The lived experience, Episode 6 – This week: Anja and Peter (Part 3, final)

The lost connection with ourselves (trauma) can be very difficult to find back. Who am I really? What do I actually want? You may have developed a great sensitivity to what others think and want, but what about you…? Can you tap into your own wisdom? Can you find the courage? Do you experience buffering protection, ‘holding space’, a non-judgmental presence of someone to whom you can show your emotions, after which you can come up with your own solutions?
Does David dare to do this? Peter notes that regularly, he seems to see rejection in David’s eyes. Anja also indicates that she often does not feel the connection. They are disappointed that they get so little appreciation from Z even though they try so hard. They look for appreciation for who they are and what they do. The whole situation has a negative impact on their self-esteem, on their relationship, on their health.

The question is… where did that start, that lack of appreciation? The origin of this probably lies in what they just made visible with the layings: in the parental family they were not really allowed to be who they were. There was a lot of criticism and their self-expression was limited. Not being valued as a child has left a wound for both of them. That wound deserves healing, just as the wounds of their parents deserved healing. However, David cannot realize this for them, just as they could not do it for their parents. He is not his sparkling self, but they, too, are currently not themselves, as they have explicitly stated. A child cannot retroactively restore your own childhood. This requires different steps. A first could be that you yourself appreciate how you have done your best. You committed yourself with everything you had; what you gave, was all there was. Old pain often lives right under the surface. Sometimes it only takes a little to touch it. If David disagrees with Anja, she feels irritation and tries to justify herself, as she did to her parents. When David is displeased and screams, Peter gets a knot in his stomach and shuts down, just like he did when his dad would explode. We investigate which feeling goes with that behaviour. After mentioning some things that involve more labels and judgments, he gets to the crux: “Sadness, emptiness, loneliness.”

I explain how immature the human brain is at birth and how quickly it forms under the influence of social experiences. I tell them that especially a feeling of insecurity results in the development of a number of ‘highways’ that bring you smoothly and adequately into a survival mode, but that make it difficult to react in a balanced way and consider things carefully. The most primitive part of your brain yells ‘Alarm!’ and so that is how you react: with defense mechanisms. The more the brain is ‘marinated’ in oxytocin in early life, the more finely branched the neurological network develops and the richer your behavioural pattern. The more the emotions that arise from fear and insecurity and loneliness are depressed (depression!), the greater the chance that they will lead to damage: damage to your social functioning, to your mental well-being, to your health.

Anja says that indeed she still often feels that she has to defend herself against her parents and we discuss whether there is a question of ‘should’. Could she learn to see the way her parents try to enforce that responsibility as their way of being heard…? We conclude that there is a lot of mirroring going on between parents and children: Anja once wanted to be heard by her mother and felt unheard, probably because her mother was trying to be heard by Anja, whose job it was not and now we have a whole generation. The result: misunderstanding and miscommunication and disruption of the relationship in several directions… very sad. And yet it is important to remember that every pattern of behaviour we develop was once functional, even if it gets hopelessly in the way later on. By looking at things this way, we can develop compassion and learn to see what caused it. Then it is no longer about ‘What is wrong with you?’, but about ‘What happened to you?’, not about ‘What is your problem?’, but about ‘What is your story?’. It takes time and attention to develop this approach, but it has the potential to change everything for the better.

They tell about a health care professional who advised them not to be too hard on themselves and that they are doing just fine, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. “Recently David said: ‘I wish I wasn’t there, that I was dead’… and I’m very sorry that he feels that way…” Anja is in tears at this intense revelation. I ask if one of them recognises that feeling. Peter says: “Yes, I have been there, that feeling of… if I wasn’t there anymore, I didn’t have to do so much and I didn’t have to think all the time…”
I return to an earlier topic and ask if it is not time to tell David about the difficult IVF process, because I would not be surprised if some of his statements have to do with it. They wonder if that is not too hard for him, to which I wonder if it might still be too hard and too sad for themselves. They see how sweet and gentle he is towards babies. Having to tell him that he will never get a sibling… and then face it again… that is no small feat. Still, they want to consider it, discussing this heavy theme with him in a mature way: “He heard us talk, of course, so he may know more than we think…”

In any case, they feel that something has to change. They both find that nowadays they say too often that they do not like what he is doing, and they realise that David may translate that as “I am not lovable,” a message they do not want to give at all. I share their concern about that and say he is authentic when he says all those heavy and difficult things. The brave step they can take is to ask themselves: “What triggers me in what he says? Why is this so difficult for me?” And also: if he feels that way, can they offer holding space for that? Can they sit in the dark with him? And how long can they sit in the dark themselves? It is difficult for them to take good care of him when their own energy is so lacking. I give the example of the oxygen mask in an airplane: parents always have to put it on themselves before they help their child. This resonates and that is beautiful; some one-liners can quickly bring you back to the core at the craziest moments, without very theoretical considerations. With the help of those, they can support each other change ingrained habits.

Whatever the next steps will be… everything starts with awareness, with understanding one’s own and others’ patterns of behaviour and reaction. There is no mirror as sharp and confrontational as a child for the parents and the discontent of David is not unknown to Anja and Peter: there are many dimensions in their lives that they would like to see differently and that deserve attention. If they are constantly stressed about the things that are not going well, their whole system gets disrupted and it becomes almost impossible for them to be present for David as a co-regulating adult. They can try to get into David’s skin when things get rough: if they were in his shoes, what would they need? And perhaps they have already started doing that (after all, they approached me!) and all three have yet to kick the high adrenaline levels of the past period. The alertness of adrenaline gives the feeling that you are ‘alive’, that life is exciting, but adrenaline is also extremely addictive. When there is more calmness and time for reflection and contemplation, it almost feels more threatening than the constant stress.

Anja has meanwhile prepared a delicious lunch and we eat together after a final draw of two beautiful psychological cards that are very suitable for both. They reminisce how they got to know each other and how exciting that was, how they sent endless emails and how they were head over heels for each other.

We have talked for a long time and I have seen a lot of love and also a lot of pain and sorrow. There is much willingness in both to give and do good, to learn and to try, and at the same time there is such a high need to receive and be comforted. That makes sense, because as humans we crave meaningful connection, closeness and nurturing. I sincerely hope that we have been able to make a small start in figuring out where needs have been left unmet and can still be satisfied. We have untangled the knot to some extent and now it’s up to them to study the threads more closely.
When Anja has taken me to the train, I walk to the platform, fully absorbed in my thoughts. I am tired and grateful, sad for their old pain and hopeful for their open vulnerability.

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.

The lived experience, Episode 6 – This week: Anja and Peter (Part 1)

She approaches me because she is concerned about their seven-year-old son. Things are not going too well. The young human under their wings does not seem to be able to show his happy spontaneity well lately. He complains a lot. Seemingly very ordinary requests evoke resistance almost in advance and he often looks sad and dissatisfied. Together, the parents are aware that there is a real chance that this has to do with issues they themselves struggle with, but they cannot get a grip on them. They would like to have a conversation, so that together we can look at where this might come from. What does their child mirror to them? Could it be that their parenthood is subconsciously coloured by their own pain and that their son is returning it? What could they do to heal that pain and bring more lightness back into the relationship with themselves, each other and him? These are big questions, so we try to create a situation where we have plenty of time to explore together.

Due to the distance from where I live, it takes a while for us to find a suitable moment, a moment when they can both be present and talk freely, without having to hold back for the sake of their son in what could become an intense conversation. In the end we decide that I will arrive and stay with them the evening before the consultation. I am late due to my other appointment and, wet from the rain, I enter the spacious living room, which exudes a pleasant atmosphere with plants, earth tones and warm lighting. How special, to get to know each other already! Their willingness to give me hospitality and my willingness to literally bridge the distance feeds our mutual trust. We discuss that it should be much more often the case that when you are struggling with something, you invite someone to help into your house, in your place, in your world, where you are at home and the other is a guest. With a consultation at your home it is easier to maintain your autonomy. Then it is clearer to the person who comes to support you that their role is based on humility, not on authority, despite the knowledge and expertise they bring with them. After all, what matters is the awakening of your inner knowing by the person who is your guest.

“Is that professional?” someone had asked me the day before, “staying with your clients…?” It was a question that confused me. It did not seem important to me – or maybe it did, but vice versa. I had already had extensive contact and did not consider it a problem. Moreover, the proposal had come from the clients themselves and all I had to do was accept the invitation. The question alone made me realise that we have built clear pictures of what a ‘professional contact’ looks like and that certain forms do not seem to fit in there, even though they might lead to a better result.

I also realised that we have institutionalised care for our loved ones enormously: with a request for support, you go to an office or a clinic or a treatment room, where the relevant care provider or expert holds sway. Maybe the smells and colours in that place do not appeal to you or the physical environment evokes sad memories or bad associations. In that case, you are right away not quite your relaxed self – you start out with a backlog, as it were. And so I also realised that the changes required for many settings involve a lot more than we often think. As a grass roots organisation and in consultation with the client, I can make decisions about such matters as I see fit and that made me happy and grateful.
When my wet coat hangs on the coat rack, the three of us drink tea. We talk about anything and everything and experience this special start of the consultation as a very beautiful start. When we get up the next morning and go to work together, there is already more familiarity than there would have been if I had just arrived.

We start with a moment of silence, to feel how we are all present, what emotions and physical sensations we bring to the things we are going to explore together.
We evaluate the exercise and we make an inventory of what Anja and Peter experience as the biggest bottleneck. They can articulate that easily: their son has recently been more dissatisfied than seems appropriate for a seven-year-old child. The communication currently contains a number of recurring elements: “I don’t feel like it”, “No, I don’t want that!”, “I think you’re stupid”, “I am never allowed anything”, “You are boring”, “No, I don’t go to bed, because I still want to play outside”, “I don’t like that”, “I want more candy”, “Why do I have to put on my shoes?” During the hours that we are in conversation, all these statements come up and it is understandable that the parents get tired of them and are sometimes confused about what can or should change. I understand that very well. And yet… I also see it as a gift that David still expresses himself: he shows that something is wrong with the family system. Apparently they also offer him a lot of security, because he is not afraid of Anja and Peter, but confronts them. The question is: what does he want to say? What deep, painful beliefs in his parents does he appeal to? And also: is there a way in which it becomes easier to let go of the negative judgment about his behaviour and to look for the emotion behind the behaviour and for the need behind the emotion?

It is hard, of course, and Y says he thinks it is mean to say things like that: “If you say something like that to an adult, you hurt someone really bad.” I ask if that is really the case. If I said something like that to Y, would it hurt him or would he feel hurt… and can he tell the difference between the two…? When people say things to us or about us that we clearly know are not true, can we let that slip away from us…? Or does the difficulty lie in the fact that they say something about which we are already unsure? What is it that lies dormant in ourselves that is touched with a ‘shitty remark’? Anja and Peter think for a bit. We look back at the conversation the night before, in which they took turns indicating they are currently on a personal quest, with a feeling of standing still in their personal development. They are not really thriving yet, have not yet found their purposeful destination. There are very valid reasons for the restlessness and sadness. A very important one is that they were longing to have a second child and that, after a number of miscarriages, a difficult IVF process ended in disappointment thirteen times. That hurt a lot; that has tested their patience with each other and their son: “We really had a short fuse then…” They are mourning about this, also about the fact that he was still so small and could not really count on their happy attention to build his foundation. They have not told him the story about this yet, but the question is whether he might not already know it on a deeper level. Perhaps on his own he is doing his incredible best to mirror to both his parents what is still an open wound with them. What is called ‘acting out’, is usually about sadness, about bringing to the surface what is inside and cannot be put into words.

Because images sometimes speak louder than words, we start with a visual step. There is something special about the pictures they choose: the three of Anja align wonderfully with the three of Peter in a way, and it is touching to see that with all the imbalances currently felt there is a match between their choices. That does not solve everything, but it is hopeful to see the connection.
After this they, they both lay the systemic method, Het Mattenspel (The Mats Game), on the table, after we have discussed that they can both be present at each other’s laying, provided they can give the other room in silent presence. Both are okay with that and I pull out the game.
They both lay with care and dedication; the process visualises things that were already alive at an unconscious level, but it releases tears now that the confronting visualisation is on the table.

The lived experience, Episode 5 – This week: Sterre

Working holistically

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was in a store when she called. She wondered if she could ask me a few things, because the feeding was not going so well and now she had a hard spot in her breast. She had already been to the doctor and he had prescribed antibiotics for her. When, as always, I immediately asked if she had already started the course, she replied, to my relief, that she had not. My reaction seemed to take her by surprise and we talked about what was going on and what she could do. We made some provisional agreements on that basis, including that she could come to me that evening to get a bottle of Phytolacca to support the lymphatic drainage of the breast. It seemed that there was a sterile mastitis (inflammation) and not a bacterial problem (infection, for which antibiotics might be desirable). In Dutch, we often talk a bit casually about ‘ontsteking’ without making a good distinction between the two forms and it is important that prescribing physicians identify with their patient which of the two is most likely. After all, you do not want to use antibiotics if you don’t have to. The reasons for being extremely cautious about this are in the area of prevention: antibiotic resistance, disruption of the intestinal flora in mother and baby, thrush in the baby, candida in the mother, and… at least as important… loss of self-confidence. When the belief takes hold that the body is a flawed vehicle, requiring all kinds of outside tools to make it function properly… then the power a woman experiences as a mother in the relationship with her baby can be damaged. For that parent-child relationship, the foundation in now being laid and it is important for that relationship to become strong and resilient. It will then last a lifetime and become a home base for the child, a refuge and a source of compassion, support and wisdom on the life path the child will take. As health care providers, we should not take this lightly, because inflicting no harm is the core of the Hippocratic Oath. It is therefore important that we do everything we can to recognise, acknowledge and reinforce the self-healing capacity of a young mother.

And even if there is a fever, there is no need to panic right away. Inflammation also has the four classic symptoms: calor, dolor, rubor, tumor – heat (fever, glowing hot spot), pain, redness, hard spot. Good policies and possibly support from herbs and homeopathic remedies you usually go a long way. However, the most important thing is: why does this person have these complaints at this moment? Those are the questions that deserve a real inquiry and the answers in many cases lead to something much deeper and older than the events of today and yesterday.
That was my goal for the next day, when I would almost certainly be able to come for a consultation with her, although there was still some uncertainty on my side due to other obligations.

In the evening around 10.30 pm it turned out that I could indeed be with them around 9.30 am the next day: she was happy! It was nice to meet both parents at home the next morning with their beautiful ten-week-old child. We went through the intake form together, which stated, among other things, that there were migraines and blood pressure problems. During the pregnancy she had had virtually no migraine complaints. I asked if she knew there was a link with stress and she eagerly jumped in – she knew that all too well. I probed; I asked if she remembered when it had started. She dug into her memory and related some things to her hometowns. I lost track and we made a list of her movals —too many in too short a time, really, given her age. She sighed, looked at me, smiled hesitantly and with shining eyes: “I went living on my own at my 15th because I could no longer bear the situation at home with two parents who were alcoholics…” I nodded and held her eyes : “Ah… I see…” The three of us were silent for a moment.

When we took up the thread, we went through the rest of the intake form. They told how the birth had first become a series of complications, during which she had completely lost her sense of control. Once at home, they had a maternity nurse who, together with the intern, spent more time on their own breaks than on caring for mother and baby. “I would like some fruit,” she had asked one day, and the answer had been that she could prepare it herself, so that she could practice doing everything by herself again. After about five days, even the meconium had not been washed out of the baby’s ears… My heart broke – a mother in childbed deserves all kinds of nurturing and protection, so that she, together with her partner, can create a safe haven for her baby and master the feeding and care of this new little human.

The little one reported for a feed. I washed my hands and mother settled on the couch with her baby. She exposed her aching right breast and together we watched the wound that was healing there. She had taken up the instruction to treat the hard spot with an electric toothbrush a bit too fanatically and had not noticed that she was damaging her skin. “I have a pretty high pain tolerance,” she said, slightly apologetically, and I noted with a soft wink that perhaps the time was right now to treat herself with a little more gentleness. Her high pain tolerance had carried her through difficult years, but now her life was different and she was allowed to gently try to let go of the life-saving survival strategies she once had to adopt.

I explained some things about putting her baby to the breast and tried to support her, but the latch was not satisfying yet. She did it the way she was used to do it and after two tries, her baby started to drink eagerly. She looked into the little face and I thought I saw drops of sweat on her nose and forehead. I looked at her, paused, then said, “You look clammy with sweat…” She turned her face to me: “Yeah, true! It is quite warm here!” It was actually not that bad, and she somehow knew that, too, because she continued: “And that we just started talking about everything, that also makes me break out in a sweat. It was all so intense…” There had been parentification: “I was five or six when I already did the laundry in the house…”

Her cheeks flushed, her lips quivered, the sweating increased, and her eyes were now so full of tears that they overflowed. I stroked her hair and put a hand on her neck. I asked her if she had already told her baby what had happened, not only during the delivery but also in the time before and how many sad memories came up now that she saw her own sweet baby and was even less able to understand why her parents had not been there for her and how painful a loss it had been. “Can I do that…?! Is it good that he knows all that…?” In her voice, surprise and hesitation competed for precedence. “Your baby will know anyway, because your child feels your grief, but if you don’t tell it, your child will have to guess and make up its own story, with the risk that your child will blame itself for your grief. If you tell what happened and if you add how much you love your baby and how you and your husband are going to help your child write a different life story, then there is nothing to guess. Then your baby can be there for you, as you are there for your baby and you give each other space for the expression of your emotions. And don’t be surprised if your baby reacts intensely: looking at you, chatting back, falling completely silent, crying… it’s all possible, but it doesn’t matter. All is well. You are together. All of it can be there. It has to come out, so you can both continue unburdened.” She looked at her baby. He broke out into a laugh from ear to ear and looked deep into her eyes. She smiled back and we cried together.

In the course of the afternoon I sent the consultation report with the necessary tips and suggestions. Later in the day she emailed: “We immediately switched to the holistic general practice and I ordered two of the three books mentioned. We will get started with everything you have given us and let you know how it goes next week. Thank you!”
The power of compassion and holding space… heartbreakingly beautiful.

 

The lived experience, Episode 4 – This week: Mirjam, Part 3 (final)

Last week, we read quite a number of Mirjam’s sad experiences. This week we take a more analytical look at her life.

Mirjam tells how new life experiences gradually offered her more insight into how serious the situation at home was. She considered cutting the family ties at times, but became anxious about what that would mean for relationships with sisters and other relatives. Would she herself then confirm that she was indeed a difficult child…? “To this very day I notice that I try very hard to earn love, while at the same time I have a lot of trouble receiving love. Am I worth it? After all, what I did for my mother was never, never enough. I feel that because of that, I am still yearning for people who will accept me for who I am, not for what I do. That sometimes makes relationships with others difficult, because you long so intensely for… well… actually to curl up in someone’s lap in loving arms, to experience security… That longing characterises my life.” Together we sit in silence, moved by this candid analysis of what childhood engendered well into adult life.

I talk about the balance we seek as a child between attachment and authenticity and what the consequences can be if a child has to suppress that authenticity for the sake of attachment, that the child loses the connection with their true self – the foundation of trauma.
Mirjam is silent and thinks and then says: “Yes… I recognise that… I have completely lost myself in trying to earn what I never got and at the same time I find it difficult to receive love. The children are an exception; with them it works.”
I ask her if she is proud of how she has been able to break a pattern in her own family. With some modesty, but also determinedly, she answers: “Yes, I am proud of that. I was sometimes unsure about it, but I now see, also with the grandchildren, how different things have gone with us.”
That did not come naturally; sometimes she worked like a lioness to protect the children against the negative influence of her mother, who considered the grandchildren’s music performances embarrassing, immediately after departure threw away crafts made for her, or disapproved of the grandchildren’s study choices. “The faces of the children when their grandmother treated them like that… then my heart broke. She destroyed so much beauty on a structural basis.”

I ask if Mirjam has an idea why she kept ending up in environments that were difficult for her, both privately and in terms of work. “I don’t know… I don’t know… [silence] I don’t know.” She talks about the desire to really be seen and how her mother sometimes even on a birthday in Mirjam’s presence complained about how she looked, that the dress was not modern enough, that the jewelry did not shine enough. “Really everything was seen and commented on, but I, as a human being, was not seen. I was under the impression that she was ashamed of me.”
The constant judging by her mother served as a worrying example. When I ask if she has anything she classifies as a bad habit, she says, “The judging.” She is silent for a moment after this conclusion, before continuing: “More and more, I have learned to look at others with an open mind, but that is a choice I consciously make; it is not yet my default. Not judging is a skill I am still training for.”

