Everybody's tiptoeing around my dad

He had an operation and nearly died, and now he's become a tyrant.

Published June 27, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My father, who is in his late 50s, underwent surgery a year and a half ago. It should have been a routine operation, but the surgeon screwed up. To cut a long story short, he nearly died and spent many months recovering. It was a really difficult time for him and for my mother. Recently, he has suffered some minor but very annoying ailments.

The problem is that he seems to have become addicted to his own unhappiness. I don't mean to underestimate the awfulness of what he has gone through. He was very traumatized physically and psychologically. Since "the operation" we've all been tiptoeing around him for fear of saying something that will make him feel worse. He does not seem interested in discussing anything but his own health, which is very much improved. He is histrionic every time he catches a cold. I feel that we are not helping him with the psychological element of the recovery, but his whole family seems to be locked into a cycle of behavior that focuses on keeping him calm.

I feel that he may be somewhat clinically depressed but it would be more than my life is worth to suggest such a thing. He is putting enormous stress on my mother, who is the same age. He has been found weeping but is cross if anyone tries to comfort him. If someone else is under the weather he responds by recounting tales of how he has often had much worse colds/headaches/indigestion. He ignores his grandchildren, accepts gifts and care without thanks, and seems to be able to do nothing but complain about anything and everything. It is getting more and more difficult to be supportive.

How can we move beyond this situation to a more productive family environment?

Worried About Dad

Dear Worried,

You say that the whole family seems to be locked into a cycle of behavior. I have a feeling that this situation did not just spring into being recently. Since your dad is in his late 50s, whatever patterns the family is locked into must have begun quite some time ago. I am not sure exactly how you can move beyond this situation. But I would suggest that you begin learning about family dynamics and family systems, in order to understand for yourself what forces are at work.

Here is a very good overview of family systems thinking, courtesy of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. A quick look at some of the ways family systems behave may give you some insight into what your father is doing and why other family members are reacting the way they are.

Since you indicate that raising the issue of clinical depression with your father would cause an angry outburst from him, perhaps the best thing to do would be to speak to his doctors about your suspicions. They may have some helpful suggestions. But mainly I think you will make the most progress if you learn a little about how your family is functioning as a system to accommodate your father's behavior. And of course I would pay special attention to your own role in the family, since you are the one who seems to feel the problem most acutely.

In this regard, you might consider getting some professional help for yourself. A licensed marriage and family counselor might help you reframe the situation in a way that opens new choices for you. As it is, without understanding how the system is working, there is little you can do to change it or to better adapt to it.

And ditto with your dad. If he is not willing to consider the fact that he may need some help, there is little he can do to change his situation.

Luckily, to me this looks like a manageable problem for you, if you are only willing to seek a little help with it.

Best of luck.

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