I believe it was the poet Thom Gunn who said “ The longer people are dead, the more our relationship with them changes.” In Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir I write about the evolving relationship with my wife and daughter, my patients and my parents.
But my parents have passed on.
So how is it that thoughts and feelings about the people who affected us the most, particularly the negative feelings, can morph into something different?
As a psychologist and psychodramatist I use role-playing to untangle some of the pain in relationships, particularly when the other person, either through death or circumstance, isn’t available.
Below is an excerpt from my memoir from the essay The Smoke Clears. It is a psychodrama done privately after my mother’s passing. Following the excerpt I include some guidelines on how to do one of these on your own.
I got up out of my chair and sat on the end of the couch and became my mother again.
“You’re saying I was the worst mother in the world, and I’m not supposed to have a reaction?”
I said these words from her position, literally sitting in a chair I designated as “hers” in my one-person role play. I sat there and struggled to identify exactly what she would be feeling, and the very words she would use. Psychodramatists call this a monodrama, but this was clearly my mama drama.
Even though I was playing the role of my mother, she was doing the same old crap to me. I didn’t want to get angry, but I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. I got up off the couch and sat back in my padded red chair.
“I am more like you than I care to admit,” I offered from my own role.
I then continued going back and forth, playing both roles of the dialogue.
“How are you like me?” she replied.
“I am angry a lot of the time. I feel resentful of others, and I sometimes have a hard time tolerating people,” I said.
“That’s how you see me?” she said.
When I sat back in my red chair, I tried to imagine what she would look like if she were really sitting across from me on the end of my couch. I’d see her wrinkles, nearly scars, around her mouth with heavy makeup trying to hide the decades of smoking. She’d have on a white blouse — I don’t think she owned another color — and a beige skirt with matching shoes and belt and pocketbook. Her posture would be straight, but unnatural, and every hair would be perfectly in place and dyed auburn brown.
“You were always angry at someone or something,” I said. “Always! In all the time I was growing up I can only remember a few, very few instances when you were smiling. Every day you were angry. Every time someone got close to you, or started to, you found some reason to get angry with them and distance yourself. Even I felt as though I had to protect myself from you,” I said.
“But all I did was love you!” she cried, with her palms turned upward.
“But it felt as if you were angry and critical. I felt you only loved me when I did the right thing, and I certainly couldn’t do anything that would have embarrassed you. I think you would have disowned me,” I said.
I help people perform their psychodramas every day. Every day I ask people to have conversations with those with whom they have unfinished business, but doing it alone, at home in my writing room, was something else.
“How can you say all this? I did everything a mother is supposed to do, and this is how you repay me!”