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  • Writer's pictureKaren James

Why Do I Need Therapy? Exploring Family Experiences

Why do people go to therapy? What’s the point of understanding oneself? What are they looking for?

a graffiti drawing on a wall with a sentence read "Call Your Therapist"

Prior to therapy I thought that I knew myself. After all, I lived inside of me, so I had to know myself. I lived with me every single day, how could I not know myself? And how the hell was some stranger going to help me to know myself? I thought it was all a brain washing thing. I’d go to therapy and some person was going to try and brainwash me into being a carbon copy of everyone else - so I’d fit in and stop being a problem.

Yet the truth of it was, my life was a mess. I was so unhappy I wanted to die on most days, and I was using anything I could find to try and get away from reality. I really needed help, but I was not going to be an easy person to help.

All Are A Unique Product of Temperament And Experiences

This is the problem with life: we don’t get a manual, and nor do the parents who raise us. We are an interaction of our unique individual selves and the environment we come into contact with.

Even if they are raised in the same family, no two people experience the same circumstances in the same way. We are shaped by each of the experiences that we live through. Furthermore, the particular temperament which we were born with determines how we are shaped. For those who are born as highly sensitive, the impact of a harsh environment can be more costly than for a sibling who is less sensitive and with a harder shell.

Even within our families we share different experiences, between siblings and with our parents. Our relationships with our parents are different because we are different. We may be closer to one sibling than to another. An aunt or uncle might play an important part, or a grandparent might be close or maybe have a negative impact on our lives. Many other people could come to play a part in our lives while growing up and that might also mold a part of us.

Then there are all the other experiences in life. Some of them don’t even leave an impact worth remembering, while others stamp a mark on us that stays forever. Some leave a dark shadow - we can’t see into the shadow, we can only sense the fear. We know something bad happened by the way we feel, but we can’t see it. Sometimes this is the way our brain protects us - it hides what it senses we could not face.

As we grow older, we are more able to deal with the things in our past that we couldn’t deal with as children. We develop more skills, we learn how to manage better. We become adults, and are no longer fragile children.

But what happens when we don’t update ourselves as we grow older? What happens when we cling to the childish beliefs we had as helpless children? What happens when the monster under the bed remains under the bed or when the dark shadow continues to follow us throughout our life?

We can remain emotionally crippled by our past. We could be emotionally stunted by what we have not managed to process and get past.

a young girl wearing pink dress standing next to a blue door and smiling and looking towards the camera

Childhood Experiences And Stunted Emotional Development

When I chose to shut my emotions off, so I didn’t have to feel the pain of my unlived childhood, I stopped growing emotionally. I only grew intellectually and even this was distorted by my emotional immaturity. I did not learn to civilize myself. Emotions have a lot to do with this and my inability to manage my emotions affected the way I interacted with others.

I was usually just trying to stay out of conflict and this often ended with isolating myself from others. I found the process of interacting with and maintaining friends to be a constant puzzle which I couldn’t quite figure out. The family I grew up in was an addicted family where conflict happened on a daily basis, and no one knew how to resolve anything.

When I was a child, things happened and things were said to me that were damaging and just untrue. I then based my understanding of who I was on many of those things. They were mainly the things my mother said to me when she was drunk. They left scars on my psyche which caused me to hate myself and believe that no one could possibly ever want to be my friend. I lived my life as if those things were true.

As a child we have no way to make sense of what the adults in our lives are saying to us. Our sense of self is not very developed at this point and so we are very vulnerable to the assaults by others.

Psychological and emotional abuse can be particularly damaging to young children. When you add in neglect, you get a recipe for self hate. It's not hard to see this in a child because these children will demonstrate that there is something wrong in the way that they interact with their peers. They will not interact in a healthy way. Just watch children in a school yard and you can quickly spot those who come from difficult homes.

