Ghosts. Yesterday, buying a coffee, I had to fight my way through an ever extending array of plastic Halloween decorations, a commercial and tenuous connection to the ancient Celtic belief that this time of year marks a blurring of the lines between the living and the dead.
As the leaves turn and the morning chill curls its fingers more decisively around the days I am thinking of my own parents, gone from here for many years but still constantly around. I think too of all the parents who are never physically in the room with me and my client but remain there all the same. Ghosts.
There is little which polarises attitude, belief and opinion in therapy like parents. We seem to stand either fully supportive refusing to speak in any way which could be construed as critical, or we cast blame freely like seed on woefully infertile ground for all the early years trauma and subsequent suffering. Why can’t we find a balance which is helpful and constructive, and why don’t we understand that in order to be free we must accept that our parents are not to blame, not anymore?
My files are full of stories which weave in and out between the grand hopes and empty promises of parents. Tales which touch upon the heights of respect, love and inspiration but also fall through the cracks into the stinking pit of disappointment, heartbreak and emotional abandonment. Parents are rarely the central characters in the story but they are always the supporting players, creating a landscape we cannot change but often wish we could.
Undoubtedly some of us experience desperate childhoods. Many more of us find ourselves with less than we either wanted or needed but do our best to fill the gaps. Is it not reasonable then that we should look back at what a mess our parents made of everything in order to understand why we are so fucked up?
Did you ever have a love which faltered, which fell apart for no reason you could see? If you ever invested your heart wholly in someone, even when they didn’t expect you to, and then found it broken one day can you remember that feeling? If you felt aggrieved, angry, hurt, used was it justified? Did someone really do something to you or did you simply find that your needs were not being met? Sometimes what we need is just not there for us and, when we are children, that’s a real crisis in which we may as well be disembodied for all the good our efforts to escape the misery might do. But when we grow up it’s still a challenge, but one we have the tools to fight if we’d care to look at ourselves instead of others. There is a difference between blame and insight.
Whatever happened to you when you were a kid was outside of your control. You needed a survival strategy appropriate to the situation, but those strategies become irrelevant when we grow up. You may have learned to avoid love and emotion because that’s what you experienced, or because boundaries were abused. You may have learned to counter attack with anger when you were frightened because fear was seen as weakness and pounced upon. You may have learnt to surrender to a feeling of being unlovable because nothing seemed to be good enough. You may have learned to subjugate your own needs in order to please someone else believing yourself worth less. All of these were the best you could do as a child but they don’t work for the adult, not least because they are founded in inaccurate, limiting and mistaken belief.
When we blame our parents we get stuck. We are stuck because blaming someone else removes responsibility, and without responsibility there is nothing we can do to move. It’s like getting a lift to the worlds worst party. You can drink as much as you like to forget what a terrible time you’re having but you can’t get home until the driver wants to leave. That’s what we do to our own lives when we continue to blame our parents.
When we can make sense of what has happened in our lives and join the dots between experience and behaviour we are illuminated. There is light to see the way, whereas blaming our parents is the art of consistently looking backwards in an effort to move forwards. When we feel that our parents stripped of us the strength to live a worthwhile life we are really sapping our own strength, because blame is a massive cop out. In blaming someone else, something else, circumstance, environment, we simply justify avoiding the work of recovery.
If Halloween marks a fusion of living and dead then maybe we can also see it as a merging of two worlds, one which we have some control over and one which is beyond us. In recovery the time we spend living with ghosts is truly wasted. The ancient Celts thought that the visitation of spirits made it easier to predict the future, but they didn’t realise that such predictions are pointless and impossible, and that it’s much more rewarding to create your own life regardless of the impact the past and its ghosts have had on you.