Abandonment depression appears as a subject in a few of my posts. I made a leap forward in my own recovery when I first began to become aware of the term just over a year ago following reading Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD where he deals with the subject in depth. Abandonment depression is different to basic depression which can be a feeling of depletion or lowered energy following a loss of massive change of some kind in a person’s life. When dealing with this kind of depression easy solutions of distraction for a time or a taking of pain relief to help when people find them selves in the critical stages will help. In the case of abandonment depression we are dealing with something that will not be helped by these kind of solutions since it involves a core wound that must be understood, felt, mined and addressed through psychological work.
Here is how James Masterton describes the abandonment depression :
In the throes of the abandonment depression, a person will feel that a part of his very self is lost or cut off from the supplies necessary to sustain life. Many patients describe this in graphic physical terms, such as losing an arm or leg, being deprived of oxygen, or being drained of blood. As one patient put it : “I felt as though my legs would not work so I couldn’t possibly leave the house, and when I went to fix lunch I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to swallow. And if I did I would probably throw it back up.”
At the darkest level of this depression, a person can despair of ever recovering her real self, and thoughts of suicide are not uncommon. When one is brought low enough repeatedly, or for an extended period of time, it becomes increasingly harder to imagine oneself happy again or able to push through life with the strength and confidence with which the reasonably healthy go about their daily living. At this point a person can teeter on the brink of despair, give up and consider taking her own life. If the separations they experience in their external lives are painful enough to reinforce the feelings of fear of abandonment, some will commit suicide.
(this is well beyond an acute episode of the ‘blahs’)… The roots of depression push farther into the past than seems apparent. In time, true sources, eating away inside, make themselves known. But initially they are well defended by the false self.
It is the nature of the false self to save us from knowing the truth about our real selves, from penetrating the deeper causes of our unhappiness, from seeing ourselves as we really are – vulnerable, afraid, terrified, and unable to let our real selves emerge. Nevertheless, when the defences are down and the real self is thrown into situations calling for strong self assertion, situations that trigger the repressed memories of earlier separation anxieties and feelings of abandonment by the mother, the serious nature of the depression is glimpsed and felt. At this point it is not uncommon for the patient to panic and slide down to the very bottom from which he convinces himself he will never recover.
(Panic hides fear of the rage underneath depression). Depression and rage ride in tandem. As depression intensifies, and comes to the surface of awareness, so does anger. At first (the real reasons cannot be pinpointed)…rage is diffuse and projected onto outside sources (anger at life or the world or just angry in general…..Anger of the abandonment depression is far more intense and complex). Anger that is part of the abandonment depression. has more damaging consequences. Its intensity can cause bodily shaking, feelings of helplessness, feeling like a baby (age regression) and it comes from painful childhood experiences that may not be easily recalled because they are so solidly defended against.
Eventually in therapy real causes of the anger begin to become apparent but the anger is still defended against by being projected onto targets that are often stand ins or proxies….this occurs because feeling anger is associated with fear of rejection as well as fear of intimacy since in childhood being close came with difficulties and rejections.
Rage and fear (the) lead to panic.. Panic feeds on the fear that we cannot express our anger over abandonment. It can be a claustrophobic strangling of energies, a tightening up of options : either we express our anger and risk losing the love of others or we deny the anger in order to remain in the helpless state of dependency and hold onto others. As the panic grows, patients report that it feels like facing death or actually being killed. Often this anxiety will be channelled into psychosomatic disorders such as asthma and peptic ulcers, each being a perfect metaphor for the underlying fear… A person with a peptic ulcer is often hungering for emotional supplies that were lost in childhood or that were never sufficient to nourish the real self. As an adult, she is unable to find sources to supply the needed emotional support or to get through life without it.
The person living with (such a) death threat, or what is perceived as a death threat, hanging over his head necessarily leads a fearful life, in which every move to express hiself, to allow his rea self to emerge, is accompanied by the need to look over his shoulder in fear and panic… panic can escalate as the patient slowly becomes aware of the depression and anger that have been bottled up over the years. The false self has blocked any expression of these feelings for so long that when they do manage to surface, even in the slightest way, the resulting panic can be paralysing and terrifying. Fear of letting these feelings out into the open, even in therapy can mushroom into panic proportions.
Guilt is the fifth column behind.. the patient’s frontline of defences. (This is not normal reasonable guilt but rather)… fed by the guilt we internalise in early childhood from the disapproval expressed by the mother for self actualisation or individuation……Not being able to face up to the internalised guilt about that (healthy) part of themselves, these individuals will suppress making any moves in forbidden direction and resort to old familiar clinging behaviour that they remember made them safe and good years ago.
(Clinging and guilt lead to…) helplessness. Failure to activate the impaired real self (and) to deal with painful feelings.. which in the abandonment depression is abiding and total…. staying in unhealthy jobs and relationships, fearing moving on from old unhealthy patterns, even denying that we desire to.
