12 minute read

Thinking Like A Business Owner: A philosophy and business plan for survivors of family of origin abuse

I am a therapist in private practice for over twenty years. I am also a survivor of Family of Origin Abuse. IAs I encourage my clients to do when facing a life altering event, I gave my life a deep dive audit. The outcome was a philosophy and a business plan proven beneficial for the survivors of family of origin abuse I’ve worked with in my practice.

Custody of Self

Like my clients who grew up immersed in chaos and fear, I spent much of my life looking for "home". Home was contingent on a parental- like approval from practically whomever I was interacting with, regardless of age or circumstance. These designated others became like casting directors who could deem survivors for the role of “home-worthy”. For many survivors of early child abuse, every situation can be like a new audition with new casting directors to say yay or nay to their level of worth, intellect and presentation.

In my deep dive, I factored in the dynamic of an Identified Patient dealing with abusive relatives, where the IP comes away from the interaction feeling like tangible property. Right then, in mid dive it hit me. What so many survivors were giving away to others was custody of self. Because of the patterned frequency of giving others custody of self, Freud’s Repetition Compulsion fit the aspect of striving for a pseudo “second chance” to correct the damage. But exactly what was repeatedly given away became clear. An image of me struggling to respond to a bitchy comment at a party reminded me of the feelings that preempted handing my custody of self over to a “superior”. Holding this image and challenging my then beliefs helped me recognize that I was my full custodian – on a logical level. I didn’t feel like it often, especially when in either abusive environments or modestly mean situations. The goal was to learn what being a full, consistent self-custodian looked like and felt like by practicing acting -as if- I was my full custodian regardless of approval and no matter how frightening the potential rejection of another person felt. In alignment with Dr. Albert Ellis and his REBT, Custody of Self is a philosophy ideal for use as “D” to dispute negative beliefs within the ABC’s of REBT. The specifics of practicing, eye contact, posture, lower, slower speech pitch, direct language emanated from holding Custody of Self as a POV worth working towards, even in a start comprised of tiny moments. Beyond individuation

that was linked to specific interests and traits, I needed and was entitled to custody of myself and that also meant custody of my small business.

A Business Owner Modality

An adult survivor of child abuse is automatically not only a survivor, but also a business owner. The mission is basic survival and the vision is a life that includes home, hearth, love and purpose. Every successful business needs a president. My clients respond positively to validation from pairing of Custody of Self with conceptualizing their lives as a small business. In alignment with Maslow, the client’s foundation for practical survival- (business) is the starting point for therapy. After the initial intake and the getting acquainted phase of therapy has passed, is the Assembly Line Approach. The assembly line approach begins with creating a timeline. On this timeline, actions that sabotage security and happiness and actions that promote security and happiness are mapped out and linked up with the time, day and circumstances when they occur. Typically, behaviors don’t happen within a vacuum. When a behavior is repeated, there are similarities shared by the various circumstances in which the behavior occurs and predictable thought patterns and beliefs that make up the survivor’s response. By constructing the assembly line and dissecting it within sessions, we incorporate strategic and tactical business development skills as a psychological modality. During this phase of therapy, our emphasis is on the structure of a client’s life in terms of daily schedules, finance, associations and actions/interactions with others. Emotions are tracked showing day, time, circumstances to mark where they fit on the assembly line. Goals are established that include internal goals, such as implementing new beliefs and external goals where the client’s ideal actions are targeted as desired outcomes.

Trauma Work Begins Without Trauma

Sometimes not working on trauma is working on trauma, and sometimes working on trauma when there is no stable baseline level of housing, employment, social support and schedule is retraumatizing. It is understandable for the client and therapist, both eager to get to the core issues of the presenting problem, to delve into the deeper emotional issues and past traumatic events without first determining the level of security in the mechanics of the client’s lifestyle. When skipping over the trivial, daily life challenges, even when effective therapy took place, the client becomes more vulnerable to the difficult situations in the present. The energy delving into the mud and muck of therapy is continuously expended as processing takes place in-between appointments. The day-to-day challenges seem insignificant and even a distraction from the client’s memories and complex life events. The risky result is that the client experiences more events that feel too emotional taxing to participate in from a position of strength. Jung’s quote, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is proven. By validating the merit and meaning of a client’s daily life, the client gets a strong ability to distinguish his life from the “nails” being discussed in therapy. Routine situations are handled. The client gets familiar with mastery over his immediate environment.

Meet David

David’s mother, Terri, was the social butterfly of New Jersey. Always the best dressed, the most up to date about on goings of the neighborhood’s rich and famous, Terri made a name for herself beginning in the fall of 1966 at their anniversary party when she and Ed and moved away from their suburban home to Queens just in time for her to give birth to David. House parties where like a third roommate. Ed’s hours were never ending. He loved being a firefighter. Though not a fan of his wife’s steady stream of friends at the house, he liked being able to get drunk at will with everyone being preoccupied, intoxicated or both. David described his childhood as a hijacking, recounting being dropped off at his cousin’s whenever the party and his dad’s absence were paramount – which was weekly. He remembered many times when he was told to pack preemptively as his home would not be available.

