Mrs. Jackson sits across from me looking all of her 80 years. Speaking slowly and softly, I strain to hear her. “I know it’s ridiculous. My parents have been dead for years. I’ve had my own family, my own life and yet I can’t get past what they did to me. Or what they didn’t do, would probably be more accurate. I was invisible to them. They couldn’t have cared less about me. There were days I went hungry because they couldn’t be bothered to feed me. But my brother, he always got fed. The crown prince.”
“You sound angry,” I say.
“Oh yes,” she replies in barely a whisper, “I’m angry. But what I am supposed to do about it?”
“Do you always speak that softly when you’re angry?”
She smiles. “My husband always tells me I go around whispering.”
“Any idea why you speak so quietly?” I ask, thinking it’s both a way to keep herself invisible, as well as a way to force others to pay close attention to her.
She shrugs. After a pause she says, “I know it’s not unusual for parents to prefer the boy, I sometimes felt that with my own children, but it wasn’t only that. My mother would walk by me like I wasn’t in the room. She didn’t help me understand how to dress appropriately, how to make friends, couldn’t care less if I got myself to school. I did go to school. I couldn’t pay attention very well, but at least that was a time I didn’t have to deal with my mother’s rejection.”
Although I’m aware that Mrs. Jackson has ignored my question, possibly repeating the experience of being ignored herself, I opt for empathy at the moment rather than confrontation. “I’m sure being constantly ignored was extremely painful, but do you have any thoughts about why you decided to come into therapy at this particular moment.”
“I’ve been in and out of therapy my whole life. It never works. I try, but it never works.”
“What do you mean it never works?”
“I can’t let go, I can’t forget about how they treated me, despite what the therapists say.”
“And what do the therapists say?”
“They say I should forget about it. And I agree. But I can’t.”
“I don’t think the problem is that you can’t forget how they treated you, but rather that you can’t move beyond the feelings you had as a child. The pain of their rejection feels as though it happened yesterday as opposed to 70 plus years ago.”
“You’re absolutely right. I can’t get beyond the feelings.”
“Can you imagine what it would be like not to have those feelings?” I ask.
Mrs. Jackson mumbles a response.
“I’m sorry” I say, “I didn’t hear you.”
“Free,” she whispers, looking down at the floor.
“You sound so tentative. I wonder if it feels scary to imagine yourself as free.”
“Why would it be scary?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s very foreign to you. Being free means putting yourself out there, speaking up, feeling you’re valuable and worthwhile. You’ve spent your life making yourself as invisible as you were to your parents.”
“That’s true. But I’m 80 years old. I’m 80 years old and I still feel like a child.”
“It’s really hard to change a lifetime of how you feel about yourself, how you are in the world. Perhaps you hope that if you make yourself invisible enough, your parents will finally love you.”
“But my parents have been dead for years.”
“Yes, but we all walk around with parents in our heads and those parents never die. We still try to get those parents to love us, to notice us, to approve of us. To get beyond the hurt and angry feelings you carry inside you, you have to mourn those parents in your head. You have to come to a place where you know and feel that you can never, ever get the love and attention and caring you needed and deserved as a child, regardless of how invisible you make yourself.”
There’s another inaudible reply.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” I say. “I don’t have the greatest hearing, but I suspect it’s not only my hearing that’s the problem.”
“I said I’d try.”
“Do you want to try for you or are you trying to please me?”
She chuckles. “Perhaps a little of both.”
“It will be important for us to pay attention to who you’re trying to please – me, the parents in your head, or yourself. Hopefully you can get to a place where you’re doing what you want to be doing for you.”