When I was 5 or 6 years old, I dreamed that my mom, siblings, and I were detectives. One job required we sneak into Frankenstein’s house and steal a secret document. We succeed and ran out the front door of the house. Because I was the youngest, I was slightly behind the rest. Frankenstein chased us and grabbed me by my belt loops as I tried to race down the stairs. Legs swinging in the air, I called after my mother to help. She turned around and said, “Not right now. I don’t have time.” She and my siblings got into the car and drove off. Because the landscape was flat, I could watch their car drive away for a long time. I didn’t remember this dream until I was in my twenties…when I was just beginning to explore why I felt so angry, alienated, and desperately hungry for relationships, when I started a 20-year journey of facing the fact that I still held this terrible fear inside of me.
This fear of abandonment is related to our sense of safety in the world. As Judith Herman states in Trauma and Recovery, our sense of safety and trust “is acquired in earliest life in the relationship with the first caretaker…The original experience of care makes it possible human beings to envisage a world in which they belong, a world hospitable to human life” (51). No matter what our circumstances, the world can feel terrifying, and we want to know that somebody will be there to comfort and protect us. But when trauma occurs and our sources of comfort are unable to respond to our cries for help, our foundational sense of trust is shattered, especially if the trauma occurs when we are young and/or is life-threatening, which includes rape. As a result, we feel alienated and abandoned. Even years after the trauma, we continue to be terrified that people will fail us, and ironically, they will. Even in really good relationships, people will hurt us and are incapable of being all we want or need. As humans, we make mistakes and we are limited in what we can do for others. So what is the difference between embracing this reality while being wholly present and hiding because the pain of rejection seems too great? For me, the difference is connected to a sense of worth: what I call a fear of abandonment is actually a fear that I will be abandoned because something is wrong with me…because unlike others who seem to have safety and protection, I am unworthy and unloveable. Because I was brought up in a very conservative Christian background, I also believed that my alienation was just—that God had deemed me evil. Small children tend to believe that bad things happen because of them. It is called magical thinking. Parents divorce and the child thinks it is her fault: if only she had made her bed, her parents would still be together. The challenge with a strong fear of abandonment is that our experiences support that distorted belief system. Inevitably, the people we trust aren’t able to give us what we want or need. Then we use that negative experience as proof that we really are not safe, that we are not supported, that we are alone.
One of the ways I’ve tried to cope with this feeling is to become an overachiever. I needed to make all As, get the highest level of education possible, and succeed at all things I attempted. If I make a mistake in a relationship, then I assumed I would be rejected or condemned. Often I would push the people away, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, before they could reject me. I become hypervigilant in my interactions with people, believing I could read their thoughts and intentions. I wanted to feel like I was powerful enough to identify those who were trying to trick me into trusting them. If I decided to build a relationship, I put their wishes above my own health. I became a rescuer, an enabler, all in the hopes that if I gave away my life for someone else that in my own time of need, I, too, would be highly valued. Of course, I didn’t understand this is what I was doing for many years. Our society values those who overwork, so I was applauded for my unhealthy addiction to activity (so that I didn’t have to sit with my fear). And I interpreted all of my enabling activities as “strength.” I was the strong person who others needed. In retrospect, I think I invested so much in this identity of strength as a means of distracting me from the pain and fear underneath. Below is a writing I did a few years ago as I tried to understand my fear.
Often we naively believe that the worst part about childhood abuse is the act, the details of how one aggressive, overpowering person ravaged a small, fragile child and perhaps how the victim managed to survive that moment, most often through submission and dissociation. While those details are horrible, in the end, they are only moments, a short span of unthinking time that comes to an end, and when we are old enough, we can work hard to ensure those moments do not happen again. Sometimes we are able to see past those details and consider the short-term effects. Then we naively believe that the worst part of the abuse is the lack of control and power the child had to stop the act and to unsuccessfully convince others that this unthinkable thing happened, leaving the child without protection and support. But, in time, we can move out of the house, and we can become powerful enough – even if it is an illusion, a camouflage of inaccessibility – that other predators do not see us as prey. Those of us who have experienced childhood abuse or tried to help those victims see the more permanent effects. We often feel like the act is our fault or that we are just exaggerating or lying. We have to cope with an unexplainable, insatiable desire to re-enact the events and then to escape through compulsions and addiction. The behaviors are often the reason we seek help, but they are just harmful behaviors—outward manifestations of something much more powerful and malevolent.
The almost insurmountable and destructive power of childhood abuse is its ability to rewire the very foundations of identity and then hide that wiring underneath a labyrinth of alarm systems, designed to keep all watchful eyes from accessing the master code. When I was abused, I stopped seeing myself and the world around me as human; instead, I saw a reptilian world, a world where ALL living creatures, even parents, will eat their offspring without a moment’s hesitation if they feel the growl of hunger inside, a harsh world where survival means devouring instead of being devoured. It is a world where what ties members together as a community is a kind of sacrificial love where we have no choice but to give away parts of ourselves when others are hungry. The signs of a good life are when we connect with others who have small appetites, reptiles who only eat our fingers and toes instead of our hearts and brains. Traumatic abuse rewires our identity so that we see no difference among the abuser, those who truly care, and even ourselves: we believe all people are wolves in sheep’s clothing even if we can hide that belief system from others and ourselves. It can be hidden in a variety of ways that seem good on the outside: under the cloak of religion, selfless acts, emotionless logic, hard work … any form of activity that allows us to run away, to hide what we do not want to believe through the will power to be “good.” If we do not try to hide the belief system under goodness, we rage against all, making ourselves inapproachable while fearlessly embracing our insatiable, reptilian desires. More often our lives are a mixture, a spectrum of reactions between these two poles, but the force driving the motion is the same: we believe people are controlled by primal instinct and cannot be trusted; we cannot even trust ourselves. Seeking to face these problems head-on begins with the hope that we are wrong—that as much as we feel driven by a destructive primal instinct, we also feel an urge to reach out and connect, to trust people, to be vulnerable despite the fact that all of us are flawed and capable of hurting one another. Following this urge of openness is what makes us human once again.