Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Once Abandoned, Always Abandoned?

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Families leave legacies to the next generation, and young children likely have little clue what they will get. I don’t mean material goods–though the getting or not getting of those can pack power, too. I mean emotional goods. I hazard that as a kid, you get what you get, and you don’t truly know that it just is what it is, or perhaps not until much later. We come into the world from a watery womb and then it is a bubble consisting of family first and most of the time…. though by school age the outside world seeps in, anyway. Maybe we make nice friends, meet other adults we like. But home is the seat of our emotions. It steers us in ways we may not be conscious of as we grow up, choosing each tentative step to more independence. And when we take off, fledglings no more, it is a surprise that there often seems to be more of the same, a similar content as we attempted to escape.

So what dos that mean to those who have been abandoned early and perhaps often? I haven’t counselled clients in several years about the emotional minefields which being left behind creates for countless adults. It can brings too often self-loathing and self sabotage; it leads to addictive behaviors; it can lead to death. It is likely too big a topic to try to blog about, but I write of it, anyway. And I have been hearing talk of this topic in a broad way within my circle. A sister not paying attention during a visit. A spouse forgetting an anniversary. A friend moving away and never calling. A parent of someone’s niece getting lost in addiction–again. A partner on the verge of calling it quits. We all have “fear of abandonment” and have tasted the bitter fruit of it.

But many seem to be reviewing relationships more closely–that includes the one with our own selves. The pandemic has presented long hours of solitude, time to look into life with an acute vision, to bring up the past as well as try to imagine a more challenged future. Concerns might arise in roundabout ways as people deal with multiple difficult experiences, are worried about family members or see themselves stuck in an situation not as healthy as they prefer. As they intended and worked towards. They see the connections between years gone by and current times. Often issues they thought had been bypassed/outgrown/resolved are resurfacing during the days and nights of stress. More often than not it comes down to being left in actual fact or feeling as such at a vulnerable time of life. Being set aside by someone who was considered constant and trustworthy yet suddenly was not. Feeling a lone even with others around because somehow the ties began to fray.

It feels like getting punched in the heart. Abandonment. We don’t even care for the word: it echoes with crying out, shakes with anger, tells us we are unloved. It defines an emptied place inside us just as a building fully abandoned telegraphs that reality. It’s a big word, and carries a far more powerful feeling that just “uninhabited or “empty.”

What if a parent left you literally or figuratively when young but it was never discussed, even though that parent was basically around? Or if a parent was there for you–then came a divorce and the family decision was to bar that person from even finding you? (That is a true and terrible story.) Or someone gave you up to foster care because you were so “difficult’ or the caregiver was simply unable to deal with life on life’s terms. These are not minor separations from love, what was perceived and believed as love. It is clear that this sort of loss is a pain with staying power. An agony, even. And that goes for the ones who long ago decided they would be impervious to the gaping internal chasms created by those who might–and do–leave them. Even they cannot fully staunch seepage from the festering wound when it comes down to it.

So, once abandonment has occurred, does one ever get over it? Or is this the theme music by which a person is doomed to work and play and laugh and rage? I believe such woundedness can be healed, and know that it does happen. Maybe not perfectly so, leaving no trace, but enough that life is freer, fuller, even happier.

Those who have read my posts a long while know that as a child I was sexually abused a few years by a non-blood relative. I was blithely living my life until then. Soon, the facts were clear: no one was aware of or paid attention to signs of my increasing distress, no one seemed to care, and there was no rescue or plan of aid.

These things made an indelible impression. What had been a life of security and safety, genuine affection, careful guidance and support were about erased just like that. My mother–a caring mother I adored but who knew nothing of coping with such a thing in the 1950s– strongly suspected but never confronted me or the perpetrator. If the abuse was bad enough, the abandonment was as bad–if not worse. With no swift and loving intervention I was left to survive on my own. And that told me that I was weirdly, shockingly, not loved enough, after all, to be saved from constant fear and danger. I would not be surrounded by love like a fortress. It would have instigated a healing process and initiated legal action–which is becoming more common today, thankfully. But unheard of 65 years ago.

And I paid the price, which included a strong expectation of ever more recurrent abandonment. Who can a child and then youth trust if not her parents and others in the family who were kind, capable and just there? Then just no longer there, so it had to be my fault; it made no sense that wonderful parents and siblings could let this happen. Everything that had been marvelous in my life began to feel bad. I felt marked, changed, wrong and wronged, and uncertain of so many things. I took all that with me as I tried to grow up alright, though deeply unwell. Tried to be a credit to my accomplished and respected family, but often failed badly, filled with more shame. How to overcome and rise up? To suture up those torn places that abandonment had made?

