In group. Liz comes in fifteen minutes late.
“Sorry,” she says to everyone. “Traffic.”
Everyone nods, except Nancy.
“So glad you could make it,” Nancy mutters.
“Whoa,” someone says.
We look at Nancy. Nancy notices.
“What?” she says.
“You’re pissed,” someone says.
“No I’m not,” Nancy says, and bursts into tears.
I wait while someone passes her tissues.
“What’s up?” I ask.
She wipes her eyes and shrugs. “I’m all nervous and angry lately. I don’t know why.”
“Two, three days.”
“What happened three days ago?”
“Nothing.” She looks up. “Wait. My inlaws came to town.”
“Bingo,” someone says.
“Your alcoholic inlaws,” I say.
“Bingo bingo,” someone says. There are chuckles.
“What?” Nancy asks again.
“You’re a victim of gravity,” Liz smiles. “As in shit rolls downhill.“
“I don’t understand,” Nancy says.
“Old saying,” I say. “Shit rolls downhill. Boss yells at Dad, Dad yells at Mom, Mom yells at Sister, Sister yells at Brother, Brother kicks the dog.”
“Oh,” Nancy says.
“Nancy, how does your husband get along with his parents?” Liz asks.
“They make him crazy,” Nancy sniffles. “Nervous, frustrated, angry.”
“And how does he act with you?”
“Like I can’t do anything right,” she says glumly.
“And then how are you with the kids?”
“Controlling,” Nancy admits. “If they don’t do exactly what I say I just…lose it.”
She looks at me in surprise. “Shit does roll downhill.”
“Why does that happen?” someone asks me.
“There are several ways to explain it,” I say. “One is simple displacement. Shit rolls downhill because people take their anger out at the next person below them on the food chain.
“Another is boundary confusion. In alcoholic families the boundaries between members get impossibly blurred. We can’t tell where I end and you begin. Feelings leak from one person into another. Your bad day becomes my bad day. Your anger or anxiety become my problem.”
Nancy frowns. “So my husband catches his parents’ emotional problems, like the flu?”
“Maybe,” I say. “But there’s a third explanation. Being around his parents probably triggers old feelings in him, old pain and fear, helplessness and anger.”
“Like PTSD,” someone says.
“Yes,” Nancy says sadly. “I see that. He regresses.”
“So what should Nancy do?” someone asks.
I smile at Nancy. “She can start by apologizing to her kids.”
“Yes,” Nancy says.
“And tell them that she’s been in a bad mood lately, and it’s not their fault, and she’s working hard on getting out of it.”
“Then she should probably try to talk to her husband about how they can support each other for the next — Nancy, how long?”
“They’re staying a week.”
“The next week or so. For example, they could carve out debriefing time every night, and use it to vent to each other about whatever happens that bothers them.”
Nancy nods. “We can do that.”
“Finally, she can promise herself that for the next week she’ll lean on her support system to process whatever comes up for her. Bring it to group. Call you guys when she gets confused or angry or anxious.”
“Call me,” Liz says.
Nancy smiles. “I’m sorry about before.”
Liz shakes her head. “I went through this for years. Whenever his family visited my husband and I would fight like cats and dogs. Finally we got into therapy and learned to manage our temporary insanity — which is just what it felt like — without resorting to divorce or homicide.”
“And your inlaws still visit?”
“Yes,” Liz sighs. “But one thing that helps is a little ritual we created. The day before we see them I tell my husband, ‘I apologize in advance for the next five days,’ or however long Mom and Dad are in town. And he says the same thing to me. And we hug. And the hug is like a promise that we’ll stay connected, no matter how much shit rolls downhill.”