Maggie's Story - As Told by Dr.Keith Ablow, M.D.
Nothing in the human psyche is more powerful than the desire to be loved. And at no time is that desire stronger than in childhood.
One of my patients, a thirty-seven-year-old single woman named Maggie is a good example. She came to see me after losing her job as an executive at a clothing company barely a year after being hired. She'd never been fired before and said she felt "humiliated." The stress of starting a job search with a black mark on her resume, she said, was keeping her up at night and preventing her from concentrating during the day. Her migraines, which she hadn't had since she was a teenager, were back.
"It would be one thing if I'd hated this woman from Day One," Maggie said of her boss Elizabeth. "But I liked her. I trusted her. And she totally used me." She paused. "I thought I knew people. I was really stupid."
Maggie looked genuinely hurt. "How did she 'use' you?" I asked.
"I left a really, really good job at my last company because she recruited me. She was always telling me at trade shows how talented I was and how she'd love to work with me. Then she made me an offer. I took it. I poured my whole heart into her company. I definitely put in more time than I ever had before--eighty, ninety hours a week, traveling to Europe and China and everywhere else. It was non-stop for thirteen months. And then all of a sudden she's like, 'This isn't working out."
"Did she say why?"
"Ridiculous stuff," Maggie said. "My attitude. Shipping glitches, which I had zero control over." She paused. "From what I hear, this is just Elizabeth's thing. It happened to two other people who had the job before me. One lasted a year, the other one a year-and-a-half. She gets nervous someone will take over or something."
"When did you find out about these other people?" I asked.
"People at the company told me before I signed on," she said. "I just thought it would be different with me."
"She said they acted like landing the job meant they didn't have to be hands-on, anymore--like they could just sit back and delegate. And I pride myself on never asking anyone who works under me to do more than I do. Plus, I had this connection with her. Or I thought I did."
"What sort of connection was that?" I asked.
"She seemed to want to help me get to the next level," Maggie said. "I've never worked directly for a woman before. I've always thought it would be the best situation for me." She sighed. "Dumb."
"Not dumb," I assured her. "You wanted a mentor."
She shrugged. "I've just never felt completely comfortable with the men I've worked for. Maybe it's the glass ceiling thing. Or maybe it's me. I don't know. It's been hard for me to trust men."
"Why is that?"
"Because my dad was an asshole."
That sounded pretty straightforward. "How so?"
"The usual way," she said. "He screwed around on my mother."
"Did they divorce?"
"When I was eleven. But that was after putting my mother through hell for years."
"You knew about your dad's infidelity?" I asked.
"My mother and I don't keep secrets from one another."
"She told you?"
"I knew the minute she did. I remember her screaming at him that he couldn't come to my seventh birthday party because she'd found a girl's number in his pocket." She smiled. "Sandra."
"Why are you smiling?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I just think it's funny I never forgot her name. The others are a blur."
The fact that Maggie had never forgotten the name of her father's first known lover isn't funny at all, of course. "You're not angry about what happened?" I asked.
Her smile disappeared. "At him, nobody else. I hardly speak to him."
That made sense. At that age, Maggie would have been attached to her father in complex ways, including (at least according to Sigmund Freud) unconscious fantasies about becoming the sole focus of her father's affections, in place of her mother. The fact that she had had to acknowledge, at the age of seven, that her father was apparently passionate about a third woman--a stranger--would have made her feel jealous and enraged.
But Maggie's words told me more than that. She seemed intent on my hearing that she was angry "only at" her father. And that didn't make sense to me. It felt like a barrier she was constructing to keep herself--and me--from the truth. After all, two people had hurt Maggie: Her father had done it by being careless and callous enough to disclose his sexual indiscretions. Her mother had done it by sharing highly charged information with Maggie when she was clearly incapable of understanding it. From the moment her mother learned of her father's infidelity, she had apparently used Maggie as a pawn to get back at him, barring him from showing up at her seventh birthday party.
But Maggie couldn't have allowed herself to feel angry at both her parents. That would have made her feel too alone. Knowing that her father could leave for another woman, she would have needed to believe that someone would protect and love her forever. She turned to her mother, even though it didn't sound to me like her mother had earned her confidence.
"You're very close with your mom?" I asked.
"She's my best friend," Maggie said. "We've been through everything together."
It turned out, in fact, that Maggie had signed on with her mother for war after war. There were her father's repeated infidelities. There was her parents' divorce. Then there were the half-dozen or so tumultuous romances her mother suffered through, each of them ending with the discovery that her boyfriend was either married or addicted to drugs or seeing other women.
