Many people visiting a psychiatrist are suffering from Dependent Personality Disorder — a terrifying fear of being abandoned — yet researchers do not know what causes it and there is no cure. You will not be surprised to learn, then, that although I saw a number of counselors and therapists for my dependency issues, they were unable to help me. Eventually I cured myself, and I hope that my story will help the professionals to rethink their approach.
The reason I developed this condition is clear to me in hindsight. My mother was controlling and manipulative. She had set ideas on everything and tried to squash me into a mould of her own making. But it wasn’t enough to do what she said — I had to agree with it as well. I turned down my dream job as an editorial assistant on the first free newspaper set up in South London when I left school because my mother told me I should get a secure job with a pension at the end of it.
If I didn’t agree with my mother, she told me that there was something “psychologically wrong” with me, like the time I invited her to see my new house. I explained that it wasn’t perfect — the garden was too small — but one day I hoped to have my dream house. “There’s something wrong with you,” she told me. “You’re never satisfied. You should stick with what you’ve got.”
My father was rigid and inflexible. He only spoke to give orders and expected to be obeyed. He locked and bolted the door at 10pm every night and I had to be in the house by then, even when I was an adult and out at work. I wasn’t even allowed to stay overnight at a friend’s place.
I grew up believing that any pain I felt at my parents’ treatment was my fault, that I had a fatal flaw in my character and my parents were trying hard to ‘put me right’. In order to cope with this, I became two people — the inner one or the ‘real me’ and the outer one, the one that did what I was told. I would watch myself doing what my parents told me to do, saying what they wanted me to say, as if I were an actor on a stage, playing a part. Unlike an actor, though, there was no time when I could shake off the part and revert to being me. That inner self stayed hidden at all times, too scared to come out.
I first went to a therapist at the age of nineteen. My mother arranged it, having told the therapist that my problems were caused by my father. Her argument was very plausible. My father had suffered a nervous breakdown when I was 11 and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic (that was a long time ago and I don’t think that would be the diagnosis now). He was very rigid, insisted on being obeyed, spoke little and liked to be alone, so it was easy to believe that my problems were caused by him. My mother backed up her arguments with stories of my father’s childhood: how his father had died in World War I, a few months after he was born so he never knew him; how his mother had frequently left him in the care of his sisters while she went dancing, and how they bossed him about. This was, I suppose, compelling evidence for why all the problems were down to my father, and the therapist apparently never questioned it.
I went along with it, relating tales of how he locked the door at 10pm and other things that made me unhappy. I knew that was what my mother wanted and it seemed to fit in with what the therapist wanted too.
The truth — that although my father made me unhappy and no doubt contributed to my problems, it was my mother’s treatment of me that prevented me from growing up as a healthy individual — never came out.
The therapist knew that my mother volunteered at the church soup kitchen, befriending alcoholics and the homeless, but I never told him that she was unable to make friends and could only connect with people with mental health problems, people she could help. I did not speak of how my mother was unable to deal with problems. If I told her of something that upset me, she brushed it away, even going as far as refusing to let me have the dental treatment I needed as a child because I was upset at the thought of wearing a brace.
My mother no doubt told the therapist of my difficulties playing with the other girls at school and making friends. She did not tell him that I had a poor role model as she was unable to make friends herself and never invited other mothers to bring their children round to play. She probably didn’t mention that my older sister didn’t want to play with me because she hated me since I was born, or that my eldest sister wanted nothing to do with her “baby sister.” My mother was fond of telling me that there was something wrong with me and would not have wanted to talk about her own part in my problems.
I did not tell the therapist how my mother refused to let me have a middle name when I noticed everyone at school had one and how it made me feel that I didn’t count. I didn’t say that I felt suffocated by my mother. It was as if she wanted something from me, she was draining my energy. I had to give her attention when she wanted it, but not if she didn’t, like the time she insisted that I sit on her lap and listen to “Listen With Mother” on the radio when I didn’t want to, and then when it finished and I wanted to continue playing with my mother, she said she had to get on with her jobs. Affection was given out in little parcels, at times that suited her.
I did not say that I had never heard my mother say anything positive about my father, how she put him down, complaining that there was something wrong with him. I said nothing about this, so there was nobody to explain that she taught me to dismiss him as unimportant, to scorn his ways and, most important of all, to fear men.
I never told the therapist that when I returned from the sessions, I saw my mother watching me, hoping for change between us. She thought that when I was fixed, I would be a model daughter; I would hug her and tell her what a marvelous mother she was. What I really wanted therapy to do was to make her embrace the difference between us, listen to me, respect my views and encourage me to make my own decisions, but this was never mentioned. Instead, I went along with the idea that everything was my father’s fault. Not surprisingly, therapy did not help me at all.
Doing what I was told became an ingrained pattern which continued as an adult. It was the only way I knew how to survive. My only hope was that one day someone would discover what was wrong with me and fix it. I saw other therapists from time to time but never mentioned the root of my problems.
It wasn’t until my mother died that I was finally able to speak about the harm she had done me as a child. To have done so when she was alive would have brought more scorn and put-downs my way. I started looking for a cure. I needed to find a way to separate ‘me’ from the ‘other me’, the one that I showed the outside world. Therapists had always been on the wrong track, so I had to look for an alternative.
The first thing I realised was that I was born perfect; that is to say, I was born with all the skills and characteristics I needed for the life I wanted. I had all the tools I needed. I had no need to change, to struggle, to become someone else, to go on courses to learn how to be a better partner or how to succeed at life. This is a very different idea from CBT, the only help offered to people suffering from DPD, where people are taught to “manage their symptoms.”
I realised a second truth: nothing was my fault. I was not a bad person. My problems were caused by the way I was treated as a child. Life was not going wrong because I had made foolish choices. I had behaved the only way possible after the childhood trauma that I suffered.
I developed the idea of the “distortion layer.” I realised that there was a part of me that was pure and untainted. Therapists saw my unhappy childhood experiences as part of me, part of who I was, but I did not see it that way. I imagined the experiences circling around outside of ‘the real me’ like moons around a planet, standing between me and the outside world.
I had no sense of who I was so I joined a spiritual development group who taught me to accept my past. I also studied astrology, which revealed my character to me.
It took a lot of work, but eventually I removed the distortion layer, which came away with all the negative influences intact, like hairs on a strip of wax, leaving me pure and ready to walk into the life that I wanted.
How therapists can help:
Do not take what clients say at face value. They are telling you what they think you want to hear.
Don’t make any suggestions for actions the clients might take. The therapist I saw at nineteen suggested I write to a man who had invited me on a date and then I’d heard nothing further from. He even told me what to write. I wasn’t keen on doing it, but went along with it — this just increased my opinion that I was not capable of making decisions for myself, or knowing the best way to deal with a situation.
Give clients choices, making sure you do not appear to be supporting one of them above the others. Clients need to learn how to make their own decisions, and cannot do so while you direct their treatment. Learning to manage their symptoms does nothing to help with their dependency issues as they are just doing what you have told them. They need to get away from that.
Do not bring your personal prejudices to the sessions. Many people scorn astrology and other “New Age” issues, but this might be just what your client needs. Do not make the decision for them that they should not get involved in such things.
Encourage the belief that we are all born perfect; that clients have all the qualities they need to lead the life they want. It will help with countering the belief that others know better. In time, it will end your clients’ reliance on other people.
Encourage the belief that none of your clients’ failures in life are their fault, but a response to negative experiences and the body’s attempt to defend against more trauma.
Once I learned to be myself, I felt powerful. After having spent so long doing what others told me to do, I was free. It was a wonderful feeling.
I have written more about my traumatic childhood, its effect on my adult life and my cure on my website. I hope that others can find the freedom from dependency that I found, and that therapists can learn to help rather than standing in the way.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.