A Therapist’s Tale


By Brida Smith, LCSW.

Parental abduction has been a subject rarely discussed in psychotherapy literature. Yet, it has been an issue lurking in the shadows for many years. With the greater facility for travel and the ability to easily disappear across continents, the temptation to abduct has been greatly enhanced. Then, too, there is the fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce with many long battles for custody, sometimes making parental abduction look like a seductive solution.

Most of us have seen the pictures of missing children, on milk cartons or on the walls of buildings. Usually, we have gone our separate ways, wondering what could have happened and, perhaps, saying a silent prayer that the young person has found their way to safety. I had little reason to think about what psychotherapy issues might be involved in those pictures. Then, I found myself sitting across from Karen doing an intake interview.

Karen was a vibrant, attractive young woman in her early 20’s. She appeared matter a fact as she related a story she obviously had to tell many times prior to this. She was a little sensitive to what my reaction might be, aware of the amazed reactions her story often engendered. I will admit, too, to feeling a bit overwhelmed. This was a different and truly traumatic story. My first reaction was that this young woman was surprisingly intact to have lived through such a nightmare. Karen told a story of being abducted by her father at 7 years old and taken to another country to live. She didn’t know it then, but she was not to see her mother again for 11 years.

During those years, she was given a changed reality about her mother which slowly and sadly took hold. She was discouraged from asking about and grieving her. Instead, she was given to digest as best she could over the years that her mother rejected her and was not a woman of good character. So began a long saga with her father, a man on the run and not in anybody’s book a model parent having, also, apparently abducted a child from his first marriage.

At the time of my meeting with Karen, she had met with her mother and broken off contact with her father. She had had several episodes of depression and anorexia — classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was no question but that this was a person dealing with intense pain, confusion and a deep distrust of life and living. Nonetheless, this was also a young woman who in some corner of her being was motivated towards wellness and having a life. She had friends, interests and was attending college–despite the fact that she had only irregular past schooling. She quickly started looking for a job to support herself. This was no easy undertaking, since she was still dealing with anorexia, severe anxiety and sleeplessness. In working out a treatment goal, safety would have to be a priority since her feeling of security about her entire living environment was fragile and tenuous. At this time, too, meetings with her mother were difficult, but I felt that developing a relationship with her mother had to be a central goal. She needed to have a sense of belonging, of roots and hopefully eventually a secure loving relationship with her mother. I must have strongly believed in the wise thinking that a parent’s greatest gift to their children is to give them roots and wings. She needed roots. At first and for some time, I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of this task for Karen, for her mother and, indeed, for me.

Karen’s mother lived outside of the U.S. They were able to visit with each other a few times a year and to keep frequent telephone contact. I had met with her mother and was relieved to meet an intelligent, sensitive and lovely woman deeply concerned about her daughter and wanting to understand and to have a relationship with her. However, I had constantly to remind myself that the anticipation, not alone the actual mother daughter meeting was a source of anxiety and worry.

What made these meetings so extraordinarily painful and anxiety provoking? I thought about children who had been adopted and knew that there was often a wish and, at the same time, a reluctance to find their natural parents. When and if a meeting finally materialized, it was undoubtedly fraught with a myriad of mixed emotions and trepidation on both sides. But, at least, if the adopted child has been able to internalize good adoptive parents, there is not a need or expectation for a strong relationship with the natural parent. Again if the child has not had the opportunity for good consistent parenting, the need and the wish lingers on, searching and hoping for some successful resolution. When the abducted child and missing parent finally find each other, perhaps, there is an expectation of instant healing and repair—the ordeal is over at last. Yet, it is but a beginning, a time for bridge building, of somehow trying to fill in a gaping hole made by the loss of crucial years. For the parent time may have almost stood still. Life has to somehow go on. But each day only brings more painful wondering and beseeching of God, of somebody, to send back their child.

