I’ve been seeing almost 60 year old Carol for several months now. She came into treatment because she was no longer able to paint, a creative outlet that had been important to her for many years. She said she was probably depressed, but could think of no particular reason to be depressed except that she was soon going to turn 60. “Old, old, old,” she said. “The big six zero.”
“And me?” she continues. “My life has been a big nothing. Yes, I got married. I guess my marriage is okay, sort of so-so, maybe like all marriages. I have two children. They’ve had their own struggles but they’re decent people. And I used to paint. I’ve been wondering lately if I stopped painting because I really was never particularly good at it. How do I know if I’m good? Exhibiting every so often doesn’t mean you’re a good painter.”
I’m aware of having conflicting feelings as I listen to Carol, vacillating between wanting to protect her from her own self-criticism to finding myself agreeing with her that she’s complaining about much of nothing. It’s as if I go from being the comforting parent to the critical parent and back again. I suspect Carol carries this critical parent inside her head, always ready to attack her.
“You’re certainly very critical of yourself, Carol,” I say.
“That’s for sure. Always have been. I guess I figured if I was critical of myself I could make sure I did everything right and that way I’d ward off my father’s criticism. Never worked. He could always find something to be mad about, from not making my bed perfectly to having friends he, for some reason, didn’t like. It was impossible to please him.”
“So now you carry your father around with you in your head.”
“Yup! You’d never know he was dead. It’s ironic you know. I thought I couldn’t wait for my father to die and now here I am keeping him alive inside my mind.”
“That’s a great insight.”
“My father used to paint too. Representational stuff. He was pretty good. Of course he hated what I painted. Said it looked like something a kindergartener would do. But that was the one place he couldn’t get at me. I painted what I wanted to paint. I would have liked his approval, but in my painting I accepted that I’d never get it.”
“And you felt how about that?”
“Sad, defeated.” Pause. “You know, I’m not sure that’s true. I feel sad and defeated when I talk about it now, but I’m not sure that’s how I used to feel. I think I felt a sense of pride that I could paint how and what I wanted to paint.”
“That’s interesting. I wonder if when you were able to give up seeking your father’s approval – at least as far as your painting went – you could paint. But now when you feel sad and defeated about not having his approval, you’re blocked, unable to paint.”
“Any thoughts about what changed?”
“First thing that popped into my head is that I’m approaching 60.”
I remain silent, waiting to see where Carol’s thoughts will take her.
“My father had a heart attack at 60. Two years later his second heart attack killed him. I felt a lot worse about his death than I expected. Actually, I got depressed. I couldn’t paint then either.”
“When your father died you lost the chance of ever winning his approval.”
“So you felt helpless and defeated, like you feel now when you’re about to turn 60, the year he had his first heart attack.”
“So does turning 60 myself remind me of his mortality and therefore my mortality?”
“I’d say that’s a piece of it. But I wonder if it also brings you back to the time that you were so acutely aware that you had forever lost the chance of getting your father’s approval.”
“And, when you were able to paint and not need your father’s approval, that was a victory for you. Now I wonder if you feel guilty about reclaiming that feeling of victory, of celebrating your being alive to still be able to paint and to paint as you wish. Perhaps it even feels as though you’re killing him off.”
“Wow! That’s pretty deep. I’ll have to give that some thought.”