That's Greta Garbo.
Every once in awhile I'll see someone who says she's fed up and wants to be left alone. I think it's a Greta Garbo line, I 'vant to be alone, but it's not hers exclusively. Greta doesn't own it.
A person can have a million reasons for wanting to be alone, but one of the more interesting patterns I see in therapy tends to look like the one below. We'll keep it simple, give you a snippet of a typical conversation with a hypothetical new patient.
Patient: I just wish everybody would leave me the ____ alone.This type of interactional sequence is almost always with a female patient, eldest in her family of origin, sometimes the only girl. She is expected to keep a degree of order and cleanliness in the home, even as a young child and isn't given the freedom to explore the world beyond that home, either.
Me: What's the feeling behind that, wanting to be left alone?
Patient (doesn't have to think hard): Anger.
Me: Do you feel angry often?
Patient: Yes. A lot. People think I'm a real b___. They can tell when I don't want to be bothered.
As an adult, usually an outwardly independent person, she's developed a sometimes testy, irritable nature, and gives overt signs to others that they had best not try to get too close to her. She says No, more often than not, to social events, but she isn't phobic. She's just not interested, she will tell you.
A nice way to describe this personality is off-putting. Another way is to say she's threatening. I like her right away, as soon as she walks through the door. I've seen her many times before.
I give her a cryptic once over after she's used the "b" word, for she describes herself this way. I'll give it a pregnant pause, wait, eventually make empathetic eye contact. Then she sees a smile. We both laugh. It is the laugh of understanding, relating. Empathy.
Me: Well, we all have our days.Her story tumbles out, first in the present tense. This is about all the idiots out there who make life miserable; how there's so much stuff to have to take in life, on the job. So much aggravation.
Patient: Some people have more than others.
Me: You got that right.
Eventually she'll get to the codependent song* I'm waiting to hear. It goes something like this. . .
This confession of personal history signals Psychoeducational Lecture #72 (these are arbitrary numbers, don't Google them) . When innocent people feel guilty it's often because as children they were accused of doing bad things that they didn't do. Or they were accused of wanting to do bad things they never wanted to do. These accusations happen repeatedly throughout childhood until the patient gets out of there, free from family imprisonment.
Patient (describing her life): And my family in . . .
(Fill in the blank, Poland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Viet Nam, China . . . )
depends on me for money. And I send it, but the money goes to things like drugs and alcohol. And my uncle just sits around and does nothing. And my sister does nothing. And my brother does nothing except he eats a lot and does nothing and he lives with my mother, who does everything for everyone. And did I tell you that my brother uses drugs, too?
Me (anxious to get treatment under way): You know, there are alternatives. . . You don't have to . . .
Patient (cuts me off): I know, I know.
But tell me, doctor, on another subject, why do I get so upset with people? I have this feelings, all the time, like I'm to blame, like people are blaming me. And I'm the good girl. I'm the one who does everything good. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't sleep around. I work. I send money home to my family. I do everything right. So why, when someone says something about me do I always assume they're insulting me, accusing me?
Why does just being with people make me feel guilty?
What follows them, unfortunately, and exacerbates their problems, is that they've been undeservedly punished, usually severely, for these things they didn't do, didn't want to do. The punishment is often violent, accessorized with homemade weapons. We call it child abuse.**
We therapydocs explains that we have seen it many times before, the eldest female's involuntary role of responsibility, taking care of little siblings as a little child herself, unprepared, the parental child syndrome. This pint-sized, ill-equipped parent is rarely appreciated and is treated badly. She'll try to please, try to keep Daddy or Mommy from getting angry. It's a lot of emotional work.
Patient: Oh, man. I got hit. Did I ever get hit. I got hit with belts, paddles, and I was kicked with boots, slashed with electrical cords. I was beat bad.
Me: I know.
Patient: How do you know?
Me: It's my job to know. Sometimes people like you, the victims, survivors, call it what ever it is, hardly recognize harsh punishment like this as child abuse. You don't even own your right to feel angry about it. What good does it do you anyway, you think, to be angry? So you aren't conscious of the connection. You have what is called unresolved anger. And the guilt is unresolved guilt. We have to resolve it.
Meanwhile, her parents don't understand parenting. If anything, they think it's okay that she feels guilty for the behavior of her siblings. They think it's okay to make her feel guilty for talking to a boy, even if she doesn't like him. They are trying to protect her. They think they are doing a good job, instilling in her what I call an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
And too much responsibility makes us angry.
At some point in therapy she'll want to know that the reason others can afford to under-function is that she over-functions.
If I hadn't heard so many Wild-Person stories I might not have copped the likelihood of abuse in a case like this. The Wild-Person will abuse and blame everyone, all of the children, usually, but there is one child, often the oldest girl, who gets the brunt of the rage. And alcohol is usually the fabric of family life, so well woven that it is hardly mentioned in the history.
Better to be alone.
Me: They do it for your own good, the beating, the isolation, the insistance that you come right home after school. It's all so you can turn out all right. GOOD. And look. You did.
Patient: Ha! More like a wreck is what turned out. A crazy person.
Me: So you're an emotional wreck, but a good emotional wreck.
Patient: That's the whole thing, all so I should be a good girl. Meanwhile, how many times do you think I got molested as a kid by some drunken relative?
Me: Of course. And you wonder why you want to be left alone.
Who needs people when the ones who say they love you, who should love you, beat the ___ out of you and forget to protect you?
*For more on codependency, visit The Second Road. The writing over there is terrific, and every week or so I'll post there, too. You might want to read about what I did yesterday, for example, on The Drinking Holidays. The post is about religious days like St. Pat's, Purim, and Passover.
**There are many reasons to be angry, child abuse is only one of them. A post like today's is supposed to highlights associations between a few different variables. There are many more, of course.