Benign neglect is still neglect, it is something therapist Jonice Webb addresses in depth in her book Running on Empty. Many of us could say that we came from loving homes or homes that to all appearances seemed okay or functional from an objective external point of reference and yet something was still missing at the core of such families, a critical sense of warmth, emotional resonance, parental presence, availability and connection which can be hard to articulate. Feelings of emptiness haunt the soul who suffered CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) and the pervasive if unspoken feeling ‘there is something wrong with me’ may dog many of us well into adulthood, it is one of the critical symptoms of CEN. It is not based on any objective truth though, the truth was we never got adequate care and then internalised the belief it was somehow our fault. Our responsibility in the present rests in recognising levels of wounding and trying to find ways to get valid needs met we did not feel allowed to have at the time, rather than internalising self blame.
I shared a lot from Jonice’s book a while back, you will find links to these posts below when I manage to find them back. It took me until I read her book to really get a true handle on what haunted me many years in sobriety when I felt I should be doing a lot better than I was, never the less I was still attracted to dysfunctional emotionally absent relationships and I suffered profoundly mixed feelings of sadness, anger, pain and confusion, I also see now I struggled with critical issues of boundaries and self care.
CEN sufferers often blame themselves when things go wrong or for our suffering and we often don’t know how to take care of ourselves across many levels. For example the child who is left alone a lot may look to comfort from substances like food or drink, seeking the missing love that would come from an emotionally present, warm, available, engaged parent.
I was triggered to break down in tears when watching a programme about latch key children about a month ago. The film showed a little boy going to a fridge to take out some food with a lonely and forlorn look on his face. As I think about this now after just having met up with a close family friend to my mother, an image of her as a child comes to mind. I love the Louise Hay evening meditation in which she asks us to visualise in our mind’s eye both our parents as small children, taking them with love into our hearts. I think of my Mum sitting all alone on the back step after school with no mother at home looking longingly at the neighbourhood kids playing with siblings and longing for a brother and/or sister. I think too of how when she had kids were born too far apart in age to really be able to play like this, something my siblings and I sometimes talk of.
It came up in conversation with my friend earlier how my sister wished not to have a bar of me when I was about 8 to 14. I remember clearly getting my period while Mum and Dad were on a trip away and I had never been told what period was, I went to my sister crying with bloody underpants and got fobbed off in some way. I remember the mix of shame and aloneness and confusion I felt. I don’t remember how it was addressed when Mum and Dad got back home.
Another symptom of CEN is that we feel we must be independent. We learned early on that it was not possible to reach out, open up or rely on anyone. We learn to keep our cards close to our chest, we feel we should manage things that others naturally need help with, the list can go on. I see how this manifests now in the life of my other sister and I see how self contained my brother stays remaining perpetually self focused on work work work and not engaging emotionally AT ANY TIME. The exception was at my older sister’s funeral when he broke down giving the eulogy. He rarely went to visit her in the care home where she lived in the later years with Complex PTSD and acquired brain injury (incorrectly diagnosed bi polar disorder, I feel). His wife told my mother years ago she never wanted her daughter anywhere near my older sister who flipped out and tried to take her life after her husband abandoned her. Guess what? My niece ended up in the psyche ward AT THE EXACT AGE MY OLDER SISTER HAD HER CEREBRAL BLEED AND RESULTING PSYCHOSIS.
I think while writing this of my own struggle with addiction, about how silent I used to believe I must be, how I must try never to be ‘too much trouble’ and sadly remember it was because of this my mother eventually had the final fall that ended her life, she drove herself all alone to a doctors appointment then went to do shopping when she was struggling with walking and chronic back pain because she ‘didn’t want to bother me or my sister!’
I just broke down with our family friend. She told me I am a cry baby but this is the real pain and struggle of my entire family with CEN that I am realising now after almost 26 years of active sobriety. My so called defects of character could read like a skit from British comic act Monty Python : fear, surprise, a ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope (just joshing!!!) But the perfectionism (ruthless efficiency) as well as ruthless self sufficiency defects could be primary ones. That said there are times we need to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves if we want to truly recover and own our power, but never the less being forced at times to cope on all alone, put on a good front and ask nothing of anyone IS NOT GOOD FOR US. And often it may also come from never having felt truly safe, validated or ‘got’. As a default the sense that if we are to get attention or be considered ‘good enough’ we must always be there for others and never demand too much also sets in making us codependent in an attempt to win the missing love.
Well I am glad I could shed the tears anyway. I know the cure to what ails my sister is not an easy one and I honestly never believed it lay in medication nor in some of the so called ‘strategies’ they are trying to arm her with for about the 8th similar hospitalisation. My sister’s heart is lonely and she may feel there is definitely ‘something wrong with her’, a person who tried all her life to be there for others and not expect or ask too much. But my heart knows the true pain lies deeper and cannot ever be fully addressed by band aids or medications.
Many CEN sufferers do end up ending their lives, like Robin Williams they may have had to put on funny or happy mask but never the less what they were forced to face deep in the lonely privacy of their own hearts and souls may in the end being far far too difficult to come to grips with or digest, inner disparaging voices of self blame also dog many CEN survivors marking us in many places with deeply inarticulate wound which may seem impossible to fully make sense of or bear.