Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for January 12th, 2012

Re-Posting: Mom’s Birthday

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 12, 2012

Today is my mom’s birthday. It is hard to think about a birthday when the person who was born is no longer with us. Normally, I would wake up and call my mom and I would wish her a happy birthday and for many years she would say “well, it is better than the alternative”. Even though my mom passed away in 2008, I am still thinking about calling her.

My mom was born in 1925. She often told me that she was a depression baby. By that she meant that she grew up in the Great Depression. As we all know, the Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. In most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s. In 1933 the unemployment in the United States rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.  The depression originated in the United States, starting with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, but then spread to almost every country in the world. In today’s terms, we would say “it went global”.

The cause of the Great Depression is not clear, but two economists of the 1920s, Waddill Catchings and William Trufant stated that since the economy produced more than it consumed, there was an unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s, causing the Great Depression. The end of this economic downturn seems more straight forward. Most people think that the Great Depression ended with the advent of World War II. America’s late entry into the war in 1941, when my mom was 16, finally eliminated the last effects from the Great Depression. Unemployment rate went below 10%.

For years, when my mom described herself as a “depression baby” I had no idea what she meant. I knew that she grew up in poverty. I knew that when I went to visit my grandparents, her parents, I slept at night with my hands over my ears so that I would not hear the gunshots in the neighborhood. I understood that her childhood was rough. I also understood that she attributed her challenges to the economic conditions of the country. However, what I did not understand is whether other people, born in her era, saw themselves in the same way.

My dad, born in 1927 into a poor family, had a very different outlook. He saw himself as a very lucky young man. He served in World War II, went to college on the GI Bill, and poof, his life changed. My dad’s focus has been, and continues to this day, to be on how fortunate he was to be able to take advantage of this government program. My father often tells me how college was amongst the best years of his life.

So, as a psychiatrist I wonder how two people, born into similar economic circumstances, grew up to review their early years so differently. Clearly, there are many many factors which determine one’s formative experiences. My question though is why my mom attributed her challenges to the economy. My mom spoke about how poor people suffer in ways that affluent people do not understand. It is not that rich people do not have their challenges, it is only that people in different economic classes cannot really understand each other, even if they think they can.

I remember when I was little and the Pritikin diet had just hit the public’s eye. The diet promoted grains, with some, but not much protein. My mom laughed, saying that when the food is associated with poverty, no one wants any part of it, but now that some fancy doctor is saying it is good for you, everyone wants to eat like poor people.

My mom never wanted any presents for her birthday, but she did want me to call her. She wanted me to remind her that I was happy she was still here. At the same time, even though in her adult years, her economic life was characterized by booms and busts, her birthday seemed to be a painful reminder of her adversities. She understood that her childhood was challenging on many levels. Eventually, I began to understand that when she said she was a “depression baby” she was saying that the challenges of the country were woven together with her personal challenges of her family dynamics. I came to appreciate the wonders of the double meaning of depression: psychological and economic. This is no coincidence.

My mom taught me a lot. Today I appreciate her wisdom. In particular, I embrace her point that people in different economic circumstances do not really understand each other. The longer I live, and the longer I work with people who are suffering, the more I understand that she was right. Happy birthday mom

Posted in Grief, Parenting, Relationships | 6 Comments »

Feeling Important

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 12, 2012

Nile and Shoshi, both fifty, have been married for twenty-five years. Their two children are both in college, so their empty nest is unevenly empty for Shoshi, but less so for Nile. Nile seems to appreciate that Shoshi can focus on him more now that the children have sprung loose. Shoshi, by contrast,  at first felt lonely when her last child went to college a year ago, but over time, she has come to appreciate her freedom. She never saw herself as a caretaker for Nile, so it did not occur to her that Nile would become more emotionally needy when the kids went to college. Shoshi plans the family trips, for the four of them. She recently planned a trip to the Caribbean, and as she booked the plane flights, she signed up for miles for herself and one of her two children. She did not take the extra step to find out the mileage number for her husband and older child. She figured that they could add the miles on the back-end of their trip. As she thought about it, she could see that this might be insensitive, but she was still stunned by Nile’s reaction. “I am tired of feeling like a second class citizen,” Nile tells Shoshi, which Shoshi then relates to me. Shoshi explains that it seems like Nile let loose about years and years of feeling like the children came first. Nile, according to Shoshi, never stood up for himself, but at the same time, he gets mad when he does not feel important. Shoshi feels that Nile does not understand this dynamic, so he is constantly feeling victimized by Shoshi.

  “Did you explain to Nile that he is important to you?” I ask, wondering if Shoshi does not understand her role in their dynamic. “No, I got defensive, of course,” Shoshi laughs at herself. “I can see how Nile got his feelings hurt, but at the same time, I am very busy and I planned the trip, and I did not do one detail, and I feel like it is not fair to get down my throat about that.” Shoshi explains to me her pent up resentment about feeling misunderstood with regards to the work of trip-planning. “Yes, but if Nile needs to feel important, taking the time to do these details might be important symbolism for him that you care about him,” I explain. “Yea, I see that, but I wish he would talk to me that way, rather than being fixated on the miles. Nile does not explain himself very well and he does not know how to create an environment where others treat him like an important person.” Shoshi says, throwing the dirt back on to her husband. “That may be, ” I say, “but the issue for us is that you could understand that he needs to feel like he matters, and taking care of details, is one way for him to feel that way.” I say, bringing the conversation back to Shoshi’s insensitivities and away from Nile’s inarticulateness. “I see that now, but I did not see that last night,” Shoshi says, with a feeling of regret and dismay. “Maybe you should tell Nile how you feel now that you have the benefit of distance from your argument,” I say, stating the obvious. “Maybe,” she says, with characteristic arrogance in that it is hard for her to apologize, especially to Nile, where she seems to need to feel superior. “Think about it,” I say, encouraging her to slowly change the dynamics of their long-standing marriage. “Everyone needs to feel important,” I say, reminding her that Nile’s needs are understandable and sympathetic. “Yes, but I also think it is Nile’s responsibility to assert himself in a way in which he commands respect,” Shoshi says defensively. “That may be, but you can still deal with your side of the equation,” I say. “Of course, that is true,” Shoshi reluctantly agrees.

Posted in Empty Nest, Relationships | 3 Comments »

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