I had, it turned out, some decent tools for a better life already.

The most important thing was that I already had known deeply what it was to be loved, helped, included in a family of seven. I had been taught useful values and skills–how to play well with others and so how to make friends; how to plan, work hard and seek good results; how to use my curiosity to learn interesting things; how to get up when I fell down, clean up the scrapes, try again. How to keep clear focus when everything around me was pandemonium in a small house. So I had a basic sense of competency and self worth despite the harshness of a very different experience.

And I knew how to pray for help and comfort. That was a practical skill that segued with daily words from my father: “Chin up, honey”, i.e., be positive and have dignity, look upward, keep going forward. I could do both by 7 years old. If bad things happened to me, to my family, then I would make more good things happen. Nothing was insurmountable, apparently, according to my parents, and according to Jesus’ teachings. We earthlings were meant to be “greater than angels” I had heard, so the least I could do was be a human being who kept trying for better.

But then I had years of trials and errors, false starts and detours that took me to more harm. Still, giving up was not truly an option. I held onto the conviction that there were more choices available, that I’d recover, learn again to live well. I found many. Others were pointed out to me. Some seemed mysteriously there when I needed them. I was relentless in the search for answers and resources– and discovered I was not alone in my difficulties. And I learned that loving parents can be afraid, too, with too few good answers, and lacking adequate support. That they surely seem omnipotent to a child and youth but are mainly bigger human beings still trying to figure things out. They fail. They have regrets. And still they care as much as they can, in the ways they can.

Forgiveness has been helpful. The kind of forgiveness that doesn’t deny the pain and loss and remnants of anger… yet can arise from a greater compassion for the cruel offender as well as those who did the abandoning (for whatever reasons they had, it begins to matter less and less). But also: forgiveness of myself. For the many times I failed myself along the way, the skewed ideas and senseless decisions, the difficult reactions to others, missed opportunities, a sometimes hardened heart. The failure to love enough, even–my own self and many others. If I don’t forgive, then who? And who will give me needed relief if I cannot seek and accept it first? Then comes a new peace, slowly but profoundly.

Love doesn’t come with any pain-free guarantee. I learned that lesson well. I used to change the final page of fairy tales when I read to my own kids. I instead made up an ending that indicated life went on, sure, but with good and not-so-good, and that if there is a someone to share it with then that matters most, not an elusive “happily ever after”. There is going to be hardship awaiting us all. There are no spectacular times without visitations of difficulty or sadness. So, then, why not embrace it all?

There have, of course, been betrayals over the years, ones I thought might break me. Misunderstandings that kept me up at night. Words thrown at me that I wish I never heard. Leave-takings that almost broke my heart. Illnesses that have taken me or another to the edge and back. And there are also triggers from time to time that I feel coming alive deep within: See, I caution myself, there it is, this is a thing that might recall that old abandonment but it is NOT the same so I need to separate myself from it to avoid mistaking it for that terrible thing. It is an illusion; you make of it what you will. Be a grown up and take responsibility, refuse to be a victim of the past, such an old fear. If dipping into the ole self-pity pool happens, anyway, I further counsel myself, then keep it short and get over it; learn something and move on. There is nothing quite as relieving as a storming cry, a kick at the dirt, spouting off in private–then finding something positive to do. If it’s something truly needing a remedy, it is meant to be faced so a plan to address it needs to happen. After that, I hope I have done what I can, then will choose to do the next good thing. But in the final analysis, I will not ever abandon myself.

There are possibilities for change on every level. So many ways to move in a healthier direction and create a better time of it. I believe in myself–that I can be hurt and recover, that I can make something worthwhile out of less than I may want to have. That life is beautiful, still, and so are other people. I have hope in my faith in God. The truth is, everyone everyone on this planet is abandoned at some point; we each carry the memories and it is how we carry them. We love and we lose–romantic relationships fall apart, friends move away or move on, people we adore, die. We face ourselves in dark places and learn how to find courage for the battles, the truces, the peacemaking. Its seems to be the way things go here on earth. But I will risk it every time to experience the power and wonder of loving–and being loved– and how it shapes and propels my life. That’s the sort of legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren.