Ben reached out for counselling for the first time in his life when he reached his low and didn’t want to live. Although he had no plan to kill himself, he believed no one would care if he was dead. Ben is 32 years old, divorced about 8 months ago and a co-parent to his 3-year-old son. Ben tells me that he prefers to be alone as so many people in his life; friends, teachers, girlfriends have disappointed him and gave him the impression “I wasn’t worth their time.”
The predisposing factor in his current depression is the recent break up with a women whom he declared his love for. This relationship came on the heels of his divorce. Ben was diagnosed with depression and chronic migraines, and throughout our three months of working together, he never started his antidepressants.
My challenge in working with Ben is that he said “I don’t know” to every question that targeted how he was feeling. He could talk about his job because he was angry and didn’t enjoy the shifts he was getting. He could talk about his ex-wife because he was angry at how she ridiculed him in public. He was avoiding all the hurtful and sad feelings related to the breakup. I wanted to know what supports he had in his life which also led to learning about his family of origin. He is the middle child of three and was raised by his mother until she re-married when he was 8 years old. His father left when he was 3 years old and never kept in contact. Ben grew up dreaming that his dad would show up one day, but sadly he never did. What made matters worse, is that Ben couldn’t find his dad on Facebook, but he did find his dad’s brother and that’s where he learned that his dad has a new family. About 5 years ago, Ben learned through Facebook that his father died. He never reached out to his paternal Uncle and never reached out to his dad. And when I asked why not, he responded with “I don’t know.”
Feeling stuck was the only feeling that Ben would connect to. Ben is dealing with profound abandonment issues that are continually triggered by people whom he perceives do not care about him- so they leave. His fear of rejection is high and in turn he tells me he “will do everything to keep a girlfriend in his life.” When they leave it reinforces that he is not good enough and that he doesn’t deserve to be happy.
How can I help Ben heal from abandonment when he believes his hurt is connected to relationship break ups? I learned that his mother and sister live in the same town, but he thinks they are busy with their lives to wonder how he is doing. Ben feels joy when he is with his son. One thing Ben needed to hear is that he is a good father, that his parenting instincts are spot on, despite him feeling he never got what he needed growing up. Overtime Ben could articulate more feelings when his pain was offset by knowing his son needs him and that Ben “shows up” for him.
Loss and grief are painful and are universally experienced. Ben was wanting to avoid talking or acknowledging the depth of his loss. I offered a grief ritual that he could do down by the river alongside his truck. Play the songs he associates with their relationship, feel the feelings like anger, sadness, loneliness and all the hopes and dreams he put into this relationship. Add in a physical release by throwing rocks into the water, running in the sand, or swimming. I explained how healing past wounds helps one move forward. This was a stretch for him.
We had our video session the following week where Ben reports that he didn’t do the ritual because he didn’t believe it would work for him. But then he added, “I don’t want to let go of these sad feelings because I worry that would make me feel numb. I would rather hold onto all this hurt and pain, because then I know I am alive.” This was also the reason he did not want to take anti-depressants. Once I understood and validated the value sadness and hurt played in his life, it freed him to share more of his feelings with me.
In our last session Ben had quit his job and his mood was noticeably better. He told me how he wanted more time with his son now that he is off work for a while. He spent Father’s Day with his mother and sister’s family and commented they supported his decision to leave his job to take better care of himself.
Ben felt stuck but, in his way, alive. I was also challenged to help him move through the “I don’t know” phase. Coupling positive memories of his son, with pain of rejection and abandonment of his father and past love, helped to shift Ben’s perspective of himself: he is a good father.
Ben is capable of giving and receiving love with his son. Although we had to end our time pre-maturely, Ben was in a better place with his mood. He was more open to receiving comfort from his family. His priority became his son and his mental health and not just fueling his anger.