It has taken me many years to find out how alone I have felt deep down inside. I remember a few years into recovery coming across the book Healing Your Aloneness by Margaret Paul and learning that the deep loneliness we feel comes when we sacrifice a relationship with our True Self to meet someone else’s need and abandon ourselves. We may also abandon ourselves by reaching to a substance or activity to sooth us when we feel any kind of feeling. All of these feelings just reflect how alone we felt as children being unnurtured or misunderstood.
There is a time when taking an action that is positive is good for us. For example choosing to leave a situation when were are being bullied, starting to exercise when we have been neglecting our health due to depression. But there are other times when we reach to an activity to fill a void or mask a pain or realisation that we need to connect with and feel to understand.
I myself have been in recovery from alcohol addiction for over 20 years but in the last few years I have realised I have a food addiction too. There are times I reach for coffee or food when really I either need to connect with someone else or with myself. I know my habit of turning towards substances began when I could not get the nourishment I needed in my home. Lately I am finding its becoming more and more obvious when I have done the wrong thing by myself in reaching for the wrong “food”. My body rebels.
In my body therapy I am only just becoming conscious of how terrified and unsafe I have felt since a young age. Having an accident at 17 and then other traumas I witnessed in my family made me feel the world was not a safe place, unpredictable things could happen to shatter the continuity of life and I had not much power or control over that happening.
One of the damaging aspects of co-dependency and lack of a sold sense of boundaries is that we try to control every aspect of our lives. If it feels too unsafe we will simply not engage with things that threaten us. There are times for sure when we should not engage, but there are other times that we really need to. If fear holds us back our world grows smaller and smaller.
After my husband left me and I tried unsuccessfully to move overseas and had a massive accident I retreated home to a house where no one could come and I had no contact with anyone much apart from my Al Anon support group for over a year. It was the deepest, darkest loneliest time of my life, but I will say one thing. It was unlike the deep dark loneliness of my addictive years because I was not numb. In fact I was unthawing. It just didn’t feel safe enough to feel with others. I had been getting consistent messages from the last few years in my recovery that my feelings were threatening to others.
Its taken me some time to find people who are not threatened by my feelings. I know I had a fine hair trigger that was hyper alert to abuse. I have just read a powerful blog about how narcissists cannot be criticised and how doing so awakens narcissistic injury and then rage. The rage is the rage at the parent who would not let them be vulnerable, made them believe they were not good enough, humiliated them and made them feel small and they side with the abuser by becoming ashamed of their own vulnerability and never appearing vulnerable again. If someone threatens to unmask their vulnerability they strike back.
I must say I can relate to this, but my problem in later years has been in being vulnerable and unmasking this around narcissists. Vulnerability in recovery is best expressed at first with a therapist or with someone who is not narcissistic themselves. Luckily in the past few years I have found safe people after many stops and starts. But I still have times when I question who is actually safe and validating. I have been invalidated so much it seems like second nature.
This weekend I had to make a few decisions to spend time alone with myself. I had been invited to several events but I was aware that sometimes when I choose to socialise I end up feeling lonelier than I do when I am alone with me. This weekend I made the decision to spend a lot of time just taking care of myself. It paid off as I have ended the weekend feeling happier. But I still have a great fear that all of this alone time is not good for me. I get this message all the time from certain people. “What have you been doing?” they ask with a heightened emphasis on the last word as if just being were a sign of some problem. I love what John Bradshaw says : “I am a human being, not a human doing.”
The point is as an introvert I am nourished by time alone and by time spent connecting with others on a deeper level than the purely surface. Then there are times when it is just great to be out in the world seeing all the vibrant life and living going on in other people’s lives. If I don’t judge myself as lacking I can see that time alone and just being does great things for me.
Sometimes it seems to me the price of growing is being alone for a time. In and through coming to know this aloneness instead of running it seems to me that I can come into a deeper relationship with myself. For so long growing up in my family the focus was always outside of myself. I don’t remember my parents playing with me much. The one time Dad did something I wanted was on holiday when we would go to the fair at the coast and ride the Cha Cha. Otherwise I was dragged around to other activities they enjoyed or left in the car while they went into the club to have a drink.
It seemed also at big family events as the youngest I was on the outside and the observer of things. I guess what I am saying is that I spent a lot of my young years and teens dissociated in some way from the family and in time I learned to dissociate from myself and my emotions which I did not understand.
I remember after my first AA meeting driving away in the car to a favourite spot near where I lived in nature and just crying my eyes out. I had for the first time felt like I belonged somewhere with people who were taking down the mask and talking honestly about their addiction. Sadly many of them spoke about feeling like aliens, alienated from life and only coming alive with the first drink or drug.
Like them I had learned to check out, in the absence of being able to relate to parents or siblings (most especially after the sister I was close to had a cerebral haemorraghe) I began to turn to alcohol. Then after Dad died I was sent overseas alone again with a bottle of Scotch from the Duty Free which I awoke from a blackout to find nearly empty following a party in London.
Yesterday when reading Peter Walker’s book on Complex PTSD I related to the chapter in which he shared about the various ways we can react to a traumatising environment or childhood. He uses the notion of the four ‘F’s to outline this : Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn. A fight response leads to narcissism. A flight response to Obsessive/Compulsive reactions, a freeze response leads to dissociation and a fawn response to co-dependence (see pp. 12 – 19)
I related most to the freeze response (as well as to the fawn response) and we can operate from a number of styles. Often we flip between two in the effort to both act out trauma and heal. Freeze states and reactions lead to a depressive dissociation from which it is difficult to feel and relate to anything outside the self. An involvement with self soothing activities which actually lock us up in isolation – eating, internet surfing, television watching, shopping etc is also a part of this state.
Realising what these states are, coming to know why we are trapped in them takes time. It also takes real courage to move out of them, to seek for a different way of being beyond the old comfortable but life squashing reactions which limit us and keep our lives small. Along the way we have to grieve for what we have lost from being trapped here within these reactions and habits, maybe for years.
The phase of intensely grieving our childhood losses can last for a couple of years. When sufficient progress is made in grieving, the survivor naturally drops down into the next level of recovery work. This involves working through the fear by grieving our loss of safety in the world. At this level we also learn to work through our toxic shame by grieving the loss of our self esteem.
Facing the depth of our abandonment trauma comes next, according to Walker along with an unmasking and releasing of self protective defences we had to keep in place to protect ourselves from injury while young.
It is interesting to me that on the path of recovery, which is long and slow, material we need often comes to us just at the right time. I feel this way about Walker’s book. It meshes with the work I have been doing in talk and body therapy, most especially at the moment as I have begun to experience just how much I have checked out and erect defences against hurt. Letting them down is slow work, fraught with fear. Being patient and kind with myself is essential. Writing and blogging gives me a way to share about it as it is occurring.
I’m not often the space where I advise or recommend. I have a respect for each person’s path and need to find their own way. However Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving by Peter Walker seems to be an extremely valuable resource on the way to recovery.
Its strength is that in the book Pete Walker doesn’t just outline what is wrong but what can be done to heal from Trauma and a traumatising childhood. His book is written by someone who has walked the path (is his surname any accident, I ask? Pete Walker has obviously walked his talk). So I am giving the book a big recommendation and will be sharing some more information from it on my blog.