The day was sickly hot, and my allergies were bugging me. I just wanted to hunker down in the corner of my room and lose myself in a good book, but when I tried the back door, it was locked. I knocked. No response. I knocked harder and longer.
The door swung open angrily, and my oldest sister yelled for me to get lost, slamming it in my face.
I knocked again, more persistently.
She opened again hissing at me: “Seriously, V.J.! You need to stay away, or Mom will kill herself.”
“But it’s hot and I don’t feel well. Please let me come in.”
“No way! Mom can’t handle anything else.” She slammed the door again. I heard the lock slide into place. I slumped down on the step, thinking over what she had said. Was it really possible for me to be the cause of my mother’s suicide? The rest of the family, save for my Dad, were inside. I was the only one locked out. Was I really that bad of a kid?
That was the day I learned that I could be responsible for another person’s well-being. I wasn’t yet eight years of age.
* * *
“I am not a very good daughter,” I explained to the therapist I had been seeing. I was thirty-seven and having difficulty with my own daughter, so I sought help.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, I upset my mother and she hasn’t spoken to me for a week.”
“You think you are that powerful?”
“You actually believe that you can influence how someone feels?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. “You mean, my mother’s reaction is out of my control?”
* * *
“My husband tends not to look after himself when I am away.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
Eighteen years later and I am back in therapy again. Situational anxiety and depression is the diagnosis. I feel like I have regressed.
“Why is that?”
“Well, if I was home I know he would be cared for.”
“So you are responsible for his choices?”
“No….well…..I guess that is what I am saying. Shit! How do I let this go?!”
“You will not always agree with the choices that your husband makes, but you can at least let him have responsibility for them.”
“That makes sense, so why is it so difficult for me?”
“It’s really about control. Somehow you believe that if you can control the other person’s behaviour, then everything will be all right. It never works, of course, but it’s a product of growing up in an out-of-control family environment. It’s part of being a people pleaser.”
I thought I had dealt with all this years ago, and said so.
“The subconscious tries to heal those parts of self that are still wounded, so it repeats patterns. The secret is in re-parenting yourself. This need for control is a reflection of a childhood need that wasn’t met.”
“Like the part of me that thought she was responsible for my mother’s suffering?”
“Yes. As an adult now, you need to offer that little person a different perspective. What would you tell that little girl now?”
“Well, I would sit down on that porch step with her and explain that whatever her mother was going through was not her fault. I would tell her that her sister was coping with a bad situation, and that it was not related to her behaviour. None of it was her fault.”
“That is a good start. Can you see anything else that the child might be missing in this scenario?”
“Caring for. I was hot and tired and needed shelter. I probably needed some comfort too.”
“So how will you give that to her?”
I think this over. Am I good at looking after myself? Occasionally, but not always. “Why is looking after myself so difficult?”
“You tell me.”
I look back at the little girl locked out of her house, and I suddenly know.
“She doesn’t think she deserves to have her needs met,” I realize. “I still don’t think my needs matter. Others are always more important.”
“So who should you be responsible for?” the therapist asks gently.
“Me. And her. She needs me to take care of us.”
“Can you do that?”
“It’s the only choice that makes sense.”