Neglect may be your care giver (a term used very ironically) entirely ignoring your existence, not even refusing to care for you, just simply failing to fulfil your needs without a second thought. For instance in my last few month living with my supposed care giver, I had to sneakily throw away or force myself to eat the rarely packed school lunches for months. Every element was past its best: mouldy bread, greying ham, and butter that tasted like no flavour I could ever describe – when I was lucky the dinner ladies would give me food on the side, when I wasn’t it was my only meal for the day. Good or bad behaviour made no difference, I was ignored and pushed to the side, never knowing where the love was or how to change to get it. For me, among other things, it caused significant isolation from my peers who always had money for school lunches or boxes packed with branded snacks - a constant reminder that I didn’t have a ‘normal life ‘like they did, and constantly reaffirmed feelings that it must have been my fault.
As you age it tends to create a knowledge that: you must provide everything for yourself, people are inconsistent, and that the world can be selfish - thoughts of ‘If the people who were supposed to help me in childhood chose not to, why would anyone else?’. This hyper-independence and lack of trust in the resources given by others can lead to extreme hyper-vigilance and paranoia; perhaps you continuously wonder when the next person will let you down, monitor the people around you for signs they’ve lost interest, and ensure that you remain unflinchingly self-dependant.
Neglect may also be used as a form of discipline, and whether the trouble you caused was big or small, the removal of care that you cannot get anywhere else can feel entirely isolating. It creates an unmovable fear that the people around you are only amicable so long as you do what they want. This form seems to come with ‘rules’, often times unspoken ones.
When I was young, before I reached the age where there was nothing I could change, it was always: be religiously polite, be unflinchingly compliant, disregard your own emotions, and ensure you’re always available as the shoulder to cry on. Violations of these ‘rules’ meant silence or hunger or crying alone, following them meant I got a semi-normal parent. When you grow, this can mean that you search for these ‘rules’ in every place you go – ensuring that once these rules are found they are followed with the same ferocity you used when you were younger, and constantly anxious of the loneliness and self-hatred returning once again. It could also grow with you in the opposite direction: absolutely refusing to comply with anyone’s wants or needs: within school and work where authority is synonymous with lies and so it is always abided with caution or not at all; within platonic and intimate relationships where the consistency and safety can’t be trusted, so they’re avoided or shallow; even with yourself, constantly questioning your own needs and convinced that they’re selfish wants. Playing the game of keeping yourself safe in a place where everything could be removed the second you do wrong, often leads to hypervigilance and effortful perfectionism; isolation and frequent escapism; or a complicated mixture of both.
I cannot lie and tell you that any of the mechanisms you’ve used are useless. They’re there for a reason and they helped you survive. Complete removal of any mechanism or after-effect is therefore idealistic, and would likely leave you feeling like you’re attempting an impossible task (because you are). They’re skills that will likely never leave you, ones that can help in avoiding pain or continued function, but ones that will also continually hold you in place as the person you needed to be in your childhood. Instead these mechanisms can be adapted.
It starts with reflection on your past and exactly how your trauma has grown with you - figuring out exactly how you’ve been affected, and where the barrier between self-preservation and self-sabotage lies. The next step is analysing which parts to keep, which parts to change, and which parts to let go. This is mainly done with the use of ‘tools’ that you develop (a term I’m sure you’re familiar with and never means much out of context). In this case, the ‘tools’ given could be a set of questions to ask yourself, like: ‘If someone else was in this situation would they deserve this?’, ‘What would the real consequences be if I get this wrong and would there be a solution?’. It could be a phrase you tell yourself if you feel like you’re spiralling – I tend to use: ‘I’m in control of my life now’, ‘my ability to survive is not being threatened’, ‘ I am X years old and it has been X years since then’. It could also be simply writing things down (as cliché as that is). Taking it all out of your head, stepping away once it’s done, and re-reading it to reassess the situation again to see if the threat is real. This has been the most helpful for me, especially once I was in a space where I knew the book I wrote in, or the laptop I used to type, would never be read without my permission again. You aren’t crazy for needing to destroy that piece of paper after you’re done, if anything it may be more helpful.
The feeling of knowing that one wrong step will threaten your comfort and safety, knowing that complying is exhausting and sometimes futile; the knowledge that you were deemed unworthy of any attention or care from a young age, and the anger and confusion from the lack of explanation will stay with you forever – sure, you stop being surprised it hurts after a while, but it works itself into things whilst you aren’t looking. Healthy interventions are a way to mould that pain to your advantage and limit its hindrance.
You can do this alone with resources online, you can do this with the help of a therapist and tools created specifically for you – whatever makes you feel comfortable, whatever makes you feel safe, and whatever helps put that child screaming ‘why didn’t they love me’ to rest. No matter what that recovery looks like for you, just try to remember: you deserve unconditional safety, you deserve happiness, and you are not unlovable.
Sofia is a senior researcher & contributor working with Jimi Katsis. They have a wide range of experience, specialising in emotional / psychological trauma with an emphasis on childhood trauma & CPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder)