My clients frequently present with complaints of symptoms related to depression or anxiety—often referred to in mental health circles as the “common colds” of mental illness. More often than not, I come to find out that the client’s negative mood originated—and is now being sustained—in some toxic relational environment. Perhaps damage was inflicted from a past relational trauma or from being raised in a dysfunctional family. Or the client has current relationships in which most of the conflicts go frustratingly unresolved. Or maybe the client is in close contact with a crazy-maker and the constant drama and manipulation has left the client feeling exhausted and just a little bit “crazy.” When relational stress increases, the immune system’s effectiveness decreases. So the phrase, “You make me sick,” can be literally true!
Years ago, I worked with a client who was a Vietnam Vet—a real man’s man sort of guy. He came in complaining of anxiety symptoms but when we stepped back and looked at the context in which his anxiety developed, we discovered a momma drama. Of course she never stated this out loud, but here’s how Mom saw the relationship with her “boy”: My job in this relationship is to be in charge; your job in this relationship is to do what I demand; any questions? As long as my client submitted to his mom’s control, they got along fine. But there was always a price to pay for his failure to submit. And part of the price he paid was an elevated level of anxiety. “When I come home at the end of the day,” he told me once, “the phone rings and I know it’s Mom calling. I just want to dive under a table.” Being around Mom was like being on patrol in Viet Nam—an anxiety-producing situation, indeed. I never saw his mom but asked him to describe her. “She’s not quite 5 feet tall,” he answered. This diminutive woman had the power to turn this rugged ex-Marine into a puddle of goo.
It wasn’t easy, but my client became less anxious when he developed some ways to avoid his mom’s excessive controlling demands. He limited the time he spent with her and let some of those calls go to voice mail. When she would give unsolicited advice, he would thank her politely for her input . . . and then do whatever he wanted to do. Participation in the control drama had made him sick but his physical well-being improved when he became a drama non-participant.