Once, in a significant relationship of long duration, I very reluctantly initiated a breakup. I initiated it for many reasons. One “senseless” reason was to avoid having to re-experience the feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect so familiar from childhood. What I ended up feeling, of course, were crippling, pulsating pangs of loss, abandonment and neglect.
To the logical brain, initiating a breakup to avoid feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect makes no sense. To the feeling brain and a heart desperately trying to heal, it makes perfect sense. The Pain Body (an Eckhart Tolle term that I particularly resonate with) in concert with trauma long buried in unconscious Implicit Memory looks out and pinpoints the precise people to help us reenact the trauma – in unconscious hopes of healing it at last. But with abandonment and neglect, by their very nature, that rarely happens. Partly because every way you try to reenact it you lose, and partly because when you’re in the middle of a reenactment, a greater awareness of the larger picture is seldom available: it doesn’t feel like healing trying to happen in the least. More often than not ALL people involved end up in triggered states of emerging traumatic memory re-creation. And being in an actively triggered emotional state seriously compromises coherent brain function and possibilities for healing in everyone. It feels much more like a return to the wild, than trying to collaboratively and sanely navigate treacherous terrain.
Children who experience abandonment and neglect repeatedly feel at risk when attachments of any kind are broken. Whether physical, emotional or neuro-cardiological, we also have large gaps in our developmental unfolding. Those gaps are called lacunae in the psychiatric literature. Spiritual teacher, A. H. Almaas simply calls them “holes.” These are missing structures that form normally from experiences of people/parents being there for us come hell or high water. As a result, we often end up with fewer inner neural reserves to call upon to help us navigate safely and securely together through the hard stuff. Our physical Pain Body simply becomes overwhelmed with emotion, greatly impairing coherent thinking or action. Often, the only way out, it seems, is to flee. Or to isolate. Isolation, different than deliberately chosen solitude, is rarely an optimal strategy.
Some people, like Eckhart Tolle, assert that we all have choice in how we experience such re-surfacing memories. From my perspective they have little understanding of how transient disorganization happens when the stress of traumatic memories becomes activated in the brain. They also fail to understand how much activity of the brain is completely unconscious and easily manipulated (all we need do is look at Stanley Milgram’s at Yale or Phil Zimbardo’s obedience experiments at Stanford for confirmation). Furthermore, few of those who assert such notions concerning choice, while they may be victims of other forms of abuse, they have rarely suffered abandonment and neglect themselves. Choice may be available to some of us later, in the wake of traumatic memory activation, after the poo has been cleaned out of the loo. But Tolle and his advocates would be better served, I think, to hold the matter of choice and free will as an open question rather than to offer it as rigid dogma. I suspect neuroscientists David Eagleman and Bruce Hood live in my camp on this matter of choice, since each recognizes that every brain is enormously complex and operates the best it can in any moment in every situation.
Children at Risk
Those of us who hail from a history of abandonment and neglect are also at greater risk for abandoning and neglecting relationships and our own children than those who don’t. I came very close to unconsciously organizing the family (brain-body) stressors in my own life such that I nearly abandoned my daughter Amanda at age 4, the same age that my father abandoned my own sisters and me … the compulsion to repeat the trauma. The compassionate heart of one of the very few good therapists I’ve worked with over the years, helped me hang in … until Amanda was 13. Then, my understanding of the real limits of the psychotherapy profession at the time, and too many traumatic memories mounting an emergent assault on too many fronts, proved to be beyond my ability to manage. They shut down coherent functioning in my brain and severely limited my choices. Separation and divorce ensued. But I did manage to hang in a little better than my own father did: I continued to provide financial support and spent as much time as Amanda and we could manage together. An Authoritative Community might possibly have helped me hang in better. Possibly.
So, what will help to heal abandonment and neglect? I can only speak from my own experience, but what I most greatly yearned for during those periods of regression and painful traumatic reenactment was for someone who deeply understood how healing attempts often show up chaotically. They would be someone who could stay fully present in the midst of my regressed stony silences, plaintive wails or angry outbursts, and to each of them simply calmly say over and over again, “That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving. That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving.” That’s what it would mean, at least for me personally, to meet The Big Brain Question with The Big Heart Answer.
P.S. If you want to see the specific and startling impact that abandonment and neglect have on the brain, click HERE.