When I am Alone, I Disappear
Conversations with a traumatized inner child
The Inner Child is the echo of the child you were a long time ago. It is an imprint, a signature on your soul. Everyone has been influenced by their environment, the important people in our lives, and by the things that happen to them. Our inner child is the keeper of those memories, and they are stored in our minds and bodies and influence our lives in profound ways.
Imagine that your inner child has stored every memory, experience, feeling, and message in a vault with thousands of tiny boxes, all tucked away and organized and carefully compartmentalized. In this storage chamber resides our self-esteem, personal image, family trauma, epigenetics, shame and secrets, hopes and fears — all the things that forge our identities and our perceptions of the world we live in.
As we become adults, this warehouse comes with us and colors our reactions, relationships, and more. If the things we kept in all the little boxes were rooted in toxicity, insecurity, instability, fear, and trauma, the adult will filter everything through the lens of this stored cache. Ideally, the child has been nurtured by healthy, happy caregivers who instilled all the qualities and skills necessary for the child to save a wealth of necessary riches from which to draw upon when needed. Unfortunately, many of us were not fortunate to receive this programming or scripting. Some of us weathered a childhood surrounded by dysfunctional, maladapted, disordered people who were incapable of giving us what we needed to navigate life with ease.
These children develop problematic coping mechanisms, slip into their own disordered thinking, distrust everything and everyone, and never feel safe or loved. This is how narcissists are born, but the spectrum is wide and varied. Not all people with deficient or abusive childhoods become adults with Cluster B personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), anti-social disorder(sociopathy), borderline (BPD), or even psychopathy. The more I dig deeper into research and draw from personal experience, the more I believe these diagnoses are not specific to one label. The man I loved for nearly two decades suffered from several co-existing co-morbidities, and I have come to think that is more the norm than the exception. While some children shut down and tune out permanently in response to the horrors of their formative years, others may develop anxious attachment styles, addiction, neurosis, dissociative disorders, and a plethora of other signs of distress that show up in countless ways. Some of these manifest as Cluster C personality disorders which are characterized by anxious, fearful thinking. Cluster C includes avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Any way you dice it up, in the end, the products of early childhood neglect and abuse are devastating and last a lifetime. Many people spend their lives either in therapy and support groups trying to overcome their toxic life-scripts, or they develop dysregulated maladapted behaviors that become personality disorders and never manage to get healthy. Few if any walk away unscathed. Childhood matters. And it matters in life-changing ways.
When I was small, maybe five or six, my first memories were of a type of body dysmorphia and disconnect as I lay in bed at night listening to my parents argue and escalate into physical violence. I would feel like I swelled to fill the room, then shrank to the width of a toothpick. I felt as if I floated outside of my body and couldn’t make myself come back down and re-enter my own little self in my silky blue pajamas. The medical term for these thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self). When the strange symptoms overpowered me, I’d tell myself, “Stop it. Don’t do this. Be still. Don’t float away. Don’t get big. Don’t get so tiny because you’re going to just disappear completely. So stop it, please.”
But in these moments when I was alone in the dark, I did disappear.
I ceased to exist.
I could not grab myself and hold on as I rose up to the ceiling and shapeshifted as I felt my body actually growing and shrinking and floating away. I did not recognize my own voice in my head as it sounded like someone else, a stranger in a body that no longer belonged to me.
As I got older, I managed to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the derealization and depersonalization. To stay grounded, I simply needed to tether myself to another human.
And so it began.
A lifelong compulsion to attach to another person so I would not be invisible and float away into the sky like a pretty blue balloon. It required an attachment without boundaries, a complete surrender as I melted into their essence and absorbed into them. It was more than simply seeking external validation. My identity was forged to theirs in an unholy alliance. In many ways, I did disappear as before. I just disappeared into them.
The strange and ironic part of all this is that the men in my life, three in total over my lifetime, all were mentally dysregulated and suffered from profound impairment. The first, a brilliant paranoid schizophrenic alcoholic doctor. The second, a dissociative, anxiety-ridden borderline. And the last— the one who wielded a power greater than any other— a narcissistic sociopath (possibly a psychopath but unconfirmed) with multiple coexisting addictions. All of them as mentally disturbed and incapable of authentic emotions in the same way as my mother. Of course, that was no accident. We have a way of repeating the past so we can try to change the dynamic, heal it, fix it, and be free at last.
When you realize that these repetitive patterns of self-destructive behavior, dysfunctional relationships, and the inability to lead a happy, healthy life are all rooted in the toxic programming and negative scripts from early childhood, it becomes apparent that work must be done to go back in time and self-parent that wounded, fearful child that is screaming out for help. Self-parenting and self-partnering become a necessary step in your journey toward health and wholeness.
That helpless and vulnerable little girl or boy that you were when you were three, four, even five years old still influences everything you do and think and believe in ways that color your world. For whatever reason, that child did not get what they needed and now needs your help.
But here’s the catch.
The journey takes a life-time, and many will fail to ever be free from the “curse” that was put upon them in childhood. It requires acceptance that we cannot change the past. We can only go back and try to rescue that child that had no one to help them in those years of chaos and suffering. We have to advocate for them and be patient. They do not trust you, and instead, cry out for salvation in the shape of another damaged individual. So often, two disordered people find each other and live out their toxic scripts together. The person with NPD and others of his (her) certainly fail to ever be free of what happened to them early on because they essentially murdered themselves to stop the pain. Now nobody is home and a false self has replaced their true selves. Some people are too damaged to ever be repaired.
That is a tough admission. We like to think everyone can get better, be better, overcome their past. But the truth is that not everyone can do that. The Cluster B personality disorders are the only ones in all of the mental health illnesses that cannot be healed. Their prognosis is abysmal. No one can reanimate the dead and breathe life back into the walking dead. Cluster A and C personality disorders can, eventually, see progress and resolution.
I’m an English teacher, so I will leave you with this. It is one of my favorite closing lines from a book. It is Fitsgerald’s Gatsby and he says —
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Sometimes, we just have to accept what happened, grieve for the loss, and move on.
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