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"

"Call your therapist" by SHOTbySUSAN is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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

"There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." by Rakesh JV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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.