Childhood Trauma

Facing Abandonment

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Addicts have many anxieties and fears. They grew up with holes in their souls with unmet childhood developmental needs from parents who failed to provide the fundamental emotional needs necessary. Some addicts suffered woeful negligence from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. For many their parents failed to provide necessary support because they didn’t know how. Their parents loved them but were unable to give to their children that which was not given to them.  

Children learn that their parents loved them when they provide clothing, food, shelter, education, and other material possessions. However, children comprehend that they matter when a parent spends sufficient amounts of time with them on their terms, not the parents. Children develop a hole in their soul when this doesn’t happen. Subconsciously they conclude they don’t matter. They don’t consider that something is wrong with their parents. Instead, they embrace the misbelief that they must not be worthy or important enough for the attention desired.  

Developmentally they become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. Each hole represents an unmet childhood need. Kids learn to compensate by trying to fill the hole from the outside with a cocktail of relational experience. They learn to please and gain approval through performance or get attention with negative social behavior. It doesn’t work because the depth of emotional need that must be met will ultimately only be fulfilled from within. They become like the little kid who can’t get enough sugar. Their emotional neediness becomes insatiable. Eventually, they organize a dependency upon an addictive substance or process that delivers what it promises. For many, it involves a collection of addictions that are depended upon to assuage their fears and anxieties and to numb out what hurts. 

One of the greatest fears that an addict faces is that of abandonment, physically, emotionally, or both. Abandonment is like the metaphor of a pack of wolves that chase you through the woods. The pack pursues you relentlessly even though you create diversionary tactics of avoidance. Eventually, the pack corners you. Either the pack wins and consumes you with addictive behavior or you turn around and face the gnashing teeth of abandonment.  In doing so you begin to realize that it is not the terrorizing force that its growl suggests. 

Addicts become pleasers, workaholics, and deniers to avoid conflict. Behind their behavior is a pernicious fear of abandonment. They will do anything to avoid feeling deserted. Addiction becomes a lifelong affair to avoid abandonment. Some addicts have described their relationship to their drug of choice as a warm blanket that offers consistent comfort from fear and anxiety. What lurks behind every addictive high is the fear of abandonment. How to address abandonment is critical to the long-term sobriety from addiction. Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Embrace the fact that the fear of abandonment is universal. Abandonment is not just a fear that afflicts addicts. It impacts partners of addicts and the world at large. It is a common thread of life experience. Recognizing that everyone experiences this fear helps to avoid isolation or the conclusion that you are particularly flawed and different from those around you. You are not! We all must face our fear of abandonment. 

2. Others may desert you but the key is to learn not to desert yourself. This may seem obvious. Yet, simple things are not easy. It’s an automatic response for a child to subconsciously attempt to capture a parents’ attention when neglected.  When children lack recognition for who they are, they try to compensate with what they can do. If the inattentiveness is chronic the child will participate in behaviors that will get their parent’s recognition in order to avoid abandonment. Over time they learn that who they are matters less than how they act or what they do. Essentially, they learn to abandon themselves. Overcoming the fear of abandonment requires that you learn to reclaim the importance of being and parent yourself in healthy ways. You must learn to pay attention to your genuine needs and not abandon yourself through pleasing others.

3. Listen to your triggers, don’t just run from them.  Triggered with fear or lust for your drug of choice can be a gift! This is true for both addicts and partners. When triggered, put yourself out of harm’s way and take time to let the trigger talk to you about your unmet needs that must be met in a healthy way. Some addicts spend much of their recovery reporting about triggers and chronic high risk behaviors, thinking that telling another addict when they have been tempted is enough. However, it is a beginning. When tempted think about the legitimate need that is represented in the trigger and then endeavor to self-parent by meeting the need in a healthy way through adult choice and interaction. Rather than abandon yourself by only running away from the trigger, allow the trigger to speak its truth and transform the trigger from a curse to a blessing. Practicing this skill set which takes a lot of hard work is a major step that avoids abandonment of self.