In turn, Maggie's mom had come to her defense each of the times Maggie chose a man "unworthy" of her trust or affection. And that happened a lot. Even at work her male bosses always seemed to be egotists, predators, or frauds. And her mother was always there, a shoulder to cry on.
I knew that challenging Maggie's belief that her mother was beyond reproach would connect her with early and intense feelings of fear and betrayal. I would be asking her to feel all the pain she would have felt at seven had she admitted to herself that neither her father nor her mother was able to put her first, that she wasn't that well-loved by anyone. To a child, that would have felt like the whole world could fall apart at any time, that her very survival was in question. And part of Maggie was still that child.
I also knew, though, that Maggie had come to therapy after her female employer disappointed her. And she had come to me--a man--for help. That told me she might be ready to abandon the gender stereotypes and family myths that were keeping her from seeing the true nature of her predicament as a child--and moving beyond it.
"Why wasn't your mother more careful to keep what she found out about your father to herself?" I asked Maggie during our next session.
She squinted at me in disbelief. "You're joking, right?"
"Not at all."
She stood up. "This is ridiculous. How can you be taking his side?"
"I'm not," I said. "I'm taking yours."
She started toward the door.
I wanted to make sure Maggie understood that I believed her leaving would be a form of denial. "You can't avoid the truth forever," I said.
She turned back to me. "It was her job to cover for him?" she seethed.
"That's not what I'm saying," I said gently. I motioned toward Maggie's seat, hoping she'd take it again.
She didn't move.
"It was her job to protect your relationship with him, even after he violated theirs," I said.
"There was nothing to protect."
"Maybe not," I allowed. I paused. "Do you remember anything about your dad from when you were, say, five or six?"
"Nothing good," she said.
I nodded, but stayed silent. Several seconds passed.
"What are you getting at?" Maggie asked. "I mean, he took me to the park and stuff. What father doesn't? But when it came to ..."
Plenty of fathers don't. "What sort of park?" I asked.
"A park. I don't know. It wasn't anything special. It had this really high slide and swings and rides, or whatever."
"What did you like to do there?"
That was a simple question, but it opened up memories that Maggie had shut down in order to maintain a version of her life story that was partly fiction: that her father was the enemy and her mother was her only ally.
She rolled her eyes. "I don't know why this matters."
"Tell me, anyhow."
She sighed. "The slide, okay? You went up a ladder that must have had about twenty steps and . . ." She stopped herself. "What does this have to do with . . .?"
I thought of my own daughter, six years old at the time. I could picture her at the top of a slide like the one Maggie had described, half-excited, half-petrified. "Did he tell you you'd be alright sliding down?" I asked Maggie. "Did he wait for you at the bottom?"
She just looked at me. Her eyes filled with tears. She wiped them, then shook her head. "Why are you doing this?"
I pressed forward. "What else did you two do together?"
A tear rolled down Maggie's cheek. "He drove me to school every day."
"Did you like that?"
Another tear. "Stop," Maggie said. She finally sat down.
I did stop, but her tears didn't--for half a minute, maybe more.
During our next meeting I pressed Maggie to remember more of the good times she had had with her father. I also started helping her more realistically evaluate her mother's behavior. "Did you think your mom had bad luck choosing men?" I asked. "Or bad judgment?"
"How was she supposed to know if some guy was a loser?"
"Guy after guy?"
"She's supposed to be a mind-reader?"
"No, just a mother. And that means being careful who she includes in her daughter's life."
Maggie looked me straight in the eye, as if deciding whether she could really trust me. "I guess I would have been more careful if I were her," she said, finally, just above a whisper.
It didn't take more than a few hours for Maggie to make the connection between her mother having selected one damaged man after another and her own habit of doing the same. Not only was she deprived of the love of her father from a young age, she never learned how to include a worthy man in her life.
I remembered Maggie telling me her reasoning for thinking that a female employer would be the right fit for her. I've just never felt really comfortable with the men I've worked for.
Is that any wonder? Having seen her father unmasked as a philanderer and then portrayed as a pure scoundrel, then having witnessed the predictable results of her mother continuing to favor broken, unreliable men, was there any chance that Maggie would come to any conclusion other than that all men were untrustworthy, even her male employers? Why would she have ever looked to one of them for nurturance or mentoring?
