responsibility

You’re Not the Only One – Responsibility, Resentment, Regret

The other morning I woke to the tragic news of a catastrophic earthquake in Afghanistan. By the time I tuned in, 1000 people were already dead, and 1500 more were injured and/or trapped under avalanches of rock and rubble. Of course, earthquakes are a fact of life here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have lived through one big one (and our house is a valiant survivor of the really big one in 1906!) But we now have the infrastructure and the luxury of being schooled and supplied in preparedness. The Afghans seem in so many ways godforsaken and, of course, have none of that. 

My first thought after imagining the anguish and terror, the dead and dying, the orphaned and widowed, and those starving out in the countryside where supplies and food don’t reach, the terrible loss and devastation; was this question: Now that the Afghans are dominated by the Taliban will the international humanitarian world help them? Will anyone even trust the Taliban to deliver the aid where it is intended? I am already hearing a mixed response to that, which makes my heart break. 

Quickly my mind went to the ragged morass and scramble about mixed emotions and the collisions between the compassionate impulse to help with bitter and righteous anger and hurt. A complicated dilemma indeed. My thoughts raced.

I remember in 2015 when I was in the hospital with a massive, nearly septic infection. It was a sudden and shocking event that brought me closer to death than ever before. It was my first time ever being in the hospital, and I was there for over a week. One arm was in traction on IV antibiotics, and the other blessedly mainlined to a morphine drip. I could not move, let alone think or manage any other bodily functions. I hovered in a very strange liminal state for the first few days. During that time, I had a lovely hospital roommate, a woman about my age who had adult kids and young grandkids who came to visit her and were friendly to me, as were my loved ones and visitors with her. It was warm and family-like among us, and I had mixed feelings when she was released to go home. I was happy for her but saddened: I hated to see my new friend leave.

That very afternoon, not surprisingly, given today’s health care system (and this was well before COVID), I got a new roommate. This one was a 40-ish homeless woman with a broken leg, among other problems. She moved in with her bags of stuff and had nothing to say to me. She seemed to be on speed or some kind of amphetamine and incessantly talked loudly on her phone. She also called for the nurse every few minutes, complaining about something or with some other demand, usually around pain relief. My nerves were already jangly; I was irritated and on edge. Desperate to simply rest, I no longer could. But perhaps worse than that, I was scared. She was a “shady” character in very close quarters, who lacked for everything and had already demonstrated a complete lack of regard for me. Not only was I annoyed, but I was afraid she would steal my things: my laptop and my phone – which were most of what I had there but also my lifeline – and I could not move, let alone defend myself. (Of course, neither could she, but my addled and traumatized mind was not quite grasping that.)

Worst of all, I was gripped with guilt and shame. I am blessed with everything: I live indoors, have all the accoutrements of a comfortable life, a partner who loves and cares for me etc. She had nothing but the seedy people on the other end of the phone, whom I could only imagine, presumably a raging addiction to something, and a broken leg, in addition to the other health problems I did not know about. I just wanted her GONE! Not unlike so many privileged San Franciscans, who want the unsightly and smelly homeless encampments removed from their “back yards.” 

So, while I felt furious and impatient with my unsavory roommate, I was torn apart by shame about San Francisco’s homeless problem and my petty discomfort in comparison with her sorry life. I tossed and turned to the steady backbeat of her incessant phone conversations all night long, mostly gossip and apparent drug deals. (I feel compelled to add, if perhaps defensively, that my new and recently departed friend was of a mixed-race family, married to an African American and with family members of various colors and stripes, and my new roommate was white as snow like me. So thankfully, there was no racial component to my complicated guilt trip.)

