I blew open a door of a secure box in my psyche today though I had seen the door frame glowing all week. Inside, I found something big; something which has growled and rattled at me many times before but this time I KNEW it was a foundation rock of my health issues and the way true-lasting wellness has eluded all me all my life. Here it was…and I am (literally) still shaking with it but I’m going to write straight from the fire of it, straight from the molten lava of this rock before it can return to its cold hardness again. That way, I hope to keep the doorway open and let the light in to soften it.
That thing has ABANDONMENT written all over it and I have feared this thing – and newly own up to that — all my life. It started in earliest childhood when I was the unexpected pregnancy of a 40 year old mother and a father in recovery from a serious heart attack that (I only learned recently) meant his wages had been slashed due to the need to downgrade his responsibilities at work. With three other, much older, children to feed my parents must have been sick with worry and doubt when they learned she was pregnant again; a sentiment that I know I internalised. I know it because it came up in hypnotherapy sessions long before I knew the full story of my birth circumstances from my older sister and I know it from the inexplicable feeling of high anxiety I carried around in my heart from as early as I can remember. Most of all, perhaps, I know it because it makes sense of a feeling of never quite “fitting in” in my family; of being an incumbrance and something that took up space or used up resources. They could no longer all fit in the same car, family holidays and treats all went “because” of me (I clarified all this with my sister on her recent visit though I knew bits and pieces of it from long ago). My younger brother felt particularly wounded at my arrival and spent years taking that out on me. I can almost hear the collecting “boo”-ing that took place on my arrival.
In our tiny overcrowded house, I was put into the same room with my sister who was left to get up and “see to me” in the night and who was sent out to take me for long walks in my pram, urged “don’t come back too soon” (she was only twelve!), who took me to the clinic for weighing, changed my nappies and read me stories. When I cried or was in the way, I was left in my pram in the dark garage on the side of our house which, I recall from playing in there in later years, reeked of leaded petrol fumes; in fact I was semi-addicted to the smell all my childhood as it brought me some sort of association comfort. But at the time — and this is my very first memory of life – I was left to scream it out in the pitch dark of a corrugated metal, fumey building with an arrow-slot sized window into the back of our larder through which I could faintly hear the interactions of the rest of my family. Cry as I might, the whole point was I had been put in there so that I wasn’t disturbing anyone else with my noise; after all, three older siblings had homework to do, my parents were rushed off their feet and there was no room to have my cot in the middle of the floor when they all had other things to get on with. As for me…I just felt abandoned.
As you can gather, my mother wasn’t a touchy-feely parent, I remember feeling awkward even perching on the arm of her chair as a child. We became more affectionate later…but that was much later, when she became far mellower after the other children left. We weren’t trained to be demonstrative; such gestures were shrugged away. I remember being offered a “clipped ear” for misbehaving but don’t remember tenderness or kisses. My sister, and you can’t blame her, must have felt resentful of the living bundle she had been handed right at the start of her grammar school career. She wanted to be doing her school work or out with friends, not taking care of me day and night. These signals or reluctance and inconvenience are what I must have taken in; along with all the anxiety around money, the sub-plots around “too many mouths to feed” and not fitting in. I’d just arrived in my life but was I really wanted here? Long before I delved into any of these circumstances, I felt I knew the answer in my heart: no, I wasn’t. This is what I carried with me through years of feeling rejected by friendship groups, in work scenarios, in all the social settings and activities where I immediately feel like the odd one out or the one no body really wanted there. I went out into adult life assuming that I was a reject and would be lucky if anyone gave me the time of day.
When my mother died, which was when I was 28, it near floored me and took such a long time for me to get over. Which, you may think, is odd given the start I had but, then, we had become so close in her final eight years (after my father died). Before then, but especially afterwards, I gave away my dependency to whoever was closest to me at the time and the fear of losing that one person would consume me and still can. This quote from Susan Andersen*, nails what abandonment can feel like to me, even many years after the initial trigger event:
Being left by someone you love has the power to bring the strongest and most independent among us to our knees. No matter how stable, self-reliant, and mature we are, we can collapse into symbiotic regression where we believe we can’t live without the person. We feel overwhelmed by separation anxiety and demoralized by a complete loss of emotional control. We succumb to primal rage and fear. The panic, severe depression, and other excessive emotions cause us to doubt our own strength. Depending on circumstances, losing a job, a friend, a goal, the love of a child or mate can have similar impact.
Abandonment – real or imagined – in childhood, especially very early in life, is considered one of the most serious triggers of deeply ingrained illness and even post traumatic stress, I newly read this morning. How did I not know this, though I have noted many times how my symptoms match those of PTSD. But that’s all about war-zones, being a veteran, seeing many killings, too much destruction and death, isn’t it? Apparently no, not always; and those with it embedded play out some terribly self-destructive themes, many of which are deeply familiar to me. Abandonment.net lists the 36 classic traits of abandonment PTSD (see list below) and there is hardly an item that I can’t tick as “mine” or having experienced in myself over the years. All those reactions, the traits, the repeat behaviours…they are like the patchwork of my lifetime’s worst experiences and I find the very themes that have triggered the high-adrenalin and sheer nervous exhaustion of my health collapse, over and over again.
Like many with this theme of abandonment fear deeply embedded in their cells, I played out its traits at school and then in my relationships, landing first on someone who was emotionally unavailable so that abandonment could be played out repeatedly for years. For the twelve years of that relationship, most weekends were spent in an emotional hangover from the drink-induced “night before” when an abandonment scenario would almost certainly have been provoked and played out like clockwork for the umpteenth time. It was all I was ever destined to get from that relationship and yet I seemed unable to leave it; that is, until it became a matter of survival, not just for me but for my daughter. I was so afraid of provoking the final chapter of my abandonment nightmare that I put up with horrors rather than risk that conclusion becoming reality, so many years passed during which I lived in a perpetually heightened state of high anxiety and hypervigilence, dreading worst case scenarios which, to a very large proportion, lived up to my dire expectations, perpetuating the pattern of fear because I was proven right, over and over again. Abandonment came to another potent head when, having finally plucked up the courage to tell him about the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of somone he knew, he was angry at me for telling him something he didn’t want to hear (which was far from the only time he failed to stand by me in a crisis). The most harmful thing was that my fear of inevitable rejection was played out, not once (which would have been for the best where this relationship was concerned), but over and over and over and over until I had several lifetime’s worth of evidence that I was only ever worth abandoning and would never be able to consider myself on solid ground with anyone. I stopped believing it was even possible and so my morale disappeared even before my thirtieth birthday, which is when my health started to decline so rapidly I could hardly keep up. I had proved myself right and my inner child…that baby left to cry in the dark, the one no body had any room for, who they wished wasn’t there…was now, apparently, the outer expert when it came to deciphering my surroundings; just as I took on the role of motherhood myself.
Becoming a mother was cathartic for me in more ways than one. As I approach the eighteenth anniversary of that and my own child safely handed-over to adulthood (I held and cuddled her to the opposite degree to how things played out for me…), I look back and see how I was just the babe taking care of the babe for many, if not most, of those years. Sometimes, it has felt like she takes better care of me than I of her though, in some respects, its felt like teamwork. This is a poignant time for me as I look back to where I was eighteen years ago, awaiting her birth.
Going through pregnancy in an abandonment scenario is one of the worst things I could wish upon any woman. Though the pregnancy was planned and I was deeply into one of those deluded phases where I had convinced myself that my relationship was no worse than anyone else’s, our ups-and-downs “normal” and that he was as committed to parenthood as I was, it wasn’t long before the mist started to clear. Within three months, I suspected he had “played along” with this pregnancy for a quiet life and to deliver some sort of “expected” role when it came to his professional persona as the good family man. By six months in, I had been banned from talking about this very obvious topic, which he found utterly wearisome, and was being routinely called “ugly” or “stupid” over the physical symptoms of pregnancy.
The night my daughter was born, he was nowhere to be found, though he had only left the hospital an hour earlier, having dropped me there to “go home and await the call”. When he finally turned up, he reeked of alcohol and barely stayed to watch the arrival before going home to sleep it off. I knew by daybreak that she and I were well-and-truly “alone”. That day, he bought himself a sports-car, his new toy in lieu of me having “mine” and then complained about having to put baby paraphernalia into it when he took me and my baby home (I could probably count on one pair of hands the number of times the baby seat was ever strapped in there again). Suddenly, he was “working late” nearly all the time and, though I had no car and was pretty stitched up after the birth, I was left to walk to the shops for supplies, to walk the dog, to do everything including have his meal on the table at whatever time he came home. One squeak out of the child and he would roar and rage in the night so I took to sleeping with her and that continued for the next two years. I was sleep deprived, exhausted, depressed, frightened, unsupported, alone and, yes, abandoned. Of course, my marriage failed and I began a new life but not before I went through the same abandonment scenario on perpetual rerun for a full year in another relationship that kept me, for good reason, hypervigilent and neurotic for the same twelve months I was attempting to rebuilding my life from scratch. By the end of that phase, I was a basket-case…so, any wonder my health issues became chronic within a year of that, which is when it began to feel a lot like PTSD (like I had run through that same loop of circumstance one too many times). But nothing ever rocked my boat as much as giving birth to my daughter and feeling, simultaneously abandoned, exposed and loveless in the terrifying new territory of parenthood. My daughter’s birthday has triggered a small volcano of abandonment emotion each and every year for the last 18 years, like the lava an unexpressed ROAR of abandonment pain from those times. Any wonder I find this time of year pretty cathartic.
