The Drama Review (July 28, 2017)

Dear news, I mean, drama watchers,

I said a few weeks ago that dramas are fun to watch but aren’t fun if you’re in them. Someone who had nothing better to do could be entertained 24 hours a day just watching the news lately. Tune in to any cable news channel and you’re likely to see a comedy, a horror flick, an action thriller, a soap opera, a cartoon, a spy film, a gangster film, a mystery, a fantasy, a mockudrama, or a coming-of-age film (or wishing people would come-of-age film.) And lots of B movies. And lots of fiction.

Siskel and Ebert should be alive for such a time as this.

I said we’d spend some time looking at various drama types. Week before last, I introduced you to what I call the master drama—the master word suggesting not enhanced proficiency but control. Colloquially, we call them my-way-or-the-highway people, control freaks, micromanagers, or any number of dirty terms that reflect the exasperation they elicit in us.

Remember, the master drama works like this: “My role is to be in charge and your role is to submit. As long as we stay inside our roles, we’ll have a great relationship. Oh, and did I mention? You’ll pay a price if you don’t.”  (Note: you’ll also pay a price if you do—submit to the control, that is.)

By the way, this drama stance is rarely stated openly but is usually communicated subtly. Mob bosses aren’t likely to say, “Do what we want or we’ll kill you” but they might say, “If you’ll help us, we’ll help you”, the implication being that lack of helpfulness may result in a dirt nap.

When I wrote my book a few years ago, I told the story of Patti. Patti is fictional in that I made up the story.  But real in that she’s a composite figure of many clients I’ve seen in my office over the years.  I share it with you to illustrate the operation of a master drama.

The Story of Patti

Patti was pleasant when we first met but also seemed apprehensive, this being her first ever visit with a mental health professional.  She made several nervous jokes about being “crazy” and asked kiddingly if she was supposed to lie down on the couch for analysis.  Hoping to ease her fears, I joked around with her and tried to be reassuring.  I told her that the real crazies of the world don’t usually come into offices like mine.  Though she was ill at ease, I could tell she was really hoping to get some help.

I asked her to explain her reasons for coming.  She then elaborated on how she felt overwhelmed all the time, mostly by the demands of being a wife and mom.  Patti had been married for eight years to her husband, Bill, and they had a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl.  She felt she was doing a bad job of being a wife and an even worse job of being a mother.  The more she talked about her day-to-day life, the clearer it became just how much she was hurting.  Her friends had commented on it, Bill had noticed it, and she had even found herself identifying with one of those TV ads on depression because it sounded so much like her.

After giving me the synopsis, she smiled and inquired, “So, can you fix me?”  Contained in this question was a not-so-subtle demand for psychological twinkle dust which would make her pain instantly disappear.  I told her that, while I couldn’t promise a quick fix, she would eventually feel better if we could do a good job of finding and addressing the causes of her depression.  It would likely be hard but doable and definitely worth the effort.  Not exactly the twinkle dust answer she hoped for but she agreed to hear more about the process.

I asked Patti if there were other things causing stress besides the daily demands of wifehood and motherdom.  She responded dismissively, “Oh, well, my mother is driving me nuts but what else is new, right?  Other than that, I can’t think of anything.”  She told me that her parents had divorced shortly after she and Bill married and that her mother had moved to the same city just to be closer to them.  I asked her to explain the phrase, “my mother is driving me nuts.”

She then gave me quite a list:  she calls several times a day, she expects to see them several times a week, she frequently asks for favors, she drops in unexpectedly, and she gets upset if they ever let anyone else baby sit.  Patti then said, “I don’t really understand this, but she almost seems jealous of my relationship with Bill and the kids.  She gets upset if I ever do something with just my family, almost like she’s competing with them for my attention.”

Then, as if hit by a sudden wave of remorse, Patti said, “I don’t mean to sit here and criticize my mom, though.  She’s really sweet and will do anything for you.  We’re really lucky to have her so close by.”  She then smiled, folded her arms, and said, “Hey, I’ve always heard that shrinks try to get you to blame everything on your parents.  Are you wanting me to become a mom basher?”  I laughed because I was so tickled by her directness but assured her that parent bashing would not be our therapeutic objective.  Relieved, she said, “Good, just checking.”  I really meant what I said—this would not become a “blame the parents” quest.  And yet, it was my clear impression that Patti was exceptionally sensitive about the mom subject, which I decided to drop for the moment.  We spent the next session or two discussing her history and background.

Patti grew up in one of those small towns where the streetlights dim when someone plugs in a hair dryer.  She was the oldest of two children, her brother being two years younger.  Her dad was a local businessman, sort of a big fish in a small pond.  Her mom worked part-time in one of dad’s businesses but had mostly stayed home to raise the kids.  She described her early years as idyllic.  She and her friends rode bikes, played in the fields nearby, waded in the creek that ran through their property, caught fireflies in the summer, and had snowball fights in the winter.