Possibly, indeed, the many and costly legal efforts have been in vain. For the abducted child, now a teenager or an adult, they have had to create a new reality, one where this parent is hardly a memory and is, now, a stranger in whom it is difficult to place trust. But, perhaps, even a more crucial issue is that of the child’s developmental stage at the time of the abduction. For my client the old abandonment issue was reignited with it’s opposite fear of engulfment. There was nothing in between. From her perspective at the time, neither one could give her much to look forward to.

When a child has been abducted by a parent, their sense of family security, of trust, is abruptly and devastatingly shattered. Even if the intentions, at first, seemed in the best interests of the child, even this delusion must wear off quickly. The child merely becomes a stolen prize and part of a selfish punitive act giving little thought to the long lasting results for the child. Initially, life for the abductive parent looks better. They got away with their child. But, now what? Must they lie to their own child, distort reality and live a life on the run? Even when they can return to the protection of their family or country, there are untruths to be told, fears of being found out, betrayed by a family member or friend, waiting for the other shoe to drop and the child’s possible rejection of them in the end.

At best, this can only be a life of stress, of fear, loneliness and guilt. It is certainly not the sort of circumstance that makes for good quality parenting. It must, also, lead to an over dependence, a need to tightly control and, indeed, to greatly resenting the burden of this child. The abductive parent must feel doubtful, if not just occasionally regretful, even appalled at what he/she has done to their child, just to get back at an ex-spouse. Of course, there are times when abduction may be the only course of action when the safety of the child is definitely at stake.

For the child, the powerless victim of the drama, no choice is offered, no opportunity given to recognize and deal with feelings of fear, loss, confusion and even terror. “Where is my Mommy?” “I want my teddy.” All useless.
“Your Daddy will take care of you.” Not a totally reliable or soothing solution to this helpless weeping child with an awareness that something has gone terribly awry. But even they can see it’s no use and may even get worse and “it’s best not to get my Daddy more upset.” Thus begins an uneasy connection between anger and the fear of abandonment.

Life continues. Mother gradually becomes a ghost from the past, perhaps a thing of dread in the present but deep inside a gnawing ache. Father is all there is and you had better be good or he may disappear also. Down the road, the light may unexpectedly start to dawn, to unfold, to cast doubt, an intrusion, here and there, of other questions and other answers. Then–What an awakening!! “Was I just a pawn, a possession in this whole scenario? Father can’t be trusted anymore. Can anybody be trusted?”
The world is set adrift from its fragile moorings. They have lost the sense of belonging, of feeling lovable just for being who they are.

Meanwhile, mother’s life takes on a nightmarish quality as she struggles to make some sense of this horrifying reality. It never goes away. It is heart wrenching to see another child, to experience a child’s joy at having conquered a new milestone, to want to guess their age, without aching, longing and havingthat awful nagging—”If only….”.

I remember growing up on a farm where my father raised sheep. In early Spring they gave birth to “new” lambs. The lambs arrived with the snowdrops and daffodils. The absolute joy of these lambs as they merrily hopped with each other in the security of their watchful mothers fairly wafted across the fields to any passerby. Then just to make sure, they gaily ran back every now and again to their respective mothers, suckled awhile and got a reassuring lick from mom. Life was idyllic in those green fields as daisies shot up all around.

Sadly, one day, this wondrous dance of life was changed, changed utterly. Every year, on the first Friday in May, the lambs were taken to the local fair. It felt for me that I had awakened to a world of haunting unease. The air drooped heavily with looming change. Suddenly, there came a symphony of sounds changing in quality and tone to a final dirge. The earth filled with the piteous calls of lambs separated from their mothers, driven from their fields forever. For many days the mothers wandered aimlessly back and forth, desperately calling their young. Now, instead of the utter joy, the pleading drifted across to passersby.

Nobody had a solution and their hopelessness and despair get lost in time. That was life on the farm and the struggle of making a living. Existence in the animal family offered no opportunity for input or disagreement.

