When I went home on spring break, something profound happened spontaneously—without effort or intention. Instead of viewing my mother as someone who didn’t give me what I needed growing up, for the first time I could clearly see her as a fellow human being who had suffered tremendously as a child. I saw in her face that she was just as starved for love and kindness and tenderness as I was.
All the old residues of anger and resentment dissolved in that moment, never to return—not even once. A flood of love and compassion for my mother filled up my heart.
From that moment, I understood that the act of giving love could be just as fulfilling as getting love. I could quell the bottomless pit of need for tenderness from my mother by giving her unconditional love and compassion—something that surely she must have craved as a young girl—just as I had.
We never said, “I love you” in our home growing up, but saying “I hate you,” was as easy as saying “Good morning.” Saying “I love you,” was too terrifying—a sign of weakness and vulnerability and a mushy brain. In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing that phrase growing up except in the movies in romantic settings.
We had to be tough and not let ourselves show vulnerability. And we had to always be right, even when we knew we were wrong. Our lives depended upon it—or so it felt. I was determined to break that taboo. I was going to say “I love you” to my mother, even if I choked on the words.
The following afternoon, I watched my mother sit down at the kitchen table with the familiar red and white checkered tablecloth, right next to the window looking out at the garden. She had just poured herself a cup of tea. I sat down across from her. A wave of love washed over me.
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Mummy, I’m so sorry for being such a difficult child and for being so mean to you and saying angry things and giving you a hard time. I am so grateful for all that you have done for us and all the sacrifices you made for your children.”
My mother looked surprised. Her face softened. “You weren’t such a bad girl. You were actually very sweet.”
I was shocked by her words. Was this the same mother who told me that I belonged in a mental hospital and that she couldn’t believe she gave birth to a monster like me? I quizzed her to see if she could remember anything bad that I had done or said to her when I was young.
My mother’s brain appeared to have completely rewired itself right in front of me, dropping all memory of the pain that I had inflicted on her with my words. She couldn’t remember any of it.
I summoned my courage and reached over and took my mother’s hands in my hands. I forced myself to look into her eyes. And then I said, “I love you, Mummy,” practically choking on the words. I had never been so frightened in all of my young life.
I closed my eyes and held my breath, waiting for lightening to strike me dead.
When I opened my eyes, the tears were running down my mother’s face. She put her head down onto her folded arms and cried. At that moment, I realized that I had never seen my mother cry.
The tears rolled down my cheeks as my heart opened and I registered the magnitude of the scene in front of me. I knew that something profound had just happened, something that would permanently alter my life—for the better.
Shortly afterward, I returned to college to resume my studies and my therapy. Dr. Leonard was moved when I told him about the kitchen table encounter with my mother. As he talked about the power of forgiveness, he wiped his eyes with his cloth handkerchief and blew his nose.
My mother began calling me every week and wrote me long, handwritten letters. We became close friends and freely expressed our support and encouragement of each other. At the end of each phone call, I forced myself to say, “I love you, Ma,” and then quickly hung up the phone. Eventually, with repetition, the words flowed more naturally. After many months went by, my mother responded by saying, “I love you too, Rickie.”
Therapy with Dr. Leonard helped me to continue gaining insights on the forces that shaped my life. The parade of shadows that came out of my closet during the two years of therapy dissolved in the broad daylight of understanding and compassion.
With Dr. Leonard’s guidance, I did an assessment of my life. I took an unblinking look at myself and decided that something needed to be done. I thought about how I wanted to be in the world and what I would need to do to become the person that I aspired to be. I earnestly intended to recreate myself.
I looked for traits that I admired in people. From my oldest sister, Vreni, I wanted her sense of adventure, love of travel and her abhorrence of prejudice and cruelty. From Jackie, I wanted her amazing ability to create things. From her husband, Alan, I wanted his fearlessness in telling the truth.
From my father I took his love of nature and the outdoors, along with his love of teaching and storytelling. I took my mother’s love of beauty and language, along with her interest in health and nutrition. From my sister, Susie, I took her interest in culture and her sense of humor. I admired John’s indignation in the face of injustice, and George’s dedication to documenting his life in his diary.
Then I branched out to public figures. I loved Margaret Meade’s interest in understanding people unlike herself. Henry David Thoreau’s passion for the natural world resonated with me. I wanted Gandhi’s dogged idealism and devotion to helping the downtrodden and never giving up. And Mother Teresa impressed me with her love and kindness toward those in need who were rejected by society.
I created a tapestry of those traits that I admired and practiced becoming that composite person.
But, in order to begin my new life, I decided that I needed to make amends for any wrongdoing the “old” me had done, both intentionally and unintentionally. I wanted to start my new life with a clean slate.
I wrote carefully thought-out letters to the family members with whom there had been conflict and on whom I had inflicted my share of pain. I wrote to my sister, Susie, and to my two brothers, John and George. I had no unresolved issues with my father, Vreni and Jackie.
In the letters, I outlined my crimes as I saw them—relentless teasing and taunting of George when I was a very young girl and loved the thrill of having him chase me around the dining room table and out into the yard, ridiculing and hitting John when he and I reached puberty, and shaming and criticizing Susie when we were in our early teens because I was jealous of her intellect, her ease with boys, and her large vocabulary.
