When Our Parents Die Twice

Our fathers and mothers may die twice. First, during their actual dying. And the other is the experience of non-relationship with them.

I have sat with a couple, Charlie and Mary (not their real names in this composite story), who both needed to recount detailed memories of their parents’ last days as well as their estrangement or abuse from them. Specific scenes and conversations kept coming back to them with extraordinary vividness.

Charlie, triggered by his father’s lack of attention to him while he was alive, died while he was so young. This left him fending for himself to support his studies and his mother. Mary, on the other hand, relived the period of her childhood during which her mother physically and verbally abused her. In her death bed, Mary’s mother continued to berate her, swamping Mary with painful memories she could not handle.

In our marital therapy sessions together, Charlie and Mary both realized that their own respective parents died twice. As a result, they found themselves hurting and abusing themselves and each other without fully understanding why. Wasting the good present in their lives because their past remain present. Their marriage exposed the “unfinished business.” Charlie and Mary lived to heal and revise their memories and self perceptions in accordance with the knowledge that they were gaining in therapy.

When our circumstances become humbling or we get wounded, things can become clear from the vantage point of helplessness. We can end up learning coming to terms with our parents’ deaths. We may finally be able to forgive our parents for their mistakes or failings. We may finally learn to leave home and live our own separate identities. Recognition of this key element in self healing can supersede even a life time of heart wounds and disappointments.

As psychologist Dr. Erik Erikson suggests, full spiritual health arises when one attains an “acceptance of one’s own and only life cycle” and a “new different love of one’s parents, free of the wish that they should have been different.” Some people lived long enough to find this truth out.

La Petite Niort

In my practice, I always sense that concerns about intimacy and connection can masquerade in sexual garb. Infidelity. Sexual addiction. Pornography. Homosexuality, lesbianism. Something about sex makes one feel some type of connection, an anti-thesis to the wounding, lack, or loss of vital relationship.

While speaking to Noel, he shared how compulsively he’d go into sex with multiple women and even men in times of internal distress. He said he feels so dirty whenever he does so yet he finds himself out of control doing what he doesn’t want to do. It’s been his “fix” since youth when his father and mother separated and abandoned him.

It’s not uncommon to those who have suffered psychological, emotional, or even physical abandonment or abuse to find sources of relief. Many individuals, deprived of proper amounts of intimacy or connection to “significant others” find themselves pervasively occupied with sexual thoughts. A study of men and women wounded by the trauma of abandonment documents increased sexual content in their thoughts and behaviors.

The French term for “orgasm” is “la petite niort.” It means “little death.” It signifies an orgasmic loss of self, which eliminates the pain of separateness. The high seems to be on the feeling or experience of the lonely “I” vanishing into the merged “we” of the sexual act.

Perhaps this explains a root of this type of psychological disorder.

Can you handle it by your self?

“I can handle it by myself.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”

I don’t know about you, but I never miss untreated addicts – alcoholics, gamblers, sex/affair addicts, etc. – saying these two “cover-ups.” These are common “walls” constructed by those who are unwilling to heal.

When a spouse or family members realize that the problem has worsened, they’ve already lived in a delusional world of denial and lies with their addicted loved one.

Addicts lie. They rationalize a lot to cover up evidences of the intensity of their addiction. They avoid responsibility, claiming nothing can be done and yet trying everything possible to hide the problem. Denial and minimization are an addict’s major weapons.

Never believe an untreated addict. If you’re a loved one, it’s healthier for you to listen more to what they do than what they say … unless you want your misery to continue on.

Helping yourself or an addicted loved one move into recovery can be a complicated endeavor. What has taken many years or months to develop cannot be undone overnight or in a day.

Rehabilitation can be a long process. Yet compared to the progression and life damage of the addiction, it’s an easy and long-term solution.

The spouse or family members need to move out of denial and enabling. They must be willing to do what it takes and expend as much energy as possible to rehabilitate their addicted loved one.

On Praising Your Self

I got disturbed not too long ago. It wasn’t from something I did in a counseling session … but from someone I met outside. This individual was a highly-educated, well-traveled, much experienced celebrity in his field of profession. For so many years, he held respected, prestigious positions in various organizations.

He emailed me his “credentials,” emphasizing that I have lots of great things I don’t know about him. I got the feeling that it’s extremely important for him that everyone knows who he is, where he has been, how he has done, and what he thinks. I did meet him a couple of times in a coffee shop, and some of my disturbing impressions were verified.

Of course, I had no intention to diminish the significance of his impressive credentials or record of achievements. But here was my point – he knew better than anybody else. When the two of us were together – short though it may be – it was hard to miss the distinct impression that the VIP or more important one was not you. He chose to be, quite frankly, a pompous man. The attitude of self-praise during our conversations was conspicuous.

