Dilemma Finds Solution A Song, The Quandary, A Team

In my morning workout, I was swept out of my usual reverie by a vocal. Most of the time my Pandora musical feed keeps me happy and in rhythm with instrumental music. My station is a mix of contemporary/jazz/Spanish guitar which for me is just right. At first, I was annoyed, it was a slowish cut and Santana does not exactly belong on my Pandora station. When I began to tune in a bit, I realized it was Santana’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody, That I Can Depend On.” Then I realized that Pandora was suggesting that I write about the core dilemma of neglect, and the terrible dilemma that results from that early experience.

I always loved Santana. The band’s leader, Carlos Santana, was the first to effectively and successfully, broker the intermarriage between two of my favorite musical styles: rock and Latin. It was a pretty gutsy of him, and an innovative undertaking for a young kid from Jalisco, Mexico. But in San Francisco in the late 1960’s, much was possible. Certainly in the music world. In my typical way, I read a biography of Carlos almost a decade ago. I don’t remember much. He grew up in a musical family; he was sexually abused between the ages of 10 and 12, by an American man who brought him across the border. He subsequently lived and went to school in the San Francisco Mission District which was then a Spanish speaking ghetto, of immigrants from many Central and South American countries. (Now it is a wildly gentrified neighborhood and foodie hot spot, where finding a parking space is like winning a Las Vegas jackpot.) I remember walking through the streets of the Mission when I had my first alcohol treatment job, teaching drunk driving school in Spanish. I loved passing the many Latin music record stores, and often stopped on my way home to buy vinyl “discos.” 

I remember that many of Carlos’s relationships were stormy, with the band changing members and managers multiple times. But I suppose that is not so unusual in the complex and often drug laced musical world, certainly in those days. He divorced after more than three decades, in 2007 and not long thereafter married his drummer with whom he is still married. I do remember that I reflected when I read about him: his appeared to be a challenging, like many an immigrant, life of neglect. That song came from somewhere!

I always loved Santana. The band’s leader, Carlos Santana, was the first to effectively and successfully, broker the intermarriage between two of my favorite musical styles: rock and Latin. It was a pretty gutsy of him, and an innovative undertaking for a young kid from Jalisco, Mexico.

The Quandary

The core dilemma of neglect, and in my experience, the most common and most insidious, is very early in life, precisely that: no one to depend on. Often it starts in the crib. A safe infancy, involves a primary caretaker, most often the mother, who learns to recognize and respond to the infant’s signals. Not being a mother myself, I have always been in awe of how a mammal mother, (not only our species,) learns to distinguish the various infant cries, for food, a clean diaper, the fussiness of being too tired, cold, fear, and simple company or loving arms. How does she do that? And not perfectly of course! The attachment researchers tell us that the best case scenario, the best of the best, succeed 30% of the time! The remaining two thirds of the time, is the ceaseless dance of rupture and repair. But both the prompt response to the particular cry, with the sought supplies; and the reliable quest for repair and reconnection, make for a securely attached, regulated infant. 

The child of neglect for whatever reason, misses out on that. It may be because a mother is depressed, ill, drug addicted, traumatized, desperate to make a living, fighting with the other parent, too young, or simply selfish or careless. 

There are innumerable root causes for the neglect, but that notwithstanding, the child who misses out on the well timed, accurately registered response, winds up with a dysregulated nervous system, as what quiets hyperarousal, and the fear that comes with need, is gratification. The accurately gratified child can settle, calm down, and rest in the knowledge that someone is there who gets it, who gets me, who will take care of me. My feelings matter and will be attended to. What an ideal scenario. And of course this happens, or does not, way before we have the brain development to remember it in a narrative, story-like way. This start inhabits the infant’s little body with a calm that adds up to safety, value and trust that someone is there. I matter and I am OK. It lodges in body, emotional and sensory experience that someone is there. This is why I never had the guts to have children. By age five, I was sure I couldn’t do it, and I never wanted anyone to feel like I did. 

