Pete Walker, author of “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” has eloquently put into words what many clients with complex trauma feel deeply but can’t always put words to.
Emotional flashbacks to abandonment
Someone I’ve worked with used to call this abandonment depression “psychic death.” She described a place she went inside where no one was there for her. When she reached out for help, it was tinged with hopelessness and a “why even try.” She needed connection. But her body and her mind were already preparing for prolonged shut down. She was in a flashback to early childhood or to babyhood, when care from the people around her was not at all certain.
Unfortunately, that flashback colored her communication, so that when she did reach out to people who were available for her, they couldn’t tell if she wanted their help or not! She was giving up before she’d even started.
And that makes sense. Because her abandonment flashback told her to just give up and expect the worst. It’s no wonder her requests were tinged with both passivity and anger—anger at herself for wanting something she was sure she couldn’t get, anger at others for not being there for her. It was a mess!
More powerful than you’d think
Often, clients are startled to be experiencing extreme distress when they feel that “other people have been through so much worse than me.” But being abandoned or ignored in times of distress, to our young selves, constitutes a big trauma.
This video of “the still-face experiment” shows what happens with a baby whose mom is usually present and attuned, but who goes still and unresponsive for just a minute. As you watch baby’s reactions you’ll see what I mean about trauma. Notice that the mom came back to the baby, and all is well. If you struggle with abandonment depression, there’s a place in you that got the feeling that no one would come to help you with these terrible emotions, the feeling that no one would take delight in you.
If you experience abandonment flashbacks, then you know these debilitating feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame. I suspect that some people with social anxiety are actually anticipating abandonment or rejection, and experiencing panic to keep them from nearing what feels like the tortuous zone of potential rejection.
There’s no denying it
“So why does this hurt so much?” you may ask. “I’m an adult, right?” One client reasons, “It’s fine for me if not everyone likes me.” But her emotions tell her differently.
When she sees that look of indifference in a coworker’s eyes, she sinks so deeply into herself that she feels tranced for the rest of the day. Or she asks a friend out to eat, the friend isn’t available, and she wilts, despairing that anyone will ever want to spend time with her.
Attachment is as necessary as oxygen
When we’re little, proximity to our caretakers is life. We need to be attended to. We need our cries to be met with love and reassurance. We need people. It’s how we’re wired. It’s good that we need people.
When we have caretakers who, for whatever reason, weren’t around to adequately meet our needs, we skid into despair. It’s like a part of us freezes, gets stopped in time. This part shuts down. They can’t get their needs met. They can’t stop the sense of need. They panic. They shut down, because their needs for soothing aren’t being met and they don’t yet have the capacity to self-soothe. How could they? We learn how to soothe ourselves through being soothed by others.
As you saw in the video, when we need soothing and we can’t self-soothe, we protest. As babies, we cry and maybe scream. After protest, if no one still comes, we shut down. It’s like a part of us gives in to the inevitability of no help. No help ultimately means death. Our bodies are hard-wired to know this, to feel this. And to shut us down if they anticipate no end to the need, no comfort, no help.
Two stages of abandonment depression, and becoming stuck between the two.
When we anticipate that our needs may not be met:
- First we protest.
- Then we give up.
The “protest” stage
A person in protest may be called “needy” by others, and may hate herself for being so. Or she may be extremely demanding and perfectionistic, demanding that other people meet her needs just right.
One person I worked with was so demanding that his wife do everything just right that the wife was fed up. He acted as if he had a huge sense of entitlement. What turned out to be beneath this imperious surface was a child part that was terrified of the smallest hint of abandonment. So he protested loudly, repeatedly.
Unfortunately, if you’re stuck in protest, it’s like other people can’t do enough. Why is that? Because in this state, the sense of distress, or perhaps of imminent loss, is overwhelming. You get time with someone, you are given attention—but a part of you is afraid that they have to maintain their engagement through constant, active, ongoing, moment-by-moment management. If the crisis settles, the other person will begin to behave normally! Thus reducing the level of contact, and causing the panic to flare up again.
A part of you has taken up the role of fighting for your needs, and that has been very necessary. Unfortunately, this “fight part” keeps you from a true sense of safety in connection, a true sense of being able to settle down and relax when things are okay. This “fight part” can push people away from true connection with you as they scramble to meet your needs.
This is a tough place to be!
The good news is that, as you work through your abandonment fears with a caring-enough other person, your sense of panic and urgency will diminish, and you’ll find yourself more relaxed in your relationships.
The “shutdown” stage
If you’re protested and tried very hard to enlist people to be there for you, and you haven’t had your needs met adequately (or haven’t been able to notice they have), you go into a terrible shutdown place. There’s suppressed longing, and despair, maybe a bit of rage. The protest has stopped, and now you’re mostly numb. You may sleep a lot, or do escape activities. There’s a giving up on others and on yourself.
For some people, thoughts of suicide start hitting at this phase, or a sense of just overall despair.
Both phases at once
So in protest, we protest, sometimes furiously! In shut-down, we give up.
What happens if you get stuck between the two phases?
Well, you get passive-aggressive! Or you reach out in ways that are less than effective. The near certainty of abandonment that you feel makes you feel futile in reaching out, but a part of you is also telling you that you must try to get help.
When these two strategies duel, you end up asking for help in exasperating ways that preclude the possibility of someone else truly helping. (This is what I think might be often happening for people labeled with “borderline personality disorder,” displaying, as Marsha Linehan calls it, “active passivity.” They state their issues, but they also seem to refuse to move on their own behalf, to ask clearly and concisely for the help they need, or demand that their help take an outlandish or impossible form.
Well, why not? If you’re convinced nothing will help you anyway, why would you (and how could you) be precise in your request?
And once your helpers fail, and you’re all alone, then at least you’re on familiar ground.
Is abandonment depression a mental health diagnosis?
No, it is not. Depending on the details of how the person with abandonment depression behaves, it may look like:
- A depressive disorder.
- An anxiety disorder.
- A dissociative disorder.
- A personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
The reason to be aware of abandonment depression is that more targeted therapy is likely to be more effective.
Is there help for abandonment depression?
Abandonment depression is all about not really believing that help is possible. So from the heart of the abandonment depression, you might not believe me. And that’s okay.
There really is help, though. This really can change.
It’s hard to change this all by yourself. The antidote to abandonment isn’t self-help. The antidote to abandonment isn’t to do something in lonely isolation.
The antidote to abandonment is connection.
How do you connect when connecting is the whole problem?
By working with a therapist who does connection work or attachment work with people like you. This is a skill that some therapists have. Not most of them, but some.
Therapists who have been through these courses have received training in attachment/connection work:
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, year 2
- Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)
- Lawrence Heller (The Neuroaffective Relational Model)
- And others, who have taken a deep interest in this work. (Like me!)