Holidays can be tough for many reasons, we all know that. For me, Father’s Day was painful for many years following the death of my father. I was only 17 when a brain tumor took his life, so I missed some of the typical teenage experiences. In human development, if I’m correct, a child forms an attachment to her parents, depending on them for all physical and emotional needs. Safety, acceptance, love, worth- all these things are a function of one’s parents as we grow. But we also have to rebel- if secure enough in the above qualities to risk challenging mom and dad. For whatever reason, I never felt the urge to rebel as a teen. Quite the opposite- I wanted to be the best, make my parents proud, to be good and to never get in trouble. Can’t explain why, other than that was my inner nature. So I never experienced that period of teenage rebellion.
Fast-forward ten years. I’d been in and out of therapy (mostly in) since college, and while initially my issues were attributed to delayed grief from my father’s death, by this point I was exploring other ideas, feeling I’d mostly made peace with his passing. I’d had a rough year marked by psychiatric hospitalizations and ECT, and a sense of aimlessness as to my future. In the midst of another breakdown, I met “Sigmund,” as the newest admit to the psych unit he chaired at the local hospital. From the get-go, I knew he was different, as psychiatrists go (at least, the ones I’d seen). He saw beyond my helplessness and said to me: “Well, you can take it easy and relax while you’re in here, or you can write me an autobiography.” Challenge accepted. We met again that weekend and I handed him three pages of tiny script, detailing my life and psychiatric history. After reading it, he made an offer: if I would commit to the work, he would take me on as a private client. In a modified form of psychoanalysis, Sigmund would help me untangle the inner knots keeping me from leading a productive adult life.
I took a minute to think about it. I’d never worked in therapy with a man before, but maybe it was time for a change. Plus, Sigmund shared the same name as my father, and was close to the age my father had been when he passed, so maybe that was a sign. I said “yes.”
And so began our nearly five-year relationship. We met twice a week for therapy, a therapy where I was encouraged to say anything and everything on my mind, with little input from Sigmund. As he told me, he was there to be a blank mirror, reflecting back myself. The therapist can then become others in the client’s life, including, for instance, one’s father. Even though Sigmund told me he wanted us to be partners in exploring my psyche, like a detective team, the young girl in me saw him as an authority figure and wanted him to lead, to tell me what to do. He had the MD and so had to be the more knowledgeable one, right? So I deferred to him, letting his words hold greater meaning and value than my own. I fell into the comfortable roles of student, of daughter. And I wanted to please Sigmund, to make him proud of me. Just like I did my own dad.
One of my favorite bands, ABBA, sings a song called “The Name of the Game”. Only as an adult did I discover that the song is about being in therapy- no wonder it’s one of my favorites. Part of the song goes: “If I trust in you, will you let me down? Would you laugh at me, if I said I cared for you? Would you feel the same way too?” Bjorn and/or Benny must have been in analysis, to have written these words, because they truly capture the experience of that analytic relationship. I had never felt that way about any other person I worked in therapy with. I didn’t have that longing to know they cared for me, that they were there for me and were proud of me. I believe this is part of transference, which was pretty much new territory for me. And it’s awkward trying to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been in that kind of therapeutic relationship. In fact, I’m expecting some flak for this in the form of “you’re still thinking about that guy?” Yes. The analytic relationship gets pretty deep and intimate when you’re sharing everything- you meaning me, the person in therapy.
Anyhow, back to the father-figure stuff. I remember talking about hospitalization, and how we’d met, and Sigmund told me that if he had to come to the hospital bc I was there as a suicidal patient, he’d “take a pillow and finish the job.” My first thought was, “WTF?!.” Until I realized he was saying, in his way, that he cared about me, or at least the work we were doing together, enough that he’d lose it himself if I tried anything like self-medicating again. That touched and reassured me, that I was more than just a client.
