There will be a book.
But for now, there are chapters. Lots of them.
Some will make it.
Others will not.
All My Therapists
“You realize, Carol, that you won’t be free until your mother dies.”
Dr. Stella was the third therapist I’d been to since my marriage ended. There would be others, each with a customized technique to help me manage my relationship with my mother. A cross between Dr. Ruth and Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, Dr. Stella was different. Dr. Stella could see into the future.
Dr. Joe was the first. What I knew about therapy back in 1998, I learned from magazine articles and afternoon talk shows. I wasn’t for it or against it, rather I viewed it as something to be done on an as needed basis, such as when your world is falling apart as mine was back then.
My 29-year marriage ended with an explosive bang, a quick and unexpected cut to the core. I was bleeding pools of anger, outrage, and disbelief, and all I could think of in the beginning was how to tell my daughters. At the time ages 15 and 20, they had grown up in a home without discord, without squabbles, one with a thick, highly-polished veneer coating. Happy family all the way. How would they deal with this breakdown in our lives?
Enter Dr. Joe, friend-recommended, relatable, and after the first session, the therapist who made me aware that I needed emotional intensive care as much as my daughters. Dr. Joe helped me sort out my feelings and how to manage those of my daughters. But then as often happens when one goes deep, it wasn’t just my soon to be ex-husband. Someone else emerged as a disturbing element in this new arrangement. Our sessions soon shifted into my relationship with my mother (a difficult one as far back as I can remember) and her daily impact on my life.
My mother had nothing to do with the breakup of my marriage, but she was already pushing herself into the blank spaces created by my husband’s vacancy. The frequency of the phone calls, the visits to my home when she would burst through the door unexpectedly, the steady stream of advice and opinions. She was desperate for me to stay with my husband, grievances be damned! I knew the end of my marriage would disrupt the status quo of her life, but staying with him was unthinkable for me. Her relentless bombardments were beginning to strangle me. Dr. Joe offered clinically-tested methods to help me deal with my mother’s toxic influence, her attempts to move into my head and my house.
“Imagine when she talks to you that there’s a big bubble and you’re outside that bubble; when she hangs up, the bubble goes away. Poof!”
Like those made of soap, the bubble method didn’t last long, nor did any of the others proposed by his successors. No psychological head game was strong enough against the force that was my mother.
Why couldn’t I stand my ground with her? The phone calls, for instance. Post-marriage she expected me to call her every day within her preferred time frame of 2-4 p.m. If I were anywhere outside of the Eastern Standard time zone, I would carefully calculate the difference in hours and make sure to get that call in before going on with my day.
The coterie of therapists along the road all encouraged me to break the pattern, to not call every day, to explain that for one reason or another, I had other things to do. I tried. But after 4:58, here’s what would happen. My phone would ring. If I didn’t answer or call back within a few hours, she would begin calling my friends, sometimes as late as 10 p.m. If no one was reached who knew my whereabouts, the next day when we did speak, she would tell me she hadn’t slept all night worrying about me and now was so tired, she didn’t know how she would get through the day. But not too tired to launch into a litany of complaints against everyone in her life who colluded to make her miserable: my father, her father, her sister-in-law, and the one implied—her daughter. After which she’d threaten to go live with the cloistered nuns in Connecticut, leaving me limp with guilt, with visions of her alone in her condo with no one to confide in other than me. I was her one-and-only.
And so it went, over and over again through the years and multiple therapists, who never managed to come up with a workable solution. Until one day 21 years later at the age of 98, my mother died. She died.
Dr. Stella knew. Dr. Stella could see into the future.