As I strengthen my relationship with my wounded child, I realize that my childhood showed signs of a developing love addiction. There were aspects of my home life that primed me for neediness and a tendency to define my value in the eyes of others. Deprivation played a key role. Here are some of the things I recall:
My mother was a perfectionist. She was ruthless in her oversight of our household chores. I remember one event from when I was a young adult. My mother had made a big issue about no one helping her. So I stepped in to help. I cleaned the bathroom and honestly thought it would be better than it was and my efforts appreciated. But no! My mother inspected my work, found it lacking, and got down on her hands and knees to do a better job. It was humiliating and shaming.
My father was frequently physically absent from our home. His work took him on long trips, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. I remember one time when I was very young, he came back with a mustache. I was frightened of him. He had my daddy’s voice, but he didn’t look like my daddy. Although this might have been amusing to the adults, it was traumatizing to me.
Because we moved around a lot, I had no friends. It is not true that the children of military or other professionals who are required to move frequently make friends more easily than others. I was an introvert, and had no self-esteem. I was picked on at school, and frequently felt lonely and afraid. As late as high school, I felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t have the right clothes, language, or mannerisms. I felt like an outcast.
Our family religion exacerbated my feeling of not belonging. My parents discouraged conversations which openly explored other belief systems and attitudes. Our TV shows, music, and movies were tightly controlled. I had no power to negotiate any of these boundaries.
These kinds of cultural expressions and experiences are what define a generation. I often feel I don’t actually belong with my generation because I was not allowed to participate. I have no frame of reference for a lot of what is now common cultural language.
What happens when a child experiences emotional, physical, and social deprivation? They develop coping strategies. I developed several coping strategies that kept me from feeling lonely and afraid. They often helped me feel safe and sane even though there was a lot of craziness going on around me.
Here are some of the coping strategies I developed:
I lost myself in books. When I say “lost myself,” I mean that literally. I no longer had any sense of loneliness, discomfort, fear, anxiety, or anger. I was immersed in a story that was far better than my own.
On the surface, this looks like a good thing. But I read to the exclusion of almost everything else. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I would take my book into my room with a couple of apples and not emerge until called for dinner.
When I couldn’t get into a book, I would lose myself in playing make-believe. Again, we tend to think of this as generally a good thing because the child is being imaginative and creative. But in my case, I preferred to play alone.
I had a number of fantasy scenarios I played out, most of them involving having to be rescued on horseback by a handsome prince. I was 10 years old and already losing myself in the fantasies that would later spell disaster when I was finally ready for real relationships.
As a young teenager, I lost myself in boys. It’s not unusual for girls to be a little “boy-crazy.” But for me, I was constantly on the lookout for a boy that would like me. It didn’t even matter if I really liked him or if he was a good match for me intellectually or socially. I didn’t believe that the smart or “nice” boys would think I was worthy of their attention. So I aimed very low. Boys who weren’t very smart or who had problems were more than willing to pay attention to me.
As an older teenager, I became rebellious. I started cutting classes, shoplifting, and pushing the envelope sexually. Although I kept my virginity, I allowed boys to touch me and treat me in ways that continued to lower my self-esteem. As long as they paid me attention, I felt valued. It was one of the only ways in which I felt I had a voice, albeit surreptitiously and in defiance. Meanwhile, my self-esteem was taking a hit every time I acted against my values.
One of the gifts recovery has brought me is the ability to listen to the needs of my wounded child. Never again does she need to feel deprived, lonely, frightened, unvalued, or unloved. I have the power to be there for her and support her whenever and however she needs. It’s a wonderful gift to give oneself.