The painful cost of trauma : understanding abandonment depression

Painful trauma has a way of driving us out of our body.  To have lived with an intolerable reality which we are given no help to process or understand is an agony beyond words.  Not to be held, understood and empathised with in our suffering means our neurobiology cannot be soothed, we become flooded with stress chemicals such as cortisol.  Recent studies show that empathy increased the presence of oxytocin in our neurobiological systems.

I know the relief that has come for me in therapy as  have been able to let my own feelings out.  I know the damage that has occurred when, in trying to express said feelings with unsafe others who are defended, blocked or lacking in empathy they have become, not only trapped within, but other feelings have then occurred in reaction such as pain, disappointment and distress.  It was only last week in reading the chapter on abandonment depression in James Masterton’s book on the real self that I became aware of how complex and multilayered the feelings of that state are.  It is within the abandonment depression that we feel suicidal as it contains what Masterton has labelled the six feelings of the psychic apocalypse, very aptly named.  Guilt, rage, panic, fear are four of these feelings.

In recovery those of us who have undergone trauma or abandonment trauma need help to understand our feelings and the courage and strength to bear with or integrate these feelings. Rage is a huge part of what we feel when we meet again invalidation or similar abuse that triggers our earlier abuse.  There is panic when we face the rage which also comes with a great deal of fear, after all when we were younger and abandoned we experienced fear as we were confronted with overpowering situations of stress and distress which we can go on reliving unconsciously for years and had no help with.

In our recovery we begin to regress to these feelings and since such a huge part of so called borderline trauma involves invalidation or lack of support and empathy, when we meet such triggers again, we can regress and find ourselves once again filled with grief and rage.  Our overt reactions will most likely not be understood by those who have no idea of the complexity of feelings we are left trying to contain, process and express as a result.  This why we need in recovery an enlightened witness who is able to show empathy for what the real self had to suffer in childhood which led to the adoption of a false self as a defence against fully feeling the complex feelings of the abandonment depression.

In his book on Complex PTSD Pete Walker deals with the abandonment depression.  He also explains how the inner critic becomes very active at a certain stage in our recovery, shaming us for daring to recover and try to become well.  The inner critic may be comprised of things said to us when young by others who tried to shame or judge us instead of showing empathy or helping us make sense of difficult feelings.  We can shame ourselves in similar ways for our reactions, which comes often from the so called ‘adult’ part of us that won’t accept or allow the child to be the child, vulnerable, tortured at times and deeply confused.

Empathy is so essential as we begin to deal with our inner critic less we start to shame the child all over again in a bid to protect it or protect against the feared rejection of others that we experienced in the past.  It’s a complex process.  We do need to become aware of when we become triggered or start to act out old pain, but shaming ourselves for it won’t work and help us to heal.  Painful feelings need to be lovingly contained and soothed for true healing and integration to happen.




Here you come like a flood

Threatening to drown me

I gasp for air

And cannot breathe


Don’t lead me astray

Or throw me off the scent

Tears you are here

Underneath the wave that rises up

Reminding me of so many forces

And events I was powerless over

In the past


I only touch you

When I put the focus on the Now

On little things I can do

Sorting out some of the mess around me

Or sitting still

Connecting to my breath

Saying to the little one

Locked inside my restless beating heart

It’s okay, darling I am here


You are present

I notice you


There were good reasons for you being there

In a world that often did not understand

And wanted to overpower

What seemed so small and weak

But was really trying to grow strong

Fear don’t make me do

What is against my will

Pulled on by forces of larger wills

Let me stand strong and true

In Leonine courage

Building a protective support around my heart

Not to keep out love

But to protect what really is love

From forces that seek

To destroy it

How to help?

How can you help someone who seems to be in such grief and loneliness and also almost shutting down in that pain.  It occurs to me at such times as these we so often feel powerless.  There may be nothing we can do with this person.  They may not recognise what they are feeling and their feelings, confusing at they may be are their feelings.  They are not our feelings.  We can feel for them but we cannot go further than that and then we can hit a brick wall in knowing what else to do.

Its a feeling and issue I have had so much in my own family.  When my older sister was alive and I watched her suffering it was so hard.  There was little more that could be done in the home she was living in everything was under their control.  I struggled at times with helplessness knowing how much she was being drugged at times.  I could feel her sadness when I went to visit and then I would start to cry, after one of these visits when I took my ex partner he got really, really angry with me.  “You better watch out that you don’t end up like that,” he said to me after we left the home.  I was deeply hurt by this comment, in what universe was it wrong to feel for my sister, to be there, to listen?   Did he fear such sorrow or see it as contagious?  It is now recognised that the presence of mirror neurons in our being actually does resonate with pain as well as with other emotions or energies in others.  Such feeling is empathy and is a sign of something most human, normal and natural.

