Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Two years ago, at the age of 44, my mother experienced congestive heart failure and was told she had to have a heart transplant. She was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, waiting for a donor, so my family and I were all on alert: Once a heart becomes available, doctors have to transfer it to the right hospital, prep the recipient for surgery, and complete the procedure, all within a very tight time frame.

On multiple occasions, I asked my family (my grandmother, two aunts, and a cousin) to call me immediately when they found out that my mom would be going into surgery so that I could see her before she went under. I asked them specifically to call me, as I have all their numbers on a list in my phone, where their calls can come through and wake me up anytime. I explained that texts would be silent and wouldn’t wake me up.

I woke up to my alarm for work around 7:30 a.m. One of my aunts had texted me around 4 a.m., saying that my mom had found a donor. She had texted again at 6:30 a.m., saying that my mom was going into surgery. Obviously, I was horrified. I got to the hospital as quickly as I could and found them all in her room. They made little acknowledgment that I was there, except for showing me photos of all of them with my mom before she went into surgery.

Later, a friend came to meet me for a cup of coffee about a block away from the hospital. Again, I told my family to call if there was any news while I was out, and I would come right back. Instead, I received a text from my other aunt saying the doctor was coming to speak with us. I texted back immediately, asking where they were and whether she could call me so I could listen in, but received no response. I ended up frantically running around the hospital looking for them, panicking, until a receptionist helped me find them. I blew up later in the day about these incidents, but was brushed off because it was a “hard day.”

I haven’t been able to forgive my family for forgetting about me, nor let go of my anger and anxiety. My therapist thinks I should confront my aunts, and I agree, but it always seems to be a bad time (neither aunt has the most stable of minds or situations), and I don’t know how to approach them rationally about something I’m so upset by without breaking down. I just want to be heard and apologized to, but I don’t know how to make that happen. I’m afraid my relationships with my aunts will never recover.

Anonymous
Philadelphia, Pa.


Dear Anonymous,

First, I’m glad that your mom seems to have made it safely through her surgery. That must have been an extremely stressful time for you—not only the day of the surgery, but also the weeks of waiting for a heart to become available. Now, though, two years have passed, and it’s from this distance that you might consider these events differently.

I don’t in any way want to minimize the anxiety, anger, and hurt you’ve experienced, but I think you could help these feelings become less intense by revisiting what happened. Right now your version of events is that your family “forgot” about you on the day of your mom’s surgery, and that by confronting them and being heard, you’ll feel better. Except that you can’t confront them, because it’s always a “bad time,” and you don’t know how.

That’s one heck of a dilemma. It’s also a version of the story that leaves you feeling helpless. So let’s attempt an edit.

I don’t know what your relationship was like with your family before your mom’s health crisis, but it may be that your interpretation of what happened was influenced by feelings that already existed. Perhaps you’d already felt left out or unseen or unheard by them. I understand why you’d be furious if they’d actually forgotten about you, but they didn’t: They let you know everything that was going on as soon as they learned of it. True, they didn’t follow your instructions to call rather than text, but there are other possible explanations for their actions, chief among them that they were terrified of losing their sister and so the details didn’t register. I’m not saying that they didn’t deliberately snub you—just that it’s equally possible that they were overwhelmed with their own anxiety and weren’t able to handle your request responsibly.

It might also help to consider that sometimes when we feel slighted, we tell a story in a way that supports our position. A person might say, “You’re always late; you don’t care about me,” or “You pulled away from me in bed; you’re not attracted to me anymore” when it’s also possible that the partner struggles with time management or is exhausted or having a bad day. And there’s often a double standard involved: When I’m having a bad day, it’s not personal to you. But when you’re having a bad day, it means you’re rejecting me. We hold on to our narrative as if it’s the only narrative—the “true” story—and that leaves us feeling hurt. If I feel that you rejected me, then clearly you’ve rejected me. Or in your case: If I feel forgotten, then clearly I’ve been forgotten. But as the psychologist Jerome Bruner put it, “To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance.” Could there be something about your relationship with your aunts—ways in which you’ve felt hurt by them in the past—that makes you want to claim the moral high ground, with no gray area whatsoever?

Similarly, in your draft of the story, the only acceptable resolution is that you’d be “heard and apologized to” by your aunts. This is the scene where they’re supposed to agree that you’re right and they were wrong, and that they’ve done a terrible thing; then they’d say they’re sorry. But to be heard is not the same as to be agreed with, and to get an apology is not the same as receiving a genuine expression of remorse. In another version of the story, your aunts might hear where you’re coming from, you might hear where they’re coming from, and you’d all see that you can have very different experiences of the same situation and both can be valid. Of course, there are many other possible story lines, including one in which you decide that there’s a great likelihood that they won’t be able to hear you, and you choose to delete this scene entirely and write a more satisfying one instead.

Here’s how that might go. First, you revise your role so that you become a protagonist who takes ownership of her choices and feels empowered to make different ones in the future. For instance, you say that your aunts aren’t the most stable of people; why, then, would you entrust something so important to them? As the adult daughter of the patient, could you have instructed the hospital (or your mom, if she was able) to notify you first when the heart became available? And if you knew that your mom preferred to notify your aunts first, could you have left your text volume on for a week or two—again, given what you knew about your aunts’ not having “the most stable of minds”? Likewise, after the 4 a.m. mishap, could you have anticipated that your aunts might again text rather than call when the surgery ended? And if you wanted to guarantee that you’d be available then, could you have stayed for the four or so hours of the surgery and had your friend bring coffee to you, or left the hospital during the first or second hour, and made sure to be on-site beginning at the third? Sometimes without being aware of it, we engineer a story to make the other person the bad guy. I’m mad at you for not calling me at 4 a.m., so instead of looking at what I could have done differently, I’m going to prove you don’t care about me by asking you to do the very thing you probably won’t do, and then I’ll be justified in my anger and can blame you even more.

Meanwhile, the star of this story—your mom—seems largely absent from the plot. Ultimately, this isn’t really about you and your aunts—it’s about you and your mom. You may want to revisit what was going on between the two of you when all of this happened. Were you worried that you’d lose her? Was your relationship close, or was it fraught or conflicted? Has she been able to understand your feelings around this crisis? Has she ever shared hers? Is there something the two of you need to resolve? Your mom has a new heart, which means you two have the gift of more time. The day she got it, you were there. And she is still here, and now it’s up to you to create the kind of relationship you want to have with her, regardless of what your aunts do. Part of this will involve tweaking your story. I hope you write a beautiful next chapter.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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