4. Take the people with you who abandon you. People hurt each other and abandon one another. People die. Relationships end through the passage of time, betrayal, and a myriad of other reasons. It sucks to feel abandoned. Yet, it is a broken experience that is common to all. It requires skills to grieve the loss of what once was. Some people live life longing for yesterday’s experiences in order to avoid feeling abandoned. The end result is that they wallow in the abandonment.  I suggest that you take the lost person or experience with you. Keep it with you in your heart. It is not necessary to live in the past. Yet, you can bring those experiences with others with you in the here and now through treasured memory. Even in the face of betrayal, you can embrace your truth and the closeness that once was, and the pure intent you generated when others were invested in ulterior motives. Precious memories need not be abandoned. Loved ones who are now deceased can be alive in your heart. We all live in a nanosecond of present time and then it too becomes historical. So we hold precious experience by treasuring its memory in our hearts. Learn to address abandonment by taking your precious personal intents and initiatives with you in your heart. The good in all the relationships you have ever experienced can dwell inside of you no matter what others choose to do. When you consider the power and potential that exists within, you never need to be dominated by abandonment again.

Walking Away From Crazy

“We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”  

—Chris Pine 

Family is a powerful dynamic. It’s the place we come home to every day. It’s a place where the fundamental supplies to do life are provided in order to function and thrive. Family is where the emotional, physical and spiritual needs are furnished and developed. Most families do not provide enough for these needs to be met. Essentially, bonding is a critical need that when left unmet without sufficient amounts of mirroring, engagement and attunement to children increases the likelihood of addiction  Addiction most likely occurs when an individual cannot find meaningfulness in everyday experience. This is not addressed by providing more things for the child to do, but rather by participating with the child’s activities with sufficient amounts of time. Connection is critical and ofttimes missing. Without connection the possibility of addiction increases. For certain it contributes to the creation of crazy-making life experience. 

I tell people we had 12 kids in our family. In reality, there were 9, 4 girls and 5 boys, and I was the youngest boy. I say 12 because my parents raised my oldest sister’s 3 kids from school age to teenage. My sister’s kids were dropped off at our front porch and abandoned by their parents, who were unwilling to raise them. I often think about how crazy-making this experience was for them. Including them into our family would be a bare minimum expression of care.

My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier for two years. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I learned after his death that he was a decorated soldier with 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Purple Heart.  He took his World War II combat PTSD out on the boys in our family. Once one of my older brothers, Jimmy, thought he was big enough to take on my dad. He had disobeyed and smarted off to my mom. My dad told him he couldn’t talk to his mom that way and to apologize. Jimmy told him that he would not apologize and wanted to settle the matter, mano a mano with my dad. My dad gave him a beat down. It was awful. He never stopped until my mom begged him to stop. It became pretty clear to me that any kid who received a beat down like my dad gave Jimmy would have a ton of rage inside. This was the type of crazy-making I grew up with. 

Then there was church which doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. Yet, in my experience, it reflected the reality of the home I grew up in—crazy-making. We all had to go to church twice on Sundays, to a midweek prayer meeting, and all the revival meetings which took place twice a year for two weeks straight every night.  

Our preacher’s name was Gravitt. My dad liked to call him “Doc” Gravitt. He was no doctor I would ever choose to visit. He was a rough rogue. He would call people out by name during the worship service and accuse them of not paying their tithe. He was known to stop preaching, walk down from the platform, and spank a kid for misbehaving in church. He would challenge men who he thought were malcontents to meet him in the parking lot outdoors for a fight. He was unpredictable and very abusive. My parents always thought he was God’s anointed and that you had to tolerate the negative in order to get the positive. They would cite some of the antics of characters in the Bible that God used and were satisfied that Gravitt was like one of those. They would say that it took a character like Gravitt to drive out the riffraff so that the church could grow. All my brothers and I  thought that Gravitt was the riffraff. We all used to love it when my one of my older brothers, Dave, would mix it up with Gravitt when he would try to get in Dave’s face and tell him how he should live his life. Dave would not tolerate Gravitt’s bullshit!  He would challenge Gravitt to meet him in the parking lot for a fisticuff.  We all looked forward to these encounters. We thought they were entertaining. In truth it was crazy-making!