But to someone who is blocked in feelings, feeling such empathy may be met with fear, at least that is the only solution I can come to about the way my ex partner’s defences would so often kick into action around me at times.  My attendance at Al Anon helped me to work through what was and what was not within my power to change for my sister.  I still made the choice to stay close which at times was not always the best choice for me, but I made it out of love.  My need to be connected and to make up for the dearth of connection following her separation from her husband and four boys was a natural one for me.  I see that I have beat myself up at times for making it, in just the way my ex partner wanted to beat me up with those kind of comments.

Recognising the limits of my own power to change another’s suffering is important work. I need not be consumed totally with the sadness of others.  I may feel sorry when I do not see them reaching out for help or to express what is in their hearts, as I know the release and comfort and strength that comes from doing so.  But just because that is my choice, it doesn’t mean it is theirs.  I need to respect that because everyone does the best they can and people all have different lines of defence.   Its part of the complex tapestry of personality and life.

A broken hearted love affair


Experiencing a broken heart brings a choice.  We can shut down, out of pain and resentment about not getting what we want.  Or if we pay attention to what our heart truly desires, we find it wanting to break open, despite the pain we feel.  When we let our heart break open, a sweetness starts to flow in like nectar.  As the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Kahn put it, ‘The warmth of a lover’s atmosphere, the piercing of his voice, the appeal of his words, all come from the pain of his heart.’  This is one of the great secrets of love.  Instead of trying to ward off the pain that finds us anyway, the lover can use it to transform himself, to develop tenderness and compassion and as the troubadors discovered, to become a heroic warrior in the service of love.

This broken hearted quality of pure devotion, has a particular poignancy, like the sadness that is often present in the most moving love poems and songs…. ‘the genuine heart of sadness.’  It is a fullness of feeling that arises in response to loving someone we can never fully possess.  The one we love is going to die, we ourselves are going to die, its all going to pass away… Nothing can save us from our aloneness.  The more we love our life, our sweetheart, our spiritual teacher, the more broken hearted we will feel sooner or later…genuine sadness is a fullness of heart that wants to overflow…. (it is) ….unconditional.  It occurs because your heart is completely exposed.. from this rises the desire to melt all of the barriers between oneself and others, the life in here and the life out there.

John Welwood


Don’t be so scared : a garland necklace

One thing.png

What my inner child needs to hear today (from witness self).

Don’t be scared little one.  I am here.  You are not alone.   As a child you were alone And later lots of really painful traumatic things happened to those you loved.  It was painful, frightening and scary and you didn’t know how to cope, so you reached to substances. There was no way could you have known about the hunger in your soul then When you needed help it wasn’t there And so often you were pushed away or told you knew how to cope or should when you didn’t.

This anxiety that you so often feel also isn’t all bad or dysfunctional.  Its about trapped life energy, the soul of you, the true self that never got to fully live and express in the world due to fear and being told you were ‘too much’.  The reality wasn’t that you were too much, the reality was that it was too much for a mother who was wanting not to be a parent any more but rather to find a way to express in the world.  While you can resent that you can also see why she desired that so much when so often her own mother tried to put her to death.  If you go on resenting that you may not find your own path into the world for you will see individuating or self assertion as a kind of attack rather than a strong life urge that you learned to both hate and fear and see as a kind of wounding.

Little one, despite the fact Dad didn’t communicate you know there was love there, he didn’t know how to express it in hugs or love, as a youngster maybe he felt the impending threat in Holland and so he escaped, he was always a bit prophetic your Dad, you are a lot like him.   You felt the longing for what he left behind, all that he didn’t talk of. After he died and you finally found your way to Holland you felt like you had come home when you shed those tears after the visit to Aunty Leis’s place.  The dark affair with Dutch Mirko on Ios in Greece was all about unresolved grief.  You carried the unresolved longing and grief over your Dad throughout all those ‘lost’ years and into each affair.  There was the termination you had on the first anniversary of his death.  There was the sad call from your Mum asking you to come home, you only answered with a drug fuelled resentment and anger.  There was the precious gift of that relationship on the second anniversary of it all, in which you acted out all the unresolved grief and pain and longing.  Simon abandoned you as you knew he would.   He could not see what lay beneath the wounds.  It wasn’t really his job, was it?  He came looking for you all those years later but by then it was too late.

Dear Debs don’t feel ashamed for those lost years that followed in Sydney.  By then you had lost your way but it wasn’t really your fault.  You tried hard to find a way.  This waking up to deeper truth is something that happens much later for some.  Remember always that it is recognizing your lostness that you are found and who you truly are in the deepest part of you can never be lost.  You have been brave, you have been strong, even when you were weak, for there is so much strength in owning your weakness.  All alone you were trying to heal a wound so much deeper than you that needed to be understood.  You know it didn’t begin with you but you also know that you want it to end here, at least the dysfunctional unconscious replaying of it out, over and over and over again.  You don’t want to be a helpless victim any more.  There is great strength to be found in owning ones wounds and taking action for self care.

