No room for daddy

No room for daddy

Taking care of your needs helps you be a better caregiver

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/09/2012

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Dear Patti,
When I was 9, my mother became ill and died. My father was so devastated he started drinking and went to work in Alaska, leaving me to be raised by my wonderful grandparents. No matter what I needed, they always came through for me. Although he occasionally sent money, my father never came back until four years ago, when I was 33. Having waited so long for a reunion, I was elated and finally felt complete.
 
In the last six months, my time has been consumed by my taking care of my grandparents, both of whom are in failing health. It’s hard on me but also extremely satisfying because of all the support they gave me. My father resents that my grandparents’ current needs don’t allow me to visit him. He lives nine hours away, can’t travel, has serious health issues and insists we have lots of catching up to do, since we missed out on so many years together. He frequently makes sarcastic remarks about my grandparents and implies that they’re just taking advantage of all the money and time I spend on them. I wish he’d understand that my grandparents dedicated their lives to me and that they’re my priority, as much as I’d love to have a close relationship with him.
 
I’m so stressed and spread thin these days that every time I talk to him on the phone, I feel shaky, sweaty, dizzy, have heart palpitations and feel like I’m going to die. My doctor sent me to a psychiatrist, who put me on medication and referred me to a counselor I’ll start seeing next week. What can I do to get rid of the panic attacks? Sometimes, I wish I could run away from all three of them.
— Maria

Dear Maria,
I’m very happy to hear that you’re starting counseling. Panic attacks are a type of anxiety disorder and often appear when one has suppressed strong, painful, conflicting and unacceptable feelings. Some therapists refer to anxiety as the “blanket feeling” or “doorbell feeling,” which means the therapist and patient must pull back the blanket or answer the doorbell in order to see what feelings of fear are there.
 
Counseling sessions will be an opportunity for you to explore your feelings about your father. These could very well include anger — maybe even rage — at his abandoning you. You might also be harboring deep resentment over his expectations that you’ll now be there for him, even though he wasn’t there for you. I further suspect you might feel grief over the years you missed out on, sadness that he isn’t well and anxiety that you could lose him again — a fear that may be triggering unfinished feelings about losing your mother to illness. Perhaps the little girl in you wants her daddy no matter what and is terrified he might get angry and leave again.
 
Discuss with the counselor your feelings about your grandparents’ health conditions. It’s hard to face the pain and grief of eventually losing these two dear people who have unconditionally been there for you throughout your life. Yet as difficult as it is to face —and as illogical and unjust as it sounds — you may be experiencing some resentment at the exhaustion that results from your having to take care of them. 
 
Such feelings aren’t always fair or don’t make sense — and you certainly don’t have to share any of these feelings with them — but it’s essential that you face these underlying feelings yourself in order to reduce your anxiety. Running away isn’t the answer, but you can take care of yourself by taking incremental breaks to recharge your batteries. That’s not being selfish; taking care of yourself is ensuring you’ll have strength to give back. 
 
When one has abandonment issues, it’s sometimes difficult to keep healthy boundaries. Maybe there are times when you don’t want to pick up the phone when your father calls. That’s OK; put him off until the next day and put yourself first. As for your grandparents, remember to pat yourself on the back now and again. You’re very lucky to have had them all these years, and they are extremely lucky to have you as well. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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