So here I am in that time of year again and, true to form, the themes are all there like familiar guests at the birthday party. Though my mind makes perfect sense of all these circumstances now, there is a level where they still lurk unresolved…and that level is at the deep cellular part of my body that still holds the hot lava of a primal pain that is as raw as it ever was. This week, I’ve felt triggered on a whole range of topics but, when I allow myself to take the overview, I see how abandonment is at the core of them all. When we have this word written through us like it is branded on our heart, we hold the potential to interpret things that are otherwise unthreatening according to this abandonment potential. I see how that has played out in my reaction to how personally I took something someone said to me last week, to the degree I have clamped shut like a clam and changed my mind utterly about attending something I was previously looking forward to (social self-sabotage is a classic trait of abandonment issues and can play out as devastating levels of isolation, as I am beginning to own-up to in my own case). In another example, like falling into the “emotional timewarp” described by Susan Andersen, I see how it has brought up a massive over-reaction in my personal life that made me feel like I was right back into the very heart of this old wound all over again (this morning’s volcano); though there is really no current evidence of that at all; this is all my own spectre come back to haunt me.
I know that yet it doesn’t take away the sting of having it rise up in me afresh. Nor does it take away the feeling of high-adrenalin coursing through my veins, of chemicals to do with fear being released into my blood, of my mouth having tasted sour for days, of that constant jittery feeling making my body tremor and shake, of a sick feeling in my heart, contraction in my stomach, a feeling of impending doom that is just so tangible it’s as though something dreadful is happening though it’s really not and of my health crashing more thoroughly and devastatingly than it has for a very long time. I can witness all this, note how it is unnecessary and an over-reaction and yet, like the runaway train, I don’t seem able to stop it. Yes, I’ve certainly slowed it down with my mindfulness and positive thinking, my deep breathing, my staying “in the moment”, my determination not to give into irrational, angry or destructive behaviour (as I used to give way to completely in the past…) and by speaking my truth exactly as it is, vulnerable as that sounds; even here, in this public space. But I know it’s still in there…and likely to be in there, perhaps all the days of my life…and that it is when it gets the better of me that my health fares the worst.
So what to do? Where do I go from here? Though I’m at the very tip of the iceberg of owning this concept and reading into it (and there seems to be quite a lot of information out there in the internet; I’ve found Susan Anderson’s writing on the topic particularly helpful) I know that it’s in the “doing of the work” around it that my release from this lies. I can keep myself in proportion (when I’m most prone to my abandonment fears, I can feel traumatised when a friend fails to reply to my email and other such day-to-day trivia). I can keep myself steady through good diet; which should not be underestimated as a key to avoiding the most damaging effects of a PTSD response to an emotional theme such as abandonment (as the horrific years when I self-medicated through sugar and alcohol, both of which massively exacerbated the problem, stand testament to). To quote Anthony William posting on this very topic this morning
On a physiological level, PTSD causes a chemical imbalance in the brain that occurs when someone experiences trauma. Glucose is a protective biochemical that provides a veil of protection for sensitive brain and neurological tissue. If there isn’t enough glucose stored in the brain to feed the central nervous system and to protect the brain from the corrosive effects of adrenaline and cortisol released during stress, emotional upheaval can create lasting effects. If someone’s glucose storage is low, she or he could get PTSD just from a flat tire, while someone with sufficient glucose storage could witness an armed robbery and tell the story to a friend over dinner that same day, unruffled. (Anthony William, The Medical Medium, on Facebook today).
I can see how I have kept the worst of this trait in remarkable check for several years now, being in a stable and loving relationship where I can speak absolute truth, even this kind of raw truth, and be met where I am (though even we played out unconscious abandonment scenarios together in the early years of our courtship) so it is the exception rather than the rule for me to have these emotions come up again. As I’ve said, it happens, especially, around the anniversary of my daughter’s birth which stands out like a red beacon on that abandonment theme given how vulnerable I was already feeling as a new parent, following a fairly traumatic labour and then confronted with the realisation that my marriage had all-but disintegrated. Identifying these “red beacon” events on the abandonment theme can, I suspect, be like finding a key to healing the issue because (as I am exploring today) it allows us to go deep into the wound and see what we can see. Being prepared to see it for what it is, and own it for something that is not “our fault”; rather, acknowledging that it is probably an insecurity embedded in us at a time of life when we had little or no say in our circumstances, is a big part of that healing process. When we can go inside to meet that little lost child and be for them what others weren’t able to be, we start to do the repair work that carries us forwards feeling supported by the one who will never ever abandon us since it is us.
*Ref: Description of abandonment PTSD from Susan Anderson on Abanadonment.net
36 Characteristics of post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment (from abandonment.net)
This list is meant to be descriptive, rather than exhaustive of the many issues related to the abandonment syndrome.
1 An intense fear of abandonment that interferes in forming primary relationships in adulthood.
2 Intrusive insecurity that interferes in your social life and goal achievement.
3 Anxiety with authority figures.
4 Tendency toward self defeating behavior patterns that sabotage your love life, goals, or career.
5 A tendency to repeatedly subject yourself to people or experiences that lead to another loss, another rejection, and another trauma.
6 Intrusive reawakening of old losses; echoes of old feelings of vulnerability and fear which interfere in current experience.
7 Heightened memories of traumatic separations and other events.
8 Conversely, partial or complete memory blocks of childhood traumas.
9 Low self-esteem, low sense of entitlement, performance anxiety.
10 Feelings of emotional detachment, i.e. feeling numb to past losses.
11 Conversely, difficulty letting go of the painful feelings of old rejections and losses.
12 Difficulty letting go, even when we know the relationship cannot meet our basic needs
13 Episodes of self-neglectful or self destructive behavior.
14 Difficulty withstanding (and overreacting to) the customary emotional ups and downs of your adult relationships.
15 Difficulty working through the ordinary levels of conflict and disappointment within your adult relationships.
16 Extreme sensitivity to perceived rejections, exclusions or criticisms.
17 Emotional pendulum swing between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment; you can alternate between ‘feeling the walls close in’ if someone gets too close and feeling insecure, love starved – on a precipice of abandonment – if you are not sure of the person’s love.
18 Difficulty feeling the affection and other physical comforts offered by a willing partner – “keeping them out” or “pushing them away; evidence of emotional anorexia or emotional bulimia.
19 Tendency to ‘get turned off’ and ‘lose the connection’ by involuntarily shutting down romantically and/or sexually on a willing partner.
20 Conversely, tendency to feel hopelessly hooked on a partner who is emotionally distancing.
21 Tendency to have emotional hangovers ‘the morning after’ you have had contact with an ex or someone over whom you have felt pain.
22 Difficulty naming your feelings or sorting through an emotional fog.
23 Abandophobism – a tendency to avoid close relationships altogether to avoid risk of abandonment.
24 Conversely, a tendency to rush into relationships and clamp on too quickly.
25 Difficulty letting go because you have attached with emotional epoxy, even when you know your partner is no longer able to fulfill your needs, or even when you know your partner is not good for you.
26 An excessive need for control, whether it’s about the need to control the other’s behavior and thoughts, or about being excessively self-controlled; a need to have everything perfect and done your way.
27 Conversely, a tendency to create chaos by avoiding responsibility, procrastinating, giving up control to others, and feeling out of control.
28 A heightened sense of responsibility to others, rescuing, attending to people’s needs, even when they have not voiced them.
29 Tendency to have unrealistic expectations and heightened reactivity toward others such that it creates conflict and burns bridges to your social connections.
30 People-pleasing – excessive need for acceptance or approval.
31 Self-judgment; unrealistic expectations toward yourself.
32 Fear response to people’s anger, which unwittingly sets you up to being “controlled” by them.
33 Co-dependency issues in which you give too much of yourself to others and feel you don’t get enough back.
34 Tendency to act impulsively without being able to put the brakes on, even when you are aware of the negative consequences.
35 Tendency toward unpredictable outbursts of anger.
36 Conversely, tendency to under-react to anger out of fear of breaking the connection and also out of your extreme aversion to ‘not being liked’.