Deep amongst the pile of wreckage are jewels and pearls so precious, wisdom, empathy, compassion, mercy, forebearance and love. Take these and fashion them into a necklace, a garland of beauty that will dazzle you and provide a doorway into deeper mysteries than you could ever fully know.


A sense of urgency : panic and abandonment depression

Over the past few months I have become more and more aware of a sense of urgency I carry deep down inside.  Some, I guess, would call it anxiety.  That feeling that is not fully known but lives in zinging of cells that pulse and almost seem to burst with a precarious electricity that tells of life times that encompassed both desire and threat, the sense that at any moment one could not quite bear the pulsing of life energy so longed damned or dammed that wanted to live but was also on some level terrified to do so.

I wonder a lot about body memory because it happens for me around 5 to 7 in the evening and my birth took place at 7:10 pm.  Mum held off going to the hospital as she was in the middle of bottling plum jam to the point that when she arrived I arrived with a rush but at the same time a powerful imprint that is always there for me and accompanies any forward thrust or new beginning is that I question and then try to kill it off.  And Mum was trying to hold me back inside.  When I told my therapist about this a while back she just raised her eyes and laughed knowing how much Mum can’t be there for me when I so often need her to be.

I try to contain myself at this time of evening.  Tonight I haven’t had a spiral attack as I do most days.  I had several of them today and they seem to be related to me trying to balance my life energy between activity/creativity and self expression and letting go/rest.

My own mother was left alone as a child at this same time of day.  Her mother had to do a cleaning job and so my mother was left alone to get her own dinner.  She ached with loneliness.    That deep soul loneliness in my Mum is very present lately.  I felt it today on the phone when we spoke.  I think of her own Mars in Pisces and see how her own desire energy got a bit flooded or dissolved by the influences around her that offered her next to no containment.  As a result growing up we lived with her restless intense energy and often outbursts of rage that Dad would just laugh off.. It was a state of high anxiety/hyper alert and how I tried to deal with it was by anticipating her every need so as to defuse any tension while obviously simmering with unconscious resentment not only at her but at Dad who was emotionally absent.

This week reading on borderline psychology in James Masterton’s book on the search for the real self he pointed out that often borderline children have this kind of high intensity mother who has difficulty recognising the true self of the child and allowing him or her to separate together with a father who abdicates responsibility to the mother.  He is either often physically or emotionally absent and so cannot help the child with the necessary steps of separation/individuation.    In my own life this was the case.  My Dad wasn’t ever really there even though he was there.  I couldn’t rely on him and when he died on the back of so much earlier trauma I was left alone and then sent away alone.

I never really learned what it was to be in a safe, kind, emotionally supportive relationship and as I have shared I learned to try to manage my anxiety or damaged sense of self by reverting to substances and addictions, not even knowing of my true plight for so many years into sobriety.  All of that turning to substances in the absence of human relationship is addressed in James Masterton’s book.

I just wrote prose piece continuing on from this post which I started several nights ago. About how, at this time of day, a ravenous hunger can also descend on me.  I am hungry for my own presence and loving attention at that time of day, When I am in my compulsion I reach for food, swallowing down the abandonment depression I feel then.  Now I know that the abandonment depression lies at the heart of my reactions at this time of day I am going to go back to Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD and read the strategies he talks of to manage it.  My inner child needs me to be present with her at this time of day in a loving way to self soothe in more effective ways.  I am also aware its a multi-generational imprint I am carrying.  My mother was also left alone.  I see the times Dad dismissed her frenzies which were signals of her own abandonment depression.  He didn’t know what was going on or how to cope so he checked out and laughed it all off.  The absent father is a huge part of borderline rage.  We also need a healthy available loving inner masculine to set boundaries so we can use self care rather than be sucked into mother hunger playing out unconsciously, this is Mars or Solar energy that can say to the Moon here is a space or place for you to be contained.  We need this containment rather than an acting out which just means we replay an earlier wound over and over again unconsciously.

With fire in her eyes

Fire Eyes

With fire in her eyes

She said to the unbelievers

: See

But too dark a vision

Is one that threatens to call

The cutter from the shadows

Wild dogs would be kinder

To a soul who has burned so deeply

And known seared flesh

That clings now in tatters

To the skeletal remains left

After the latest haunting

Fire that burned so powerfully and so bright

Can now never be gone from her

Fire will burn with an authenticity

That destroys all that is false

Driving the philistines from the room

Jesus said

Whoever is close to me

Is close to the fire

So cleave to the searing truth

Until all that remains is a pile of ash

That in time

Your soul will use

To fashion

Instruments of gold