I write this as I wrap up my stay in the historic town of Oxford, UK, and my first European trauma conference. Oxford is spectacularly beautiful and quaint with elaborately carved steeples and towers, tall, sculptured ancient walls, and lavish, picturesque, manicured English gardens. For me, it is an especially powerful wash of history as my grandmother walked these streets, and her long, silent voice echoes in these halls. I have always been proud to say she was one of the first women to graduate from this iconic, esteemed university.
I brought with me some “sensible shoes:” black lace-up high-ish tops with chunky heels, “old lady shoes,” as we used to say (when she was probably the age I am now!) that remind me of the shoes she used to wear. I have been clacking across uneven stone floors, imagining, wondering how she felt, an 18-19-20 year old coed, conspicuous among the mostly males, as she moved through her young passages. I wonder what her dreams were, what she imagined lay ahead, both in her own life and in the world.
I was scheduled to present about neglect at the conference on the serendipitously assigned date of September 2nd, 2023. Uncannily so my mother was born on September 2nd, 1923. So magically, we were there in Oxford celebrating the centennial of her birth! My talk was one of several in my particular time slot, and entering the room for my final set-up, I was perhaps startled to see there were people there! I had not really thought about it. The child of neglect typically expects, when there is more than one available option, not to be chosen. It was a shock to discover that, wow, some people had chosen mine over other available options. Like the airlines say, “We know you have other choices, thank you…” I had not realized that I had expected to speak to an expansive desert of mostly empty chairs, rather like the old Gestalt therapy… the unwitting default mode of neglect. No one.
I remember growing up, the old adage “Two is company, three is a crowd.” If there were three of us, someone always wound up as the odd one out, “ditched” we used to say. And usually, it would be me, or I would imagine or expect it to be me. As the middle child of three sisters, I was invisible. I have never been particularly taken with the birth order theories, but for whatever reason, I floated around ghostlike for years of my life, expecting to evaporate like smoke, if I ever existed at all. I certainly never expected to exist in anyone’s mind when not in their direct line of sight. It seemed, more than likely that any childhood friend lost interest in me very quickly when ”a better offer” came along. I came to assume that was simply my birthright, which, of course, works quite effectively to make it so.
I was always amazed by the world of threesomes and love relationships of more than two. My few and feeble attempts were awkward and stressful, no fun at all. I remained amazed at how people could make that work. Well, this room full of people defied my age-old circuitry or began to spark something new and pretty wonderful. And it also awakened an uncharacteristic thread of thinking, I began thinking about the many faces of “three.” Associations, myths, triangular shapes, and tercets… dimensions of three.
In the world of trauma and neglect, we are well acquainted with the autonomic trio of fight, flight, and freeze, the primary responses to either actual events or traumatic stimuli. I have also come to identify two other trios in the world of neglect, thus comprising another trinity. The first is what you may have heard me refer to as the “Bermuda Triangle” of emotions, a tri-directional, usually an internal tug of war, a pushing and pulling of contradictory emotions, all of which are undeniably real and all of which make a ton of sense; These are Resentment, Guilt, and Grief. The child of neglect has every reason to be resentful, even enraged, about perhaps a lifetime of “FOMO” and a universe of actual missing out, the huge outlay of time, energy, money, and effort in their quest to reclaim or claim a life. Once they begin to learn about and understand their neglect, they will most likely be boiling mad.
Many of our trauma and neglect survivors come from a long intergenerational line of trauma and neglect. Surely my own parents had tragic, traumatic histories without the benefit of healing. Besides being traumatized by their childhood experiences, my parents then freshly dove into a traumatic immigrant life, with minimal money, post-Holocaust. How do I dare to feel aggression, anger, and even rage when they were simply trying to survive and drag their dysregulated nervous system into a new life? We might say, “They did the best they could,” and many believe saying that is “enough. So, anger about all the “nothing:” all the things that did not happen, feels “wrong,” unsympathetic, not only heartless but clueless. What audacity and meanness are being mad at them? Except that being mad at them makes all the sense in the world. The anger finds itself dragging behind it a mantle of weighty guilt.
And finally, at the far depths of the icy Atlantic region, is the cavernous well of grief for all that was suffered and lost; all the life that was missed: all the nothing, the missing experiences from childhood, all the lost or misspent years of wasted youth and tortured adulthood. The tragedy of waste. Not only is all this loss bitterly unjust, but it is devastatingly sad. Profoundly understandable, incompatible, whipped around by crosswinds, these emotions vie against one another as the sense of self endures the shipwreck.
The third member of our trinity is another triad of emotions, quieter ones but no less painful. These are Rejection, Loneliness, and Shame, another triumvirate that plagues the survivor of neglect and other attachment trauma. The hypersensitivity to rejection, like my unconscious expectation to be abandoned with my waiting PowerPoint in an empty, unchosen hall: “all dressed up like a circus horse with nowhere to go.” Neglect can first be experienced as a devastating rejection, an irreparable unworthiness, and a profound sense of “I don’t matter.” And the expectation that others will catch wind of it quickly and head for the hills.
What follows from the real or perceived rejection can be a bitter and cavernous loneliness if one has the guts and humility to admit it, even to oneself. And finally, the avalanche of shame that shrouds it all into well-hidden secrecy or perhaps self-hatred. A weighty trio. So there you have it: perched on this rigid tripod are some of the toughest challenges for neglect-informed psychotherapy. Three strikes? Oh dear… How do we prevent these three strikes from adding up to “out?”
Well, it is also said that “three is the charm.” So, where is the charm? There is obviously no quick or ready resolution to the contradictions, tensions, and pain. Gentleness, compassion, and understanding for all the struggling and varied triplets, as they all move us toward more peace. And perhaps being on the lookout for other calmer or more joyful trios: the national dance of Chile, the Cueca, like the waltz, moves and sways with 1-2-3 time; the Triptych: a three-paneled art representation, the Tercet, a three-line poetry form that can readily translate to haiku. And apparently, Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, believes three is “the perfect number embodying harmony, wisdom, and understanding.