Looking back, what does Mirjam see as her saddest and fondest memories?
“One of my saddest memories is the period surrounding my HAVO/high school exam. My grandfather died then; I partly cared for him and was very sad. As a result, I had not been able to prepare properly and I had to re-examine one subject. My father said it did not matter that I failed because I was a girl. My mother said she was sorry I failed; it would not have been necessary, she said, if I had concentrated better. I stiffened and looked at her wide-eyed, whereupon she said: ‘You can cry, if you like’, but she offered me no comfort or acknowledgment of my grief. That made me decide on the spot never to cry at home again. It was not until some twenty years later that I could really cry again, when someone did something very sweet for me to spoil and nurture me; then the tears came.
My fondest memory is the winter when my little brother was born. It was around Christmas; my mother was in childbed.” She smiles and begins to whisper: “We took care of that little baby as children and it was the first time that we did not have to work over the Christmas holidays! There was an air of endearment in the house and we cuddled up with that little fellow.”

When I ask about the essential aspects of her childhood for her development as a human being, she thinks before she searchingly and tentatively formulates her sentences: “What I was very determined to achieve was that I want to do my best to see and recognise the other person as they are because I missed that so much myself. I was constantly told and threatened that there would be severe consequences if I did not behave the way my mother wanted me to. A car, my wedding… the others got paid for it by my parents, but not me, because I had made choices they considered inappropriate. I have often felt very powerless and can really imagine things like self-mutilation and suicide. Those are attempts to be seen and heard. If you have the feeling that at the very core you do not matter, you lose all meaning. Fortunately, what always drew me out of there was my love for our children.”

Although she was greatly affected by the situation at home, deep down she always felt that it was not right. There is more passion in her voice as she says: “That on the day of my seven-year-old sister’s funeral, we had to get up extra early so that the cleaning could still go on… I was twelve, but I definitely felt that was idiotic! I wanted to say goodbye to my deceased sister; my other sister and I stopped cleaning and walked to the door, where we saw and heard the hearse drive away over the gravel. I already said there and then that this was not normal. Anyway… even when I once contacted the GP and said that my mother was completely hysterical and seemed to be going mad, it only led to a shot of valium, not a thorough investigation into how things were going at our home. As children, we were not protected from what was happening and at a  moment like that, my mother was actually kept calm with medication.”

I suggest you could see this as an addiction, both the endless cleaning and the medication. It is said that not everyone with trauma becomes addicted, but addicts almost always have a history of trauma. I share with Mirjam Gabor Maté’s definition of an addiction: everything you do and need to generate temporary relief from pain, behaviour that you cannot part with and which is harmful in the long term and disrupts your life. Mirjam listens attentively, is silent for a while and then asks me to repeat the description. She lets it sink in again and says she can relate to it. “I think my addiction was that I always kept going, not being able to rest, because continuing helped me to not feel the pain.” In recent years she has set aside more time for this, sometimes forced by illness, and she feels progress. For example, she has now decided that she will call in sick for her work, now that another difficult process awaits her for cancer treatment. The interests of the family weigh heavily here, because when it comes to what gives her life meaning and purpose, the children and grandchildren are her number 1 priority. What is also very satisfying is working with patients: “What I myself lacked is what has also made me strong in my job: really seeing people and spending time with them and then seeing the healing effects of genuine attention to people. Then I am very authentic. I listen carefully and see the person in front of me for who he is. I feel comfortable in that. I have nothing to lose and I don’t have to defend myself against anything. The moments when it is not possible to be authentic are the moments when I again fear that my individuality will lead to me losing people – just like it used to be.”

She concludes that it is an art to learn to receive what you did not receive at the beginning of your life: “It is often easier to have compassion for others than for yourself. In this sense, I am also concerned that there seem to be so many children who struggle with life at a young age and lack a basic sense of security. I have the feeling that adults often don’t pay enough attention to this. Children are required to adapt a lot and their basic needs are not always paramount. That basic need is love, in the form of security, safety and attention, and I am grateful that we have been able to give our children a much better start in that regard.”

With that we wrap up. We talked for a long time. In the course of the afternoon the sky has closed. The sun is gone, it is colder than I expected and it drizzles softly as I drive home.