Leave Me Alone

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.

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.
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.

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.

Patient: Some people have more than others.

Me: You got that right.
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.

Eventually she'll get to the codependent song* I'm waiting to hear. It goes something like this. . .

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?

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.

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.**

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.

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.

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.

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?

Better to be alone.


*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.


Anonymous said…
Israeli gal

Intresting post
but ... I suppose its how you define abuse
(I find that the word abuse is too harsh)

Yom tov
Wendy said…
You could have just put my name in for "patient" - I would have given permission! I think the "off-putting" patient is someone universally called "mom"... My therapist told me not to use "bad words" for myself - but I couldn't think of any other words to use. I have a few other issues you missed, but I guess we will have to cover them in another post!!!
Seriously - it helps so much to know I'm not the only one...
Mark said…
This was very interesting and provided me insight into the back story of people. There is almost always a back story that helps explain so much. Thank-you.
blognut said…
AAARRRGGGHHH!!! I am pretty sure my head just exploded. VERY SURE.

I'm not even the oldest, just the most screwed up... maybe... probably.
Retriever said…
Such a good post, thank you. I am an eldest daughter who can relate to a lot of this.
Anonymous said…
"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".

Anger? What's that? It get's so buried that it's a struggle to even connect to it on an emotional level. Yes, definitely something to resolve. Great post..made me smile.
Psychomom said…
"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?"

Made me cry but it was a good cry and it helped understand why I choose to be alone so often.
Anonymous said…
This is me... but I'm a middle kid. We are responsible for everyone above AND below us...
Lisa Marie said…
Hmm... are you sure you aren't MY therapist? Way too close to my reality... strange to think others react the same way.
therapydoc said…
You know you're all making this up.

Seriously, when I wrote it I had a feeling that a lot of my people would relate.
Glimmer said…
This one is really sad. I wonder whether the guilt is so heavy sometimes that it disguises the anger. So "patient" doesn't even know its down there.
blognut said…
I didn't even have the energy to tell you yesterday that this post was perfectly timed. I was absolutely haunted and not fit to do a thing. Even gave up any chance of a humorous post and wrote a depressing one instead! Who was I yesterday? Oy!

I'm resolving right now to snap out of it and behave myself today. Demons be gone!
Cat said…
It took me years to figure out that the love I learned at home was what kept me in an abusive relationship. being hit meant I was loved right? Its what my parents did...

I am glad you wrote this and I wish more adults found this sort of thing out earlier in life, than most do.
therapydoc said…
Right. The real tease for us is to see that most people have no idea why they behave, why they feel, the way they do. And parents who hit generally have some kind of rationale, but if it's discussed, the logic doesn't keep.
Anonymous said…
Oh my gosh, TD this is the story of my life - I am the eldest daughter and even today i still get teased about all the bad things I supposedly want to do....by friends and family-sometimes it frusterates me other times i just laugh it off. This is so me it not funny so what should i do ?
porcini66 said…
Read your post, burst into tears....more out of relief that you understand than anything. Thank you for being out there. Thank you for writing.

(I promise, I am not a stalker...just someone who still wrestles w/demons from the past and forgets how to move forward some days...)
therapydoc said…
When I first started blogging I made a big deal about not wanting, being unable, really, to be anyone's therapist. I worried so much that I would open up problems and couldn't sew them up, because, after all, I can't "treat" readers. SO I always tell you, get therapy, get therapy, get therapy, this is NOT therapy. And it isn't. I am not your therapist, you are not "getting" therapy. Therapy is one on one, eyeball to eyeball But that doesn't mean you can't get meaning out of things someone writes, and if that meaning makes you feel better, then so much the better. It is why, you know, we like happy endings when we read or go to the movies. So again, this isn't therapy. But if it's helpful, if what you learn here is helpful, then I'm glad.

And yes, I know no one is stalking. You just like what you hear. It speaks to you.

Always good to know, everyone. Thanks for the feedback.
porcini66 said…
Not to worry, I do have my own T and he helps immeasurably - more than he knows probably.

Every once in a while though, you say things just the way that I need to hear them. You are obviously very good at what you do and yes, your writing does speak to me. :)
Isle Dance said…
Amen. I can't say I have the desire to be a B, and I do credit PTSD for social phobias, but dang this rings true. :o)
Glimmer said…
Isn't this wonderful? A forwarded T.D. enmeshment post got some happy results for my teenage son and his friends last year, for example.

Son had scheduled a "reunion sleepover" of his old grade school friends on the first night of the holidays. One boy couldn't attend. It was his first night home from boarding school. He was bummed. Guilt on all sides.