Nonetheless this, too, was an abduction and holds similarities to the experience in the human family. The bereft parent is left to pick up the shattered fragments of his/her life and somehow go on. Except, this is not a death, a final ending, but an unresolved, endless grieving. This becomes complicated by having to involve detectives and the legal system, which can involve much expense, energy and time when none of these may be readily available. One day, one year, the question may have to be “when do I admit it is no use and hope that one day, one year, my child will find me.”

It took Karen several months after she found her mother’s telephone number to make the call. She wondered how on earth she would find words to say something to this stranger, her mother, on the other end and more nervous, yet, at what the stranger might say to her.

Finally, came that moment, the meeting with her mother. This moment she remembers as pregnant with anxiety, confusion, longing and fear. With whom was she meeting? How would she address her? What were they to each other?
Karen didn’t want to get bundled up and taken back to her mother’s country and in essence grow up again and do an identity change. Trust and scary expectations persisted as painful question marks with no easy answers.
There were so many unknowns, so many muddy, murky areas, her father’s story, her mother’s story, her own story and who knows what other stories.

Nothing could be accepted at face value. Issues of caring, acceptance, dependency, trust all had to be explored, tested and worked through. Boundaries and mutual expectations had to get aired, withdrawn and bounced back and forth before finding a comfort zone. I think that the level of expected intimacy was the most daunting for Karen, again, the two extremes of either abandonment or being smothered. These would take time to sort out.

In addition, she had a feeling of strong sensitivity to her mother’s loss. How to make up in some way for these lost years? Meanwhile, she was, also, feeling overwhelmed by her own pain, helplessness and knowing that neither of them could go back. It became like an intricate dance with both trying to learn the steps as they shuffled along, halting, moving back and sitting out the next dance before trying again. They had together and separately to restore their relationship and to weave a new tapestry of their own unique design. A tapestry that would give their relationship needed meaning, provide a healing bridge which would safely transport them through those lost years into a hopeful future.

Guiding Karen through this maze of feeling over-reactive, over-responsible, guilty and desperate was a long and uncertain process. All the while, she was struggling with a fairly rigid lifestyle which included college and involvement with various causes of social justice. Her poor eating habits, additionally, distressed her ability to maintain relationships. With time, she was able to trek that slippery path to slowly healing her relationship with food. It took time, indecision, discussion, before she could feel that she had arrived on the other side. Now, perhaps, like most people who have had a serious eating disorder, she worries about relapse somewhere, looming around an unexpected turn or bend.

Along with this phenomenal success and progress for Karen, it took some of the edge off of her meetings with her mother. Now they could share mealtimes. At last, they could enjoy that taken for granted family function of sharing a meal. Her mother could feel that she was becoming a part of her daughter’s life instead of waiting outside hoping for some obscure entry. Another milestone gained.

Although Karen’s life did continue with it’s own roadblocks, she was progressing. I should also add that she did not use prescription medication for health reasons and because of adverse reactions.

Along the road, there were existential issues, feelings of despair, worthlessness, anger, perceived rejections, periods of acute anxiety and problems with sleep. She had a tendency to get intensely involved with causes involving rights and justice. Her college grades were always excellent. She gave 200% to everything. But, who could keep up such a pace without burnout. Consequently, she was often at dangerous stress levels. She needed help to prioritize, to pace herself, to feel less responsible and to feel entitled to care for herself. Just feeling acceptable and loved for herself was not something that would come easily to her.

Karen has a natural gift for being sociable, perhaps, a technique learned as a survival mechanism when she was sent out on city streets to beg for money. She is articulate and can express her viewpoint without offending her audience. Consequently, people listened and she got noticed. As she moved on, she gradually got the courage to talk about herself and her experience as an abducted child. She heightened the awareness of classmates with class presentations.

