#11 in my ongoing book blogs from “Don’t Try This at Home”
After my divorce and the saga with Rebound Dan back East, did I mention dating in California? I did meet several fellows who looked promising at first. Harvey the Vet, whom I met at a church dance no less, didn’t work out; turned out his dad beat him as a kid and he couldn’t trust. And yes there were enough PTSD stories to raise the hair on the back of a gecko’s neck. But more in Chapter 4: Post-Divorce Dating.
Then there was Pete the high-priced management consultant. We met in late 2007 when I had a brief binge on Match.com in an attempt to replace Dan, another California dream that never seemed to materialize.
Pete read The New Yorker and Alan Greenspan’s biography, took me to Zagat-rated restaurants, and toured me in his Lexus from fine museums to the LA Book Fair. He was a perfect gentleman, articulate, earnestly seeking a relationship, loved music and dancing, and generally on the up and up I was sure.
Pete was the first to say that I ought to have my head examined.
We talked by phone in early July 2008 while I was alone back East after my Dad died and Dan ditched me. Pete concurred that it was definitely a problem to be unable to cry over my Dad, and so he opined that I ought to see a shrink.
Interesting source for the diagnosis.
Pete at first drank St. Pauli Girl NA. That stands for “non-alcoholic” but Whu Nhu? Not me, your clueless Singing Nun; it went right by me. Then, after six months he’d have a glass of wine with dinner; a few weeks later it was a bottle of wine, then by the time I got back to California later in July 2008, it was a bottle of vodka for dessert, after which Pete physically passed out on his elegant glass coffee table. The last time he asked me out, I pulled up to the restaurant to find Pete outside with a Manhattan in a can. “Please put that away, it’s me or the booze,” I said. He popped the lid, I drove off, and never saw him again.
Five months later, shortly after New Years 2009, his boss informed me that Pete, 55, had overdosed and died alone with his three cats in his upscale home steps from the sand on Huntington Beach. At the funeral, just before I sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Pete’s ex revealed that here was no average businessman who’d only had an accident. Pete, she said dolefully, had been in and out of expensive alcoholic rehab clinics like Betty Ford since the age of 15. He died of sheer blood loss when his gut walls rotted through.
Could have fooled me. “Gosh, the guy market’s in a lot worse shape than I thought,” I said. “Beware of men who cover up their past,” I emailed the girls. Oh, men, men, men.
But what I couldn’t grasp was the truth. Despite Pete’s elaborate fronts and apparent virtues, it was remarkable: I had once again found someone who couldn’t attach. I had no way to know he was an alcoholic when we met, right? But in fact, anyone who drank that hard for 40 years would have had his head so far up a bottle that there wasn’t much of his mind left for emotional contact of any sort. Not with man, woman, nor beast (pity the three cats).
What nutty part of my subconscious had sniffed out another of these “No Attachment” folks and bought it again?
If you’d ever have told me, as late as 2005, that I’d move to California, land of fruit and nuts, I’d have rolled my eyes. If you’d told me that I’d move to California and get a therapist for Heaven’s sake, I would have laughed my level New York head off. Who, me, the mortgage-paying, foreign exchange rate-slinging business gal?
But by July 2008, I was ready to believe Pete about one thing: I definitely needed to have my head examined.
I thawt I Thaw a Thewapist
I did, I did. I thaw TWO thewapists. Therapist? Therapist? Oh the thshame of it all; society so stigmatizes us for even thinking about it.
Out of the dating shark pool I stumbled, into the therapy jungle. That’s right, I took the plunge, despite the massive social condemnation, the incredible expense, and the huge time commitment. I threw myself into treatment heart and soul for seven months, out of genuine alarm at my own mental state.
How did I find a therapist in the dark depths of 2008? What an act of science. Back before my Dad died, I was googling “singles events” in the local Orange County CA on-line newspaper. Amongst the dances, jazz concerts and “Chocolate Lovers of America” events, (seriously, I kept the printout filed) up came a meeting tagged “Support for singles dealing with divorce.”
Armed with nothing but divorce grief and emotional pain, my friend Lola and I sallied forth to that weekly group earlier in 2008 – without a goal or a clue. But on July 19, 2008, back I went with a vengeance, this time looking for serious answers about my sorry psyche. Here’s what my notes report:
Dr. Matt went around the room of 8-10 women, asking each what brought us in. “I’ve moved seven times in two years,” Lola said to my shock, though once again I thought I knew the person well. “I left my husband, moved in with my daughter, then with my boyfriend, then I left him. I just keep moving. I’m miserable everywhere I go. No wonder I can’t find someone to love me – I don’t even love me.”
“I lost a 27-year marriage, my Dad died, then I was dumped by the rebound guy and he’s all I can think about,” I said. “I feel like I’m crazy because I can’t cry about my Dad. I don’t want to go to work or go out or do much of anything but cry.”
The other women had husbands deeply sunk into substance abuse who were wrecking their finances, or who repeatedly cheated on them in long-term unhappy marriages, or husbands who abandoned them and their small children.
What’s a “Codependent”?
What could Dr. Matt do but explain the concept of a codependent? “What’s the definition of a codependent?” he asked. “When a codependent dies, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes.” Everything he said was spot on; my notes prove it:
“When a child experiences emotionally unavailable parents and is abandoned, ignored, heavily criticized, or feels substantial tension at home, the child is convinced very young not just that they have done something bad, but that they themselves ARE bad,” he reported. “Children cannot externalize cause and effect; in a child’s mind, everything revolves around ‘me.’ When a child sees parents fighting or other stressful behavior, the child thinks it is the cause. When a parent is an alcoholic or a workaholic or otherwise absent, the child thinks it is to blame or they wouldn’t have gone away.
