We can only ever truly transform from within. It is a hard road to tread, with many dangers, pitfalls and temptations along the route.
In our adult behaviour, we can trace the scars and unhealed wounds of childhood – and often it is better that we face these rents in the psyche than allow them to hold sway for another year, ten years, the rest of our lives.
The divorce – and the years which preceded it – are throwing up vast echoes from the past, and childhood terrors are crawling, in legions, from the woodwork for me to face.
Today, I want to look at one of the most enduring, and debilitating, of my inner demons – and see if I can use adult logic and knowledge to banish it, or at least to begin to diminish its hold over me and, thus, its power to devastate.
It is my complete, body-wrenching fear of being replaced. But it is more than that. It is a fear of loss so profound that I actually go into a fugue state and, at times, experience myself as a spectral being, someone who is not real.
It can be triggered by silence and absence – and often is. The other major stressor is the arrival of anyone I find threatening. And, in this context, I don’t mean physically or sexually scary; I mean, anyone who might prove a superior alternative to me when it comes to people I love.
Because I have been exposed, for decades, to the Silent Treatment, I dip all too easily into a state of child-like anxiety – so strong that it takes over – and my behaviour mimics what I can now see is the fifty-seven-and-a-half-year-old original source of all of this.
I become convinced, when people ‘disappear’ for a while, that I have been abandoned, that I have failed in some way or offended and that the individual concerned has decided I am not worth bothering with any more.
I will then try, frantically, to make contact – and, when the other person responds, if he or she does, go into a spiral of utter fear: Typically, I will put off reading the communication for ages because of this irrational fear that it will be a rejection. When I meet up with the individual once more, my stomach will be churning with fear and usually I will be shaking and hyperventilating – and, something which only hit me yesterday, I will always check the loved one’s face and the vibrations emanating from him/her before I can feel any measure of comfort and safety.
It is crippling. It means that I am in a constant cycle of adrenaline and temporary relief. It means that I am almost impossible to reassure on a permanent basis. And it stems from this belief that I am replaceable – and that, sooner or later, all those I link hearts and minds with, will leave me and never return.
I stopped myself in my usual headlong tracks yesterday – and decided to follow this agonising path right back to the beginning. It is simple, as these things so often are when looked at in the cold light of adult understanding. The question now is whether I can begin to lessen the emotional impact, soothe that terrified child, gain ascendency over such an old fear.
I was one year and three weeks old. It would have been late January 1959. My heavily-pregnant mother was about to give birth to what would turn out to be the first of four younger siblings. She and my father gave me into the temporary care of a lady I barely knew: My godfather’s wife. They had three little boys (though I do not remember them at this stage), then aged two, four and six.
My memories of that, to me terrifying and interminable, stay are dreamlike and symbolic rather than actual. But, I am sure that the disabling anxiety, the fear that ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ would never come back, the awful surges of chemical mayhem, started in those days around the time of my sister’s birth.
I am privately certain that the rocking, the childlike inner cry of, ‘Don’t leave me…’ the utter conviction that I have been abandoned started then. I am privately sure that my tendency to panic, to give up, to be certain that a silence means the end, to feel that I cannot cry for help because my world is empty of Mummy, had its genesis in the baby Alienora – and, though I cannot recall this bit at all, I know (in the way we just do) that I will have waited, on the day they did return, with a tiny child’s instinctive roiling of fear, for my parents to turn up and that I will have been silent and wary and will have looked fearfully up at them, ready to fall into a dark hole of unawareness if their faces spelled out rejection, if the atmosphere they brought with them indicated that I wasn’t wanted any longer.
I also know that I will have hidden (as I have done ever since) and watched their interaction with my tiny rival: That I will have become stone inside as I saw the huge amounts of attention lavished upon this helpless sister and misinterpreted it as preferential treatment, as proof that they must have sent me away because I had failed in some way to please them and that the arrival of this new person was a hint to me that I was no longer wanted and could only keep my place in the home if I were a very very good little girl.
I ‘decided’ – in so far as largely non-verbal one year old children can – that I was impermanent, easily replaced, that my value was conditional. I interpreted that loss as being my fault, as indicative of a major flaw in me – and it has resulted in a life long fear of being sent away, of being subjected to the silent disappearance of those I love, of being replaced by better, more endearing, ‘siblings’…
Now, with the divorce inadvertently pushing these earliest buttons, I feel desperately untethered and more vulnerable than I, a writer, can put words to. I think it is because some people – a minority, I will admit – have taken my husband’s side and have rejected me, and the terror is that this will become a landslide of loss and that everyone I hold dear will abandon me to the metaphorical godparents of life, and will bring a more demanding, better in every way, new ‘baby’ into the equation if I am ever allowed back under sufferance.
As a one-year-old, I did not have a sufficiently strongly-developed sense of self to bring that to bear upon the horror I felt so deeply. I was not able to be rational, to say, ‘Mummy and Daddy still love me…’ to understand why I had been sent away, to see that a new baby is demanding and that their care of this tiny creature did not mean they loved me any the less.
I now can understand these things – at the intellectual level. But the wound, when pressed, still sends me into the inchoate and unthinking world of that little girl back in early 1959 – and I still find myself looking, metaphorically, out of the high windows of my godfather’s house, endlessly scanning the streets, looking for a sign of my parents and fearing, deep in my soul, that they will never come back.
Did I cry, in my wordless baby mind, ‘Don’t leave me!’
I must have done at some level – because those three words, screamed internally until my heart is raw, have recurred at times of intense disruption ever since.
But, a while back, a friend wrote many lovely words to, and about, me. I cried. The one which stood out, however, was not the one you might think given my low self-esteem as a woman. No. The word which started me thinking was this:
It challenged my earliest lesson, my first assumption as a burgeoning human being – and, in the dark days of struggling to keep a sense of myself as a valuable person, keeping this word close to my heart will be of inestimable help.