Beth was the fourth of five children and a first-generation American of a Scottish family. She was born and raised in San Francisco. She had an older sister, Emma, who passed away five years before she came for therapy. She had an older brother and sister, James and Erin and a younger sister, Meagan. They were all approximately two years apart; James, the eldest, now 51, followed by Emma, who would have been 49- Erin, 47, Beth, 45 and Meagan 43. Their mother was in her late 80’s when I began treatment with Beth. Her father had been deceased for 10 years. Emma had passed away from breast cancer leaving a husband and three young children. Emma’s death devastated Beth. Her grief was interminable. She was her closest and dearest sibling. Beth was the only family member who mourned her sister’s death. This set the stage for our work together.
My question was why Beth’s grief was not shared by the other family members. As time passed, I learned much about the family dynamics and the dysfunctional history of her family. Beth was perplexed about her family’s lack of grief. Her mother showed little empathy or concern for her grandchildren’s or son-in-law’s loss. It was as if they had never existed. Beth stayed connected to Mike, her brother-in-law, and her nieces and nephews despite her family’s indifference, however, she never could understand their apathy. I was perplexed as well.
As our sessions continued, it was clear that Beth’s family of origin was a major contributor to her issues. She was a recovering alcoholic for nearly 17 years when therapy began and had several bouts with anorexia and bulimia as a teenager, spending months in an eating disorder treatment center in her adolescence. Still, in program, she attends AA meetings regularly along with ACA meetings having sponsors in both programs. She had been divorced but was presently happily married to a very prominent businessman. She has two children, Alicia 14, and Max 10. She had been earnestly working on recovery, maintaining regular meetings on a biweekly basis. Although committed to her recovery she seemed out of touch with her feelings and disconnected from the family dynamics and the impact it made on her when we began treatment.
Beth was a very attractive woman. Tall and slender, she dressed expensively, with grace, class, and style. Her long dark hair was always coiffed and her makeup was applied with perfection. She had all the popular surgical procedures wealthy women could afford and looked ten years younger than her years. She could have easily been on the cover of Vogue. She was an avid tennis player and an attentive mother. She and her family attended church regularly and she was an ardent, faithful practicing Catholic. From the outside, one would imagine she had a perfect life. From the inside, she was tortured.
With all of Beth’s sophistication and social skills, she had very low self-esteem. She worried excessively about how others thought of her and went out of her way to please them, especially her mother who held court from her bedside.
It took several months for Beth to recognize and acknowledge that her mother was a self-serving, self-absorbed woman who had been spoiled all her married life by her husband, an active alcoholic, who supported her demands just to be left alone. Beth had been in a trance her entire life believing that her mother’s expectations were not unreasonable. When her mother commanded Beth’s attention and servicing, she responded like a private serving his attending officer in the service. She had always put her mother’s wishes ahead of her own, too often neglecting and sacrificing the needs of herself and her family. She was obedient and subservient to her mother’s commands, feeling responsible for her feelings, and never disappointing her. Her religious indoctrination of honoring one of the ten commandments, “Thou shall honor thy mother and father” kept her locked into the belief of doing just that. Beth’s lack of boundaries was characteristic of codependent and enmeshment behaviors.
Outside of her mother, Erin, her eldest sister, was Beth’s most feared family member. She stonewalled Beth and her contempt and disdain were palpable as I listened to her describing their relationship. She seemed pained and confused by her sister’s chronic hostility and malicious behaviors toward her. She stated that as far back as she recalled, Erin had always been rejecting, and abusive. Since their father’s death, Erin had taken the responsibility of becoming the CEO of her father’s business. Although very competent, her attitude towards her younger sister was reprehensible. She clearly had a character disorder that would have been diagnosed as a borderline personality disorder, not unlike their mother who was also a classic narcissist.
Erin serviced all her mother’s needs more than any other sibling. She never married, had no children, and had no personal or social relationships. She was a very lonely, bitter woman who took out her unresolved conflicts on her sister, making her the scapegoat of the family. Beth tried hard to win her sister’s approval, but the more she tried the less responsive Erin became. The rift between them had begun in early childhood and had been sustained throughout the years. This added to Beth’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth. To make matters worse Erin had a very close relationship with their mother, manipulating her to favor her over Beth. Beth’s mother had the audacious behavior of pitting her children against each other, telling each that they were her favorite when they were servicing her and fault finding the others.
Whenever there was a family function, and there were many, Erin would always arrive late, and no one would ever confront her. She seemed to have the power of intimidating the family members, each too fearful to risk offending her. This went on for years. In therapy Beth shared her wonder why they all tolerated her behavior, finally recognizing that this was a pattern created and maintained as part of the dysfunctional family system.
It took nearly a year of Inner Child Work for Beth to have the courage to confront her sister. Beth had finally voiced her feelings, being the only one in the family to have done so. Once accomplished, Beth became empowered which installed a new self-image and insight. This discovery led to the understanding that Erin was never going to change. She learned to accept Erin’s unconscionable behaviors and not let them affect her. She also learned that her family of choice at her meetings was more loving, supportive, and mentally healthy than her family of origin. This newfound realization gave her the liberation she so desperately needed to heal. She could detach, let go and feel her independence and self-acceptance.
EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
The process was slow, but Beth was committed. Employing EMDR, NLP, hypnosis and other modalities, I took her back in time to the trauma she had repressed. The repression served a purpose to protect her from her pain, but as an adult, was no longer effective. Instead, it made matters worse. Once she faced her trauma from her wounded childhood, she became desensitized to its power, putting it in perspective to the past and no longer in the present. She reprocessed it as something that had already happened when she was vulnerable, helpless, and unprotected by her dysfunctional parenting. Now as an adult, she had integrated the trauma and was able to restore her self-esteem.
Once we reprocess the trauma we incurred as a child from an adult perspective, we can form a new landscape of our past through the eyes and mind of an adult. It doesn’t work by telling the client to “let go, this has already happened.” One must experience it to resolve it. It takes a trained EMDR therapist to install the transition.
This almost magical technique created by Francine Shapiro, a research psychologist was first considered fringe or pop psychology in the psychiatric community. Today it is recognized as perhaps the leading modality for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A New York Times best-seller, THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. highlights the effects of EMDR and his professional experiences as a psychiatrist. We can also say “the inner child keeps the score!”
Today EMDR is a well-established modality used by many mental health clinicians in their practices.
Stay tuned for more case studies that I will publish in my next newsletter.
Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, inspirational speaker and author of I Hate The Man I Love: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success. In private practice since 1978, she specializes in individual and couple’s therapy, grief therapy, EMDR, NLP, Inner Child Work and codependency. Learn more about her services at www.joanechilds.com.