Indeed, there is no greater deception than self-deception. It’s a tragic psychological trap. As Arnold Bennet says, “Falsehood often lurks upon the tongue of him, who, by self-praise, seeks to enhance his value in the eyes of others.”

Society and Psychopathology

Let me tell you something that might sound radical to you: we all live in an addicted society. Society contributes a huge part into the corruption, dysfunction, or breakdown of individuals and families in our world. Would that be so difficult for you to grasp?

One time, I was speaking to a seasoned 80-year-old veteran lawyer. Constantly exposed to human corruption in his decades-long legal practice, he expressed deep disappointment over people and society in general. At one point, he quoted or paraphrased Emerson, to describe his experience, “Everyone in society is a prostitute. It’s just a matter of price.”

Several days ago, Norma came in to see me for “relationship” counseling. She has two boyfriends, and is struggling and hurting over her sex addiction. Often, sex addiction finds its origins in childhood abuse or abandonment.  In Norma’s case, she was raised in a normal home with attentive, loving, and godly parents and no evidences of molestation or some trauma. Some other significant factor then contributes to her condition.

Norma described herself as still being sexually innocent when she went away to the city for work after graduation from college. She rented space in a boarding house and was exposed to pornography and sexual promiscuity for the first time. Her fellow female boarders would watch X-rated movies and she discovered their “phone sex” and going out with multiple men for paid sex. In time, Norma “eased into” the addiction gradually through repeated exposures to pornography and sex around her.

Now, aren’t these representations of how society helps condition us toward addiction and psychopathology?  In the media, in the world of business, in politics, everywhere, people are “objects,” not persons. Its essence is dehumanization, which encourages us to use people and sell our self for decorative and consumption purposes. As Madonna put it, “We live in a material world, and I’m a material girl.” Human dignity and authenticity be damned.

Think, for a moment, just take a look around you. Society is diseased. This is one part of the reason why countless human beings get wounded and break down – emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. Every addiction nowadays is traceable to the addictive virus present in the kind of society and world we live in. It’s not “out there,” it’s everywhere.

We all need redemption and healing from this. But first, we all need to see it as it really is.

What do you mean “midlife crisis?”

Filipino megastar, Sharon Cuneta, has recently admitted in the media that she’s going through a “midlife crisis.” She said that she lost faith in her self. “I hated myself for the way I looked and the time I continued to waste by not focusing and working on bettering my own person,” Sharon honestly confessed. She added that she became complacent about her weight battle and she apologized to her fans for “letting them down.”

“Midlife crisis” is a term coined by Canadian psychologist/psychoanalyst Eliot Jaques in 1965. It’s referred to as a time of life (from age 40s to 50s and beyond) when a person realizes his or her own mortality and the limitedness of time left. Such transition is usually triggered by stressors related to career, marriage, physical appearance or changes associated with aging, romantic relationships, financial expenditures, work-life balance, among others.

Based on empirical studies in adult development psychology, this so-called “midlife crisis” is not a universal or even near-universal phenomenon. One noted study, for example, is the normative aging study by Costa and Mcrae in the 80s. The middle-aged persons in their study were followed from their early 20s throughout their adulthood. And they found out that the only ones with a “midlife crisis” (i.e. depression, despair) were the ones who, in their 20s, were also depressed and anxious.

The way I see it, the so-called “midlife crisis” is two things that makes it a myth: 1. It’s not related to “age;” and 2. It’s proven to be not a general phenomenon applied to all. If you’re so depressed or desperate in your 40s, 50s, and beyond, there could be many underlying causes for this. And the least of these causes is your “age!” You’ve likely experienced countless crises in your adult years where you missed growing or developing strong psychological boundaries. In cases like this, once a crisis-prone individual, always a crisis-prone individual, no matter what age you turn to.

Seeking Help for Addiction

All kinds of addicts have something in common. Whether the addictive agent or drug-of-choice is alcohol, sex, gambling, drugs, food, money, work, or a person, addicts live a life of seeking relief from pain.

Dr. Lawrence Haterrer, psychology professor of Cornell University Medical School, with over 30 years of experience in addiction therapy, once wrote of sex addiction process this way: “Addicts don’t use sex for affection or recreation, but for the management of pain or anxiety.”

Dr. Hatterer’s statement is so common, clinically, among all addicts. They all seek comfort and healing, but impale themselves repeatedly on false solutions that only make matters worse. Physical illness, psychological disorders, and emotional stresses can all be a result of repressed, unaddressed pain. What could hurt more than trying to “medicate” your self with your drug-of-choice and in the process cause yourself even greater misery and pain?

All efforts of addicts by themselves are ultimately futile and doomed. Until addicts  make a decision to seek help and confront their pain head-on in therapy and recovery, this hidden or not-so-hidden pain will hound and damage them without mercy … the rest of their lives.