But troubles lurked beneath this façade of All-Americanism.  Dad was an alcoholic, not like Otis Campbell, the humorous town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show.  He was a mean drunk, saying and doing abusive things to his wife and children during his drunken episodes.  No one outside the family ever saw this side of Patti’s dad.  If he was late to work, that was his prerogative as the business-owner.  He served on several local boards and was an elder in their church.  So, there was a huge discrepancy between how he was perceived by the public and who he actually was in private.

Patti’s mom had her own discrepancies.  Sometimes, she was like Betty Crocker, the domestic and cheerful homemaker.  At other times, she was dark and brooding like Betty Davis, the evil movie vixen.  This drove Patti crazy because she never knew which Betty she’d find when she got home which is probably why she spent so much time outside playing with her friends.

And then there was her brother, Phil, who was the proverbial “black sheep” of the family.  He didn’t have discrepancies; he was consistently a jerk.  She didn’t go into a lot of detail about Phil but I got the picture.  He was a problem at home and a problem at school.  He prided himself on his alternative appearance and did all he could to resist the family expectations.  Consequently, much of the family energy was channeled in Phil’s direction.

It was clear all along that two systems governed the household.  There was the “Dad system” that kicked in when Dad was present and the “Mom system” that ruled most of the time because Dad was seldom there.  Patti often found herself navigating the difficult terrain of maintaining allegiance to one without offending the other.  Home, therefore, felt like a minefield where the smallest of missteps could blow off a leg.

As Patti grew older, Mom increasingly confided in her about the struggles she experienced both with Dad and Phil.  An oft-repeated phrase was, “Us girls have to stick together.”  Usually, it was unclear who was parenting whom.  Mom would ask Patti’s advice about how to handle Phil and get mad if her suggestions failed.  She unburdened herself by disclosing her most personal struggles with Patti’s dad, including details about their sex life.  Even then, Patti understood how terribly inappropriate this was but couldn’t figure out how to sidestep the information dump.

While Phil was the black sheep, Patti was the responsible child who seldom caused any trouble, made good grades, and represented the family well in the community.  She graduated in the top 10% of her class and went onto college where she made lots of friends and continued to excel.  During her college years, Mom and Dad separated.  Phil dropped out of school and moved into a ratty rental house with some guys who drank a lot and barely supported themselves with low paying part-time jobs.  The once idyllic picture had morphed into an ugly portrait of gloom and tragedy.  For Patti, being away at college was like a perch on which she could sit to catch a bird’s eye view of the family dysfunction.  She was sad about it and, at the same time, very glad to be away from it.

The last two years of college, Patti met and steadily dated Bill, a good guy.  During their courtship, Patti was struck with an unpleasant realization.  That is, she became conscious of just how much Mom was still “inside her head.”  Mom had a terribly negative view of men, which was understandable given that she was the daughter of an alcoholic, she married an abusive alcoholic, and her son was rapidly becoming a shiftless bum.  Patti discovered that she had unwittingly internalized this negative image through dozens, if not hundreds, of “girl talks,” in which Mom portrayed men as cavemen-like figures whose knuckles dragged the ground.  Consequently, her starting point assumptions about Bill were colored by these deeply imbedded conceptions.  Over time, however, the picture that emerged of Bill simply didn’t line up with the internalized image.  Sure, he had foibles just like anyone else, but he was not the ghastly troll that Mom had coached her to expect.  This made Patti realize the importance of distinguishing between her thoughts and Mom’s thoughts and the necessity of forming her own opinions even if they differed from Mom’s.

When she and Bill graduated, married, and started their new lives together, Patti assumed that she had left behind the negatives of the past.  They were forming a good marriage, had great jobs, and after a while, began a family.  Jason was born three years into the marriage and Megan came along three years later.  Just after Jason was born, Mom and Dad’s separation culminated in a divorce.  Not wanting to remain in that small town, Mom picked up and moved to where Patti and Bill lived “to be close to family and to help with baby sitting.”

Patti was flooded with mixed feelings about Mom’s geographical relocation.  On the one hand, Mom had some wonderful positives and Patti relished the idea of her kids growing up with their grandmother close by.  On the other hand, living in such close proximity to Mom’s negatives left her feeling very apprehensive.

