A Gang of Seven

 Pointing the Way

 Premises

 Two Movements

 Three Sacraments

 Facets of Vital Engagement

 Vital Engagement:
            Life Blood of Trust

 Steps Towards Trust

 Missed Steps

 Unseen Options  

 Justice in Relationships

 

Douglas W. Schoeninger, PhD
Psychotherapist

Biography                     Touchstones             Defining Moments              Publications

Defining Moments

Context

My father and I were in our family dining room on a weekend in the middle of the day. The moment seemed safe enough. We were talking. He had recently recovered from a 4 year bout with clinical depression wherein he had been hospitalized, had received shock treatments and was disabled from work for months at a time. My mother worked hard to protect him from stress, and tended to react to my verbal exchanges with my father by instructing me in how to minimize his distress. I could not reach her with my side. I felt alone, isolated. I am the second child of four, the oldest male, preceded by an older sister and followed by a younger brother and sister.

Defining moment

I was about 7 or 8 years old and I remember standing in the dining room next to the kitchen doorway talking to my father. I don't remember the content of what I was saying but I was expressing an opinion to him and he became terribly offended and reacted to me as if I were challenging him. I remember that I spoke back to him in my seven or eight year old forceful way, reasserting my point of view and he reacted to me as if I had ripped his soul. Our engagement disappeared and he began accusing me of trying to kill him, of trying to undo him. He used the words "kill him." I was terrified. “What had I done?” I was shocked that anything I had to say could traumatize him. I knew that he meant that I was tearing him down psychologically, that I was tearing his person apart. He felt threatened with annihilation. I knew he didn't mean physically killing him. As a seven-year-old, how did I know that this is what he meant -- in that moment. And this is where memory is tricky. What did I realize at that moment and what has come to me over time? But this is one of these moments that stays with me and keeps informing me and I am still living it. What I remember was the awareness that something I could say might trigger a huge trauma in him. I was aware that something I said could have that much of a powerful effect. To me words had just been words. To him my words became a dagger in his heart. The other thing I realized was that the effect, in a way, had nothing to do with me. It came from some wounded place in his life that I knew nothing about. I knew it didn't have to do with me, even though I felt deeply hurt and abandoned in the moment and felt like I'd lost him. He was no longer present in the moment. He now had an impression of what I was doing to him which was so far from accurate. He enacted such a brutal assumption about my action. This huge consequence cost me dearly. The realization that speaking to him could suddenly throw him into another world that had nothing to do with me clung to me. That he could feel my words so intensely, made me hyperaware of what words can do, what they can trigger and how absolutely trapped and caught someone could be -- more than just someone; it was my Dad. His wounds could take over. Of course, to lesser degrees, this happens every day all the time in almost every moment. Commonly, minor events or expressions trigger old wounds and people struggle with their reactions that are over-determined by the wounds in their lives. We all struggle with such reactions, often perceive them, feel them a little bit, sort of parcel them out, try to get back to the moment and listen to the person. He was totally incapable of doing this in that moment. He wouldn't even remember it. It was sort of like an alcoholic rage. He wouldn't remember what happened.