My father was quite severely depressed during my childhood. I feel my mother handled things very badly when he became ill. When I tried to discuss my feelings, I was told: “Just let things wash over you.” Nobody talked to me properly. I self-harmed. I skipped school. I was caught shoplifting. It was ignored.
Aged 15, I took an overdose. I overheard my mum on the phone telling a friend “We had no idea she was unhappy” and genuinely do not know if she was lying or deluded.
I am now happily married to a wonderful man and have a good relationship with my parents. I feel no animosity towards my father as he has had a very difficult life; he is much better these days. I get on well with my mum now but feel frustrated that she handled things so badly.
My mother’s way of coping is to pretend that everything is fine; she cannot cope with recognising that it is not. I tried to talk to her about things recently and she said: “Well, you know that was a very difficult time for me.”
I really wanted her to say, “I’m sorry, that was a difficult time for everyone” or something that acknowledged I am a person with feelings too. I don’t think she is capable of apologising without excuses or justification. She is one of those people who only ever says: “I’m sorry but …”
I find I am hugely affected now. If I think I have upset someone I will apologise for hours and worry if I think I have made people unhappy. I don’t handle conflict or arguments well and tend to get explosively angry and then guilt-trip about it for days.
I am newly married and should be really happy, but here I am dwelling on things from years ago, and I don’t know why it’s suddenly all upsetting me now, or what to do about it.
P, via email
You feel like this now probably because you are in a place of safety and are finally able to pull out those feelings and address them. The child you were in that situation – not listened to, not checked in with – it’s heartbreaking.
Your mother probably did the best she could. It wasn’t great from your point of view, I grant you, and it’s enormously frustrating to not be listened to, recognised or thought of. If only she could just, even once, say “Sorry, it must have been tough for you, too” it would go a long way, wouldn’t it?
But trying to keep a family together with a suicidal husband (as you say in your longer letter) must have been extraordinarily tough. I’m not excusing it but I think it’s more complex than your mother just handling things badly.
She may well not be able to “go there” now, as the guilt she probably feels is enormous. Overwhelming. But we will have to leave her to deal with her feelings. It’s you that matters here.
I consulted Andrew Reeves, who is a counsellor and psychotherapist working with young adults (bacp.co.uk). “It sounds as if your family’s function was being responsible for your father living – and that’s an enormous responsibility.” Reeves wondered if your mother “ignored everyone’s needs, including her own”. He also thought you were constantly trying to become visible because you felt invisible – the overdose, the self-harming, the shoplifting. Reeves also thought that your feelings had always been “externally defined [mostly by your father’s needs]. You’ve lost your sense of self.” He pointed out that constantly apologising may be internalised anger and that you may be frustrated with your mother because you learned that it’s safer to direct your emotions towards her.
Children in a house with a mentally ill parent learn to take the temperature of a room very fast. They learn to subsume their own feelings. You sound as if you have survived to become sensitive and empathetic – great attributes. The problem is that you have gone too far over to the other extreme and your perception of other people’s feelings affects your own behaviour too much.
It’s as if you dare not make any impact for fear that people can’t handle it. You asked me how to find a good therapist. It’s largely down to personality – who you get on with. Most therapists will offer a free introductory session. Not all are equal. Reeves thought someone with a humanistic approach (you can set this in the search terms here, itsgoodtotalk.org.uk/therapists) would be helpful.
First published in the Guardian Family section, 3 May 2013.