After a horrendous first night with her, finally, 5:00am rolled around, and clutching my IV pole, I slowly hobbled to a corner of the quiet and deserted ward and called a friend and angel on the US East Coast, where the time zone was such that it was no longer an ungodly hour. Blessedly, she picked up and stayed on the phone with me for a full hour while I sobbed uncontrollably with guilt, shame, and insomniac confusion. I could not believe I was so petty. But I was also enraged, scared, under whatever was the influence of my condition and also ravaged by sleeplessness. I have no idea what my friend said to me in that lifesaving hour, but the experience of our conversation was unforgettable—and validating. It spoke to the lifelong dilemma of mixed emotions and the age-old battle between my own discomfort, sense of personal injustice, and, god forbid, even anger when it collides with sympathy or compassion for the other. Whatever she said somehow flew in the face of my long-held belief that I must always consider the other first. I was well trained to believe there is no me! Or, at the very least, I don’t matter. Self-sacrifice is the ultimate virtue and decisive factor.

Neglect is a thorough training in selfless responsibility and sainthood. The experience of “there is no you”, in combination with parental trauma histories, their medical and mental diagnoses, parental substance abuse etc, creates an environment where the parent’s need is paramount and what the child is most aware of.

Twilight

All this brings me to the similarly ambiguous topic of aging parents. A number of clients and some friends too, with stories of childhood trauma and/or neglect, have aging parents fading into twilight years. I remember when our dad was in his last year or so, being in that liminal state that I could not distinguish as inattention, dissociation, or a brain with ever diminishing numbers of live neurons actually firing anymore. He did not seem to recognize me anymore, and although he remembered songs and we could somewhat connect through singing, he was mostly quite absent. Ironically, he was quite like the neglectful, absent father I remembered, who often seemed to not know me, especially in public when he was in a role of being very important. So, this invisibility was not new and would have been quite activating if not for the decades of work I had done around trauma and neglect. And of course, I did not live with him, nor was I one of his hands-on caregivers like some of my clients. Living, some in the very houses where their original traumas occurred and caring for aging parents, they make huge sacrifices. There in the belly of the monster, they live in a virtually chronic state of trauma activation, and many are fractured and torn by gnawing ambivalence and guilt, not unlike my hospital guilt.

Neglect is a thorough training in selfless responsibility and sainthood. The experience of “there is no you”, in combination with parental trauma histories, their medical and mental diagnoses, parental substance abuse etc, creates an environment where the parent’s need is paramount and what the child is most aware of. That, coupled with a seemingly futile longing and a quest for attention, care, and love, make for a perennial impulse to care-take. I know I endlessly tried everything with both parents virtually until the end, and I catch myself even now translating an occasional impulse into an effort to win my father’s love and approval, even after he is long gone! Oy vey! 

As the Boomer generation ages, more and more of us contend with aging and dying elders and very mixed emotions about how much to sacrifice to help them now. Those that I know who have actually moved in with their aged parents may grapple with resentment, impatience, or guilt about the (sometimes) occasional wish that they would just GO already. There is an old Cuban song I used to love called La Vida No Vale Nada (life is not worth anything) that I used to quietly sing to myself in our dad’s twilight months and year or so. I simply could not understand why he was so adamant about living, still hell-bent on survival. But I had the luxury of going home quietly singing my song and with time and space to recover from the cascade of varied emotions.

How to handle the tug of war between resentment, responsibility, longing, love, guilt, grief and revived traumatic memory all swirling around at once? Working through trauma alone seems to be the work of a lifetime, and then once again, these parents intrude and compound the already incomprehensible injustice. How to resolve the conflict? I only know of one answer to this conundrum, and it is easier said than done. Always return to the question: “If I do A, how will I feel about myself when they are gone? Or if I do B, how will I feel about myself when they are gone?” Then I decide what to do. So ultimately, it is for me and for my own peace of mind and soul. That, to me, seems like healing. That is the best I can come up with. 

Some of my clients and friends go much further than I can imagine. Some I admire, and some I fear go too far in my estimation. I wonder if they will suffer from lasting resentment, loss, bitterness and worst of all, regret. But we all must make our own decision and then live out our own remaining days with that. I am sorry I cannot be of more help! 

 

Today’s Song: Once again, the immortal Rolling Stones say it aptly: “You’re not the only one with mixed emotions.”

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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