James A Masterson, Fear of Abandonment, The Search for the Real Self
The anger against, fear of and panic due to devaluation of our true self internalised by the false self in the course of growing up lives on inside of us and must be faced on the path of healing. Facing such internalised voices, feelings and fears means we must also confront the inner critic who has become hostile to the real self ever breaking free and asserting its real needs which bring with them the deep seated fear of abandonment by others that had its roots in the past. Mastering our fear of abandonment and the abandonment depression is the price we pay to discontinue the inner self abandonment we face when we begin to become more conscious and aware of the real roots and aspects of the abandonment depression.
14 thoughts on “Understanding abandonment depression : insights from James Masterson”
This really struck me. I have been saying to myself all day, “What if I am too afraid of reality because reality is too painful to face?” Thank you for sharing this.
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I could not refrain from commenting. Very well written!
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Sounds very like ‘boarding school survival syndrome.’
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Reblogged this on Emerging From The Dark Night and commented:
This is one of my more popular posts on the experience of abandonment depression. Feelings of deep abandonment can live on in Complex PTSD dogging us for many years I often think a failed attempt to deal with such depression can lead us to addictions too. Masterton outlines here other feelings that are evoked by the complex abandonment depression such as rage, anxiety and panic.
Sounds like Boarding School Survival Syndrome which I’ve bloged about!
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oops – I already said that! ;-0
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Wow. It really helps to understand how these patterns are predictable. Thank you for sharing.
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Yes when I first read it made so much sense of things I was experiencing. Thanks for commenting.
I’ve known early-childhood abandonment trauma, albeit relatively short-lived.
In 1972, on a sunny afternoon, I was granted the honor of hanging out with my three older siblings, all of whom were accompanied by their own similarly aged friends. A five-year-old boy, I was about two years the junior of the younger of my two older sisters who was herself the next youngest amongst the whole group; thus, naturally I was the sole person to whom no one from the group (totaling seven) paid much, if any, attention. That fact was not their problem, as far as they were concerned, on that sunny afternoon. Contrarily, it much appeared to be but mine and with which I’d have to disturbingly deal alone.
Eventually came the point at which the sunny afternoon suddenly went astray and behavior became mischievous.
One moment, I was with the others inside an aged, abandoned, single-floor house as everyone investigated decrepit furniture and other items; the next moment, some of my people blurted out an alarming warning, with all of my people scattering away, outwards in every direction. I, however, just stood there completely bewildered and alone, looking around the briefly empty place for a couple of seconds.
Instead of my people, there suddenly stood a half-dozen boys, all surely at least twice my age. They more than sufficiently surrounded me, as though they actually believed that I wasn’t too petrified to attempt a dash and perhaps successful evasion.
They all worked with law enforcement, they fooled me effectively enough to induce formidable fear in me: “Have you ever heard of the Mod Squad?” asked one, perhaps their ‘leader.’ (FYI: The Mod Squad was at first a 1968-commenced, bit-of-a-hit TV series, followed by a not-so-hot, 1999 motion picture about the three rather rogue criminals-turned-law-enforcement demi-agents.)
To the present day, I can’t recall what was my intimidated reply. Perhaps a muffled and/or squeaky “Yeah,” or nothing at all.
“Well, we’re with the Mod Squad,” said another.
It’s amazing how naïve we can perceive ourselves to have been at a very young age, though of course with the advantage of clear hindsight. However, experiencing mind-numbing ordeals real-time is too immediate to adequately analyze, and exceptionally so at such a cerebrally and psychologically undeveloped point in a very young child’s life.
The rather young Mod Squad recruits soon escorted me outside and onto the street, all the while having completely encircled me. It was quite apparent that the poor condition of the abandoned house did not matter at all to them, for their disinterest in that fact allowed them artificial cause to psychologically torment a small and skinny, very young, redheaded squirt like me.
They took me along the neighborhood streets (e.g. Pacific Avenue) lining steeply-slanted southeastern White Rock, from where I could see an unobstructed sunny Blaine, Washington (State), which like White Rock was also adjacent to Semiahmoo Bay; meanwhile they acted out a fantasy of theirs as some sort of enforcers of justice or apprehenders of very young, bad boys.
But their fantasy fun was at my emotional expense, since I was the one living a daylight nightmare, whimpering and weeping a few times; it was my first brush with some form of albeit self-anointed ‘law.’
The Mod Squaders walked me a block to where two streets met, and looking up one (i.e. Habgood Street), we, the Mod Squaders and I, spotted my people, who themselves were looking down the same street at us, as they walked in the same direction (eastward, along Cliff Avenue).
It was at that point that my people may have realized that the entire bad situation may not be just my problem, but perhaps it was also soon-to-be their predicament as well; they may have then felt baffled and concerned over what they and I were supposed to and would do about it all.
Both sides continued to walk our parallel paths eastward, though a long-block apart, at pretty much the same walking pace; and we both would stop two more times at two more intersections to look up and down the long-block at each other.
The last thing that I, four decades later, can recall regarding that ordeal is being at home with my unhappy parents after the police, obviously contacted by the Mod Squaders, had just left.
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Wow…that’s a lot to take in I know about the Mod Squad as I’m a 60s baby. I can’t quite take this in this morning but it sounds pretty overwhelming.