We sat side by side on the small, overstuffed loveseat. There were no windows in her office, and the lighting came from table lamps instead of the harsh fluorescents overhead. Bookshelves lined the wall opposite us, her desk against another, and her worn armchair was pulled close to the loveseat. Donna’s demeanor was comforting and accepting, and her obvious love for Samuel helped bring a measure of peace to my ragged soul.
I’d anticipated hard therapy sessions, and had welcomed them. Healing of any kind rarely happens without some level of pain, and I was desperate to feel the pain in the moment if it would bring about wholeness and restoration for our future. She has a way of asking questions that dig deep yet still honors the person and their experiences.
We’d only had a handful of sessions before this one — several phone conversations and a dozen or so emails — yet she understood our family dynamic and I finally felt seen. Residential treatment for my son’s chronic mental health issues had already been beneficial. She leaned back into a comfortable position in her chair and asked gently and pointedly if I knew how my frustration had come through to Samuel as resentment.
I felt him shift slightly in his seat, and the familiar lump formed in my throat. I nodded slightly as tears pooled in my eyes. I had used that ugly word before in safe places; with friends who love me and love my Samuel, and I’d felt them leave my lips in a release coated with both shame and relief. I had never heard another mother say those words about her child; yet I couldn’t deny the painfully reality that resentment had grown in me.
Before I nodded, my mind flashed briefly with the thought of denying it; meaning to protect his heart from more hurt and rejection. What mother wants her child to know she has resented him?! But I was there to face the truth of the state of our relationship, not to hide under idealized daydreams of what I’d hoped would be.
I wanted to qualify the term — to let him know it wasn’t him as a person I resented. I wanted to stand up and face him to make my case that the resentment was against the illness, the ‘disorder’, the life we’d been given with his father that had wounded all of us. I was frantic on the inside to reassure him that the poisonous resentment wasn’t aimed at his heart, or personality, or humanity.
But I was silenced. In that brief moment of panic, I also knew that to qualify my emotions would diminish his. To beg him to try and understand my reasoning for the hurt he’d felt leaking from my own brokenness would invalidate his experience. I let the painful silence hover. I sat under the weight of my own failure and pain, terrified to look at him and see hurt shadow his beautiful eyes. Shame worked its slimy tentacles into my headspace and the broken mother in me longed to give it power, sensing the acceptance of shame might somehow atone for the ugliness of the hurt I’d laid on the broad shoulders of my teenage son.
He didn’t speak. I held my breath waiting for anger, or withdrawal; preparing him to say with bitterness “I knew it.” But no words came. His body relaxed. The moment was enormous and vast and awful and simple and unassuming and anticlimactic all at once.
He’d already known. He’d felt it through the years when frustration consumed me, and I’d lashed out at him with anger and disdain. He’d known. He’d felt it when my body would turn away from his as he told me excitedly about his newest obsession and I’d cringe with fear that another unattained object of desire would unleash his violent meltdowns.
As I sat next to him in silence, the few moments felt like an eternity. I’d sensed his physical rigidity soften as I’d nodded in shame, and my overactive intuition told me he was grateful for the admission. My willingness to own the awful, unwanted feeling had given him back some dignity. Confidence. Reassurance that he hadn’t imagined things.
So, I sat; hands clasped tightly in my lap, and facing forward while I waited. I willed my tears to stop to respect him in the moment. A few tears managed to slide down my flushed cheeks, but I didn’t dare move to brush them away and break the energy in the room. I wouldn’t allow myself to hijack his chance to absorb the work we’d done in our session by giving way to the desperate sobs that threatened to break from my chest.
I stared at the bookcase, watching titles of books about mental illness swirl together into a colorful puddle of mocking self-help. I heard him inhale deeply, and he stretched his legs in front of him preparing to stand up for the end of our session. Still, I sat. Filled with crashing emotions and thoughts; anger at the illness that had done so much damage to our relationship, anger at myself for not being stronger and more understanding, grief over the reality of driving home without him yet again, and desperate to pull him to me and dissolve every hurt he’d ever had with the thud of my heart against his chest.
But our session was over. It was time for him to head back to the unit, and me to drive home. I turned to him, and he hugged me.
“I love you, Mom.”
The familiar voice and sentence reminded me that hurting relationships don’t mean dead relationships, and I knew he knew I loved him back.
“I love you too, buddy,” I whispered into his neck before pulling back to smooth my clothes, wipe my face and follow the therapist out of the maze of long sterile halls and heavy locked doors.
As we walked in silence, I understood that the damage from my resentment had already been done. In that moment, the best gift I could offer him was admitting I’d hurt him; and in that admission, in that dredging up of shameful feelings and brokenness revealed, I could feel it. We were starting to move towards freedom.