A ten-year love relationship spanned roughly the decade of my 20s. Out of ten years, I spent about four of them trying to leave this man, a dizzying switch back and forth between moving out and moving back in. I thought he was the love of my life. I finally succeeded in wrenching myself out on the morning of October 17th, 1989. In the afternoon of that already unforgettable day, the Bay Area was upended by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. My upheaval was complete. So ironic and so fitting; my whole world cracked and crumbled. But my little one-bedroom and my beloved cat were all intact and, although shaken, safely unharmed.
I remember attempting to shop for groceries the next day, feeling an odd sense of comfort and kinship with everyone as we all stumbled around the familiar store in a singular, even unifying, wordless, shell-shocked daze. It was what I heard New Yorkers felt in the aftershocks of 9/11. A part of me felt the eerie but somehow reassuring connection, yet another part felt desperately and unspeakably alone.
Yes, it had been a wildly ill-suited partnership, and yes, I gave it my all. A signature of the well functioning brain is learning from experience. I wanted to make sure and do so. Given that it took two hours every morning to cover what was previously a forty-minute commute to my job at San Francisco VA since the Bay Bridge had all but collapsed fully into the Bay, I had ample time to think. I squeezed onto the train (standing room only at 5:00am), and then the 37 bus loaded with people and often their produce and chickens, rolling into work, with luck, by 7:30am.
So ironic and so fitting; my whole world cracked and crumbled. But my little one-bedroom and my beloved cat were all intact and, although shaken, safely unharmed.
The rescue and relief efforts moved quickly in the Bay Area. Rebuilding, cleaning, tallying losses, counting blessings, and assessing the new PTSD trauma casualties of those suffering more dramatic impacts. The earthquake had hit during the hyperbolic “Battle of the Bay” World Series between Oakland and SF, which added color to the new chapter in local history.
However, my own little seismic event progressed glacially into anything vaguely like a new equilibrium. It was as if I dwelled in an avalanche of rubble, and while the world seemed to be emerging, learning new words like retrofit or “the big one,” developing new practices like the earthquake kit in the basement, and upping their earthquake insurance, I seemed only able to aimlessly root around in my “basement.”
We all have our own personal first heartbreak tragedy. Nothing special about me. So why indulge myself by recounting mine? There is certainly no pleasure in recalling it. Because as a relationship therapist and sex therapist, I often hear a question that I also had. For the first two years after the quake, I cried, initially unconsolably, every single day. For the three subsequent years, never a day passed, without thinking, even fantasizing about my long-gone ex. That is five solid years, after a ten-year coupling!
Because as a relationship therapist and sex therapist, I often hear a question that I also had. For the first two years after the quake, I cried, initially unconsolably, every single day.
I remember the day, sometime after I had met my now husband, I suddenly flashed, “Wow! I have not thought of him! A whole day!” It is always harder to discern and notice what is not happening; that is what is so confusing and insidious about neglect and its colorless story of deficits. This, I had to acknowledge, was like the like shedding the weight of a long dragging ball and chain. So here is the question, why?
I heard a talk by the renowned Helen Fisher, a celebrated anthropologist specializing in sexuality. (If you have not heard her speak, she is marvelous and riveting, and a wealth of Ted Talks and YouTubes graciously abound).
Both a sophisticated scientist/researcher and popular writer, she is accessible and even entertaining. She said a brain going through heartbreak looks identical to a brain crashing from a massive cocaine binge. No joke! No wonder it feels so bad! And although I have never crashed from cocaine, my hyper-aroused brain always preferring drugs that sedate; it is a vivid portrayal nonetheless!
A delightful artist couple we met who live deep in the outback in Volcano, Hawaii, host a variety of species of ferile animals on their beautiful rainforest land. They have rescued and made pets of many of those brave enough or hungry enough to approach their home. They tell the story of a pair of probably sibling feral dogs (probably part wolf) whom they began to see lurking around the house. One of them had the remarkable distinction of habitually looking both ways before crossing the un-trivial road where cars routinely drive well over speed limits! Where did he learn that?
The two were large and intimidating (at least to me), and our friends were later to discover, truly terrified. And they were hungry, especially as that year had been unseasonably dry and available prey was meager. Our friends, as was their custom, cautiously put out food for them. The two skittishly sidled only close enough to snatch their meal, quickly disappearing back into the tangle of green. This went on for months, during which time our friends quietly named and befriended them from the cautious distance. “It was many months before we could touch them.”
Perchance, someone gave our friends a very young puppy. That adorable little girl behaved more like a usual pet, and they happily held and played with her. A turning point came when the two big guys saw the puppy. They slowly edged up to her and sometimes even played with her. They hovered closer and closer to the house and ultimately became veritable pets! Never quite as relaxed as the puppy, who undoubtedly had had a safer start in the world, the three dogs harmoniously joined the household, living together as a family for many years. What sort of bell might the little one have rung inside her older “cousins?”
So, what does any of this have to do with my broken heart? It came to me organically out of the depths: I don’t remember how. I might say in a dream, but to be honest, I don’t dream much, so have to forego that poetic turn of phrase. Perhaps from a deep therapy experience or a deep sleep. The seemingly endless grief I had endured, now thankfully a distant memory, was not about the man whose name I quietly keep to myself. It was about my mom, my real first true heartbreak. No wonder I couldn’t get over it.
The abandonment and loss of infant neglect, unremembered in the ordinary autobiographical memory of which an infant is incapable, continued reverberating and quaking in its desperate quest to tell the trauma story. Certainly, like for many of us, the first real heartbreak. How do we shorten the seemingly endless river of grief over that first devastating heartbreak? By going to the source if we can and processing that. That is finding a way to access and work through that prehistoric attachment injury. Perhaps that will help to shorten the seemingly infinite and often humiliating journey, or at least make sense of it. And you’ll save a whole lot of Kleenex. Neurofeedback definitely helps to move things along.
Attachment trauma, and neglect, as we as a field and as a world are slowly beginning to grasp, is perhaps the most devastating trauma of all. Something about the puppy being a vehicle of healing seemed, at least to me, to illustrate that. And why breaking the intergenerational chain insofar as we can, is a personal and cultural imperative.
Some fifty years ago I made a blouse for my mother, probably for Mother’s Day. It is sky blue, and I elaborately embroidered it with a large daffodil surrounded by a vibrant rainbow. The colors have stood the test of time valiantly, and it is one of the few things I took, besides the sewing machines, when our dad released us into her closet to help ourselves after she died. Inside the little garment, on the back facing where a store-bought label might be, I had embroidered the words “I love my mom.”
I know at times I disparage our mom (and speaking ill of the dead is admittedly poor form), especially in the privacy of my darling aesthetician niece’s treatment room, where she works on my ragged old face. She tracks my progress diligently, like a good neurofeedback provider, taking pictures and showing them to me along the way. In horror, I exclaim, “Oy vey! I look like my mom!” However, somewhere deep inside, hidden like a relic, in the interior of a sacred vestment, persists the faint echo of the howling primordial longing.
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is Love Me Still by Bruce Hornsby.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.