David’s family included the entire fire department of NY state as his father earned a reputation as the best instructor. His oldest uncle was a fire chief. His father provided trainings throughout the northeast region. His mother was credited for writing the most comprehensive training workbook for firefighters. She met David’s father while conducting an interview with him after auditing his classes for a full month. Both of his parents were first generation American, both born and raised in large apartments in Bay Ridge that housed parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, and, both families were plagued my alcoholism. The pattern continued within the couple’s home and watered down the childhoods of their two children. David and his sister, Lilly looked like miniature adults, worn from pulling allnighters listening to their parents party and fight.

David began drinking by sipping the left-over alcohol in the glasses left throughout the house or in the kitchen sink. As a preteen, it was always easy to take shots from any of the collection of bottles left out on display in the dining room China closet. By high school and throughout college, David liked to go to school with a flask in his backpack. Though his evenings and weekends were filled with fights and blackouts, David graduated in the top five percent of his class with a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

David’s alcoholism lead to one final arrest for disorderly conduct that he had to face from a hospital bed. That same week, when his on again off again girlfriend became pregnant, David proposed before making a vow that his baby would never see him drunk and as long as he was a father, he would ever drink again. His baby boy marked the break and final end of the family cycle. His son his now sixteen and David is almost seventeen years sober.

By the time David began therapy with me, he was already aware that he was the Hero Child in terms of his assigned role within his family. David prided himself on thorough research about the roles children play in alcoholic families, and his personality style of self-reliance and resiliency. He told me all this in his first sentence following my “hello”. It was Sunday and I typically did not answer my work phone, but there it was ringing next to my personal cell and for some reason, I felt an internal directive to pick up.

Then David’s voice took on a confidential tone, more like that of a whistle blower revealing secrets to a reporter in a recorder phone call.

“I am so angry right now, it’s burning through my veins. I could spit venom.”

David’s wife, a celebrity chef and restaurateur was photographed in an intimate kiss with one of her investors. With photo in hand and propelled with pure adrenalin, David questioned everyone who had access to his wife’s whereabouts. The affair kept getting closer to David’s own personal life, to the point where the cleaning lady revealed knowledge of his wife having the same man over.

David was asked to leave the house upon confronting his wife. He admitted to throwing a vase from their engagement party, but denied any threats.

“I watched the vase shatter in front of the wall, picked up my gym bag and went into the spare bedroom. Next thing I know my wife is suddenly disheveled with tears and mascara down her face and a cop is telling me to leave.”

David spent that night in a hotel room. He said his entire life felt like a robbery where he was the victim. He became aware of the theft three nights ago when it was raining. His tires were low. His car reeked new car plastic. It was this stupid new loaner toy car he drove that seemed to be only inching towards his house. Amanda was there. Good. He was happy to see his wife. He turned down their street, pulled up into the driveway. Amanda tensed as the unfamiliar car pulled into the driveway past their son’s big wheel and seemed to yell. A man walked out. Out of his house. There, right out of his own front door walked - Him. This guy he saw before. A month before. At the restaurant. Trillo’s was always their go to place when they wanted a calm, quiet atmosphere and Italian food. “Who’s that?” He had asked. And like so many other times asking so many other questions, he got no answer, only Amanda’s blank stare. Why did that preoccupied look of hers always suffice as an answer? Why did he almost always let her off the hook? He wasn’t sure whether he hated her for her dismissive games more than himself for accepting them. What he did know is that he felt at war with his entire life. The lynchpin had been pulled. Nothing could be put back neatly in its delusional bandaid place. By the time the police left, Amanda and her friend drove away and he was to remain in the house that night with their son. This would be his last night in the house and he was to coordinate with Amanda to eventually get his things. They would divorce. It was now in play.

“Tire tracks in the dirt road make the next truck get through faster.” My best go- to metaphor for past abuse paving the way for future abuse.

David started crying. A silent cry, with his face beat red and his hands covering most of it. He took my metaphor without my adding about his marriage being the next truck and his family of origin sounding like the definite first.

“Why does it always come back? Why does it always come down to them?” He leaned in further.

“I don’t want to scare you, but I feel like I could kill. She knew my family life and promised me we’d always be a team.” We were midsession and a pattern of constantly caretaking for others at his own expense emerging. The resulting damage was compounded by the deeper awareness that he was harmed by his family, by the very people he worked so hard to win over.

Soon David saw that regardless of the topic being about the years of cleaning up the totality of his father’s mess from all the black outs all the nights before or about how right from the start of his marriage, he was charged with putting on a performance worthy united front for his wife’s family, his rights were almost always deemed nonexistent. David made the new decision that a life without rights was not livable. The assembly line structured the process of teasing out the specifics of exactly what transpired within his relationships. Moments where his rights were annihilated in past events were now blinking lights of neon transparency.

We looked at the nonverbal, unwritten contracts that he participated in, the reasons behind his choices, and the toll taken. Session time was spent delving into the toll taken and looking at the rewards/consequences lead to the final step of David’s declaration of “no more”. The rewards of connection were not worth the consequences of abuse. He was creating new standards that would be binding and nonnegotiable.

Written By: Pamela Garber, LMHC Pamela's background includes over 20 years private practice, providing counseling to individuals, couples and families dealing with depression, anxiety, family and work-related issues. Additionally, she provides debriefing and crisis management to organizations after on-site violence, including assault and theft. She works with management and employees to resolve other work based disruptions. Ms. Garber has experience working in industrial film production and created an awardwinning behavior modification curriculum – “Playing the Tape” which has been used in residential and outpatient treatment programs. Pamela has been published in Counseling and Human Interest magazines.