Possibly, the greatest achievement for this mother and daughter was in being able to stay the course, to review and go through lost developmental stages and to surmount missing mutual experiences hidden all along the route of those bygone years. They could finally establish trust, feel love, acceptance and laugh together. They have moved into the realm of most mother/daughter relationships. There are occasional different points of view. But, most important these can be discussed without fear of blame or rejection. They are getting used to having to delve deep inside and to accept who the other is.

Getting away from an internalized, passive, old familiar role and changing it into an active, take charge, “I can do it” role takes careful watchfulness. Certainly, for Karen, it has become a sort of constant vigilance, diminishing as time goes by, that when she finds herself slipping into automatic victimhood, she must quickly change gears and review the situation.

As mentioned, Karen made friends easily and had supportive friendships. Still, there were painful uncertainties and she often needed to discuss feelings of inadequacy, communication impasses, of feeling offended or having offended. She was super cautious. But much in her favor was her ability to get back on the road again after she had reassessed the problem and re-tooled her life-kit.

Romance, without even an invitation in hand, was moving steadily and surely towards center stage. Karen unexpectedly found herself attracted to a young man. She subsequently waded through a few short, unsuccessful, hurtful relationships. But, they were also helpful in their way in pushing her to sort out what she wanted as a more permanent experience. She continued her search in finding a trusting and deeply loving relationship and was lucky enough to find one. Of course finding the right mate is only part of the journey. For most of us, it takes time to become attuned to each other’s faltering, illusive music and dance. As one can imagine, for Karen, establishing a trusting, caring and intimate relationship would not come easily.

Fortunately, this relationship has not only endured but matured and flourished. This is in no small part due to her ability to remain watchful in tending to weeds before they become a danger to growth. Not to be discounted was her keen antenna and ability to recognize a good man.

Again, while all relationships require careful attention and work, for Karen, this is greatly magnified. Probably, the most important person in her growing up years and her male role model taught her not to trust. He taught her to feel vulnerable that love and security could be given and taken away without a nod or an explanation. It is not difficult to imagine that one might feel extremely wary of placing oneself in a situation where a certain amount of dependency on each other is part of the deal.

Boundary issues and the ever lurking query of abandonment or engulfment are not felt so acutely but linger in the background. Karen has learned to be more gentle with herself, to trust change and see it as a process. She continues to have limited involvement with her father. Their contact is by occasional letters or she has seen him accidentally when visiting a relative. Although their encounter does not cause the acute panic that it did, she remains fearful of allowing him to take an active role in her life. She feels that he remains too intrusive and still potentially destructive, having minimal insight into his having done anything wrong.

Thinking back on our journey together, Karen has made enormous and, at times, unexpected progress. I believe that a number of different people and complex ingredients must get credit for this. To begin with, I think that the most important factor was Karen’s own endowment of amazing motivation. Those early years with her mother were loving, trusting years which were stored carefully in her memory for later availability. Her father remained in total denial that his actions were destructive, yet, on another level, I am sure that he wanted to be a good parent and gave some caring moments. Supportive friends and others in her small family have helped greatly.

Karen has been involved in a “rational emotive behavior therapy” group for the past few years. This has been invaluable in giving her useful tools for dealing effectively with the challenges of living. I suppose that the best description for her therapy with me would be that of a safe harbor. An anchor from which she could venture out, re-negotiate and re-establish important relationships, check out other routes, tell and re-tell her internal story and find self acceptance and joy in her own uniqueness.

At this point, Karen is busily preparing for new and exciting phases in her life. Naturally, there will be other rivers to cross. But, having successfully surmounted some of the giants, others start to appear less high. In the end life is as life is. There is only so much of the future we can plan. For the rest, we hope that we can move smoothly with the flow.

While “Karen” has consented to the publishing of this article, her name and minor details have been changed to protect her anonimity.

Brida Smith is a licensed social worker living in North Carolina in the USA. She can be reached at 828-877-3410.