My Mom’s a Therapist, and My Feelings About It Are Complicated

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My mom likes to tell a certain kind of story at the dinner table. These stories usually involve a highly intelligent, traditionally successful person who went crazy in a dramatic way and ended up downtrodden or institutionalized. E.g., “Remember Nadav Steinberg? Mona’s son? Well, two months after he was made editor of The Harvard Crimson, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and now he lives at a halfway house in Somerville.” [Concerned clucking sound.]   

She is drawn to these stories, in part, because she has a dark sensibility. But she’s particularly drawn to these stories because she’s a psychiatrist. Or was, since she retired a few years ago. The stereotype of psychiatrists is that they analyze their kids, or test out the latest therapeutic theories on their offspring. My mother didn’t really do that. But I still had difficulty separating her profession from her role as my mom.

Her depressing stories inspired two main reactions in me as a child. The superficial one was always a socket-straining eye roll along with a “Jesus, Mom! Why are you such a bummer?” The more complicated, deeper reaction was that I subconsciously distanced myself from the subjects of my mother’s stories, and by association, from the patients she saw at her home office. It had a separate entrance off the laundry room, so I rarely ran into them face-to-face. They were just a strange car in the driveway and the whoosh of the white-noise machine she put on in her waiting room. “I’m afraid of the border lions!” I apparently once told her as a 4-year-old, in tears, after overhearing her on the phone discussing a patient with borderline personality disorder with a colleague. As a teenager, I tried to respect their privacy. If I saw someone I knew — which happened once or twice, since we lived in a small town — I’d pretend I hadn’t. I was proud of my mom, but I needed to make space between the people she was seeing 100 feet away and me. They were “crazy.” I was “not crazy.”

Or so I insisted. But it turned out that I was crazy — at least, sort of — and my mother missed all the signs that I was falling into a clinical depression when I was a teenager.

It’s common for doctor-parents to be terrible at diagnosing their children. My mother’s father, a general practitioner, missed her ulcer. My parents — doctors, both — thought my chicken pox were bug bites. Mostly, as a family, we turned my adolescent emotional outbursts into jokes — like the time I wrote “life bites my ass” on a magazine in my mother’s waiting room and one of her patients was concerned it was a cry for help from another patient. But even as we avoided acknowledging that my problems might be clinical, it was clear that something serious was going on.

My mother recently told me about one time when she took me by the shoulders and shook me, because she was so frustrated that she couldn’t snap me out of my anxiety. “I felt it was a real failure,” she said. Yet even at my lowest, it was hard for me to reconcile my own feelings with The Bell Jar–worthy cataclysms I imagined my mom’s patients were experiencing when they called with emergencies during dinner.

It was only once I went to college that I realized my emotional range had veered beyond adolescent moodiness. I was miles away from the patients who had freaked me out, but face-to-face with my own problems. “Crazy” or not, it was decidedly not normal, I now realized, to make the laundry room your dedicated nightly cry space, because the whirring of the washing machine drowned out your tears and allowed you to hide your misery from your very nice roommate.

Fortunately, putting space between us had also allowed my mother to see me more clearly. Back at home, while her daughter melted down, my mom was just that to me: a mom. She felt terrible when she realized what she had missed, and urged me to seek help once it was clear that I needed it. I went to university health services and ultimately got on meds, which I’ve taken on and off since.

Fully accepting my depression was a slow process, though. It’s meant being honest with my mother about how I’m feeling, which has occasionally led to uncomfortable conversations — uncomfortable not because she couldn’t handle my depression, but because she didn’t want to step over a line into acting like my therapist.

When she felt that boundary was being crossed, she’d say, gently, “I think you should ask your therapist.” (Or: “I think you should get a therapist.”) That always hurt just a little — does my own mother think I’m too crazy to talk to her? — but I knew she was right.

In some ways I am the high-achieving, dramatically crashing kid of my mom’s favorite stories, though I was never institutionalized and turned out basically okay. Maybe a lot of those patients were actually okay, too. Now that I have a shrink and a mother and know they’re not the same person, I don’t feel such a need to separate myself from her patients. I can listen to those stories — and relate to them — with some actual empathy. And maybe an occasional eye roll, too. She’s still my mom.