Enmeshment post links casually forwarded by a faithful reader as "oh btw." Suddenly, the boy could attend. Sweet!
Anonymous said…
This rings so very true,thanks,I very much needed to feel understood today.
Syd said…
Thanks for this post. I don't want to be alone. In fact, I have fear about being left alone to die alone. I have a lot of optimism. I let my guard down a lot. Yet, I know that there was verbal and emotional abuse towards me by my father. This seems contradictory to me. But I suppose it's all part of the co-dependent thing in which even bad love is better than no love.
April_optimist said…
Yes, I nodded with such recognition. Even now there are moments I have to stop and remind myself it's not my responsibility OR WITHIN MY CAPABILITY to make things perfect for those I love.
Margo said…
Thanks for this post. Having been in therapy for a year or so now, I never cease to be amazed at the truth of some of the things that are pointed out/or discovered... things that would have seemed so far fetched a couple of years ago about myself and my family of origin.
Anonymous said…
I relish these "vulnerable" sort of posts. Thank you!
Jew Wishes said…
Well-written post.

Many women are caught in a vicious cycle, and each generation thereafter is caught in the same cycle, until one person has the strength, courage and willpower to break it.
Ivory said…
I was a middle child and I was not beaten, I was completely ignored. The only times I remember my mother talking to me, she was blaming me for something - some of it I was responsible for.

I would have done anything to be loved by my parents. I know now they probably loved me in their own way, but I needed them to show it.

My T constantly reminds me my mother cannot help herself in how she treats me. Just 2 days ago, she told me in front of other family members, "Yes, you don't look like any of us [the rest of the family]. The only reason I brought you home was because the nurse told me you were mine." And then she laughed. Ouch.

Amanda said…
Wow, that story could totally be me. *Except for the sending money to other family members part.* Amazing how behavior inflected on a person in childhood affects the rest of their life, and so predictably so. This is one of the reasons I'm studying psychology and counseling- it's fascinating.
Kellen said…
What a beautifully written article. And so accurate. I see many of these women in my own practice, and they are so easy to identify, because I was one myself. Thank you for shedding light on the other side of the hyper-responsible elder sister. I think we get too much bad press and not enough understanding.
JJ said…
It sounds so neat and tidy when you say: "You have what is called unresolved anger. And the guilt is unresolved guilt. We have to resolve it."

But is resolution always possible? And should a person perceive that that resolution is coming, through therapy? And if it's not coming, when is it legitimate to leave therapy, knowing resolution isn't possible?

Just the questions this post raised in my mind.
therapydoc said…
I think it's not only possible but should be the goal of a good treatment plan. It can take a year to feel a little less anger sometimes, and that year doesn't have to be spent on the couch. I tend to set people loose if they're not dangerous and they tend to do better coming in once in three weeks than every week. it is also more affordable. And I do use email on occasion, if it isn't too laborious, and voicemail spleening, of course. It's impossible for me to predict a course of treatment until I've really seen a person, "felt" this person mentally, what is going on inside, how deep the pain, assessed the resources, etc. So no, it's not at all easy, and yes, I'm afraid I wash it away with a wave, but it deserves much more than that.

How it's accomplished is way too complicated for me to discuss here, but it is a combination of change (sometimes divorce, sometimes leaving home, sometimes sometimes direct communication, other times a letter, and always, always, a therapeutic relationship which is exactly what it sounds like.
Anonymous said…
This was a very interesting post. Being a middle child myself, it is interesting to hear about the oldest child situation. I have come across women at work who are very responsible, wonderful in their jobs, but seem to be angry and, as you say, off-putting. This post gives me a perspective on what could be behind that. I guess we really don't know what demons others may be wrestling.
denelian said…
this is me. although my family is Cherokee, so i am sending money to CA instead of another country.

what gets me... (and yes i DO talk to both my therapist AND my mother about this) is that i am in ALL ways the *Good* child. perfect student. raised my younger sisters. didn't drink, do ddrugs, run away, skip school - i had a 4.0. but i reminded my mother too much of my father, and we had nothing in common, and then there was my step-father yay PTSD)
my mother calls me to cry at me about my younger sisters, why are they so bad? (my youngest has two kids. guess who's raising them? of course my mother is. sigh) its all a huge guilt trip. and its ALWAYS AT ME.

so this just hid very hard, very at home. i have never commented before, and am mostly just babbling now. i can't wait til i see my T next week...
therapydoc said…
Thanks for commenting. It's pretty hard to get attention and appreciation for being good in some families. I think it's so strange, but I see it all the time.
Esther said…
The only difference between me and the unnamed patient is that I am not "off putting." I am the nicest person I know (and humble too ;oP). Seriously. Thanks for writing that. I am in therapy, so I am dealing with my issues, but this gave me some insight I did not have before.
phd in yogurtry said…
Oldest daughter here. Nodding my head and feeling understood, vindicated, better. Thanks.