I didn't even have to ask Maggie the question most directly related to her having misjudged the character of the woman who hired her away from her prior job, encouraged her to work 90 hours a week, then summarily fired her, apparently for no good reason. Maggie asked that question herself. "You know, I never even considered believing that Elizabeth had fired two other people for no reason. Do you think," she wondered aloud, "that wanting to see my mother as perfect meant I couldn't really see Elizabeth for who she was?"
The key word there was couldn't. Maggie couldn't let herself see the truth about Elizabeth because it was linked to core truths she was denying about her mother. "It feels to me like you wanted very badly to believe a woman would protect and nurture you, because that's what you wanted to believe as a little girl."
The unconscious life story link between Maggie's childhood and adulthood was the reason her being fired had kept her up at night, rekindled her migraines, stolen her concentration, and made her feel humiliated.
Now, as an adult, Maggie could finally afford to see that truth, to feel it and to stop limiting herself by trying to avoid it.
She stopped thinking of her mother as her only friend and beyond reproach and began seeing her as a complex person with both strengths and weaknesses. And while that caused a temporary rift in their relationship, it made it real and laid the foundation for it to grow in even more honest directions in the future.
Maggie's next position was as a vice president at a clothing company with a man at the helm. But unlike every other man she had worked for, she checked his reputation for integrity extensively before signing on. She told him she was looking for more than a job, that she wanted a mentor. She guarded against her predictable tendency (rooted in her childhood experiences) to write him off as duplicitous, insincere, or arrogant. And she found what she would have sworn didn't exist in the world: a man who actually ended up coming through for her.
Her luck in romance eventually changed, too. Knowing that she might unconsciously choose men with character flaws (because they were the kind of men she had watched her mother date) she intentionally slowed down her next few relationships until she could feel more certain she was with someone reliable--or she'd walk away. She actually avoided one man who was very handsome and had led a very exciting life (and had been married twice before) because, as she put it, "I'm mesmerized by trouble--at the beginning. Later on, it's a nightmare." And she met someone who initially bored her, but eventually won her heart by being passionate, yet trustworthy.
The stereotypes of her father and mother that Maggie had clung to like a life raft as a child had become an anchor weighing her down in adulthood. Now, having let go of them, far from drowning, she found herself free.
"I switched over to Dr.Kogan from a different primary care doctor who had diagnosed me with Grave's Disease. I was losing weight and getting palpitations. The only options that were given to me by my former doctor and an endocrinologist were surgery or drinking radioactive iodine to kill off most of my thyroid gland. I was desperate as I felt extremely uncomfortable with both of the above. At that time, someone has recommended Dr.Kogan to me. She is an internist, but has a great deal of experience with alternative treatment of thyroid disease. Dr.Kogan has cured my condition without medications or surgery. I am off my Atenolol which I used to take for palpitations before I had met her. All of my thyroid markers are back to normal. I feel great. Doctor Kogan was the only person who took the time to learn about me and my disease and who has set out to reverse it with a great deal of confidence."
Name Withheld, 55 years old. Female
"When I was 17 years old, one day I found myself unable to breathe on the Subway train. I had terrible chest tightness and was taken to the Emergency Room. All of my tests came out normal. I was told I had a Panic Attack and was asked to see a psychiatrist. I was prescribed a medication which was supposed to prevent further attacks, but I continued to have them almost every day. Eventually, I became very desperate. I could not carry on with my life because of the disabling attacks. I could not even take a subway or go the movies, because closed spaces provoked my attacks. At this point I confided in Dr.Kogan, who was my family doctor, about my illness. She reassured me that she could easily help me, but it would take time commitment on my part. I was ready to do anything. I just could not go on living like that... After two weeks of treatment by Dr.Kogan I could go to the supermarket, and carry on about my daily routine, and by the three weeks, I could ride the Subway again! It's been years since then, but I will always be thankful to her for saving a teenager that I was from a terrible illness."
Name withheld, 21 year old female.
"A friend told me that Dr.Kogan had helped her with her Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I had been an IBS sufferer for years, and have tried all there is to try on the market, including some very sophisticated meds. Nothing was working. So, I went to see her, and was very impressed by how thorough she was. She was confident in my ability to recover completely. My treatment was brief and I have gotten rid of 90% of my symptoms. Dr.Kogan told me that if I wasn't so lazy, I could become 100% disease-free. But I am happy with 90% as I work very long hours. Thanks Dr.Kogan!"
Name withheld. 35 year old Male
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