Gut wrenching. Knee buckling.
So many of us know its metallic taste, its blood on our tongues.
The faces at the schoolyard when it’s just us again.
The dance class, the recital, the sports game when he shows up foul mouthed and glassy eyed.
Trips to the emergency room when she is climbing out of a moving car.
Hungry days when they are nowhere to be seen.
Psychological warfare waged against our 7 year old psyche.
Recovering from surgery in the basement and he ignores, won’t help with water, children, stairs.
Falling in mad love with an imposter who is saving his cruelty for the marital bed.
A love soaked heart wrestled into someone else’s sheets.
A lifetime of tenderness ripped from our tissues, fibers, memory; a revocation of safety and truth for –reasons. There are always reasons.
I love you whispered from a dark corridor into someone else’s phone.
Crying for a mother’s forgiveness at the locked bedroom door.
Walking the tightrope of perfection, and then swinging from an ankle while the room dips and sways. Promising to do better, get better grades, be a good kid.
Watching them drive off to big jobs, or hard jobs, asleep when they return. Hiding our gnawing loneliness inside of grateful smiles to strangers. Lucky to have them, lucky to be fed. But so hungry for tenderness, to be noticed.
Sickness that hides them from us, makes us the caregiver for our caregiver, or the nurse to our beloved.
A death that we’re not allowed to grieve.
Abandonment leaves us rejected, unchosen, betrayed, neglected, alone.
Fighting for love.
And against it.
While other lovers are swooning and courting, sharing gooey affection and terms of endearment we are running data analytics on their interest in us. It begins with a touch, a glance, a puppy dog stare, and then its their email from two months ago juxtaposed with last Thursday’s at 3:03 and whether we notice a shift in tone. We add up the wins, losses, wins, losses. Three times a day we’re bracing for the end. It’s hard to fall in love with the real us, because our hungers, thirsts, desires are silenced. It isn’t safe to want and need. We hold our breath. We nurture a sprout then tear it from the ground to see if it’s alive.
Some of us chase love because we are good at it, it was normalized for us, to shine with extra sunlight, to give until we are empty –we get a fix when they throw us a crumb, a glow, a fleeting sense of worth, hard won affection is won. We feel like a good kid. We are noticed. We exist. Matter. We fall for unavailable partners, who are with someone else, or self referential, reverential, both. We don’t question their importance over ours, the salience of their needs.
Or maybe we learn to outsmart love. And pain. We dazzle the world with our illustrious CV, we gain titles and soak up accolades, we make a buck and there is always another buck around another corner patting us on our eager head, doling out interest and bonuses and projecting projections. We drive in the left lane and live in the left brain. We don’t leave time for mess. If we love we love on the shiny surface, go through the motions, keep ourselves clean, run with an exit plan. We say it but to mean it –we’d have to crack something open, reveal. War is the invisible, erasable art of staying ten steps ahead.
Some of us come close, we get in the car with the stranger that is love but we know we’re in danger. We keep it on a leash or a string, we push it away with small motions so it keeps coming back. We keep it small or desperate and then we hate it for its desperation exposing our own. The heat of shame rises up our collar and we tear it off, blow it up. We disappear. Run. Ghost. We gaslight our poor love interest, make them believe that they were failing in some way, did something wrong. Because we want to believe it too. We build an indictment –too controlling, not smart enough, too smart, needy, emotional. We don’t ask, or solve, or communicate. Because we aren’t in it for a solution. We throw the bomb and then hide for a while and then we do it again. We’re looking for a mythological creature who will waft in and give us everything requiring nothing; no discomfort, no opening closet doors and letting the contents of our sloppy hearts collapse to the floor.
The funny, not so funny thing, is that the anxious and the avoidant sleep in the same bed. Not always literally, but both anxious approval seeking, and avoidant self protecting are in an adversarial relationship with LOVE.
Let me repeat.
Anxious and avoidant are both in a fight with love.
Love is the enemy, and they will hurt themselves or someone else to assuage or conquer.
Love is dangerous. The anxious are dying without it, the avoidant are dying to avoid it.
Either way that is a lot of death.
No one is winning. Or coming out alive, so to speak.
I watched this beautifully performed mini-series on Netflix recently, where an over functioning young lawyer falls in love with another lawyer, who is not portrayed as over functioning, save for the fact that he works for Big Law, but he doesn’t buy into it or work 80 hour weeks and manages to prioritize eating breakfast every so often and an occasional date. This is your spoiler alert warning, the series is called “Keep Breathing” which caught my eye because I wrote a song a few years back with that same line, not the title but part of the bridge, also about emotional fall out from abandonment. Anyhow, our young lawyer protagonist is softening her tough exterior for a boy, and we really like the boy she is falling for in spite of herself because he is kind, joyful, caring, affectionate, has depth, blah blah. And then he tries making her breakfast and an “I love you” slips out and we see her alarm and then panic, the last words uttered by her bipolar mom before she left for good. And within a few moments Liv is screaming at him to get out, she has work to do while he cowers like a wounded puppy.
