Why Nothing Matters: Ennui, It Does!, Detection

I remember when Mom used to get really angry at me. Well, her word was “annoyed.” She would come at me with that really stern face and exclaim, “Ach! Do me a favor!” Sometimes if it was really bad, she would say, “Vadammt!” That was German for “damn!” I never liked the sound of German. I only heard it when my parents did not want us to understand what they were talking about. Or when they were upset. I knew only a handful of words, mostly “bad words,” and a few foods like wienerschnitzel, until I studied German in college so I would be able to read Karl Marx and Hermann Hesse in the original, which I never did.

Usually, when Mom got annoyed, it was something about food. I was always a “terrible eater” right from the beginning. I never liked meat, and that was our most chronic fight; worst of all was liver. Ugghh. Even the memory turns my stomach nightmarishly, and I can even smell it as I write this.  (Why do parents make kids eat what they don’t like or even detest?!)  The deal was I had to eat a piece the size of a quarter. She would serve liver with “heaven and earth:” mashed potatoes and applesauce, but even deeply entombed under all that camouflage, it still made me gag. More than once, I was “swacked” with a serving spoon. 

Worst of all was the deathly feeling of having her mad at me. The loss of the connection was like a death sentence, and even with all the times that it happened, I invariably felt that it was completely and utterly irreparable, the end of the world.   And I would never recover. The right amygdala, where the fight/flight response resides, knows no time. It fires its shrieking alarm each time as if survival is truly at stake, and this is it.

I remember the aftershocks of those episodes that seemed to linger an eternity. I was beset by a consuming “ennui,” a lovely French-sounding word I learned only much later; a bottomless pit of despair, hopelessness and confusion. I felt that I had no right and no reason to exist, and I was frantic to figure out how to earn or rent the patch of ground I might occupy on the planet. Why did they have me? Well, I knew from Dad it was imperative to replace the six million. But for Mom, I had no clue. She seemed so sad and so anxious much of the time. I knew it was my fault. Later she said if people did not have children, it was because they were “too selfish.” And secretly, I knew I was because I knew I absolutely never would (although admittedly, to me, it seemed the other way around. Who’s “selfish?”)

For a child, the loss of connection is devastating and truly does feel fatal. Attachment is indeed a survival need for mammals. And the human child is dependent longer than most mammals, so the disconnect is survival terror. Each time it happened to me, the bottom would fall out what little bottom there might have been. And the blanket of “nihilism,” another elegant word I learned much later, the conviction that nothing matters, would descend like the arctic snow that kept us cooped up during those infinite winters that we lived in Indiana. It was like a chronic “passive suicidality,” wishing I would die but not wanting that too to be “my fault.”

The feeling that nothing matters, I don’t matter, no one likes me, and in those moments, I don’t really like anyone translates to what I would now think of as depression. It began to persist beyond those moments of aftershock to an episode with Mom, as disconnection became the “norm,” and she complained of me “walking around with a long face” all the time. Why didn’t I just have more fun?! 

For a child, the loss of the connection, or better said, its absence because for many it is never known or experienced, produces this profound and pervasive existential angst, emptiness, depression and confusion. And most often, as children get older, it is compounded by shame and hiding, because there is “nothing to explain it.” A signature of neglect that I first came to recognize was the resounding “Nothing happened to me!” There is no reasonable explanation for feeling this bad. Only a “bad attitude,” a failure of gratitude. After all, “children were starving in Europe!” 

Nothing Does Matter!

Neglect is a universe of loss, of essential missing experiences. Most important of all, what is missing is presence. The attentive effort to see, hear and understand the child’s world and communications. I was moved recently, watching our young dinner guests with their 15-month-old. The little guy subtly rubbed his eyes with his pudgy fists, and they knew that was his language for telling them he was getting tired and it was time to go home. They knew his signals and distinctive vocalizations: which of the cries and utterances meant he was hungry, cold, wet, lonely, or restless to get out of his high chair and check out that little girl at the neighboring table.  Their accurate and attentive presence and the ready response with the needed “supplies” gives a child a sense of value, “I matter, and my feelings matter.” What a different life that child will have. Little by little, he will learn to identify and name his feelings and needs himself. He will know that they matter, he matters and the reliable beloved other matters. Life is worth living.

The absence of all this and the poverty of “mirroring” endemic of neglect trauma profoundly matters and is a hotbed for every sort of dysregulation and every sort of problem, micro and macro.  Mental health, medical health, sexual health, behavior, every kind of earthly woe. And what is most insidious about it, is that it hides in plain sight, masquerading as “invisible.” I am on a mission to convey that this nothing does matter! To inspire a “neglect-informed” culture and world where “nothing” matters enough to do something about it! 

Detection

Because it is so well disguised and hidden, even or especially from sufferers themselves, bringing neglect to light is an undertaking. Like cheesemaking or endurance athletics, one must be prepared to stay the course and endure what can seem like a desert of nothingness on an unbearably long road to feeling alive. Too often, because of their often extraordinary drive, like my impulse to compensate for the blight of my sorry existence, by doing, achievement or outward success are deceptive masks. The survivor seems to be “doing” so well: academically, professionally, financially… they slip right past notice. “Passing”  or getting over,  they garner no care or help. Which on one hand, is a relief, and on the other, is a repetition of the desolation of invisibility.

Being seen, known, recognized, and valued for who one is are such fundamental developmental experiences. They are like yeast, or the rennet, that activate and incite ferment, growth and delicious appeal as we rise, ripen and age. Without them, life is flat, tasteless, or, God forbid, moldy. The most reliable indicator of neglect is an often ferocious self-reliance and profound interpersonal ambivalence. If someone is controlling and inconsistent or confusing about letting us near, that is a hint. There may be a “story-less story” lurking. Gentle, non-intrusive presence and patience, patience with what, sometimes for us as therapists, aspiring friends or loved ones may feel boring or lifeless, is key. 

I have learned that my own boredom or listlessness in their company is a clue I must be mindful and attuned to. Because they are otherwise rare for me, these feelings point to contactlessness. I must look for safe and gentle ways to draw them into contact without shame or insult, or danger. I must be able to weather diatribes of devaluing hopelessness about therapy or even about me and intermittent rejection. They are “show don’t telling” me, as the fiction writers say, the story that they don’t remember. I may be inspired to find the opening to inquire, “what do you know about what was going on around you in your parents’ lives when you were in utero or an infant? They won’t remember, but perhaps richly know family lore. Then the plot thickens.

We must bear in mind and hold that they and all of it do matter, including our sitting there with them. To make the entendre even more dimensional and confounding, I will close with a quote from Einstein! He said:

“Energy is liberated matter. Matter is energy waiting to happen.” 

Oy vey! Go figure…

Today’s song:

 

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