Last week I lost my watch. I hate losing things, and I rarely do, having ferocious OCD rituals of rigidly keeping things “always” in the same designated places. Usually, it is my husband’s difficulty, and more than once, we have frantically searched for his wallet in foreign countries. He is a little older, so it is rather endearing to go through the checklist before we go out: “Wallet, keys, glasses, glasses case, phone,” but admittedly, it is something of an insult, certainly a bitter frustration when it is me. And I really liked it. I got it in Santa Fe, New Mexico, some years ago. Oh well.
But this first-world problem brought to mind literally and figuratively the recurring theme of lost time. We used to refer to sufferers from severe dissociative disorders as “losing time,” blocks of a day or more that simply could not be accounted for, blanked out. Lately, I have heard about it much more in terms of mortality. So many survivors of trauma and neglect find themselves in their fifties and sixties and only newly coming out into the light of pleasure and joy in life. And even younger people grieve over what were supposed to be our “best years,” the mythical imagery of youth, theirs having passed with storms of traumatic activation, paralysis, loneliness, and endless therapy. So much time is seemingly lost. I do say I find that all my pain and loss serve me in some way, but that can be a very hard sell.
Loss is at the very root of neglect trauma. Absence is the perpetuity of loss, the ever-present ache of what is not there and likely never will be. Sometimes, it is, in fact abandonment by death, busyness, illness, too many siblings, simply leaving, or perhaps worst of all, parental withdrawal. Loss, as an experience or expectation, is one of the most potent and persistent features of neglect trauma. Admittedly, I have discovered that I harbored (and still somewhat do) embarrassing denial and avoidance around death, perhaps numbing or cutting off from my feelings when someone important has passed. I am aware that I desperately dreaded the loss of the most important people in my life and was frantic for a good two years when my sister was very sick. I guess I finally began to make some progress as I felt terrible sadness about the deaths of Charlie Watts, Pablo Milanes, and even our little dog Button, But only in the last couple of years. And those are certainly “practice” losses. Not like the most important, closest people in my life. I am aware I still have a ways to go, and I am hoping the timing will be kind.
Neuroscientist and clinician Frank Corrigan has aptly renamed the larger category of attachment trauma as “attachment shock.” That really captures it. It is profoundly, shockingly traumatic to an infant’s system to experience the loss of the primary other, in whatever form it takes. And Ruth Lanius, the world’s foremost trauma neuroscience expert, reminds us how severe the shock of withdrawal of the primary love “object” is, especially in the most vulnerable developmental times in life. For a graphic illustration, I again recommend the famous “still face” research, which most of us have seen at least once (see here) as a reminder of how quickly and profoundly a small child is affected even by momentary and seemingly “neutral” shifts of caregiver attention. With as many times as I have viewed it, I never cease to find it heartbreaking.
Of course, rejection is a highly charged “hot button” of trauma activation for survivors of neglect trauma. Those of us in a relationship with survivors may be offended or exasperated by the way what to us might be “innocuous” behavior, might be interpreted as rejecting or abandoning. And it can certainly be humbling and sometimes surprising how persistent those reactions can be. Admittedly, only the other day I was reminded of this when I got an email from my beloved work team about changes in their growing business. My heart began cracking before even getting through the email’s text. The header alone announcing “changes” had me immediately preparing to be passed off to some other helper, displaced by much bigger and more valuable fish. I was unsure if my rough couple of days anticipating our meeting to discuss it was only because of this excessive grief/dread or other factors. But I arrived at the meeting already with tears in my throat.
Of course, the team, in explaining the changes, was quick to reassure me that the changes were all good and well-founded and certainly would not be leaving me on the curb as I had imagined. The newer member of the team was profusely apologetic as if she had done something “wrong” in how she expressed herself. I had to quickly change my hat and explain to her, “You did nothing ‘wrong!’ What you are seeing is neglect trauma!” I even told her, “This is what neglect ‘triggering’ looks like!”
Those who are familiar with my work (and my quirks!) know that I dislike and avoid using the word “triggering.” I don’t like the association with gun violence, and to me it can sound blaming as well. But I wanted to make my point quickly. But additionally, this is an opportunity to clarify that neglect “triggering” or activations are like gunshots with silencers. Rather than a big, dramatic bang, they have a muted, muffled pop. And as with so much else about neglect, they can go unheard and/or misunderstood. Reactions being unobtrusive, the neglect survivor can yet again slip under the radar with their experience and their pain, unseen and unrecognized. This of course did not happen with these wonderful people, but it was also a good teaching moment. And a shot of humility for me!
For those of us in any kind of relationship with survivors of neglect trauma, be they partner, client, loved one, and of course oneself, we must be ever reminded that the child of neglect can sniff rejection and abandonment readily under almost any rock, however “innocent” it might be in real-time, prefrontal, rational terms. We may be confronted with “disproportional” and seemingly “irrational” even “crazy” responses/reactions to what is to us misunderstood unintended slights.
I attempt to teach neglect survivors as we do the protracted work of extinguishing the old trauma reactivity; our larger goal is to get a voice! As attachment and somatic pioneer Stephen Johnson so concisely wrote, get a spine and get a voice. Find the courage and words to claim and occupy space and clarify: “What do you mean?” Most often, it is not the slur that we imagine. Admittedly, such unwitting imaginings can make it so. I wonder how many times I have been inspired by the painful rejections of me that I so feared!
The work of repair is another whole topic. Like everything else in a relationship, as adults, the more we make it a two-way street, the more quickly and “economically” it can wreak its magic. But most certainly, working one’s own side of the street, both in terms of how we interpret others (or fail to inquire about our interpretations;) or how we ourselves might “slip” into thoughtless or seemingly absent or even hurtful behavior or utterances. I know I can always do better, and to correct when I can is often better even than had I never made the mistake in the first place.
Meanwhile, I did find another watch that I like. We can never get back “lost time,” But who knows? Maybe my old vanished watch will turn up!