My mother didn’t appreciate being compared to a ghost.
I was about 21 years old. I had sent a letter to my estranged mother, maybe the first letter I had ever written to her. I didn’t really know what I was trying to accomplish.
I was living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where I was a student at the University of Alabama. I was troubled and unhappy, but I felt confused about the reasons. I had gone to a psychiatrist for help. He said there was nothing wrong with me but suggested a therapist to help me talk things through.
For a couple of months, I had interesting conversations with a therapist. He had me take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which is a common psychological instrument for discovering hidden psychological problems. The results showed that I was perfectly normal.
He eventually told me he enjoyed our sessions, because he said I was a pleasure to talk with each week, but that he had no idea how he could help me. So I gave up on therapy.
In desperation, I wrote a long letter to my mother.
I don’t remember what the letter said. I think I got her mailing address from the Birmingham phone book, which seems strange in this day when we no longer use phone books. I put the letter into the mail and I waited.
I have no idea what I wanted, much less what I expected.
I don’t remember much about what Mother said in her response, which arrived by mail quickly. In my letter, I had told her she seemed like a ghost who couldn’t possibly be real. She was someone who had once been alive, but had long since died.
I understand now that this was my way of saying, “You abandoned me and I’m still hurting,” but without making it a direct accusation. Maybe she understood that by reading between the lines. Maybe that’s why she objected to it. Maybe it seemed too much like an accusation to her.
If you had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have expressed any angst about feeling abandoned. I was another seven or eight years from starting to understand how angry I was with my father, but I thought my feelings about my mother were all under control. I thought she was just someone from my past — someone who had left us when we needed her, but nobody I still had strong emotions about.
It took many years to discover this, but my confused feelings about my mother — the feelings of abandonment and the unconscious lingering desire to win her love back — set the pattern for most of my romantic relationships. At least so far.
I’m thinking about this tonight because of the news from a friend on Friday night that her father had died. He hasn’t been part of her life for many years, and she calls him the first man to abandon her.
I’ve known her for about six years. There was a time when we were close enough that I heard what was going on in her love life. I was always shocked that this beautiful and brilliant young woman always seemed to have her heart set on a man who had loved her but then left her with no real explanation. Even after this person would mistreat her and abandon her, something in her still desperately wanted him back.
I suspected she was locked into her own version of the same awful pattern that has happened in my life. She somehow manages to fall in love with men who will abandon her — just as her father did.
Since my mother is dead — and I hadn’t had any relationship with her for about 20 years before that — I’ll never have a chance to find closure with her. I tried. She tried. It just didn’t work. I think that’s why every time I fall in love now, I seem to fall for someone who will withdraw her love — someone who will leave me feeling just as abandoned and unworthy of love as my mother did.
I’m still trying to resolve this horrible crisis that has been with me since childhood. It’s not that I’m looking for a mother, of course, but rather that I’m looking for someone wonderful who will not disappoint me.
Deep down, I’m unconsciously trying to get an amazing woman to fall in love with me and to say, “Yes, David, you’re really worthy of being loved. You can finally stop being afraid of being abandoned. That’s over now.”
I can’t explain how this works, of course. How would I (or my friend) choose to fall for people who will abandon us? How would we even know? I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling that we see something in another soul that seems emotionally damaged in a way that feels familiar to something we’ve experienced. Something in us senses that this is another test.
It’s someone who will abandon us — or else it’s the person who will finally pass the test and show us we’re worthy of love. And if that person doesn’t choose us, we find ourselves holding on and praying for change, partly because we believe we’ve chosen someone of great worth and partly because we’re unconsciously desperate for this person to finally help us end the old pattern.
I would be happy to fall in love with someone amazing who actually wants me. I haven’t experienced that for a long time. I desperately miss that feeling of being loved and wanted — of being chosen. Of being special to someone. That feeling of someone believing in me.
But for now, I seem locked into an awful pattern of needing to be loved — just as I needed when I was blindly bouncing between therapists in college — but only by the one person in the world who seems to hold the key to changing everything.
I finally understand what I’m doing, but I’m trapped — waiting to make loving contact with someone who has become a ghost. Again.