Missing those experiences, or enough of them, results in a child with many varieties of dysregulation. I sometimes wonder if my disordered eating started that long ago, if signals of hunger and satiety were mis-read, ignored or over-ridden. Who knows?  I do know that neglect is the vast and vacuous desert of missing experiences, where the child ultimately has nowhere to turn but inward. These are the roots of the primary default to self-reliance. What else is a little person supposed to do? Pacify or insulate against the “careless” caregiver, and soldier on. You might ask, “how would I know that? It happened so long ago.” Or  “my hapless parents did the best they could.” Or “I had a perfectly happy childhood.” Or the most often resounding disclaimer: “Nothing happened to me!” Precisely, too much nothing!  

It takes time and hard work to unearth an unremembered story. Often we can only piece it together from body, emotional and sensory cues, and reflecting on what was going on around the mother or parents, when the child was tiny. And an often seemingly ferocious self-reliance. Self- reliance is a lifeline, the survival mainstay, hard to ever want or dare to relinquish. It is also a dead give-away. 

Local treasure, Berkeley attachment researcher extraordinaire, Mary Main coined the term “Dilemma without solution” which is the core conflict surrounding neglect. The concept gave rise to what was initially a new attachment style: the disorganized, disoriented. The dilemma is that the source of terror and the source of comfort are the same person. So the infant is an endless ambivalent and confused frenzy seeking both safety and comfort, and succeeding at neither. The dissociation world seized on the concept in a hot minute, because a freeze or numbing response might be the infant’s only recourse, until self-reliance kicks in. Yes, it is a long road to healing. And this is why the wide world of relationship can be a bleak battlefield, littered with the mangled corpses of a parade of misguided or failed relationships of all kinds. At least mine was. That is what brings most survivors of neglect to therapy. Loneliness and confusion about “nothing.” 

Local treasure, Berkeley attachment researcher extraordinaire, Mary Main coined the term “Dilemma without solution” which is the core conflict surrounding neglect. The concept gave rise to what was initially a new attachment style: the disorganized, disoriented. The dilemma is that the source of terror and the source of comfort are the same person.

A Team

Anyone who reads the acknowledgement of most any book, and I always do, knows that it takes a village to write a book. Of course, I didn’t really get that while writing my first two books. The result was what my husband refers to as the two (respectively) worst years of his life. As I approached my next book, to be a “lay-person’s” book about neglect, which promises to be my most important book yet, my husband adamantly refused to go through anything like the experience of the previous two.  He proclaims that each time in effect, “he didn’t see me for a year,” except exhausted, stressed out and with little to offer him. In my advancing years, I finally had enough recovery to get a clue: duh! I hired a helper, who turned out to be an angel. 

What an experience! I did not have to know what to do. Amazing! And what did the brilliant angel do? She brought in two more! Imagine that! A team of angels, who know what to do, and know how to do the things that I have no idea how to do, and never would have thought of.  And who care about me! Always a solo endurance athlete, suddenly I was playing on a team. Three beautiful, smart, knowledgeable, kind and hardworking helpmates, all there for me! And all working to mid-wife the slowly gestating book. Unbelievable!

So this week, I had a truly astonishing experience. My primary angel got very sick. And like the infant who is torn between taking care of the mother, and worrying about its own urgent needs, I was in a quandary. I love my person so much, I only want healing for her. And I was also starting to stress about the things I don’t know how to do, that I am under deadline about. I did not want to interfere with her healing, and knew she was upset enough about work, while also in pain and fear about pretty much everything. And what happened was the unimaginable. The other two, who love her also, simply stepped in, took up the helm, and basically said, like the old Stevie Wonder song says “don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.” Amazing. Even at this advanced age and after 100 years of “solitude,” more and wonderful healing discovery is possible. I feel a new wave transformation, and awe about what it is like to emerge from self-reliance. I’d like to say, “Try it!” But that would be ridiculous. So I will simply say, stay the course! It is worth it!

Todays song:

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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