In this week's blog, "Father's Day" a patient's ambivalence about his parents takes center stage, increasing his anxiety about separation and loss.
“I have to decide today,” says 44 year old Brian, a patient who started seeing me last month because of overwhelming anxiety. Passing his hand through his brown, wavy hair he continues. “I’ve delayed and delayed, but if I’m driving to Pensacola tomorrow in time for Father’s Day, I have to make a decision today. No more procrastinating.” Pause. “It’s no secret that I don’t want to go. Even my mother who’s calling me every day to bug me about coming knows I dread the idea. And my wife is staying out of the whole thing. Which is kind of her. All I’d need is for her to be pulling me in the other direction and saying I need to stay for our boys.”
“I notice you’ve mentioned your mother, your wife and your boys, but not your father.”
Brian chuckles. “You’ve got that right. I realize it’s supposed to be his day, but if it were only for him I know I wouldn’t go. I mean, he was awful my whole life, but ever since he banished my brother because he’s gay and then Trump was elected, it’s impossible to have five minutes of a civil conversation. My father has always been a tyrant. He has an opinion about everything and for some reason he thinks he’s an expert on everything too. Which is ridiculous, since he barely finished high school and clearly isn’t very bright.”
I think of my father, definitely smart, politically like-minded, but most definitely a tyrant. “So why would you go?” I ask.
“My mother.” Pause. “And she’s right, they’re not getting any younger. But she’s pulled out every guilt inducing maneuver she can think of. ‘What if Dad dies and you never see him again?’ ‘Why does his relationship with Paul have to affect you?’ ‘Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for him if not one of his children is present?’ ‘You can bring Janet and the boys; we’d love to have them; the whole family together’ As if I would subject my boys to whatever explosion is bound to happen.”
“And how do you feel about your mother pressuring you?”
“I don’t know. It’s what mothers do.”
My mind wanders to the many difficult years I had with my father, coupled with my mother’s constant inability to ever see my point of view. Regardless of the circumstances I was always the one who had to make things right.
“But that doesn’t tell us how you feel about your mother pressuring you,” I say.
Brian sighs. “It’s the same old, same old. My mother’s whole life revolves around my father. She has nothing else in her life. Except for us of course. But she’s followed my father’s lead as far as my brother. I wonder how she feels about being totally disconnected from Paul.” Pause. “It’s sad.”
“Sad for her? For Paul?”
“I was thinking sad for her. But it must be sad for Paul too.” Pause. “You know, I’m getting more anxious as we talk about this.” Pause. “And feeling like I should go.”
“I, I need you to say something. My anxiety is going through the roof,” Brian says, clenching his hands and fidgeting in the chair.
“So the silence made you more anxious, just like thinking about the disconnect between Paul and your mother.”
“Yeah, I guess so, but I’m not sure how they’re related.”
“Nothing comes to mind?” I ask.
Brian shakes his head, looking puzzled.
Although I would prefer to wait to see what might emerge from Brian, his escalating anxiety pressures me to speak. “I wonder if one of the things that makes you anxious is the fear of being disconnected, not connected to your mother or to me.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well, you were talking about how your mother has no relationship with Paul. I think that scared you. You wouldn’t want to have no relationship with your mother, so I suspect when that thought went through your mind – consciously or unconsciously – you felt you’d better go for Father’s Day.”
“Wow! You think that’s what my anxiety is all about, being disconnected from my mother?”
“Your anxiety could be the result of many things, but the fear of separation could certainly be one of them.”
“And with you too?”
“Well, you were already feeling scared of being separated from your mother and when I wasn’t speaking I think you experienced that feeling of separation with me as well.”
“I’ll have to think about that. But meantime, what should I do about Father’s Day?”
“I can’t decide that for you Brian. There’s not a right or wrong decision, just your decision.”
“That scares me too.”
“What if I make a mistake?”
“What if you do?”
“I think I’m going to go. It feels like the safest choice.”
“You need to do whatever you need to do. There was a lot that came up in this session today, too much for us to deal with it all. So I’m sure whatever you decide will be fine and we’ll have other times to work on your anxiety and your relationship with both your parents and with me.”