Insight vs. Healing


There was one aspect of my depression that stood apart from the more endogenous illness. As the extended family assembled each year at my sister’s house, for Thanksgiving, I would sink into a lethargic state that would last the entire weekend. In particular, it was my Mother’s physical presence that seemed to bring on this distinct emotional fog.

In the spring of 1989, I was greeting relatives who had flown in for my first son’s Bar Mitzvah. When I spotted my mother down a long airport concourse, the degree and suddenness of my emotional shift was startling. I plunged from a state of anticipation and high energy into one of lethargy and depression.

Sarah had also come in for the Bar Mitzvah, so at the first opportunity, I asked if she could shed any light on what had just happened. She said only that it had to do with some traumatic incident, when I was 10 or 11.

Out of the blue several years later, Mother invited me to unburden myself of any criticism I might have of her parenting. This was shortly after my father had died, and I suspect it had to do with some grief counseling she was getting. (She mentioned that she was making the same energy-clearing overture to each of her four children.)

We were sitting under a large elm tree in the front yard when Mother thus propositioned me. Ironically, I had been keeping our interactions to a minimum that visit, trying to ward off the kind of tailspin described above. Now she was asking me not just to stop the warding off but to immerse myself in the very energy that had come between us.

An incident sprang to mind – probably what Sarah was alluding to above, though it occurred around the time of my own Bar Mitzvah (age 13, not 10 or 11). Mother had left the house after a heavier than usual course of verbal battering by my father. But instead of drifting off into his usual sleepy stupor, Dad went straight to the phone.

“Hello, June? This is Bob Schaeffer. I’d like to see you tonight.” He then took a shower, got dressed to kill and left the house for the rest of the evening.

For the next few days, I was caught up in a crisis of conscience and divided loyalty. Should I rat out my dad to my mother? Since she seemed the innocent victim of both his nightly abuse and this singular betrayal, I decided she deserved my allegiance.

Without batting an eye, Mother told me I was mistaken in what I had heard. She actually managed a chuckle over my “misinterpretation.” A friend of hers, Joan, was training to be a manicurist and had been doing Dad’s nails, for practice. Undoubtedly, it was Joan (not “June”) he had called for this spur of the moment appointment.

“As for ‘Bob Schaeffer,’” Mother continued, “that was just a stage name Dad used during his acting days at the Pittsburgh Playhouse” (with which “Joan,” presumably, was familiar).

That night, I heard my parents yelling at each other from behind their bedroom door. Only now do I realize how different – how much healthier this shouting match was than the nightly bombardments to which we had all inured ourselves. How much more overt and to the point.

At the time though, I felt guilty that I had precipitated a worsening of my parents’ status quo. My father was especially distant toward me in the aftermath of the first real fight he’d had with my mother in many years.

Some days later, I was riding in the car with my parents. My instinct even then was to take initiative in the face of their communicative default. So from my position in the back seat, I searched for a way to break the ice about all this.

At age 13, I didn’t know how to just say, “Mom and Dad, I’ve been worrying about your situation, scared the two of you might get divorced; and upset over being left completely in the dark about whatever is going on between you.” So instead, I said, “Dad, tell me about your days at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.”

“DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT!” my dad barked at me. For the rest of the ride, not another word was spoken. For the next 28 years, nothing further would be said.

As I now pondered my mother’s unexpected invitation to address any emotional grievance I might have, the memory of these events flooded my consciousness. After reminding her of the incident, I took a deep breath and said:

Mother, do you see how you left me out on a limb after I had allied myself with you in this drama? We might have taken some comfort in our shared (if quite different) aggrievement. Instead, you lied to me. Then you “gave me up to the enemy.” And even after you and Dad had fought it out, you never came back to clean things up on my end; or even to reassure me that the two of you were trying to turn things around.

This was no diatribe against my mother. My words were soft and tearful. She also cried, and after only a bit of defending, took responsibility for what had occurred between us so many years before.

From that day forward, I never suffered another depressive meltdown on coming into my mother’s physical presence. That specific energy was dissipated by our belated but heartfelt communication.

I assume that my remaining more endogenous depression no less has its antecedents in specific (if cumulative) interpersonal experiences. Or in current relational circumstances, the full implications of which I have not yet been ready to address. Just as medical research sifts for clues within a cancer cluster, so it behooves us to monitor our emotional fluctuations to ferret out any linkage between our interactions and their psychosomatic effects. That is largely what psychotherapy attempts to do.

The healing with my mother also reminded me that identifying our emotional wounds and healing them are two different things. Sarah had helped me connect the Bob Schaeffer incident with my longstanding emotional allergy to Mother. But that suspicion of cause and effect had afforded me no relief from the symptomatology.

In this sense, intellectual and emotional awareness are like twins, separated at birth, each vaguely sensing their incompleteness. True objectivity, the kind that presages our emotional healing, entails both seeing and feeling our interpersonal reality at the selfsame instant.

This experience with my mother also taught me that as long as I breathe air (and so long as those with whom I may yet effect some emotional and relational healing continue to breathe), I must take my opportunities to resolve things with those who have hurt me (and with those whom I have hurt). I was attempting to do that, however clumsily, when I asked my Dad to tell me more about "Bob Schaeffer." It just took me another 28 years to come up with a more artful approach. And for my mother, at least, to make herself a little vulnerable.