My parents had little time to spend with their kids. Geez, if they were paid full time to only raise kids, there still wouldn’t be enough time to spend with each kid. As it was, my dad worked 2-3 jobs at a time and my mom was a domestic worker. In our home, everything was rationed.  Baths, the amount of milk for breakfast, food, and electricity were all rationed in order to cover the expenses of 14 people. There wasn’t any personal time for affection, attunement of spirit, and emotional support from parents. 

Martin Luther King once said that “violence is the language of the unheard”.  In the family I grew up in there was little experience of being heard. My parents tacitly agreed to not fight about disagreements they had. The anger that was avoided between them was played out between my siblings and me. I was the youngest boy so I had experienced a shitload of hell from my older brothers. To say the least, it was crazy-making.

The lack of touch, attachment and bonding that my parents missed in their childhood was passed along to me and my siblings. It became a mainspring to the years of intimacy disabled-ness, struggle, and addiction that would later develop and come to fruition in my life and that of some of my family members. There was little touch and affection and nurture was scarce. It was crazy-making.

How do you walk away from crazy-making? Addicts experience dysfunctional dynamics within their families of origin to one extent or another. There are many effective suggestions for addressing the crazy-making. Here are a few to consider.

Tell your story. Make your rags into a tapestry. It is a worn-out metaphor, yet many addicts continue to want to walk around the elephant in the living room. Our families of origin have taught us well how to compartmentalize dysfunctional pain and pretend it does not exist. We embrace the impossible and ignore the obvious. Shame is passed from one generation to the next and the conduit is secrecy. We create secrecy by hiding what we don’t want others or self to see and thus avoiding what is painful. Addicts are great with knowing how to compartmentalize. 

Show your family rags in 12-step groups. Let this sharing be a stepping stone to open your heart and share with your family, your partner, and your kids. They will truly benefit. Through your sharing, your kids will be able to stand on your shoulders and make a better way for their future. It is an excellent beginning in unraveling the crazy-making from your family of origin. It is a way of making a tapestry from the rags of dysfunction.

Scrub the wound. So much in recovery is counterintuitive. When hurt we want to roar with anger, whereas healing requires us to embrace our anger, fear and sadness with vulnerability. Overcoming the crazy-making that exists in our family of origin insists that we lean into our fear, fragility, and frozen emotional experiences. 

Like scrubbing a laceration on your knee, the last thing you want to do is what is demanded. Scrubbing emotional wounds is painful. It is automatic that you would want to shy away and procrastinate scrubbing the wound. When we don’t, the infection spreads throughout our relational lives and appears every time anxiety and threat surface in our lives. Crazy-making family dysfunction must be scrubbed. You must drain the pool of pain that exists through identification of hurt, grieving the losses, and validating your experience.  

Anchor to your true self.  Tolerating the crazy-making in your family of origin required you to create a false sense of self. Survival in your dysfunctional family called for people-pleasing, caretaking and approval-seeking behaviors. Often your inherent value was not nurtured and was forced into hiding in your family of origin. You may have learned to seek identity and validation through the services you rendered to others. This can set you up to do more to keep from being less. As an addict, this is a common place where you lose your sense of self. This becomes a perfect place to escape emotional pain with your drug of choice.  Ending the crazy-making handed to you from your family of origin requires that you anchor to your true self. Crazy-making experiences in life come to an end when you anchor to your own sense of worthiness. It demands that you embrace your own feelings whatever they are. Rather than being dominated by what others feel about you, your true self will give birth to authentic congruence.  Your feelings begin to line up with your values which are expressed by what you say and how you live. It’s being anchored to your true self that separates you from the crazy-making in dysfunctional family living.