The lived experience, Episode 6 – This week: Anja and Peter (Part 2)

Last week we ende with they laying of the game by Anja and Peter.
Both their layings make things visible. When Anja has reached the lucky clovers, it becomes too much for her. I’ve already seen her cheeks grow redder; I have felt her restlessness and now she is looking for my eyes. I am touched by her tears. She puts her hands in front of her face, takes a break and then, with tears in her eyes, places the emojis at the different mats. She manages to complete everything and reflect on it, just like Peter.

Peter tells how the family home used to be a connecting factor. Now that the children are adults and no longer live in that house, the bond between the family members seems lost. After the death of the grandparents, their connecting role also disappeared. Peter’s father was not born in the Netherlands and Anja has the feeling that after all these decades he still does not really feel at home here. As a family, they wonder if he hasn’t been in a depression for years. He grumbles and complains, he is lifeless, comes to nothing, drinks too much… it is a sore sight for the eyes. That may seem crazy after so many years, but when the parents lived in father’s country of origin at the beginning of their marriage, mother could not settle there either. The place we come from seems to be very deeply anchored in us and to be connected with identity, meaning and happiness in life. Does your soul continue to feel displaced in an unknown place? Or is that sense of displacement connected to a soul that may have been wandering from childhood already due to insecure attachment? Father’s psychosis at the end of Peter’s puberty was intense for him: Peter could not accept a weak father. He distanced himself from his father, but instead took on a caring role in the family. Looking back, he feels he fell short in that role – relationships are under strain.

I mention that he took on a responsibility that was not intended for him and that he may look back with leniency at how he tried to the best of his ability to fulfill a task that belonged to his father. Such a role reversal is called parentification, based on the word ‘parent’. They’ve never really talked about it in the family: “All of us are not much of a talker, not really talking, I mean… but my mother is getting tired of it now after years of swallowing his behaviour. I love him dearly and I realise he has been through a lot, but right now, he is screwing everything up. He is slipping away and my youngest sister and I have a really hard time with that. At Anja’s house, things were right, but not at our house.” He tells that his mother and eldest sister are hiding their frustration more. Personally, I find it quite moving that he is having such a hard time with it. It shows that his heart is wide open, that he is touched by what is not going well, that he is now even in tears when explaining the situation. It is so beautiful when people can cry. It has a cleansing effect; it creates space, it cleans, it discharges – and so it takes away stress, too. Sadness is a pure emotion, which is close to your core.

Anja and Peter talk about how differently they experience Peter’s father’s drinking. Peter grew up with it, but Anja didn’t. Her home situation was very different: “Was our home situation right for us then? I don’t know… My parents were always loving and my mother was home with tea and biscuits; it was stable and warm at home. I went through a period where I went the wrong way, had wrong friends, met wrong guys. I also had bulimia during that time, but my parents were always loving. They did, however, have a lot of criticism and I often felt unseen. There was much judgment and disapproval; there was misunderstanding and arguing about decisions I made or things I wanted. I ran away, I did drugs, I lied about where I was, but I was always allowed to come back. I feel a lot of guilt about what I did to my parents. It seems terrible to me, if you have a daughter who does that; I felt sorry for my parents. I don’t think they ever argued and were always nice to each other. Sports and exercise and dancing were my outlet, but I have been in search of myself for a long time. I was happy, but also angry and sad. I did many things secretly, because of all the strictness and meddling; I was very recalcitrant because of their constant looking over my shoulder.” She falls silent with shock and is again in tears as she wonders aloud in a broken voice: “Maybe I do the same with David now…” She sobs and says with fear in her voice that she is afraid she has already ruined him: “The seed you are planting now will grow with him the rest of his life. I don’t want things to have gone wrong already, because at school he is a very happy and enthusiastic boy…”

She has already expressed a lot of negative qualifications about herself and at one point I ask her what her definition of ‘loving’ is. She says it means to her that she could always return home, that she was always welcome, despite all the pranks she played. I try to rephrase what she has said: “What you are saying sounds like you mean that even though you were a misfit, not good enough, they still accepted you.” She nods; that is indeed what she means. I indicate that that feeling of not being good enough also originated somewhere and is probably much older. She thinks, nods slowly and says, “Yeah… I think that has to do with them always criticizing everything…”

This is a nice insight. I tell them that almost all parents guide their children to the best of their ability, but that some have only a limited toolbox to provide that guidance from. When parents themselves are also burdened by their life history, children sometimes have to bear an invisible intergenerational trauma burden. That ‘not being good enough’ can then become a very deep conviction, accompanied by guilt and shame. A child can experience guilt towards the parents, but could parents also feel guilty towards their children…? And one step further: could we let go of all judgments, especially those about ourselves? Can we learn to look at it differently, with more compassion? Can we understand that a lot of behaviour is not chosen, but presents itself almost automatically, from those old survival patterns?

We talk about the relationship between attachment and authenticity, about all kinds of behaviour that you could describe as addiction and that often aim to create a feeling of recognition and satisfaction. This reduces stress and allows our system to relax. The problem is that many addictions have all kinds of negative consequences in the long run. Those who feel insufficiently heard and seen in their own social context will try to satisfy the need for recognition in another environment. The things that are done to achieve this (for example, working hard, performing in sports, excelling in a hobby, smoking or drinking or using drugs) are in themselves a risk factor for stress and misery. This will put you in a very negative spiral. You dive into survival strategies, but actually you’re working towards your demise. Addictions usually have loneliness and lack of meaning as underlying pain. Peter’s father is a living example of this and Anja and Peter are currently also having a hard time finding their way up.

We notice that Anja and Peter are both struggling to get their lives back in line with how they would like it to be. They feel stuck in the situation and don’t know how to get out of it. We discuss how you can be stuck as a child without being able to get out because you are dependent on parental care. Once an adult you have other options: you can leave. There are many things you can change. However, that is not always easy. Many children suppress their authenticity from an early age because they feel that it puts pressure on the attachment relationship with their parents. That is an adequate response at that stage, but you lose the deep connection with yourself – the core of what we call trauma.

Posted in Interviews by experience experts.