I was the kid who simply gave up. I stood alone in the school yard and made no attempt to fit in. At some point I’d been rejected at school and I learned early to give up trying. I was not willing to experience rejection over and over. I did see children who never learned this lesson. They tried repeatedly to gain entry, only to be cruelly reminded they were not welcome among the popular kids.

I also watched the bullies who dominated groups by inducing fear. No one dared reject them for fear of retaliation. They demonstrated their power by picking on a weaker kid, relentlessly showing what would happen if anyone dared challenge them. These patterns often continue when the child grows up, and you can see examples of this in the workplace. The other places where you can see the results of some of these dynamics are in the mental health services and in the prisons.

So how do we change this early childhood conditioning? Well, therapy holds some of the answers.

Childhood Experiences, Addiction And Recovery

Usually when we get sick and tired of being sick and tired, we become motivated enough to seek an answer. Once I realized that all the drugs in the world weren't going to fix the damage I had suffered, I knew I had to find another way.

By this time, I was an addict and so I had to deal with the addiction first. I wasn’t going to be able to deal with anything else until I got rid of that problem. This took time and effort and I had to maintain a program which kept it at bay. It also took time for my brain to recover from the damage caused by twenty-one years of drug and alcohol abuse. There is a cost to choosing this way to deal with life, or rather, to avoid dealing with it.

There was damage that eventually only medication could fix. All my playing chemistry set with my brain, did not make this an easy task for the psychiatrists who tried to balance my brain. It took a long time before they managed to silence the suicidal ideation that echoed through my mind daily and the stormy moods that danced up and down of their own free will. This was the damage that the drugs had caused.

And then there was the damage caused by my childhood experiences. That still had to be sorted out. So how do you do that? Well, you need to have some idea of the story.

My Childhood Story

So, I had two parents like most everyone else. My mother was 14 years older than my father who was a bit of a bad boy. They both worked at the same place, and when they started dating their colleagues had a bet that it wouldn’t last - so they got married. By the time they had two children it became pretty apparent that my father wasn’t planning on settling down and being a father. He was a drinker and a person who liked to commit crime and get into trouble. He frequently didn’t come home and when he did, he stole whatever money my mother had.

Then along came I into the mess. It was very bad timing. Sometimes this is all it takes for you to become the child who no one wants. My sister was 11 months old when I was born. She was a child with a lot of medical problems who was difficult to soothe and had a very difficult temperament. My brother was two years old. My mother didn’t need another child at this point and so I wasn’t a welcome addition.

The marriage was at a place where it was deteriorating, and it would continue to do so. My father was coming and going and was mostly another hardship that my mother didn’t need - until he disappeared for the last time when I was five years old. When he finally left, he was on trial for a jewelry robbery and would have been found guilty. But he took off before the end of the trial, taking with him the woman who lived upstairs. We wouldn’t see him again.

This set the stage for my mother’s bitterness and her sense of hopelessness - left to raise three children while working at a time when women were paid so much less than men. We lived in poverty, and she lived in despair. I came to represent this tragedy for her. All she could see when she looked at me was the last thing she ever needed. She made this very clear to me. She told me that she never knew why she had me and that she needed me as much as she needed two heads. I remember her saying these things to me but I didn’t understand why at the time, because I didn’t know the story. I thought I must have done something really bad or that I must be worth nothing.

My mother also told me, from around the time that I was five years old, that she was going to die when I turned nineteen. She began telling my relatives this every year. She would call me into the dining room with them and repeat this declaration. I also didn’t understand this at the time, but I felt like I was somehow being held responsible for her death. As a child you can’t really make sense of things like this and so you just kind of interpret them in your own childlike way.

This story illustrates the problem of not sorting out childhood experiences and beliefs - you mostly don’t have the right interpretation and the one you do have is usually quite a painful one.

Therapy And Finding New Meanings

Later I would come to understand that my mother believed it was her job to raise her children until they were adults and she figured that would be when her youngest was nineteen. She assumed we would all just leave her in the end and she would be alone. So she wanted to die then, as her job would be over. It was really a sad commentary on how my mother felt about her own life. She would die a day and a month before I turned nineteen.

