In a recent Sunday Times article, Aunt Sally responds to a problem from a girl whom I will refer to as Susie. Susie is concerned about her ability to make lasting friendships and fears that she will be lonely forever. At the outset, she states that she is 20 years of age. She doubts her ability to empathise with people and she says that she ends up destroying relationships. She states that her friendships never last and that her friends end up needing her more than she needs them. She says that she is “chronically lonely” and not close to anyone. She says that she has never had a proper relationship with a man although she has had plenty of one-night stands and has put herself in “dangerous situations”. She continues by saying that she has slept with people whom she knows have been in relationships and she has no remorse for the hurt that she has caused. She says that she finds social situations difficult and that she relies on alcohol just like her mother has done for years. She states emphatically that her mother was not or is not an alcoholic, however drinking makes her “very cruel”. She says about her mother “it’s accepted in my family that the only way to deal with her is to drink with her or run away and I have been doing both with varying degrees of success all my life”. She says that something is not quite right with her and that the prospect of being this lonely forever kills her. The “full” abbreviated text can be accessed here.
Sally in her response has stated that Susie does have empathy. She refers to her obvious unhappiness and the fact that her behaviour reflects her self-loathing. Sally refers to her casual sexual encounters as her attempt to make connection with others. In the same way, she refers to her drinking as a cry for help and a way of camouflaging self- loathing. Both casual sex and excessive drinking are a way of evading true intimacy. Sally also refers to addiction and that fact that her mother’s drinking resembles that of an alcoholic. In the same vein, she urges Susie to reflect on the fact that she too needs to think about the possibility that she may be an addict. In the end, she urges her to join self-help groups and to seek counselling.
There are two very striking things here about Susie’s letter. These are Susie’s awareness of her own personal discomfort at such a young age and her denial of her mother’s drinking. Her awareness is significant, as it will stand her in good stead in her attempts to change.
I agree with a lot of what Sally says, however, I note that she refers to Susie’s symptoms with no mention of the possible causes. This is significant because understanding the cause will help Susie make long-term change while at the same time it will assist her in understanding the intergenerational effect of her actions. Here is what I would like to say to Susie.
Susie reiterates in various ways her loneliness and her inability to stay connected in meaningful relationships. This is nowhere more poignant than in the relationship with her mother. She states the only way to have “a relationship” with her “is to drink with her or to run away and I have been doing that with varying degrees of success all my life”. This compromised relationship for Susie lacks personal validation, safety, trust and continuity or emotional intimacy. It is causing her to feel “chronically lonely” and to put herself in “dangerous situations” as she confuses sexual intimacy with emotional intimacy. It is this same “empty” sense that is causing her to “self medicate”, as Sally calls it, with alcohol.
According to Attachment theory, adult relationships are reciprocal. They involve giving and taking. Susie is so unsure of herself in relationships that she makes no demands of others. As a result, her relationships end up fizzling out and going nowhere. This explains why she inadvertently ends up “destroying relationships”.
Susie needs to focus on her denial of her mother’s drinking. She emphatically states about her mother, “she’s not and never has been an alcoholic”. However, this drinking makes her mother “very cruel”. It would appear that Susie has rationalised her mother’s drinking. This is a form of denial. Susie herself has relied heavily on alcohol for years and realises that her and “her mother’s drinking patterns are similar”. Susie needs to look at the intergenerational effect drinking is having on her life.
I note that there is no mention of Susie’s father. I am left wondering if he is absent from the family home? Or if he is present, was he complicit in the denial of her mother’s drinking. That is to say, was he living in the home but appeared absent through his behaviour. All the above issues will need to be unravelled in a safe place for Susie to piece together her history and for her to be able to move forward with her life.