A Still Unfinished Story About Healing

A Still Unfinished Story About Healing

Individual Therapy Bethesda, MD

Often, and very often recently, my blog entries identify a general problem and either offer a new way of thinking about that problem or recommend a specific course of action to solve it. Those are well-intended, and I believe that some people do find them helpful; however, I do not know everyone’s story, and trying to come up with directives or philosophies that resonate with a broad and diverse audience is daunting for me—and potentially disparaging for those who cannot relate.

Today I am choosing to talk about myself and my personal experiences because that is the only area in which I am truly an expert. As I explain to all my new clients, we are each the foremost experts about our own lives. Like all therapists, I can listen and learn about my clients. I can come up with behavioral strategies they can try, or insights they can consider. But my clients are the ones who must ultimately decide how they will live and what they will believe. And so, rather than writing about your problems, today I am writing about something I am certain I know something about: my problems.

Specifically, problems related to my grief about my mother’s death, and how that grief continues to present unique and unexpected challenges many years later. But my experience is just my experience, and my process is just my process: I do not assume that my experiences of grief are universal, or that my healing process is generalizable to other bereaved individuals. Rather than trying to fix some problems I notice in others, I want to take accountability for one of the problems I notice in myself, and demonstrate how—or if—I am a reliable problem-solving resource.

Shortly after my mother died, I started having distressing and sometimes disorienting nightmares in which she was either violently angry and critical toward me, or cold and aloof. These nightmares did not reflect the reality of my actual relationship with my mom which, I am fortunate to say, was generally affectionate and affirming. Sadly, the subconscious memory of my mother that often haunted my dreams found me thoroughly and unforgivably deficient. This was, obviously, a huge bummer. Although not overly disruptive for my sleep, these nightmares made getting up in the morning and doing normal activities feel onerous. Some days I carried around the emotional burden of my dream-mother’s anger and rejection long after I woke up.

Even more unfortunate than the dreams themselves, however, was how my conscious attitude towards myself started to mirror the attitude of my critical or contemptuous dream-mother. My self-talk became dominated by berating, shaming and blaming myself for my deficiencies to a degree that was unkind, unhelpful, and generally inaccurate to the reality of my life. Every mistake I made, every bit of censure or disapproval I received, was further proof and confirmation that I was a miserable failure who deserved to fail and be miserable.

Sometimes my self-shaming and blaming tendencies would manifest as anger, reproach, or resentment towards other people who seemed to either a) mirror my self-blaming in their attitudes towards me, or b) act in contradiction to my pursuit of “blamelessness”—i.e. never appearing deficient such that others would notice or scorn me. Conventionally we might refer to this thinking and behavior as “perfectionism,” but that seems more productive and egosyntonic that what was going on with me.

It was an odd problem: neither myself nor the people in my support system had a script for understanding grief that manifested as nightmares—least of all nightmares in which a deceased parent, whom they knew to be warm and nurturing when she was alive, was perpetrating psychological abuse posthumously. My friends and family understood that I missed my mom; they understood that my mood and behavior would be impacted by the loss. But no one really understood my nightmares: and so, in addition to feeling sad and ashamed by their content, I felt confused and ashamed by the fact that I was having them at all.

An important part of telling this story is admitting that it took me too long to get help. When I finally saw a therapist, it had been over five years since my mother passed away. By then I was already halfway through my master’s program in marriage and family therapy. Every day I was surrounded by dozens of counselors and therapists, and any of them could have told me my nightmares were neither abnormal for a grieving individual, nor an accurate source of information about how my mom felt about me or how I should feel about myself. But I imagine almost all of them would have been shocked and perplexed that I delayed getting help for so long.

I often educate others about how emotions can be valid, and at the same time an inaccurate reflection of reality. Emotions are real in that they have an observable mental and physiological impact; however, often our emotions are an irrelevant, illogical, or nonreciprocal reaction to our actual circumstances. This a difficult lesson, and one that I have had to relearn often. In this case, after some months of therapy and dedicated self-study, I realized that I felt abandoned by my mother. This is obviously illogical as well as unfair: dying was not her choice, in fact she was very opposed to it. But, subconsciously, a part of me still felt abandoned. That feeling, which had no outlet in my conscious mind [again, should have gone to therapy sooner], had full freedom of expression in my nightmares—and, viewed through that lens, they started to make sense. My subconscious had successfully cooked up a specter of my mother who did want to abandon me: rather than dying involuntarily, she hated and rejected me because I was not good enough.

A few other factors helped to seal this dysfunctional pattern. First, my grief was felt in response to illness and death—two realities massively beyond the scope of my control. Finding a way to subconsciously blame myself for my mother’s disappearance from my life was horribly painful, but on some level believing that was easier than facing my complete lack of control over the situation. Second, the months and years following my mother’s death were rife with major transitions, thorny decisions, and unfamiliar challenges—i.e. tons of opportunities for me to struggle and fail and confirm the dream-mother’s accusations. And of course, I was facing all of these defining moments without my real mother’s practical and emotional support, effectively reinforcing the feeling of abandonment.

Identifying my emotional experience of abandonment and practicing conscious expression, self-validation and self-compassion has been helpful for me; however, my healing process is ongoing, and I have a long way to go. I still have nightmares sometimes—not as bad as before, but they happen. Moreover, I have real, non-dream memories of my mother’s criticism and disapproval—and her death so many years ago means I have no recourse to resolve and repair these with her in person.

I believe this type of posthumous repair is possible: currently I am trying to strengthen the belief that she loves and accepts me by demonstrating that I love and accept myself. I have found that every new day, month, year, and season of my life forces me to confront the loss of my mom all over again: my grief is not static—it grows and moves as long as I am growing and moving. I must make the choice to take responsibility for my healing every day, and every day I can go a few steps further: moving forward without her is hard, but it is better than going nowhere.

Janine Joly-DeMars provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.