Living in an earthquake country, the imagery of seismic rumblings is a familiar part of daily life. I went through the “big one” in the Bay Area in 1989, and we all live with the knowledge that there will be another good-sized shaker sooner or later. The wiser among us have their preparedness kits safely stowed in their basements. It was probably fourth grade when I first started learning about plate tectonics, the science of the shifting slabs of rock that divide the earth’s crust. Not far under a seemingly solid, perhaps placid earth’s surface resides this rocking and rolling, drifting landscape, moving constantly and reshaping the exterior of the land, occasionally in a dramatic, even violent way. I found myself thinking of this craggy lithosphere as I pondered the fragmentation of selves, which in some ways seems quite similar.
When I first started learning about the fragmentation aspect of trauma, dissociation, it was confusing and still can be. Dissociation is a term used to describe two distinct but related phenomena: to crassly abbreviate them, “splitting” and “numbing.” Splitting refers to the “divided self,” torn between two or more fierce emotions or states. They might be the disparate parts of the self that witnessed and lived the traumatic experience in various ways and the part that kept traumatic events hidden from awareness. One part might look “functional” or “good” on the outside and “dysfunctional” collapsed into some other less desirable adaptation behind the scenes. The numbing refers to a dulling of awareness, lack of presence, and “spaced out” response, which can readily be one of the split-off parts. Both of these definitions are correct, often used interchangeably, and I still find they can muddy communication.
Back when I first started learning about dissociation, one of the parts was referred to as the “Apparently Normal Personality” (ANP). I never cared for that term. Mostly because I balk, in general, at the notion that there is any such definitive designation as “normal,” so it winds up being subjectivity or prejudice and often pathologizing. I like Janina Fisher’s wording: the part that “takes over the ordinary responsibilities of daily life.”
In the world of neglect, the bedrock fissure, the “crack at the core” is what I call the “Dilemma Without Solution.” This is the great divide between the two warring emotional forces of desperate longing and bottomless distress, be it terror, grief, or some combination of both. Particularly for an infant whose needs are limitless, if the source of comfort and rejection, pain, or simple but devastating absence are the same person, it is indeed unresolvable. The cracking mitosis is not a discrete event but a redundant process of approach/withdraw, reaching and recoiling, reaching and recoiling. For an infant, it is unresolvable; the only viable adaptation to this inescapable shock, the only way “out” is to freeze or collapse. And that icy answer can readily evolve into the numbed-out state of dissociation and can often congeal into lasting patterns that make for relationship hell.
For years I wondered why I couldn’t have anyone in my life for long. Some people still had friends going back to grammar school and even earlier. I felt more like a motor boat, looking behind me at a choppy wake, a trail of relationship wrecks. What was it with me? I simply could not get along with humans.
The ”Magma” of Neglect Trauma
Magma is the molten, liquefied rock flowing deep in the earth’s core. Shifts in pressure and temperature may build and boil, ultimately culminating in the ruptures and upheavals of earthquakes. It is humbling and frightening to imagine that something as devastating as the recent earthquake in Turkey, which left thousands dead and thousands more orphaned and homeless, started with the quiet rolling around of warm liquid. I think of the dilemma without a solution as the magma of neglect trauma. It may at first seem subtle or barely noticeable, a “simple” absence. But to the infant, there is nothing simple about it. It is as if the sun is disappearing from the sky, and the very life force is extinguished. To the infant, the withdrawal of this all-central other makes for the rising pressure and the climbing temperatures that culminate in the devastating quakes.
Some struggling survivors of childhood neglect may berate themselves, complaining of what they might call “fear of intimacy.” Or they might not experience it as “fear” or call it anything, even. They might not even notice that they simply act on reflex, fleeing from something resembling closeness. They may not recognize it themselves but hear the disgruntled refrain from partners or others attempting to be “loved ones” that they are avoidant in some way. They might be tortured or mystified by loneliness or mystifying relationship “sabotaging” behavior such as being “needlessly” antagonistic (although antagonism is probably rarely, if ever, “needed!) They may recoil from the connection in any number of conscious or unconscious ways. They may, like the old me, look behind them with shame and bafflement at the trail of litter, the detritus of wreckage of relationship tried and failed. The surgeon general in 2023 identified a national “epidemic” of loneliness in the US. I wonder how much of it is rooted in this dilemma.
I have had clients who survived their childhood dilemma by “performing.” The poverty of presence and attention meant there was a failure of mirroring, with no one present to reflect back to them who they were. Rather than growing and exploring organically to what it means to “be me,” from the inside, they rather looked “out there.” Searching for cues and clues about how to garner approval at the least. Growing up and later showing up in our offices, they are frustrated and ashamed by how authenticity eludes them. “I have no idea what I feel and what I like. My husband tells me he grew up being a “fur coat.” He learned well how to be an elegant, even luxurious adornment until, with bitterness, he was old enough to get out.
Neglect is rife with complications of self. I must be ever mindful when I see a client feeling better one day or able to do things in a new way or in a way they have been aspiring to. I must not overshoot or excessively acknowledge or compliment them. They might wind up feeling unseen, or as if I don’t get it, that the terrified parts are still there, and may rear up again at any moment. The parts move and change; dominance and prominence may shift and drift. Disowned parts may not go away.
I have found that sometimes the hardest changes to integrate relate to seeing myself in new ways that are wonderful. Something I used to struggle with no longer eludes me. I feel easier, or people like me. I may strain to believe it or to not screw it up. We must go gently with that, too. The earth is ancient, core and surface, and everything in between, ever-changing. We strive for harmony and equilibrium.