Can therapy help me?
November 18, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm a well-adjusted person plagued now by anger and disappointment re: her absentee father. Should I pursue therapy, or go about this a different route?

I have a long and complicated relationship with my father (haha, who doesn't?). My family came over to the United States from the former USSR about twenty years ago, when I was four years old. For the first year or two, my father was around pretty much the entire time, and we had our typical nuclear (though very poor immigrant) family. Then, my father began traveling frequently back to the "motherland" for what I understood to be business, but really, I have no idea. He would come back home every once in a while, but it got to the point where he was gone more than he was home. I know a child's mind can't really comprehend the passage of time. To me, it felt like he came home once or twice a year. It may have been more often.

When I was eleven years old and my sister was sixteen, my mom moved the three of us several states away from where we lived, at the suggestion of her long-time friend, and for cost of living reasons. My dad came back into our lives one more time, this time when I was thirteen, and stayed for a couple of months. He did a few projects around our new house, set my mom up with a leased car, and rang in the New Year with us. He took driving lessons and passed his driving test. By the time his license came in the mail, he was gone. I haven't seen him since. He's reached out to me a few times, and he's called, though infrequently. When I was college-aged, he sent me a few emails of poems translated into English. He sent me a text message once, which only said "I LOVE YOU," to which I had to respond with a "Who is this?" because I didn't even recognize the phone number. He responded only with his first name. I haven't heard from him directly since. When I was fifteen, many years after my parent's marriage had seriously dissolved, my mother filed for an uncontested divorce, where she had to put an ad in the paper to prove that she'd searched for my father, since we had no idea of his whereabouts at the time.

Growing up, I never felt particularly upset about my father. He very clearly favored me, to the point that he and his family (his mother in particular) ignored my sister's existence. But I didn't feel an emotional connection to him, I didn't fret when he would go away. I would be glad when he came home, because he brought me gifts from his travels. I didn't pay much attention when he tried to speak to me and my sister about anything serious.

A few years ago, my sister confessed to my mother and me that she had recalled repressed memories - memories of being molested by our father, of inappropriate touching. Though I don't have any such memories myself, my father did sneak up on me on several occasions during my childhood, snapping pictures of me in the bathtub and in the shower. I came across one of the pictures several months ago, while looking through a stack at my mother's house, only to take it home with me and rip it into pieces.

I've spent most of adolescence and my short time in adulthood not thinking about my father. When I got married, I made the conscious, easy decision to leave him out of it. I've been married close to three years. He only found out about a year and a half ago, because my cousin spilled the beans during an angry phone call.

But now, I feel anger all the time. In the past couple months, I've been thinking about my father constantly. The other night, I had a dream that he was hospitalized nearby. I dreamt that I drove over to the hospital, and confronted him - I went off about everything he'd done and not done over the course of my and my sister's lives. I had this fabulous cathartic moment. And then I woke up, and all I could feel is disappointment, and then this rush of frustration that it had only been a dream.

I wouldn't say that I have "daddy issues" -- I have an excellent relationship with my husband. I am not worried about being abandoned. I know he is nothing like my father. But I feel like this anger has taken over my thoughts, and I don't know how to release it. I often think about how a parent can practically ignore their child's existence. I wonder if I have half-brothers and sisters somewhere else. I know that I definitely, 100% do not want to find or speak to my father.

But I also feel like therapy is an incredibly narcissistic endeavor. I don't know how it would help me, or if it would ever be a worthwhile pursuit. I feel like I'm well-adjusted. How would therapy help me? Or else, how else can I attempt to overcome these issues?

tl;dr: I'm a well-adjusted person plagued now by anger and disappointment re: her absentee father. Should I pursue therapy, or go about this a different route?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. I wouldn't necessarily say that therapy is always the answer, but... therapy is ALMOST always the answer.

And there are so many kinds of therapy, too; I hope that you won't get discouraged if the first one you try doesn't "work" for you.

The other thing that I've learned from my wonderful partner is that your own therapy can really help other people, in that it changes how you describe things and relate to situations and people. The things he's learned in his own therapy have been a godsend to me in my own situations, even though I see someone on my own. It's a great way to process things and learn how to listen in new ways.
posted by Madamina at 9:37 AM on November 18, 2010

But I also feel like therapy is an incredibly narcissistic endeavor.

It is. It serves to help you get your shit together so you don't dump it all over people who don't deserve it. It's a place you go to talk about yourself and your issues with someone whose feelings you don't have to worry about managing, and who is trained to help people work their shit out.

The right therapist and technique and help you frame your feelings, work through them, and not have them take over their life. It isn't only for people suffering from long-term depression or other mental illness.

On the other hand, if you don't want to try therapy, meditation might help.
posted by rtha at 9:41 AM on November 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

But I also feel like therapy is an incredibly narcissistic endeavor.