“When even worse parents overtly blame the child, unjustly since it’s a child, the child cannot separate fiction from reality, and again thinks: ‘I am bad.’ When parents are emotionally unavailable in this way, it creates a false belief structure lodged deep in a child’s subconscious that ‘I am bad.’ ”
“I am bad”? To my shock, suddenly I was resonating on all cylinders. Yikes, there was a part of me that had felt that way ever since I could remember.
My parents were thoroughly clean and upright, never drank or smoked or did anything but work – but they did fight and get angry. And I sure had never felt they were “emotionally available” to me — what kind of nonsense is that anyway?
What do parents have to do with emotions? I’d never even heard of the idea that parents were supposed to be emotionally anything with their kids. Kids who had emotions weren’t behaving properly! Isn’t it a parent’s job to get rid of emotions in kids, to get kids to grow up?
And then, just sitting there, suddenly I was cowering in the back seat of the family car in grade school while my parents laced into each other up front. “Please don’t fight, please don’t be angry!” I scrawled madly in my notebook. “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you love me?”
Just like that, right out of nowhere, I was back in grade school. Oh my. And, asking my parents “Why won’t you love me?” Huh? I just found all this today in my dusty 2008 notebook. Wild.
Dr. Matt went on with his briefing. “Whenever family stress occurs, the child learns wrongly ‘I caused it, I broke it, I’ve got to fix it.’ That’s untrue, plus a child can’t possibly fix it,” he said. “But the child develops ‘repetition compulsion’ – later in life they are always trying to re-live the same childhood trauma, in order to master the situation, to go back and fix it. It can’t work, it never does, but facts never get in the way of the deep subconscious when it’s bent on a compulsion.”
“Why are you sending me the message that I broke it and you are demanding that I fix it?” I scribbled madly, still bizarrely addressing my parents many decades ago.
Later in life, Dr. M. said, this child gravitates toward spouses and others who behave as the parents did, to people who are distant, angry, or who actually do need fixing – all people who are emotionally unavailable. “ ‘Oh, just like Mom or Dad. That’s a dance I know, I know how to relate to that,’ thinks the subconscious,” he said.
“The textbook case is the codependent wife always trying to rescue her alcoholic husband by paying his bills or covering up his bad behavior. She’s blindly acting out a childhood repetition compulsion that she’s got to ‘fix it’ – just like as a child she had to cheer up Mom or appease angry Dad. The original term was ‘co-alcoholic,’ because the fixing spouse is as dependent on the drug as the addict. They need it around to maintain their subconscious childhood dynamic.”
Dr. M. even managed, hearing me for five minutes in a meeting of eight women, to diagnose my marriage and warn me against a particular brand of non-attaching men. “Enmeshment occurs in people who were too depended upon by one parent, usually the mother, as kids,” he explained, “in the absence of the other parent, usually an absent father. That’s unnatural, so for example, a son who became Mom’s substitute for his absent Dad, will have a deep felt need to escape from ‘too much Mom,’ whether Mom was angel or devil. As an adult, this man has an allergy against relationships; he always has one foot out the door.”
“Larry (my ex) always had one foot out the door!” I scribbled madly, trying to keep up. “Larry’s Dad was always traveling on business in Europe and his mom made her first born son into a little emperor. Plus yikes: Dan (the rebound) always had one foot out the door…”
Painting with a Hammer
With such brilliant insights we should quickly be cured, no? Dr. Matt’s words were true indeed. He did fail to mention that they are also the basics in most standard psychiatric textbooks, as I learned ‘way much later. Too later…
Instead, the RX which came next hit me like a hammer: “You don’t need to go back and fix it. Just let it go,” said Dr. Matt. Simple as that. Just think your way out of it. Just let your head tell your heart where to get off.
I didn’t know then, that this was all head talk, and that head talk has never transformed a heart in human history. I didn’t know then, that brain science says the thinking frontal brain has virtually no power to influence the emotional limbic brain. [FN1]
“Trying to fix the heart with the head is like trying to paint with a hammer; it only makes a mess,” say John James and Russell Friedman, the top experts on divorce grief and every other sort of grief. [FN2] But I hadn’t heard of them yet.
“You know how to take care of others, that’s your expertise,” continued Dr. M. “But you have another part of YOU that really needs caring for, your hurting child part – so eliminate the middleman. Stop trying to take care of others, and take care of yourself instead.” It did sound clever.
Then he lowered the boom. “Go to a safe place and introduce these two parts of you to each other,” he said. “It’s likely they’ve never met. Start with the wounded child part inside you, make sure you’re in a really safe place where the inner child feels safe. Then ask her, ‘Would it be ok to meet another part of yourself?’ Then introduce the care-giving adult part, to the hurting child part and leave them alone together so they can subconsciously process.”
“Leave them alone together?” After his barrage of terrific but crushing data, which had struck such a nerve gusher, this sudden conclusion left my head spinning. It sounded like a gobbledegook segue to nowhere; “go take a long walk off a short pier.” It was an answer to “Now What?” that made no sense whatsoever.
“Do it yourself,” he was telling me. I had a sinking feeling.
I went home and diligently followed his advice — and I felt much, much worse. In fact, after a week of trying this out, I got to where I was in such a flat-out panic that I was nauseous.
This is from Chapter 2 of Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder – How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all. Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from her book every Friday, in which she explores her journey of recovery and shares the people and tools that have helped her along the way.
[FN1] Lewis, Thomas, Amini, Fari, Lannon, Richard; “A General Theory of Love”, Random House, 2000. Great link: www.paulagordon.com/shows/lannon/
[FN2] James, John W., Friedman, Russell, “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” Harper Collins, New York, 2009 (original 1998)
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