I feel like the major trigger in all of this, all the baby trauma, is vulnerability. It is just a felt sense of being fragile or at risk. It was so closely linked to whatever happened after, that it became a thing that could not be felt, and had to be exiled from me. The different modes are mostly ways of responding to vulnerability or forms of vulnerability themselves: the need to be close (Vulnerable Child), the pain and anger of grief (Abused Child), the refusal to feel one’s vulnerability at all and the fear of others (Detached Mode). They are responses to vulnerability that have been exiled from the self, because the feeling that sparked them has been exiled.
The problem with exiled responses and emotions is that they become impulses. They are not folded into a self who has a broad understanding of oneself or one’s life or the needs of other people, or of consequences. They cannot, in that way, take into account that other people might not be available at that particular moment or that they have their own things they need to do. They cannot take into account that when we push someone away they might not want to come back.
It feels like the crucial step in healing from this is making it safe to be vulnerable without triggering more feelings of vulnerability that will trigger the trauma further. All the adaptive dissociation (I will imagine that 3-year-old child and hold her hand) is aimed towards that purpose: I will make it safe for me to be vulnerable while still finding it too activating to actually feel all of the vulnerability inside myself.
Actually, we all feel vulnerable. It’s normal. We make a mistake and feel embarrassed. That is vulnerability. We want to feel close and risk rejection or humiliation. That is vulnerability. But for me and others it triggers baby trauma. I am not necessarily afraid of rejection in the present, but vulnerable feelings in the present trigger emotional memories of what happened in the past in situations where I was vulnerable and my vulnerability was not protected or soothed. My body was fragile and no one thought not to risk breaking it. When I feel the fragility of my body—and all of our bodies are fragile to some extent—I also remember what it felt like for no one to protect that fragility. I remember what it felt like to have a fragile body that was assaulted and a fragile sense of self that was shredded to pieces.
C triggers this for me because there are times she sees my vulnerability and acts to protect it. I don’t know actually why she does this, and whether it is a response to her own baby trauma issues or because that is the person she is. Maybe it is both. It startles me and grabs my attention. I have the normal baby trauma, and then there are these little things she does. Don’t brush crumbs on my mom. She deserves respect and you aren’t respecting her. She gets worried about my walking alone in the dark. I think it is very much on her mind right now. I am going so far away, to a place she has never been to and doesn’t know will be safe, and she seems so worried what will happen to me. She has not said that, but it is a feeling I have about the situation.
It has made the last few days harder for me, because it forces me to feel my vulnerability in a way I wouldn’t normally see. I could avoid seeing it. I don’t feel particularly afraid walking alone in the dark for 40 minutes, but I could feel afraid of it. Everyone else does here. It’s just an example. I feel the vulnerability she experiences on my behalf, and it makes me aware of my own vulnerability. And then it’s triggering. I get baby trauma symptoms.
I think that happens for her too. I notice her vulnerability and empathize with it: I make it safe for her to be vulnerable, but I also make her aware of it. I make her notice the vulnerability. She feels it more intensely then. This means there is both an intensification of the trigger and greater soothing for what happens after the trigger, but it’s not simple. My awareness of her vulnerability does not simply make it easier for her. It makes it both easier and harder.
For me, there is the baby trauma and also a grief that I think is both from the past and the present. Why did no one see my vulnerability and protect me? C sees it and that is what she wants to do. She doesn’t see it in every situation. I am not saying that. But she sees it in the obvious ones, the ones she can easily relate to and understand. It begs the question, why didn’t my mother see it in the obvious ones either?
I think I could have been two or three and understood you don’t hit someone over the head with a chair. I could have understood that my mother could be expected to see that. It would be in my mind as something I was aware of as a universal vulnerability, even at a very young age. I was trying to construct an image of her mind in my own mind and there would have been a sense of her limitations there: she can’t see that this is going to hurt me. She can’t see that I am terrified of this. She can’t see that I want her protection instead of her rage. There is something in her mind that is not right, which doesn’t allow her to see what I expect her to see, and there would have been a feeling of loss there. It’s something I feel in the present also. She is never going to behave like a mother to me. She lacks some very basic ability to protect or nurture me, even as one adult to another adult. I am never going to have a “mom,” not even in a flawed, imperfect way. There is this woman who gave birth to me, but she was never able to take care of me like a mom. She was never able to fulfill that role. She is almost more like a much older, abusive sibling. I grew up with her in my house, and there was a bond between us, and she had power over me as well. But she didn’t take care of me. I really never had a mom and I will never have one.
There is something else I have been thinking about.
When your parent is mentally ill and unable to care for you, you cannot get your own needs met inside your family. You are forced to get them met as much as you can outside your family, and it means there is never actually the structure that supports that relationship. If the neighbour lady was your support growing up, she didn’t take you with you when she moved. Everyone you turned to for nurturing had their own priorities already, and you were not number one on it, because you were not actually their child. Maybe they had their own children to attend to. Maybe they were still very focused on building a career and starting a family of their own. Maybe they were still school-aged and struggling to grow up. Or maybe it was just that their weren’t the structures involved to support it: that person did not have control or power over your life. Their power to protect you was limited by legal and social realities. So there would be these repeated losses and betrayals, as people outside of the bonds that would be primary for them and outside of the bonds that society gives social and legal priority to failed to protect you or abandoned you.
I think the abandonment schema that is part of baby trauma is partly about that. Your parents abandoned you in various ways, but other people did also, because you were not their child. You were not their priority and they did not have custody of you. It creates trails of grief and it also makes it seem inevitable that people will leave you, because in reality many people probably did. If you were resilient enough to form relationships that supported you, these relationships would have been in some way inadequate or transitory, because you needed a parent and they were not that.
I see this happening with C. IT Ma’am left last year at midterm, and I saw the real sorrow and worry in C’s eyes when she asked me if that was going to happen or if it was merely a rumour. I knew from that interaction abandonment was very painful for her. After IT Ma’am did leave, then C was devastated. She cried the whole night. So I really, really knew I could not adopt her and then leave. I knew if I wanted to support her, it had to be in a very ongoing, continuous way that wasn’t merely another bit of evidence of how irrelevant she is. But here I am, leaving, because the structure is not there. Because I don’t have custody.
It make me see: Yes, this is what happens. When you don’t have the love you need within your family, and you are a resilient child and a likeable child, you will find it outside your family. The structure will not there to support that relationship, you are abandoned. And this is going to happen repeatedly, because you have to keep trying to get your needs met somewhere. You will be left by teachers you felt close to, by your soccer coach, by your aunts and uncles and by neighbours. You will get left behind or betrayed by them, because what you need is a parent, and none of them are your parents.