It's not. It's the opposite, I would argue. It's acknowledging that you need to change something in your life which is having an adverse affect on you and your loved ones, that you have a responsibility to work through it, and that you are willing to get professional help in order to do so. It is an adult and responsible thing to do. Give it a shot; it really could help here.
posted by dubitable at 9:42 AM on November 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

and not have them take over their life

Rather, take over *your* life.
posted by rtha at 9:42 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most people have had some experiences in their lives which leave them with some lingering degree of anger and resentment. That is an almost inevitable aspect of the human condition. In a saner world, there would be qualifications required of anyone aspiring to become a parent, so that all children would be raised appropriately by loving and responsible parents. The first line of defense against being consumed by our own anger and resentment is simply stoicism. Realisitically, we do the best we can in a crazy world, and we get on with our lives. It's a very workable philosophy. If, however, that doesn't work for you, then the next step would indeed be to obtain therapy.
posted by grizzled at 10:02 AM on November 18, 2010

I'll second dubitable's point that therapy is no more narcissistic than regular doctor's visits would be. Your mental health doesn't exist in a vacuum; there are people who love you and depend on you (especially your husband, and possibly, someday, your children). Your friends and family need you to be able to function well in the relationships you have with them, and therapy will help make sure that happens.

It sounds like you're coping decently at present, but all the recent intense emotions are a good indicator that you're not completely "over" everything that's happened. And even if things are going great now, unexpected events in the future (the death of your dad/other relations? having kids? other milestones) may trigger you in ways that will be unexpected and potentially destructive if you've never done any focused work on this. I'd say, if you can, try to stop thinking of therapy as something for people who aren't "well-adjusted." Instead, think of it as a way of making sure you stay well-adjusted, and have concrete skills to keep yourself that way, even through whatever additional challenges life may have in store for you.
posted by Bardolph at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's nothing more narcissistic about seeking therapy to learn strategies for dealing with a specific set of problems than there is about taking cooking lessons or going to a personal trainer or taking violin lessons.

"Therapy" covers a lot of interactions--it isn't just the "sit on the couch and talk about whatever comes into your head" model one sees in the movies and on TV.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2010

Yeah, therapy is about being able to live your life well, so that you aren't, say, consumed with anger. That is good for you, of course, but it's also good for all your other relationships and endeavors. You deserve to move on and invest that emotional and mental energy into good things for you and your new family.

I had a lot of negative thoughts going in to therapy - it was selfish, it was a "luxury", it was insulting to my (great!) parents, it was paying someone to be my friend. None of that was true; it was merely taking the necessary steps to live a better life.

Lastly, CBT gets recommended a lot on the green, but for your situation I would recommend something more psychodynamic. It's a very individual thing, too, so feel to research and shop around for what will work for you.
posted by ldthomps at 10:21 AM on November 18, 2010

Lastly, CBT gets recommended a lot on the green, but for your situation I would recommend something more psychodynamic.

Seconding this; CBT is great for many, many things, but you're dealing with the fallout from a breakdown of family systems, so someone with a family systems background (whatever their modality of practice/philosophical orientation) is the move.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 AM on November 18, 2010

I have a long and complicated relationship with my father (haha, who doesn't?)

There was a time when I would have agreed with this. I grew up with an alcoholic father, and home was a very unstable place to be; no matter how perfect my grades or my behavior, I could never be sure what was going to set off the next powder-keg. The more I've been able to enjoy everyday interactions with people around me, the more I've been astounded at how not-normal my upbringing really was. I'll hear folks talking about going on weekend trips with their parents or (horror of horrors!) having neighbors come over to their house, and I'll think "holy shit!" and see my situation with a little more perspective. Acknowledging the pain of the past has made me more accepting of my current problems, less obsessed with blaming other people (dad, mom, the cops, the Republicans) for them, and thus more able to actually work on solving them.

Therapy can be very difficult, because it usually requires the acknowledgment of difficult emotions that you've ignored for a very long time. And yes, it's often a very fine line between helpful self-analysis and harmful self-obsession. You mention having a dream about confronting your dad and waking up disappointed that it was only a dream, but a little later you say you never want to speak to him again. I know what a painful dilemma that is, because I spent most of my teen years completely estranged from my dad, torn by those same conflicting desires. My advice: talk to someone. It sounds like there's a lot of stuff in your head that needs to get sorted out.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:49 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

For both my husband and I, this "anger moment" towards our parents happened about 2 years into our very happy marriage.

He had a pretty uneventful childhood, he's just not particularly close with his family. Plus they live in a land far far away from where we are. You can read about my family upbringing here, although the details aren't really germane to your question. Specifically, when I had the "anger moment," it was 100% directed at my father, who is in full command of his faculties and really should have done a better job raising me and my brother.