As it turned out, her fears had validity.  Even though Mom lived several miles away, she occupied a place at the very center of their lives with most things revolving around her needs, her preferences, and her schedule.  Patti often referred to her mom as their “third child” because the amount of attention she demanded rivaled that required by her own children.  It was always all about Mom.  Patti spewed like an unplugged fire hydrant when I asked her to give me some examples.  Here are some snippets of what she told me over the next few weeks:

  • “She’s always expecting us to drop what we’re doing and cater to her every need and gets hurt or mad if we don’t.  I feel guilt tripped all the time, like I’m being selfish if I don’t make what’s going on with her the center of my universe.”
  • “In some ways, it’s always been like this.  When she couldn’t figure out what to do with Phil, she came to me for advice—like I would know what to do.  When Dad went into one of his drunken tirades, she relied on me to help her through it.  She’s always leaned on me and she’s leaning now harder than ever.”
  • “Mom has this mysterious, non-specific medical condition which I can’t ever pin down no matter how many times I ask.  I can’t tell you the number of times Bill or I have had to re-arrange our schedules to transport her to the doctor or go pick up a prescription at some inopportune time.  I hate to say this about my own mother but we’ve wondered if she’s even sick at all.  She’s able to go anywhere or do anything when it’s important to her, but at other times, she supposedly can’t make it without our assistance.”
  • “I’m not the biggest fan of Alexander Graham Bell.  I’ve gotten to where I hate to hear the phone ring because I know it’s going to be Mom on the other end, whining and complaining about something that’s gone wrong or someone who’s done her wrong.  You know, that wouldn’t bother me so much if she were open to solutions.  But whenever I offer suggestions that would actually solve one of those problems, she quickly informs me that I can’t possibly understand since everything in my life is so ‘perfect.’  Sometimes, I think she actually enjoys her misery.”
  • “The thing is, I actually like helping people.  I do volunteer work and enjoy assisting people in need.  But the help we provide for Mom is never enough, like it drops into a bottomless pit.  This sounds awful, but I help her because I have to, not because I want to.  We’ve tried politely declining, but she has this way of making us feel like we’re being selfish if we refuse to help.”
  • “Here’s another thing that drives me crazy.  Bill’s always treated Mom with respect.  But I can’t tell you how many times she’s made negative remarks about him—nothing blatantly ugly but always quietly disparaging.  And when we’re all together, she talks only to me, treating him as if he’s invisible.  It offends him but it’s really offensive to me as well.”

I asked Patti to describe the typical way she and Bill end up in the helping role.  She said, “OK, here’s a typical scenario.  Bill, the kids, and I had been out for a while last week and our message light was blinking when we came in.  There were six messages from Mom, each one sounding more frantic than the one before.  She needed this particular prescription from the pharmacy and was panicked about what would happen if she didn’t get it.  Mom drives and the drug store is right down the road from her house.  She could’ve easily gotten it herself.  Yet, if we didn’t drive the thirteen miles to her neighborhood and pick up the prescription, her health would suffer and it would somehow be our fault.  That’s the sort of thing that happens all the time.”

Even though I already knew the answer, I asked if she’d ever tried talking to her mom about the things that bothered her.  She said, “Are you kidding.  Like a gazillion times.  But trying to work things out with her is like slamming my head over and over into a wall.  Nothing makes the slightest difference, no matter what I say or how I say it.”  Hoping to get a better feel for what happens when conflict occurs, I asked her to tell me more about that “slamming my head over and over into a wall” remark.  Here are some things she said:

  • “The more we argue, the worse she gets and the more frustrated I become.  I can’t imagine her ever backing down about anything.  I’d rather lie down in an ant bed than have an argument with her.”
  • “Mom never admits to being wrong about anything, even when she’s clearly in the wrong.  She’s irritatingly oblivious to the faults that others so clearly see.  She never apologizes for anything because, to hear her tell it, she never does anything wrong. ”
  • “Arguments with Mom confuse me and mess with my brain.  On the one hand, I see what she does and know it’s legitimate to feel angry at her.  On the other hand, I usually end up feeling guilty for my anger, figuring that the difficulties we experience are somehow my fault.”

After hearing the abridged version of a very long tale, it seemed evident to me that Patti was experiencing momma drama trauma.  Yes, she was depressed but her depression had resulted from drama participation and her ongoing involvement was continuing to feed it.  I explained that she would probably stay depressed unless Mom moved to New Guinea or unless she could develop ways of avoiding participation in the dramas that were continuously being staged by her mother.

Patti had that look on her face that a person has when a dentist explains root canals.  She told me I had merely confirmed what she’d known all along but she still wasn’t looking forward to it.  In fact, a root canal seemed more appealing than doing what was necessary to alter the mom relationship.  But momma drama was now occupying the center stage of her life while other commitments like marriage and motherhood were being neglected.  She wasn’t looking forward to it but knew it was necessary to change conflict systems–from bad to good.