I remember once, I had a garbage can-sized bin full of old papers, tax records, client files much older than the seven-year legal time requirement, junk mail, newspaper clippings, and who knew what else. The very idea of shredding and disposing of them completely overwhelmed me. I would walk into the room with the closet housing that bin, open the closet door, see it there and run, not quite shrieking from the room, flinging the door shut behind me. I just could not face it. The insurmountable pile; the task seemed truly interminable.
One day I had the flashbulb thought, “what if I just did ten minutes a day? I dragged our old shredder into the room thinking “let’s just see what ten minutes is like. So, I fired up the shredder and loaded it for ten minutes. That wasn’t so bad… enough to give me a kind of rhythm with it. The timer went off after ten, and I calmly left the room. “I can do that.” Amazing. So, each day, I set the timer for ten minutes and fulfilled my quota. It became routine, until one day, it was all gone, the pile had gone away! In AA they figured this out years ago. Thinking of a lifetime barren of drinking is too much to imagine, even for a minute. But twenty-four hours? Well, I can probably do that, so a day at a time becomes my now 39-year sobriety.
I have a vague visual memory from when I was very young, probably not much more than two. We used to go to the Catskill Mountains every summer, and our dad worked in one of those fancy resort hotels to get us out of the City in the unbearably hot and humid New York summers. Our dad worked about sixteen hours a day, waiting tables and singing in the lounge at night. We stayed in a little bungalow on the grounds. On this particular afternoon, I woke up from a nap to find myself in the darkened bungalow alone. Where was everyone – where was my mom? It was of course wordless, like a bottomless pit of dark terror. It may have been only minutes. I don’t know. For that tiny child it was eternity. Sometimes when I am sitting with a client who seems to have no story, I am visited by that image, an iconic symbol of early neglect. I imagine something unremembered, that is perhaps communicating itself in some unspoken language from the client’s brain and body to mine.
I first started thinking about neglect, now over thirty years ago. It now boggles my mind to find myself remembering things that happened thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty years ago. These are such big numbers, years that passed a day at a time, some of them interminable. Back in the beginning, all my “data” about neglect was anecdotal observation of clients. I had no science then. The brain was nowhere near my radar yet. I noticed that these clients found things like boredom and insomnia excruciating, even lethal. I remember one man in couple’s therapy with me, who when he got too bored in a session, would lob a known inflammatory remark sure to get a rise from his hapless wife, just to get energy moving in the room. Waiting in lines for things, lying sleeplessly in bed at night, were like dying. I could only imagine a child left alone too much or too long.
I remember reading the trauma story of a political prisoner in a book once. I don’t even remember what book or what country it was about. One of the tortures used to deprive the man of sleep was playing the song Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits, really a quite good song, over and over again for nine days. Time was interminable. I can never hear that song without thinking of him. And trauma knows no time. In both incident trauma and developmental trauma like neglect, time stands still and does not move, which makes it that much more deadly. I have since learned that all the somatic therapies have some component of noticing “What happens next? What happens next?” The idea being to become aware of change or time moving and passing.
Three P’s of Neglect
Again, when I was first collecting observations and compiling what I later came to call the “Neglect Profile”, I identified the “Three P’s of Neglect: Passivity, Procrastination and Paralysis.” I wrote about it in my first book. At the time, I was simply aware of the pattern, that survivors of neglect seemed to have a hard time initiating and completing purposeful action and then collapsing into despair about it. I assumed that it was due to the absence of the life-sustaining other, who first demonstrated and, in effect taught, and also rewarded such behaviors. If no one is there to teach me, how will I learn? And without feedback, how will I know I am on track? The child is adrift in a sea of lonely uncertainty. Crying, reaching, lashing out into the empty space is all futile at best, if not devastating. Ultimately collapse, passivity, freeze, become a default, even a baseline.
Both sense of time and agency are prefrontal brain functions: they are mediated by the most “highly evolved” executive neocortex areas of the brain. This area is where the initial resonance between infant and primary caregiver brains is supposed to occur in the earliest weeks and months of life. When that does not occur, or not enough, the little developing brain is under-stimulated, under-aroused. This later can coagulate into three P’s, and then all the shame, self-blame and self-hatred that accompany it. “Of course it is my fault; who else is there?” The prefrontal cortex is also the brain area that goes offline when the brain is overwhelmed by stimulus greater than what it is designed to process in its customary way. That by definition constitutes traumatic experience, such as the infant overwhelmed by drowning in a solitude of abandonment way too early.
Ironically, attention issues also have the origin of under-stimulation. Even though the brain flitting from thing to thing might feel like hyperarousal, it is faster brain firing that creates focus and ability to concentrate, and under-firing that makes for the clutter of attention deficit. Again, the early under-stimulation of the infant brain, the lack of attention received makes for the subsequent deficit. I used to think that ADD and ADHD were neglect markers, as I saw them so often in neglect survivors. We now know that these diagnostic categories are far from precise or diagnostic. They are rather a collection of observed symptoms that might have a variety of origins, like many of the other codes. What to me is compelling is that some of the most brilliant, creative people I know or know of have struggled with these issues and also developed the most ingenious workarounds to compensate for them.
Before March 20, 2020, I used to fill my Prius with gas every week. Commuting from my San Francisco home to my Oakland office every day, and whatever extraneous other driving I did each week, did not use up nearly a whole tank, but I always felt most secure with the car on full. In August of 2021, I found myself at the gas station. I barely remembered how to put gas in the car, it was the first time I had done so in seventeen months! (It hadn’t been washed either, oy vey!) My hair was ragged, my husband had a ponytail now. I had been hunkered down day after day, as we all had, in the house with my husband, then two (now sadly just one) dogs, and my on-screen clients. How did this happen? Time had somehow evaporated like the old time-lapse photography. Groundhog Day. The repetition, the sameness, made for a strange complex of endless time and split-second vanishing. Suddenly it is gone, where did it go and what do I have to show for it? Depression is like this; this intolerable slogging, getting through the day, and then looking back on an embarrassing expanse of “nothing?” Very strange.
I think early neglect had to be like this, which is why the child becomes so expert at dissociation: numbing out, “going away,” and is also traumatized by emptiness. Waiting in a long line can evoke that hideous traumatic sensory memory that is coupled with what the child often comes to associate to rejection. Of course, time and its passing or not become a sort of enemy, and altering one’s state is a welcome relief. And this blurry relationship to time or to “nothingness,” has become a window and often an indicator of early neglect – or at least something to wonder about when considering whether one might be a child of neglect.
“The repetition, the sameness, made for a strange complex of endless time and split-second vanishing. Suddenly it is gone, where did it go and what do I have to show for it? Depression is like this; this intolerable slogging, getting through the day, and then looking back on an embarrassing expanse of “nothing?” Very strange.”
Don’t ya hate it when well-meaning people (like therapists) say rather glibly or cheerily, “this too shall pass…”? But you know what? It does. It turns into history and might even become interesting. As a home cheesemaker, I continued making cheese every weekend through the Pandemic years. With all the wheels of aging cheeses dated in the caves, I would suddenly be astonished to find that wow – this cheddar is a year old already! Healing is like that too.
When I first went to therapy at the age of 23, my therapist literally seemed like a blur of colored fog in the far corner of the room. It took some years before she actually coagulated into human form, even though I went to multiple sessions per week. Early sobriety was the same way, I have no memory of sitting in meetings, except the clock on the wall, and the billowing of tobacco smoke, as in those days, people smoked openly everywhere. And now, looking back, my relationship to time and to life is like, well, night and day. There is never enough, certainly for all I want to do. And I have to keep reminding myself, “No! Sleep is not a waste of time!”
“And now, looking back, my relationship to time and to life is like, well, night and day. There is never enough, certainly for all I want to do.”
As we age, now in my advancing years, the passing of time seems to be a kind of foe, if I am not careful. I slip into animosity with nature. I hate the wrinkles, the undeniable physical pains that I never had before and always rather had contempt for, limitations of fatigue, losses that will not be returned. It is something to befriend if one is wise or in harmony with nature’s design.
Admittedly I am not there yet. And there is no getting back that time that slogged unbearable, emptily, and then was gone. But at the risk of being annoying, I can say it does pass. Hang in there!
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 All Things Must Pass by George Harrison.
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.