The point I am making here is this: WOW. It can be a real shock to finally live in a safe, truly supportive, and loving household. When we were kids and things were a bit opposite, well, that's just the way it was. Now we see the situation from the adults' perspective and that can bring out some pretty intense (and understandable) feelings of righteous outrage regarding our childhood experiences.

Anonymous, would you and your husband EVER consider abandoning each other or your children? Of course not!!

See? As a married adult, you now understand exactly what it did (or didn't?) take for your father to hurt and abandon your family when you were growing up = Righteous Outrage.

Talking over the differences between our upbringings and our current home life really helped Mr. Jbenben and I process this out-of-the-blue emotion/moment in our marriage. Just acknowledging out loud and to each other that we are doing it differently than our parents did it was cathartic for us somehow. I personally sought out some alternative therapy around the same time to help me process this realization a little more deeply because my family history was more intense than my husband's. You could easily just do talk therapy right now since you seem to indicate that's never been your thing before.

Your life now represents a drastic change in perspective and circumstance vs. how it was in your childhood. Process this difference in your life as necessary. It's ok if it all comes up again as time and circumstances progress through time. At least if this all bubbles up for you again, you'll know what it means and how to deal with it.

I think it is totally normal you are going through this and a sign you are doing it right.

Enjoy your life.
posted by jbenben at 11:41 AM on November 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


"It's ok if it all comes up again as circumstances change and progress through time."

There. All better.

posted by jbenben at 11:48 AM on November 18, 2010

I once told a mentor casually that my father deserted us when I was young and that I didn't care about him or what he thought.

The mentor laughed and laughed. He was right.

It is precisely because your father is so invisible to you that he is occupying your thoughts so much, especially, as jbenben puts it, because you are now in a stable relationship and understand what it means to abandon it.

Therapy could be a very good thing for you. It may well involve uncovering some painful facts that could alter your story about who you are and what's important for you. There are many threads here about how to find a therapist.

If you don't feel ready for that step, go to your local bookstore and page through the self-help section - see if you can find a book speaks to you. Give some of the exercises a try and see what comes up. You could always try to find a therapist later on, if the self-help approach doesn't work.
posted by jasper411 at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2010

I consider myself a well-adjusted person as well, and I had therapy to talk about some issues with my mother (who should have been to therapy herself instead). It helped me a lot.

It's not all hand holding and "you poor thing". It's talking about your problems with somebody who is trained to detect wrong thought patterns and will call you on them so you can get unstuck.

Therapy is not the only way to work on these kind of problems, but I think it is a shortcut.
posted by clearlydemon at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2010

Interesting that you have no desire to speak to your father, yet in your dreams, you confront your father, feel catharsis and then after waking up, you feel disappointment that its not real. I don't think this means you "real" desire is to confront him, it's just a weird inconsistency. Maybe you hope your absence of communication will be received by him as some kind of message? Maybe your well-adjusted calmness is also intended as a message -- "Look how little I care about you, Dad!" The intention is to confront him by failing to confront him, to make him feel that he has failed so radically and provoke him to change things by feigned indifference. For example, you didn't tell your father about the wedding, but your cousin "spilled the beans", as if it was supposed to be a secret. If you really were indifferent, why would it matter if he knows?

What's bothering you now is your anger has overtaken you and you can no longer play this game, and you want to seek therapy to "fix" it so you can continue doing it.

You're right that therapy can be narcissistic, and I think you'll have a hard time finding an American therapist who will appropriately challenge you. It might be worth a shot though.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:05 PM on November 18, 2010

Therapy can be narcissistic in the same way that keeping fit and dressing appropriately can be narcissistic. Are you doing it to spend all that time on yourself and enjoy attention?Or to be a person that can easily live in the world? I’m thinking for you, it’s the second.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:47 PM on November 18, 2010

Maybe you don't need therapy.


But if the anger is having a negative impact on your relationships, your ability to work, your ability to care for yourself...then you definitely need help with it and should seek therapy.

If you're reluctant to go to therapy, I suggest that you take the first steps towards finding a therapist--to the point of putting a few numbers in your phone (Therapist 1, Therapist 2, Therapist 3--so they're really easy to find) so that the moment you become overwhelmed, or it starts wrecking your life, you can call for help.

In the meantime, maybe try journaling, writing poetry, taking photographs, sketching, reaching out to other people to help them--do anything you can to express your anger in a way that feels like you're producing something.

Find out more about him: talk to your sister about your memories. Talk to any family member who knows both you and your father, so you can learn more about him and satisfy some of your curiosity, even if you learn things you'd rather not know. It helps.

I, too, wonder if I have brothers and sisters I don't know about. My father came in and out of my life. I'm generally well-adjusted about it, with a good stable partnership. I think that time, and the things I mentioned above, have helped me process it very much without therapy.

Although I have gone to therapy, I never talk about my father because I don't feel the need--!

Good luck with whatever you decide.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:53 PM on November 18, 2010

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