As a psychiatrist I am always interested in how my adolescent and teen patients say goodbye to their parents after being admitted into our residential programs. Subsequent to their arrival, we will schedule a speakerphone conversation with their parent(s). Some kids readily say I love you as they say their goodbyes. Others do not. The same with parents. After we hang up the phone, I ask my patient what it was like to either hear “I love you” or not to hear it as well as to say it or not. Some families just don’t say it, especially in reserved New England, but I have to assume that on some deep level, of course we know a parent loves a child, and vice versa. Most of my patients know this, even if it is not said at home. And parents as well, on some level “know”. But there can still be doubt when the words themselves are not forthcoming. And if the absence is too long, then when the words are spoken they be so foreign as to breed suspicion and mistrust before any acceptance.
Recently a patient told his parents he hated them. They were shocked and astonished, retreating into an abyss of true sadness and loss. My patient was truly astonished at their reaction, but could find no way out to repair the wound he had seen in his parents eyes, the lilt of their voice, the shift of their body as they communicated clearly how hurt they were at his words.
It reminded me of a time when my son Jason, had been six years old. He had been unjustly sent to bed, snared in a mis-communication between his mother and myself. (See how easily innocent people can be hurt by a miscommunication between others!) He was furious, rageful. His play time had been summarily and unceremoniously curtailed. The envy he felt about the power over him was captured in the protests of a six year old body.
The next morning I apologized to Jason at breakfast. He had every right to be angry, because his mom and I had made a mistake. We had not understood each other and he had been caught in the middle and sent to bed. We made it up to him by letting him choose a night when he could get that time back and have a later bedtime.
That night as we always did, Jason and I snuggled before bed. “You were really mad at me last night,” I said. “You still mad at me?”
My six year old boy, nestled in my arms, looked up at the ceiling. “Dad,” he said, “I’ve stopped hating you, but I never stopped loving you.”
Without as much detail I shared this idea with my patient who had told his parents he hated them. With astonishment he recognized that we can feel more than one thing for a person at a time. That it is normal to sometimes get so angry you feel a temporary hatred and disgust. But that beneath it all, another feeling may be masked but not erased.
The next day at lunch, my patient told me had had spoken with his Mom. He had talked with her about his anger, his hatred, but that beneath it all he had never stopped loving her. He hadn’t really realized it, but it was true. And now that he remembered and had unmasked that love, he felt enormous remorse that he had hurt her so. He told me his mother had cried.