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.”

“Since when?”

“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. 

Nancy nods.

“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.”

Nancy nods.

“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.”


Blame and sickness


Yesterday I published this poster on Facebook:


(6-15-16) Sickness. rotated left


Many people Liked it and left approving comments.  Two comments, though, surprised me.

“Mental illness is a disease,” wrote one person.   “I did not and do not choose to have this disease nor do I choose to live this way.  That post [is] ignorant, cruel, and judgmental.”

Wrote another, “oh I had control over this.  silly me, good to know.  aids patients too right?” 

I know neither of these writers.  But I can guess where they’re coming from. 

Every day I meet people who’ve been blamed for their illness.  That’s probably the main reason so many avoid seeking help from a therapist.  They’re afraid that I, like others in their lives — including people who love them and mean well but don’t know what they’re talking about — will blame them for their anxiety, or depression, or addiction, or their struggles with relationships.

Of course this blaming goes back centuries.  The stigmatizing of mental illness has roots in a dark past when emotional and psychological problems were attributed to possession by evil spirits, and victims were condemned, imprisoned, even tortured. 

All that sounds absurd to us now.  Yet every day I hear echoes of it in session.

The husband who advises his depressed wife to Just get a grip.  The mom of a school-phobic child who answers all my attempts to explain anxiety by repeating But she has to go to school.  The wife of a recovering alcoholic who wishes aloud that he’d resume drinking because He used to be more fun.

There is ignorance here, of course, but also fear.  Mental illness scares us because (a) we don’t understand it and (b) we sense how vulnerable we ourselves are.  So we explain it in ways that oversimplify it (depressed people are just weak) and put maximum distance between this sickness and ourselves (I’ve got a grip).   Or we explain it in ways that imply we can somehow control it.  (Hey, don’t be so serious. Relax, have a drink.)

Actually, most of the causes of mental illness are, at least initially, beyond our control — like losses or abuse or traumas we experience, or how we were parented or taught to handle feelings or relationships.

Personally I believe emotional problems are unavoidable.  I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled with some degree of anxiety or depression, who isn’t addicted to something or other, and whose relationships are entirely problem-free. 

This is true because, even if we’re not abused or traumatized as kids, even if we grow up adequately loved and cared for by reasonably healthy parents, we are still forced to adapt to and live in a culture that does not promote emotional wellness.

It’s a culture that values things over people, money over relationship, comfort over growth, intellect over feeling, image over authenticity, and encourages us constantly to try to control things which neither can be nor should be controlled.*

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti.  And when forced to adjust to society’s sickness, we ourselves sicken.

Which was the whole point of the post. 

So no, we are not to blame. 

And no, we are not helpless.  

In the end there usually is a connection between how healthy we are and how we live, how well we understand and take care of ourselves. 

And that, friend, is an entirely good thing. 

Because it is that which makes recovery possible. 




*The subject of my book Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015).  Available at







%d bloggers like this: