“The Mean Dad”: Hidden Anxiety Revealed

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 (The first installment from “The Mean Dad” is posted on 12/4/16)

Amy:  I believe I ended the last post with my request that Dana and Jacob bring the kids in for the next session. I also believe I said “This time I didn’t take “no” for an answer?” Hmmm…..So much the “authority” of the therapist. Though we had scheduled an appointment for the following week, Dana called to cancel. (A note of context: Dana and Jacob live outside the city, and travel over an hour to see me. So there are indeed some extenuating circumstances, though that doesn’t fully explain  it.)

Dana told me on the phone that things had “simmered down” at home, and she was preparing to ship her two oldest kids off to camp for two months. She assured me she would bring them in when they returned. She made an appointment for her and Jacob in two weeks.

Meanwhile, I remembered our last meeting  (see post from 12/30), when it seemed, again, like we may have had a breakthrough. These meetings–and most of the sessions from my office–seem to be naturally imprinted on my memory. I may not remember all of the details, but I retain strong themes from these sessions, with the idea of what I’m working on, where the challenges lie, and what direction the couple or family needs to go. The session then shapes itself like a piece of improvised music. And,  of course, the couple or family has the ultimate say on what they get from our therapy.

The Session: Dana and Jacob kept their next appointment as scheduled. I felt I needed to share my reflections on the rather episodic nature of the therapy.  I offered  my idea that our therapy mimics their relationship: Whenever tensions arise they back away until things “cool down”. I added that I thought that’s why we never develop the kind of  momentum that could perhaps change things for the better. It makes it difficult to  get a groove going. To my surprise the couple agreed with me. And they apparently REALLY agreed. The pattern of cancellation stopped.

Shortly after Dana and Jacob settled in for the session, Dana described  a turbulent episode in the family before the kids left for camp. She recounted how Jacob “lost it” with their 14-imagesyear old son Lance. After ferreting out the details, it seemed that Jacob became upset after his son failed to download some pictures onto his computer, as he’d asked him–several times–to do. Jacob said, “I can’t believe he didn’t do it. What do I have to do to get this kid to get his head out of the clouds?”

Dana, as usual, provided both context and a defense of their son, who apparently did complete the download but in a different format than Jacob requested. I sounded to me like Lance made a real effort to do as his Dad asked, and that his teenage computer wizardry mistakenly didn’t allow Jacob to see the pictures. I was puzzled.

It sounded like Jacob way, way overreacted to a slight mishap. I wondered about this. I used the word “overreact”and asked Jacob if he saw it the same way. Without missing a beat he responded, “Absolutely!” He knew his reaction–loudly berating his son for too many minutes–did not fit the crime. I asked if he felt bad about what happened. Again, “Absolutely!” He added, “I worry that this kid won’t be able to function in life. He just doesn’t get it sometimes. He seems clueless.” It sounded like some kind of primal anxiety about one’s children not being able to care for themselves. Or about being blindsided.

I felt something in the air. Something I had not picked up on before. This anxiety sounded, and felt, different from the normal, albeit painful, anxiety we, as parents,  have about our kids. I shared my puzzlement. What was behind Jacob’s extreme worry? Did he have any idea?

unknownThe next words out of his mouth sounded like he was joking. “The Holocaust.” “Really?” I said. He then danced around it for a while, describing how his younger sister didn’t know how to take care of herself and her life was “shitty”. He referred to several other close family members–parents and sister–who died, which I knew, and how their lives had been difficult.

I circled back, “Were you joking about the Holocaust?” Silence. Dana said, “Our whole life is because of the Holocaust.” Jacob still had a semi-jokey expression on his face. “Please explain”,  I said.

The rest of the session became a very painful one, for me, and, I’m quite sure,  for Jacob.  For the first time I heard the story of Jacob’s Czechoslovakian father. When the father was 19 he was drafted into the Czech Army, just as Hitler’s forces were entering that country.  As soon as the army officials discovered Jacob’s father was Jewish they sent him home. When the dad returned home, he found that both his parents and seven siblings had disappeared. He later learned that they had been sent to a concentration camp where they all perished. The whole family, wiped out. Jacob recounted this story in an unsentimental, breezy, almost light-hearted manner.

I felt a stone in the pit of my stomach. While I had heard similar stories before, it never got any easier, as least for me. I wanted Jacob to know how I was feeling. I didn’t want to hide my grief at such a profound and barbaric loss. In fact, I thought that Jacob’s jokiness perhaps prevented him from digesting the grief and fear from this trauma, passed down from his father.  I suspected Jacob now, unknowingly, projected these undigested fears onto his kids.

I realized, as Dana, Jacob and I talked, that Jacob’s anxiety sounded like he worried that his son’s “not being aware” could have disastrous consequences. That Jacob responded to normal adolescent idiocy like it could become a matter of life and death. I shared how, when I visited Europe’s oldest synagogue in Prague, I heard the old Jewish guides talking about how the Czech Jews tried to accommodate the Nazis; they couldn’t believe human nature could be so evil. The dangers of being naive, or unaware.

unknown-1I said to Jacob, “I will never hear your anxiety about your kids with the same ears again.” Jacob, who had been with me up until now, started to get antsy. He clearly wanted to move away from sadness to problem-solving. He started to talk about something which felt mundane by comparison. He is a bit of an escape artist, and now I had a better understanding of its meaning.

At the risk of having Jacob hate me, I told them I wanted to keep some silence for a while. We had a few minutes left in the session, and I felt the need to maintain the spell. It felt like we were honoring the dead in Jacob’s family. Jacob almost burst out of his skin. He started fiddling with his phone. Dana clearly enjoyed the imposed “rest”. She sat still, a slight smile on her face, basking in the silence,  not needing to solve any problems. Jacob muttered, “I hate this! It’s like a retreat!”

The session was over. The room was still. As they left, Dana mouthed the words, “Thank you.” Happily, I could count on seeing them at their next appointment in two weeks.  They did indeed show up.

Next post on 1/4……

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