Sigmund worked with me on my fear of motherhood, of giving up myself to become “Mommy,” and with his help, I weaned off my medications so that I could become pregnant Things were pretty much ok until my second trimester, when anxiety reared its head. Sigmund firmly believed any psych meds during pregnancy to be a great risk, and although my OB assured me of the relative safety of certain meds, I decided to tough it out, bc I didn’t want to contradict- and therefore, piss off and lose my relationship with- Sigmund.
The anxiety passed, thankfully, and I went on to deliver Boopie, a bit early but healthy. I was supposed to be in therapy that day, so I had to send Sigmund a message that I would not be making it as I was in labor. He texted me back and I remember being touched by what he said, again showing he cared about me.
We resumed our work shortly after Boopie’s delivery, and things were fine for a while. But as anxiety descended upon me once again, leaving me awake in the early hours of the morning with a racing mind, I asked for help. Sigmund agreed to prescribe a sleeping pill, but no more, as I was attempting to breastfeed. That didn’t work, and one day I called him in hysterics for an emergency phone session. During the call I begged for meds to stop my panic. He agreed on the condition that I stop breastfeeding, that he would not condone meds while breastfeeding. In my desperation, I agreed. The very act of filling the prescriptions gave me a bit of a boost, enough so that I felt I could try to slog through and hang on without taking them. I still hoped to be able to breastfeed, too. So I held off. When I saw Sigmund that Monday, and told him I’d tried to tough it out and be strong, he got angry with me. I thought he would be proud of my attempt to work through my intense anxiety on my own, but he didn’t see it that way. Instead, he reminded me the meds were my idea, that he’d held an emergency phone session with me and agreed to prescribe them for me, with the intent that I would take them immediately. I feebly tried to support my argument, but in the end gave in and apologized for not doing what he expected me to.
The final straw came shortly after. I left each session in tears, feeling worse than at the start, and had begun to look for therapists who specialized in postpartum mental health. I told Sigmund I had found a therapist who worked with postpartum women to see until my anxiety subsided. I would then be in a better place, mentally, to continue the challenging work of analytic therapy. But I still wanted to remain Sigmund’s client, specifically for medication. Well, he didn’t see it my way. Sigmund told me he didn’t co-treat, and that it was my choice: continue working with him in therapy and with meds, or see this new therapist and find a different psychiatrist. I faced a very important decision, choosing between what I felt was right for me given my fragile mental state, and what my father-figure, Sigmund, told me was his only way. If I chose to stay with him, facing more tears each week, I might never stop feeling so anxious. But if I chose to move on, it seemed he would be rejecting me.
In the end, I decided I needed to work with another therapist, one who had more sympathy towards my postpartum mental state. I explained that in an email to Sigmund, and added that I hoped to be able to continue my work with him once I was stable again and ready for the challenge. His three word reply to me was “If time permits.”
What happened to his caring about me? Why would he slam the door in my face like that? It stung, for a long time. I felt hurt and betrayed, abandoned once again- this time not by the cruelty of a fatal brain tumor but by the choice of a professional who stuck to his principles. As I worked through this later on with my current therapist, I came to think that maybe I’d abandoned Sigmund and our work, at least, in his eyes- that I didn’t care enough about it to stick with him and work through the pain. I went through some of the stages of grief, notably, anger and depression, to come to a sort of acceptance. I’m in a much better place now, and reached out to Sigmund via email. This came after numerous drafts of a letter that went from angry and accusatory to sympathetic and apologetic. I wrote to share some pictures of myself and my son, and to let Sigmund know I was doing well, and that I thanked him for his role in my journey. He responded graciously, saying he was glad to hear this, and that he thanked me for letting him be part of my journey. And I breathed a sigh of relief.
But did I stop thinking of Sigmund? No. Just as I will never stop thinking of my father. Both men played significant roles in my life, seeing me through growth during times of uncertainty. I never had a chance to rebel against my father, but I tested those waters with Sigmund, a gamble that maybe cost our relationship at the time. But I survived, and am stronger now, knowing I did what I felt I needed to at the time. Right or wrong, I made that decision for myself. And I want to say “Happy Father-Figure’s Day” to Sigmund, for helping me become an adult on the inside.