Tuesday, May 23, 2017


Bethany squirms uncomfortably in the chair across from me. She’s a slender, attractive woman, her blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail accentuating her high cheek bones and large blue eyes. I’d guess her to be in her late twenties to early thirties.
“It’s hard to start,” she says. “I guess that’s because I feel guilty. My sister, Heather just got engaged. He’s a great guy. An attorney, sweet, caring. He’s crazy about her. But all I can think of is, why her, why her and not me. I forgot to say, we’re twins. Identical. I mean we look identical. But that’s where it ends. She’s smarter than me or at least she did better in school. She was way more popular. She always got the cool guys. I just stumble along through life.”

“Sounds hard to always be comparing yourself negatively to your sister.”
“I come by it honestly. My whole family does it, especially my mother.”
I flash on the memory of patient who years ago told me about giving birth to identical twins and feeling an immediate connection to the first twin that she didn’t experience with the second. Did Bethany’s mother have a similar experience with her twins that has shaped Bethany and Heather’s experience in the world? An unanswerable question, but an interesting one nonetheless.
“That must be painful.”
“I guess, but I suppose I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve always been shier than Heather, more introverted. I like to draw. I like art. That’s sort of what I do. I work in a design studio that sells lots of art. Although I work mainly in the back. I’m not the greatest sales person. I try, but it’s hard for me.”
“And do you show your own work?”
She shakes her head. “People tell me I’m good enough. But it feels so exposing. And the idea of marketing myself feels overwhelming.”
“Tell me about your family, Bethany.”
“Well, I have an older brother who’s been out of the house for a long time. And then there’s me and my sister and my parents. They’re all very social, outgoing people. They have lots of friends, go to parties, invite people over. I have friends too. I don’t want you to think I’m a total recluse. But we’re different. We sit around and talk, go to the movies, sometimes go to museums.”
“Sounds pretty rewarding. Why is what you do with your friends less valuable than what your parents or sister do?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess because my mother always seems so disapproving of me. I don’t have enough fun. I don’t wear make-up. I don’t get my hair done. She always wants me to be doing something different than what I’m doing.”
“Has that always been true?”
“Always. I remember when I was little. My friends and I would sit around the house drawing, or playing school, or making up stories and my mother would be telling me to go outside, to ride my bike, to go swimming. Whatever I was doing she wanted me to do something else.”
“Did that ever make you angry, Bethany?”
“Sometimes. But mostly it just made me feel bad about myself. Like what’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I more like Heather?”  
“Did your mother ever praise you for your art? Did she ever listen to the stories you and your friends made up?”
“Never. Or at least not that I remember.”
“What just happened there, Bethany? First you said ‘never’ and then you quickly changed it to ‘not that I remember.’”
“Well, I was only a kid. I could have forgotten.”
“Or maybe it’s hard for you to think anything negative about your mother, like it wasn’t fair of her not to praise you for your strengths, just as she praised Heather for hers.”
“I was about to say, I didn’t have any strengths, but I know that’s not true. I really am a good artist. But my strengths weren’t important in my family.”
“You know, Bethany, when children aren’t valued, it’s very hard for them to think that it’s their parent’s problem for being unable to cherish them. They’re much more likely to feel it’s their fault and if only they could change, then their mother or father would love them.”
“I definitely feel that. I always wanted to be like Heather.”
“Well, I’ve only just met you, but it seems to me you have lots of wonderful qualities, qualities that would be loved and valued in many families. Maybe we can help you to learn to value yourself and give up on trying to win the approval of a mother who can’t seem to appreciate you for who you are. It’s really her loss, but I know you’re a long way from feeling that.”    
“A long way.”

“I know. But we’ve just begun our work.”

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Meeting the Family

“Well, I started World War III,” Patrick says sighing deeply, as he settles into the chair across from me. “I knew Vi wouldn’t go down easily with my parents, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. My mother literally gasped and my father’s rage permeated the entire dinner. He didn’t say a word to her the whole time, but he had a lot to say to me afterwards. I guess I shouldn’t have just sprung her on them, but she surprised me by coming down for the weekend and I was supposed to go to my parents for dinner so, I guess I just decided to bring her along.”
“Wait, Patrick. You mean you hadn’t told your parents that Vi is African American? And then you just showed up with her for dinner?”
“Yeah. You know, she teaches law at Columbia University in New York, I’m down here in Florida, I knew my parents, particularly my father is very prejudiced, so I guess I kind of avoided the whole thing until I couldn’t anymore. Vi wasn’t very happy with me either. Obviously the dinner was awkward for her.”
Internally I find myself yelling at Patrick, ‘Awkward? That’s an understatement! She must have been consumed by anger she had to swallow. How could you have allowed this to happen? To everyone.”
Wondering if I’m feeling not only my anger, but Patrick’s as well, I ask, “Who are you feeling angry at Patrick?”
“Angry? Well, I’m angry at my parents, particularly my father. He really let me have it. He guessed no nice white woman would want me since I was such a loser; had to go looking in the gutter for some black chick.”
“And you felt and said what?”
“I hung up on him.”
“And felt?”
“Angry. Disgusted. Vi is this incredibly accomplished, smart, beautiful woman. I’m honored that she’d want me. And all he can see is her black skin. Except I don’t know if she still wants me. She’s pretty angry with me too. She didn’t know I hadn’t told my parents she was African American. She kept saying we’re not children, we’re in our 30s, what gives them the right to think they can decide our lives.”
“And can they? Can they decide your lives?”
Patrick hesitates before saying, “No, not exactly.”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“Well, I couldn’t figure out the long distant part of Vi and my relationship anyway. I mean, it would hard for me to start all over again as a financial planner in New York and to say that there are no law schools down here equivalent to Columbia would be putting it mildly.”
“You’re confusing me Patrick. Are you thinking of breaking up with Vi? Were you thinking of breaking up before the dinner with your parents? Is your parent’s reaction influencing your decision about breaking up?”
“I don’t know. I love Vi, but I can’t figure out the logistics. I couldn’t figure out the logistics before the dinner and I can’t figure it out now.”
“Have you talked to Vi about your concerns? I know you hadn’t talked with me about it.”
“Did you set Vi up, Patrick?” Realizing my anger is seeping through, I try to temper my question. “I mean, did a part of you think taking Vi to dinner with your parents would precipitate World War III, as you said, and might lead to her breaking up with you?”
“I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but now that you mention it … I mean, she’s such a perfect woman for me, I can’t see how I could break up with her. Except she lives in New York and I don’t see how that’s workable.”
Now I feel more sad for Patrick than angry. “You know, Patrick, it’s difficult for you to take charge of your life, to decide what you want for you and make it happen. You don’t talk with Vi about your concern about living in two different cities and whether that can be worked out. I suspect you haven’t even looked at the possibility of becoming a financial planner in New York. You don’t confront your father about your feelings about what he said to you.”
“I guess I always take the coward’s way out. I run.”
Now that I am no longer angry with Patrick, I realize that I had been reacting to him much as his father did. “I wonder, Patrick, if you’ve heard your father call you a loser your whole life and if you’ve come to identify yourself as a loser, despite your obvious success and accomplishments. You feel you can’t do it, whatever it is, and so you don’t, you opt out.”
“I think that’s true. But it’s a hard pattern to break.”
“Yes, it’s a hard pattern to break, but we’ll work on it.”