These are the things that, when you really understand them, bring an entirely different meaning to the story you believed to be true. Did what I believed while growing up hurt me? Yes, it did. Should my mother have said those things in front of me? No, she shouldn’t have. But when I went through my therapy, I was able to work through the emotions that surrounded those incidents in my life and I was able to understand what had actually been going on.

When my mother started her family, she had hoped to raise her children with her husband and to have a good life with financial security. Instead, she found herself a single parent to three little children. She worked in a world that was never going to pay her enough to lift her out of poverty, even though she was a lab technician which was unusual in her era. Her husband would physically abuse her and steal from her before he left her for another woman and with the shame of his very publicized crime. She would spend the rest of her life in poverty, struggling to make ends meet.

Like all of her Irish family my mother fell into alcoholism as a way of coping with her despair, even though it would never help her and would only ever hurt her family. Poverty was the historical trauma of the Irish Catholics. It was what happened when their lands had been taken and they had been forced onto unfarmable land and then faced a famine that had wiped out over 1 million people. It followed them to Canada and even to Ottawa where they were settled in the poorer areas of the city. We were living in those areas growing up. My mother’s constant struggle, with no way to climb out of the place she found herself in, wore away her ability to hope.

The reality of life is that as humans we are fallible and we struggle. And, as I said before, we don’t get a manual on how to deal with life’s tragedies or its ups and downs. Sometimes families go through tough times - they’re not prepared for it, they don’t know how to manage it, and they don’t manage it well. At times like these they don’t behave in the best of ways and they hurt each other in the process. When I was older, and my life was not yet sorted out, I also made a lot of mistakes. I became addicted just as my mother had been addicted. It impacted the way I interacted with people, it stunted my emotional maturity, and I made mistakes as a result.

Moving Forward

a tree standing alone in an empty field

I began to sort out what happened to me in my life when I went into recovery and then into therapy. I was able to put the pieces together and start to understand the things that had affected me. Then I could begin to de myself.

What I have shared of my history is a very small part of a much larger picture that took a long time to sort out, but I wanted to give you some idea of what therapy is about. And how it helps you to go about making sense and moving forward.

Today I know my story. I know what happened to me in my life, both the good things and the bad things. It was helpful when it came time for me to define, for myself, just who I was. It allowed me to forgive some of the people in my life who I wanted to forgive, such as my mother. It allowed me to understand my siblings better and to develop better relationships with them. I also think it made me a much better human being.

I want to close with a story of reconciliation. My relationship with my mother had been a complicated and traumatic one but I had always loved her. In researching my family history, I learned a lot about Ireland and, as my mother was truly an Irish woman, I decided I would travel to Ireland and take something that belonged to her there. I hoped I would find some family I could give it to so I could leave part of her spirit in Ireland.

I chose a rosary with her family’s initials on it and a week before leaving, I had found relatives with DNA connection in Kilkenny, where her family was from. In Ireland I photographed the rosary at many of the holy places I visited along the way to Kilkenny because I would be giving it away. I met this lovely man and we toured around Kilkenny, and he introduced me to his family. I left that rosary with them.

I came back to Ottawa at the end of July. In August, on my birthday, I received a message on from someone related to my father. She had a letter that my mother had written to my grandmother and wondered if I might want it. Of course I said yes. In the letter, written three months before she died, my mother wrote: “I have three of the most wonderful children and I wouldn’t have traded them for all the money in the world.”

I don’t think I have to explain the significance of the letter or the date. There is much about life that we can’t explain and which we can only observe with wonder. That day my mother spoke to me across a gap of 42 years since she had died and gave me a message I had always waited to hear. I looked up from the pages I was reading from and said, “Thanks mom, that’s the best birthday gift I’ve ever received.”

Karen James bio on Limestone Clinic

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