In time, Dr. Leonard won my trust and coaxed me into talking about my life. He listened with uninterrupted attention and with disarming compassion. My highly-tuned radar could not detect even a trace of ridicule or judgment in his demeanor—something I had never experienced before. I felt seen and heard for the first time. Therapy became a sanctuary for my troubled psyche.
I saw Dr. Leonard every week that I was on campus over the last two years of college, sometimes even twice a week. Jeff’s father generously paid for the therapy. The sessions became an adventure that I looked forward to immensely. Working with Dr. Leonard felt like studying archeology of the soul with a lot of digging, putting pieces together and looking at the past with a new perspective.
As we shed light on the forces that shaped my life, the first glimmer of understanding and compassion for myself bubbled to the surface.
At first Dr. Leonard focused on my dreams. Having studied psychiatry in Zurich, Dr. Leonard must have felt the influence of Carl Jung’s work, with the emphasis on dream interpretation.
My recurrent dreams, verging on nightmares, had a somewhat consistent theme about being lost and afraid in the face of great danger. In one of them, I am a Jewish woman in a perpetual state of breathless flight from the Nazis who bear down on me. The dream first occurred during high school in Germany after I visited Dachau, the concentration camp.
In another dream I am walking around in a big city and suddenly become aware that I have no clothes on and feel mortified and ashamed.
Then there was the dream of being stuck inside an elevator, in a state of panic, with no way for me to escape the endless ride up and down.
The last recurrent dream of the tormented series began after Jeff and I got married. I am the captain of a ship out at sea. Everything seems to be going smoothly until I realize I have no compass. I have no idea where I am and where I’m headed. When the crew finds out that its captain doesn’t know where she is going, there is rebellion. At that moment, a storm brews, the water becomes turbulent and the ship is on the verge of capsizing when I wake up out of breath.
Dr. Leonard eventually turned his attention away from the dreams and asked me many probing questions about my childhood. My answers created a picture of what it was like growing up in my family.
Childhood was exciting, but hardly a peaceful time. It was marked by constant family upheaval with my father’s reassignment to new locations in the US and abroad every couple of years.
The early years included physical and verbal battles with my younger brother, desperate attempts at getting parental attention and approval, shifting alliances among family members, ceaseless criticism from all sides, and generalized anxiety that something bad was about to happen at any minute. Hitting, slaps and spankings occurred frequently.
Yet, at the same time, my childhood was full of exciting adventures. I learned survival skills in the wilderness over several years of summer camp in a remote part of Maine as a young girl. And I learned how to adapt to the constantly shifting social scene in the series of schools that I transferred to while my family moved around in the US and abroad.
In spite of the transient nature of life growing up as a military brat, I managed to make a few lasting friendships at school. A handful of kind and caring adults, including teachers, made a difference in my life because they believed in me and took a liking to me.
Our Swiss mother ran the household in the strict style of old Europe. Mummy was beautiful, cultured, intelligent, anxious, and impossibly critical. Her six rambunctious children clearly overwhelmed her, yet she did a superb job attending to our physical needs. We were well fed with nutritious food, well clothed, well scrubbed, and well educated.
But our parents did not know how to respond to our emotional lives. We were supposed to be tough and not complain. I felt alone in the uncharted wilderness of my inner world, trying to make sense out of my feelings.
We got the message that we weren’t good enough no matter how hard we tried. My mother hit and slapped my sisters and me, especially when we were practicing the piano. My mother was so musically gifted that she couldn’t fathom why we made so many mistakes while we were learning to play our instruments. She thought that we were playing the wrong notes on purpose to irritate her. She reacted by hitting us around our heads. Any traces of musical abilities in me were aborted around that time.
In my mother’s culture from her era growing up, parents hit and spanked their children “for their own good.”
As an adult, I tried to resuscitate my aborted musical life and took piano lessons with a teacher who taught young children in elementary school. During one of our lessons, the teacher reached over to turn the page for me. Right when I saw her hand approach in my peripheral vision, the movement triggered some ancient cellular memory of being hit from the side by my mother. I reflexively cowered with my hands over my head. The teacher looked thoroughly bemused. All I could do was laugh with embarrassment.
Although my father was far from perfect, he had a stabilizing and kind influence on the family while he was home. But he was gone most of the time, out in the field on maneuvers or gone abroad on a mission. I missed him terribly when he was absent for prolonged periods of time. He brought a measure of order to the chaos of life at home.
My father fostered a spirit of competition among his six children. Our dinners together were sometimes a continuation of school. Resuming his former role as a high school teacher and MIT math tutor, he would ask, “Who knows the names of all the countries in Eastern Europe and their capitals?” “What’s the longest river in the world?” “Who can tell me the capitals of all the 48 states?” We had great motivation to win these games because the unspoken prize was the admiration of our father. But the competition spread into all areas of our lives. We had to win at all costs. What took me a few years to understand is that there was no way to win at this game because, in our family, we were never good enough, no matter what we did. We were forever the half-empty glass.
Eventually, Dr. Leonard wanted me to talk about my marriage to Jeff. “Why do you think your marriage might not last?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “Well. I’m not a very good wife. I’m too demanding. I’m never just content with the way things are.”
“Do you think this might have something to do with the way you were raised in your family?” he continued, in a leading way.
“I guess so. My mother was demanding. I don’t think she was very happy with herself so she took it out on her children. Maybe I’m doing the same thing with Jeff. I make him feel like he’s never good enough—just what my mother did with us. And I even blame him for things that aren’t really his problem. They’re my problem but I can’t admit it. Now that you mention it, I guess I went from being the oppressed one as a child to becoming the oppressor. What an awful thought, but I guess it’s true.”
Dr. Leonard changed the subject when he noticed my teeth were chattering. “I want to digress a moment. I just now noticed that you’ve come to this appointment barefooted. Erica, it’s the middle of winter and there’s snow on the ground. And I notice that you didn’t wear a coat or sweater. Is there some reason you’re doing this?”
“Actually, I’ve been coming barefooted for the past few sessions but you didn’t notice. I’m trying to make myself strong so that I won’t be so sensitive to life and things won’t be so painful,” I explained.
“But how will making yourself physically strong help you become emotionally strong?”
“I don’t know. I just had a feeling that if I toughened up, my feelings wouldn’t get hurt so easily.”
“Erica, the best way to become less sensitive to what happens in life is to understand yourself better which will help you understand others better. And that’s what we’re doing here in these appointments.
“You don’t need to go barefooted anymore to make your feet tough. In fact, I want you to wear shoes at our appointments. And please wear a coat.
“Now, let’s get back to your marriage with Jeff and see if we can get some insights. Once you have an understanding of the forces at work in your life, you’ll no longer feel like a victim of circumstances. What other observations have you made?”
I answered, “Well, just to give you an example, when I cook meals, I expect Jeff to rave about how good the meal is. When he doesn’t say anything, I feel like a failure. My mother did the same thing. I guess she just wanted to feel appreciated.
“When Jeff met me, he fell madly in love with me. I got addicted to that feeling of being loved in that way. So, when things simmered down, I missed the passion and felt unloved. I hungered for endless expressions of affection. I think a normal person would just accept the fact that the initial intensity of falling in love can’t last. I wish that I was a normal person and not defective.”
Dr. Leonard said in a comforting way, “You judge yourself harshly. Your mother judged you harshly as a child. You internalized the judgments—even though your mother no longer does that so much anymore, according to what you have told me.
“There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person. Human beings are all looking for love in the end—that’s what’s normal. It’s just that we have unique and all-too-often distorted ways of expressing that need based on what we learned as children. You’re young and still learning about life and about yourself.”
He went on to say that when children do not feel loved and nurtured by their mother, they spend all their lives in pursuit of that love. They become a bottomless pit of need that can never be satisfied.
“No one can make up for what you didn’t get from your mother. Once you understand that, you can start learning how to satisfy that need in healthy ways that are not self-defeating. I’ll wager that Jeff has some unmet needs for love as well. He might have some variation of your problem with neediness. Most people do. You’re not alone, believe me.”
I responded, “That reminds me of the dog that we took home from the pound. We wanted to see what it would be like to take care of another living being before we started having children. Well, the experiment went really badly and we had to return the puppy to the pound. Jeff got jealous of the attention I was giving to the dog. He wanted that attention for himself. So, yes, he has some of the same needs as I do.”
Dr. Leonard spent many sessions helping me to analyze and understand my behavior in the marriage. In the end, Dr. Leonard said that even if I was the most mentally healthy person on earth, the marriage would probably still need to end simply because we were mere teenagers when we married and hadn’t developed ourselves yet and were still undergoing major changes.
At home with Jeff, I felt a sadness coming from him, as though he knew that the marriage was in the process of ending. He expressed gratitude that I was seeing Dr. Leonard and trying to sort things out. Even in the face of the marital disintegration, it was obvious we loved each other. I still regarded Jeff as my best friend and confidant. We held each other and cried a lot together, knowing that the marriage would not last. The thought of separating was unbearable, but inevitable.
Although we both knew where the marriage was heading, we didn’t talk about divorce. We disguised that fear by talking about our needs to explore life on our own for a few months and then, we earnestly assured each other, we’d get back together.
During one of the sessions, Dr. Leonard wanted me to talk about my siblings. It was then that I confessed to him that I had a dark secret that no one knew anything about. My face turned red with embarrassment as I thought about revealing to him this festering fact I’d locked up inside of me. He sat in his chair with an expectant look. Through tears, I managed to make my painful confession.
This coming Wednesday, July 26th, I’ll be speaking at a conference for mental health providers at the El Dorado Hotel in Santa Fe. I’ll be talking about the role of diet and environmental toxins in creating mental illness—even in people who have had no prior history of mental or emotional problems. Here is the link:
If the talk is videotaped, I will let you know. Wish me luck!
Your devoted reporter,