Looking at your better future

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Dr. Kowalski walked into the hospital cafeteria and found me at our usual table, saying, “I hate it when I go to hug someone really sexy and my face smashes right into the mirror.” It wasn’t his joke but he always had something like this to toss at us other onlookers at the caf on our lunches.

He made me laugh and I felt like there weren’t enough of his type of friendship in my town. He was a peer in my community. He was a professional, a parent, a spouse. I enjoyed working with him and I respected so much about him.

Most of the time, with Dr. Kowalski, we talked about random stuff; hospital politics, his parents in England, God in his life, his kids’ latest antics, and the conversation rolled with content and interest. This day, after his short stent with humor, he skipped the food line, and just sat down to talk, starting in with a doozie.

My son is smoking a lot of marijuana.

Dr. Kowalski described the skeletal points of Frank’s, his son’s, journey with anxiety and then with marijuana. Now nineteen, Frank had anxiety his entire life. Paralyzing anxiety at times, and completely preoccupying at others with worries and inner tension.

Once when Frank was seven, “such a beautiful boy,” Dr. Kowalski told me, how Frank reacted when he was twenty minutes late picking Frank up from school. Most of the kids were gone already and Frank had to wait for Dr. Kowalski in the administration lobby next to the “mean secretary,” quietly in a big chair by himself, until Dr. Kowalski arrived. For three months after this, with his fluffy cheeks and round blue-blue eyes tilted up, Frank asked his dad over and over again, if he was going to pick him up from school that day. Would he pick him up and,

“Would he be on time?”

It was super hard for Dr. Kowalski to witness. Sometimes he would get impatient and snapped at Frank in response. Maybe raised his voice, or just ignored Frank’s questions. Dr. Kowalski felt a lot of guilt about this. He blamed himself in part for the persistence in Frank’s anxiety. If he had been more patient with him, if he hadn’t scared him with his voice, if he had gotten him into treatment… If he had been a better father, would Frank still have anxiety? Would Frank now be using three bowls of marijuana three days a week? Dr. Kowalski states that he would do anything to help Frank get better, and often does. Just about anything he can.

Whether Dr. Kowalski did or did not, Frank believed that anxiety led him to using marijuana.

Dr. Kowalski was the director of the adolescent psychiatry unit at our hospital. He knew that, although marijuana use often decreases the perception of anxiety at the moment, over all, in the way it affected gene expression, it exacerbated their anxiety. The disease exacerbated. So the user felt better at the moment, perhaps, but then the underlying anxiety process became worse and worse. Frank told me,

Using marijuana for anxiety is like a diabetic who takes insulin so he can eat a big cake.

But what could a father do for his son in this scenario? Being right, being correct about something, having knowledge apparently isn’t always how things, like convincing one’s son to stop using, are won. Dr. Kowalski did not know what to do.

Perhaps the guilt, perhaps the love, or for other reasons, Dr. Kowalski had spent the last several years of Frank’s marijuana-using and anxiety ridden life, trying to help Frank get into treatment. Treatment for anxiety.

When treating any biological psychiatric condition, something medical, we have to first look at anything we are doing to harm ourselves. Is there anything that is pushing us in the opposite direction of our efforts? Maybe we are drinking caffeine. That triggers anxiety. Or maybe we are using another substance that triggers, and/or worsens an underlying mental illness. With this in mind, Dr. Kowalski spent much of their discussions trying to engage Frank into preventative measures as part of his treatment recommendations. But what could a father do? Dr. Kowalski was not Frank’s treating psychiatrist. He was Frank’s dad.

Dr. Kowalski told me, with lines seemingly appearing out of no where on his usually bright and happy face, about his frustrations.

The amount of energy I am putting into helping him without results bothers me. And a lot of money to help him get better. I feel it is wasted until he puts in the effort to help himself.

I want to invest in my child! I do! But to help him get better. Not to just spin our wheels. He isn’t working to stop doing the things that actively work against this goal.

Feeling violated to a degree, used, Dr. Kowalski didn’t get it. He was giving his energy, his finances, his time, his emotion. He was giving every time Frank came to him or called in an anxiety crisis. Dr. Kowalski no longer wanted to do the “energy wastage.”

“It’ll be sad if Frank doesn’t get this idea,” Dr. Kowalski said. Frank may never choose to further work on his wellbeing, but the difference is that Dr. Kowalski decided he wouldn’t continue, with Frank, through talking therapies, and talking emotional rescue efforts, pretending they were working on something.

Dr. Kowalski wanted to tell his son,

I’m being taken advantage whether you realize you are taking advantage of me or not.

However, Dr. Kowalski was scared of stopping. He was scared of not staying on the phone for the long long conversations with Frank in crisis. He was scared of not continuing to pay for the talk therapy. He was scared of not continuing to give Frank his monthly living allowance while Frank was in college.

I asked Dr. Kowalski what the difference was between where Dr. Kowalski was now and wherever he thought it would be for him when he wasn’t being “taken advantage of?” If Frank wasn’t going to put in whatever effort Dr. Kowalski thought Frank should be doing to get better, where would that put them? Dr. Kowalski feared that this bond, yes maybe a bond somewhat founded on illness but still a bond between him and his son, would fail.

Their relationship, true, has strengthened, like an Indian trail that is treaded down daily on the forest floor from their repeatedly hashing out the anxiety. If that changed, Dr. Kowalski feared that maybe Frank would not see much reason to call Dr. Kowalski. Maybe what Frank valued in his dad was just that.

Dr. Kowalski told me that he believed there was, in reality, a sustainable bond between them. But Frank? He didn’t know what Frank would believe.

Dr. Kowalski and I rolled this story around in the air between us. After a stretch of disclosing his sincere grief, real fears, and underbelly of sorts, Dr. Kowalski decided, rather than starting with what he would stop giving and doing for Frank, he’d like to ask Frank,

What do you think your life would look like if you didn’t have this anxiety? Who would you be? Who would we be?

Dr. Kowalski said, “I’d love to find out.”

Self-care tip: Start with open-ended questions with yourself and look ahead.

Question: What is keeping you where you are and where would you be if it weren’t?

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