourself just like your father screamed at you. And you keep hoping, not only that Joe and your parents will change, but that you can endure their repeated disappointments without feeling any pain. It’s an impossible task. But if you can acknowledge your own powerlessness and mourn both the husband and the parents you never had, you’ll be more able to make the break.”

“Doesn’t sound easy.”

“No, it’s not. Definitely not easy.”


Sa Piatta said...

Yes. In a nutshell. Change is hard and adults try to heal their childhood hurts through their actions in present day situations. It is all they / we know. Until they / we know otherwise.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

I couldn't agree more, Sa Piatta.