A trendy looking young man called Benjy came to my office. He was in his early 20s and was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. He was confused about these feelings as things were seemingly going well in his life; he had lots of friends, a girlfriend he was close to and a job which he loved. He was at the start of his journey into adult life and was looking forward to the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, he could not shake off these feelings of anxiety, even though logically, he could appreciate that his life was fine.
Even if all is going well, losing a parent will be a moment that will have shaped you in some way or other. So when Benjy told me that he had been estranged from his father since the age of 6, we spent some time trying to empathise and recall what his 6-year-old self might have felt, and how they would have understood the unravelling of their world.
Benjy recalled that his mother was an extremely anxious woman and that every time, he and his brother would return from seeing their father, she would be crying. She did not say anything bad about their father at the time, but would be sullen and moody. Benjy recalled finding this situation extremely stressful. Recalling his mother’s distress brought him to tears all these years later.
The stress of the visits became too much for these boys, and eventually they did not want to see their father. It was nothing that he had done, it was just that they did not want to have the stress of facing their depressed mother upon their return.
Initially, their father would insist that the boys come with him, as agreed by the courts. This led to further distress and tantrums at the start of the contact, and then throughout the visit, they would have the feelings of anxiety as they anticipated their mother’s sadness.
One day, when their father came to collect them, he saw his boys crying and left. This was not the last time Benjy saw his father though; he recalled seeing him standing outside the school fence watching him playing football. Benjy recalled his father staring at him and not making any attempt to engage with him. He simply stood still and looked on. Benjy recalled feeling scared by this, as he wondered why his father was there. Was he going to try and take him away?
When Benjy had his episodes of anxiety and panic, he realised that this was the memory that would come up, and he recognised that this anxiety was the same feeling as the feeling which he had felt as he wondered why his father was standing outside the playground.
Revisiting these memories enabled Benjy to realise that his father would come and watch him because he was so desperate to see his sons. Giving them up had been an act of love and sacrifice, as he did not want to distress them further.
Even though Benjy now had a deeper understanding about his father’s love for him, he did not yet feel able to contact his father. Firstly, his mother would often say, “I don’t know what I would do if you ever contacted your father again” and secondly, the thought of getting in touch with his father raised high levels of anxiety associated with past memories of not wanting to see his father.
Benjy also realised that the occasional attempts his father made to contact them, were bringing up the same thoughts and feelings as when he was 6, “What will I do if my Dad wants to see me?”, “What will he do”, “Will he try to take me away?”, “Will he stare at me?”……
Therapy did not just help Benjy to understand his father’s love and actions, but also to realise that he was no longer a helpless child who had no control in the relationship. He was a man who had the power to decide the terms of the relationship that were acceptable to him.
Through therapy, Benjy understood that is was not appropriate for his mother to have said: “I don’t know what I would do if you ever saw your father”. It was her duty to support the father-son relationship, and to have sufficient strength to tolerate it, even if she did not want it.
So Benjy and I responded to the last of his father’s emails, from several months back. It was a short email saying,
Thanks for getting in touch. I am not sure what to write or what relationship we can have but I am curious about meeting again.
The very next day, the father replied with a long email in which it was clear that he had followed both his sons’ lives through social media and the internet. He spoke of how happy he was to hear from them, and that their grandmother had cried hearing how Benjy had finally got in touch.
Never once did his father mention his sadness at having lost those years of involvement with his son. Not a bad word or sentiment towards their mother was expressed. He did not want them to feel any guilt or divided loyalties. His focus was on trying to make his sons content, just as it always had been and no matter what this cost him.
It was a privilege for me to have a very small part to play, but it was thanks to Benjy’s father’s dedication, and his sons’ courage that they now have a relationship, and that the sons have a whole new family once more.
It will take time for the relationship to strengthen and become comfortable, but there is an abundance of patience and a will for this to happen.
I hope to bring you more stories of hope from my work.
All identifiable details have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people involved.
Dr Isabelle Hung is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and clinical psychologist. Having got through her own divorce just three years ago, she is now remarried and happy to report that divorce really is an opportunity for growth and positive change.