I asked for their forgiveness. I got no response. In fact, to this day, no one remembers getting those letters. But the nature of the relationships with those siblings changed noticeably. At last, we were kinder to each other.
I realized years later that I had tapped into some universal insights about becoming a conscious, awake human being. I continued making a fearless moral inventory of myself, and when wrong, promptly admitted it and made amends.
During my last year of college, my mother telephoned me and asked if she could come for a visit. Neither of my parents had ever visited me at college. She said that she wanted to talk to me about something, but didn’t want to tell me on the phone. She sounded upset and tearful.
“Of course you can come, Ma. I’ll get a hotel room for you in town.” When she arrived, she was distraught in a way that I had never seen before. She had turned to me because she didn’t know where else to go. She was of the old school and didn’t believe in “hanging dirty laundry out for the neighbors to see.”
She revealed to me that my father wanted to divorce her. He was having an affair with a woman from the college where he was the dean of students. My mother was terrified of being on her own at this late stage of her life. “What will I do, Rickie? How will I support myself? Where will I live? I’ll be all alone.”
I felt so helpless in the face of my mother’s anguish. I had never seen her be so vulnerable. She let me hold her in my arms and stroke her head, something that I had never done before. My heart ached for her. I told her that I would talk to my father. I was sure that he would change his mind.
In the end, my father did change his mind, thanks to the strong opinions expressed by his daughters. My mother and father stayed together until my mother died 15 years later. The last few years of her life with my father before she died were full of love and tenderness towards each other, a time of deep healing and reconciliation between my parents.
At the same time that I was getting psychotherapy, I also took classes in yoga and meditation and learned about Buddhism, still novelties in the US back then. After several sessions, I had a deep intuition that I needed to follow some of these Buddhist teachings about life, as well as pursue yoga and meditation for the long term. I sensed that they would be helpful for the rest of my life. They offered me a route towards peace and wellbeing amidst the inevitable tough times that are part of the human condition.
Antioch was a five-year college, due to the work/study program. Since Jeff was a year ahead of me, I arranged my curriculum so that I could graduate with him after I had completed only four years of college.
Shortly before the last semester of college began, suspecting that Jeff and I would part ways at some point, I came to the sobering realization that my degree in art would not likely help me earn a living. If I had to live off the sale of my art, I would likely starve to death.
At the last minute, I switched my major to education and crammed into the one remaining semester all the courses that I would need to meet the requirements to graduate with a teaching certificate. To get that certificate, I had to do a semester of student teaching in the Yellow Springs public school system. I didn’t feel too useful in the classroom as a student teacher and hoped that when I was a real teacher, the experience would be more meaningful.
As the time of graduation approached, we began wrapping up our therapy sessions.
“Dr. Leonard, I want to let you know how much these sessions have helped me. I’m so thankful that I came to Antioch and then had the “breakdown” and was forced to get help. Otherwise, I’d be the same mixed up kid struggling through life with some serious and crippling misconceptions about myself. And who knows for how long—maybe my whole life.
Dr. Leonard said that I was his favorite patient, though I didn’t think psychiatrists were supposed to say things like that to their patients. He said that I was basically very mentally healthy—just extremely “mixed up” when I first started therapy.
“All your longings as a child and young adult to understand life and be a good person have paid off and given you the fire to sort through what it all means. Now you have the tools and insights—that map and compass you were searching for—to navigate your life and reach your destination. You are the captain of your ship. No more trying to fit someone else’s template for who you should be. Your life is unique and won’t resemble anyone else’s life.
“You must embrace who you are, Erica. Just as your father told you as a girl, you can indeed choose who you want to be and what you want to do with your life. You will find your purpose. Just be true to yourself and it will happen. Look at me, for example. I was true to myself and I was among the first black psychiatrists to study in Zurich. I dared to dream big. And you can too. You are launched and ready to discover your own path and fully claim your authentic life. I am so proud of you, Erica.”
The tears spilled over my cheeks and down my face as he solemnly spoke to me. I could see that his eyes were moist as well, moved by his own words.
I will always be deeply grateful for what he did for me in helping me find my way. His brief and easily deflected forays into inappropriate behavior during our sessions did not diminish my gratitude.
His parting words to me were, “I hope you will stay in touch with me—not as a patient.”
In May of 1970, when our college classes ended, Jeff and I did not attend our graduation ceremony. Our eyes and hearts were focused elsewhere, pulling at the bit to experience life on our own terms. We went in opposite directions that summer, each following the path that called out to us. Our stated plan was to reunite at the end of the summer, although we both knew in our hearts that our marriage would probably not last.
Jeff was intrigued by Gestalt therapy and wanted to be part of the Gestalt community on Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The community had been formed by the recently deceased founder of Gesalt therapy, Fritz Perls.
Switzerland was my destination. I wanted to know my Uncle Ernst better, my mother’s younger brother, a most unusual Swiss medical doctor. Ernst had been the subject of controversy growing up. My mother claimed he was a genius; my father claimed he was a quack. I intended to find out for myself. Little did I know I’d be getting my first glimpse of my destiny that hung on the distant horizon.