Remember my client who convinced a man she truly liked to ask someone else on a date in an epic maneuver around feeling exposed, vulnerable, the abject humiliation of someone knowing you like them when they might not feel the same way, which for some is mild discomfort, but for her was reliving trauma.
“Keep Breathing” is a survival story, intertwining the distress of climbing out of a history of emotional abandonment with the physical peril of climbing out of a cave, thirsty and dirty in the remote Canadian wilderness. The thing is that Liv, our protagonist, does not really connect the dots as to why she is screaming at her love interest to take his hashbrowns and get the fuck out. No one is sitting her down to watch the flashbacks of mom, tender hand on her face, I love you, then disappearing into the night, her fiery cloak flickering in the empty black at her back. She is just going to MAKE IT GO AWAY; the thief and liar promising her potatoes, the sultry smile now oozing and soft. The sweetness that is weak, foolish, dangerous, revulsive.
I know her story, as I know thousands of yours. The school yard, the liquor store, the empty basement, empty marriage, empty bed, empty house. The love that never was and the love that was everything and took itself away. I know all those places you hide, sometimes from yourself.
Loss is hard.
But the key to understanding abandonment is in understanding its narrative.
Abandonment math is LOSS plus REJECTION equals PAIN.
And LOSS plus FAULT equals SHAME.
Loss is already loss.
But when we experience catastrophic loss and that loss is tied to rejection of our very tender needful emotional selves we often internalize shame around it. The voice of loss whispers, or screams, They left because you weren’t enough to keep them there. You weren’t loveable, intrinsically. And the only way out is to prove yourself, or protect yourself, or infinite permutations and combinations of both.
And that is a squirmy, awful, sweaty, knee buckling feeling that it will cost us a lot of crazy to bury where no one can dig it up.
But here is the thing.
You know what those parents and lovers and people who leave us have in common?
No, it’s not us. It’s THEM.
Remember I am talking about abandonment here friends.
Parents don’t walk away from children because they don’t do the dishes.
They walk away because they are holding the ‘not worthy of love’ baton.
They walk away because they don’t feel safe in themselves and seeing their failure mirrored back in our need is excruciating and terrifying.
Lovers don’t leave us because of the dishes. I realize there is a comedic opportunity here.
Dishes are washable. Negotiable. Symbolic.
When we are abandoned no one is doing the work to sort it out, figure it out, balance it out. There is no chance to show up differently, because it’s not about how we are showing up, as a seven year old or a spouse.
We are left behind.
When they flee they are fleeing themselves. They are throwing the baton that was handed to them.
Ironically, it’s the ones who are abandoned who typically blame themselves.
Because they aren’t given a chance to engage. To change. To negotiate needs and challenges like adults.
And that is disorienting and confusing. It doesn’t make LOGICAL sense.
Because it’s not about logic.
It’s about pain.
So what is the answer to all of this?
How do we solve for abandonment? Stop chasing love or chasing it away?
Well it starts with understanding.
Understanding that it’s not about us. Our imperfections. Our pureness of heart. It’s not a test we failed.
When someone leaves us, unilaterally walks away there is nothing we could have done, or been that would have kept them there, or made them safe.
All of those “If only I…” are lies that we need to stop buying into, repeating to our sad selves, because they don’t allow us to feel our pain, grieve and heal. They don’t answer logic.
Someone’s unhealed pain and trauma is not a reflection of your worth.
BUT here is the RUB.
When you buy into the lie, when you take responsibility for their shortcomings, when you try to reason your way through emotional math, you abandon yourself.
When you tell your hurting self that they aren’t deserving of love, you leave them alone at the liquor store ALL OVER AGAIN.
Rewiring from abandonment is not easy. And I am sorry for that. Like sorry for real, no sarcasm implied. But it’s easier than running, chasing, hiding, white knuckling.
You can learn to give yourself what you lost, grow some you muscle, create emotional safety inside that deep cave of Canadian wilderness in your snowy heart. You can learn to love yourself enough that someone else’s love for you is no longer an accidental weapon that gets tossed back and forth until someone is bleeding. I know this. I do this work everyday. I believe in you, and I am even willing to help.
It sounds scary, except that it’s really the path away from fear.
Why spend all of your life avoiding the dark when you can turn on the light at long last?
You wanna know the lyrics from my song? Okay well I am going to share them anyways, because I like them, obviously I wrote them and deep down I know you don’t want to suppress my creative genius:
He holds the pieces in a jar
He’s never let you down this far
A little love, a little scar
Keep breathing oh keep breathing
A thousand pieces in a jar
She’s never counted up this far
A little ghost, a broken star
Keep breathing, oh.
P.S. If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling sometimes a few sessions of support can make all the difference. Reach out and we’ll find the solution that is right for them.
P.P.S. One of the kindest things you can do for me is to share my writing. If you enjoyed today’s Monday Musing and know someone else who would please forward it to a friend.