Tengo: Imaginary Friends, Loss, Time

I hate it when I don’t follow my own advice, and even more, I hate admitting it. Way back when we got the Trump government in 2016, it seemed as if everyone went out of their minds daily, experiencing some variety of trauma activation from some latest news item. The restimulations were neverending. I urgently admonished everyone, including myself, to regulate their news consumption! But one thing I never stopped doing was tuning in to the BBC first thing after waking up. I managed my quantity pretty well, but the timing, well, not so much. First thing in the morning is a delicate moment. On November 22nd, shortly after awakening, I flipped on the news to a passing clip of literally seconds, announcing, “…Pablo Milanés has died. He was 79.” It hit me like bricks and then an immediate avalanche of memory.

Pablo, along with his colleague and often collaborator Silvio Rodriguez, was the founding voice of the Nueva Trova Cubana, the New Cuban Song Movement emerging in the late 1960s. A mix of traditional and folk rhythms and instruments with political, social, lyrical, and popular themes, the “trova” was the soundtrack of some of my loneliest, most painful, and at the time, inexplicably difficult post-traumatic years. Pablo’s honey-like baritone was the ever-available company and comforting accompaniment to the darkest of times. His song Tengo (I Have) is the epitome of gratitude: a musical accounting of all the precious things one has. It became my favorite song of all time. 

Pablo also introduced me to the exquisite poetry of Jose Marti, which he even more exquisitely transformed into glorious song. I keep only two CDs in my car for those times when I am completely addled by the Bay Bridge traffic: Pablo’s Versos de Jose Marti and Silvio’s Mujeres. They unfailingly get me over the bridge and home. It was on my bucket list to see Pablo in person. I did manage to see Silvio in Oakland once. But Pablo – it never came to be. Now it never will. I was heartbroken.

Attachment trauma makes relationships such a minefield, a Rubik’s cube of challenges.

Imaginary Friends

Attachment trauma makes relationships such a minefield, a Rubik’s cube of challenges. Loving and often idealizing iconic figures I had never met was a way to populate a lonely world—an illusion of a relationship, certainly company in the bittersweet solitude. I say bittersweet because being alone was a refuge: a cozy, comfortable, safe place, like my carnation pink weighted blanket, where, when swaddled in its soft and caressing velvet folds, I find restful peace. But at the same time, it was the gnawing echo of being left alone too much, the punishing, unchosen, agonizing solitude that defies nature’s design and evokes something else. We cannot “remember“ our infancy. But the aching heart and disproportional, unrelenting pain of loss that feels like dying is usually an undeniable clue that the core injury was interpersonal and usually unimaginably early. Even if all the family lore might tell us that there were people there who loved us, hidden in the deep recesses of brain and body is a story of parents who, for whatever reason, simply couldn’t. 

“Hero worship” became a middle ground for me. There were important people in my life who I did not have to worry about whether they liked me; they taught and influenced me, became my beloved role models. Sometimes I made an effort to learn about their real lives, which was much harder before we had Google, Wikipedia, and other technological avenues of inquiry. Other times I did not, and often, in fact, ignorance is bliss – finding out who the real person is can be a disappointment or even a blow. I did not want to know if there was animosity or competition between Pablo and Silvio in real life. I wanted to get lost in the harmony. Reading the recent memoir by Bono is a case in point. Although he is not on my shortlist, I have always admired and appreciated him, and still do. But I don’t “like” him very much. Just as many solve the conundrum of intimacy by creating a fantasy cyber sexual world, a “relationship” that is quiet, interior and inherently safe fills a certain void – sort of. Thankfully, now on my own Tengo accounting, I have both. But the loss of Pablo is still a blow.

Trauma has no time sense, no time stamp, as it were.

Loss

For the child of neglect, loss and disappointment seem on the order of life-threatening. In their own minds, the intensity is completely normal, even “reasonable,” like ambient air. Often a partner or loved one simply cannot understand why experimentation, or even moderate risk, is not an option. What is the big deal? Hope and disappointment are to be avoided like the plague, because the primal loss was in the domain of survival. An infant alone will die, and the early, unremembered experience of being left, even the later remembered experiences of inexplicable invisibility or abandonment, strike way too close to feeling fatal. 

Things never did change in that family, or not in a good way. The very notion that someone would change who or how they are out of love for me? Out of the question. It is what makes relationship therapy such a hard sell for so many adult children of neglect. What’s the point? Things don’t change, not for the better, and certainly not in relationships. The risk of disappointment is simply too great, not worth it. Where, on one hand, disappointment is a fact of life, as familiar as an old shoe, that it is almost like a companion on the trail for many the child of neglect, it is to be avoided at all costs – which can also be a sticking point in couples. Often, I struggle with those close to me being “hope averse,” or I am impatient with their hopelessness. I have to work hard to stay empathic and compassionate; perhaps it strikes too close to my own mostly healed trauma.

Time

Certain catchphrases from years of training in whatever discipline have always stuck in my mind. One that is indelibly etched is “the amygdala knows no time.” Trauma has no time sense, no time stamp, as it were. I used to wonder why in my art therapy drawings and paintings I so often produced a clock stopped at 4:10. I don’t know why. But I do know that trauma feels interminable, like it will never end, while also being at dizzying, breakneck speeds. In a split second, the world has crashed irreversibly into something else. I remember being told that the “nature of the beast,” in this case, the beast being depression, was that while in it feels like it will never end. However, in the rearview, it is hard to imagine or even remember how or why it felt that bad. “Pandemic time” is kind of like that…

All the trauma treatment modalities I studied seemed to have a protocol or practice for awakening a sense of time, a sense of movement. In EMDR, it was “what happens next?” In Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, it would be following the sensation as it morphs into one and the next iteration of itself and moves through the body. In some relaxation approaches, there would be counting. The intention is to activate a sense of movement, of time passing, of a possibility, a seed of change, of something different being possible. That is perhaps one reason why we measure anniversaries and orbits around the sun. We need to know that there is some forward movement and a reason to keep going. That is what I like best about the changing of the year. Something old is closed; something new will open in its place. Grief, if not ending altogether, will diminish and change over time. Something else will take its place. Cheesemaking, gardening, pregnancy: these are endeavors that we can only undertake if we believe there will be a future. Why else would we spend hours and sometimes backbreaking effort for something that takes months or longer to come to fruition?

I wish for all that the closing of the year will bring a promise of something different and better. One thing I love about Tengo, is the recounting of life treasures connotes that these are perhaps things I did not have before, or that many do not have. The line that invariably still brings me to tears is when Pablo sings ”Aprendi a leer, a contar, y aprendi a escribir!” I learned to read, to count, and I learned to write!” What blessings!

I close the year with these words translated from Jose Marti’s Versos Sencillos, “Simple Verses:”

Everything is beautiful and constant

Everything is music and reason,

And everything, like the diamond,

Before light, is coal.

Gracias, Pablo. Happy New Year

Today’s song is the beautiful Tengo by Pablo Milanés. I hope you love it as much as I do.

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.

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