Peter Fonagy says that abused children adaptively fail to transfer mentalizing skills from one context to another. So their ability to take into account motives, feelings and thoughts in one situation may not be available to them in another situation. It’s a new word for me, and I am not entirely clear on what it means. It did remind me somewhat of compartmentalization and of the black-and-white thinking borderlines are especially known for, although they aren’t the only ones who do it.

I thought about how an abusive parent must be split into the “good” and the “bad” parent in order for the child to maintain enough confidence in the willingness of the parent to meet their needs for the child to go on presenting them and ultimately survive.

I began to think this splitting persists into adulthood, where other important people, including the self, are also seen as divided in this way and social decisions are based on very incomplete information (only the positive or only the negative).

It connects to what Fonagy considers extrojects: these unacceptable parts of the self which are attributed to other people and then rejected or abandoned in order to maintain coherence and a sense of safety within the self. (How else do you manage if parts of you are so bad that terrible things are done to you?)

I began to wonder if some of my difficulties come up in those moments when I see the parts of myself that began to fall under this umbrella of extreme badness and if I am alert to situations in which people seem to be seeing things in black-and-white terms and if I know, in fact, when abusive behaviour of varying degrees is likely to start up because I recognize the onset of the kind of thinking that leads to treating parts of one’s own group as a dangerous other.

Only how I have learned to respond to that is to mimic the behaviour of the abusive person by disowning and punishing parts of myself, rather than attempting to reflect on my own intentions which it is possible could be translated into more effective behaviour.



I woke up crying this morning. Actually, I woke up and wasn’t crying and within a few minutes, I began to cry. I don’t know why.

I find this so difficult. Why do I feel the way the way that I do? What goes through my head is usually me trying to guess why I feel that way or trying to imagine what would help. Sometimes my mind wanders completely and I am crying, but I am thinking about something ordinary and everyday, or some interesting thing I read.

I envy people with organized attachments, whose minds perhaps race towards bleaker and bleaker catastrophes and must be slowed down. At least they have a strategy. They have something in mind which once helped them–to exaggerate their emotions and express them so forcefully someone eventually pays attention to them. It no longer works, but it’s a place to start.

I don’t have anything. I am like that new mother, “Do you need a new nappy? Are you hungry? Do you need a cuddle?” And the baby just keeps crying. Hell if I know what’s wrong.

I had coffee with VP Ma’am yesterday. The floor of her house has somehow been rotting for the last few years. It was an issue when I left, and it is still an issue. It’s not a new house, so I am not clear why the floor began to rot in 2016 when it hadn’t before. She had a room added to the house during a brief period when more people were living in the house and from that point, the rot began. So since the boards insist on rotting, she is replacing them with concrete.

The house is somewhat in shambles–she’s an impeccable housekeeper–and she has had to take a loan to cover the costs. I don’t think she’s especially worried about the loan. In Country X, there is not this expectation that anyone be independent, so there is less shame about borrowing money.

But she is worried, and she talked to me about some of my worries, and the thing about VP Ma’am is she has, I now recognize, a preoccupied style of attachment and her mind races when she is stressed, turning over and over the same material. It means she likes to advise me on how to keep this from happening. She does not understand I don’t do this, and stress has a different effect on my mind. I have told her it doesn’t, and she cannot grasp this. I don’t think most people realize not everyone has the same kind of mind. I am 45, and I have only just begun to realize it myself.

I have these students who, when having interpersonal conflicts, will tell me as long as I am willing to listen how wounded they are, how the other child started it, and everything is the other child’s fault. They will never move into a place of examining their own role in the problem or consider a solution. They will never consider what will happen if they continue to hit the other child, which is what they have usually done. Only recently I realized these children are preoccupied. They actually cannot link cause and effect, which is what allows for reflection and problem-solving. They are trapped inside the experience of their own minds at the moment of woundedness, because in the past what has helped is to express this more forcefully. They cannot be comforted–preoccupied children have difficulty being soothed–but they cannot get out of this place of exaggerating their emotions. I had not been able to understand why they do this until very recently.

I once had a couple’s therapist who said something about this: she said we begin to ruminate. I wondered what ruminating actually was. She was convinced everyone does this, because she does it. She never considered that some people don’t. It’s a preoccupied strategy. People with a dismissive strategy don’t. I generally don’t.

I don’t know what happens to people with dismissive but organized strategies. I suppose they bury themselves in activities or in work. My mind just falls apart. Thoughts fail to lead anywhere. I begin to ignore my own thoughts, because they lack coherence. I envy people whose minds are faulty, but can at least maintain coherence.


I am really struggling this week. There are external causes for this. G wants to be a boarding student, which means changing schools. My phone broke and I can’t afford a new one, but I managed to arrange this without my own phone. For a while, I was able to send texts from the phone SIM in my dongle. Then that stopped working and I don’t know why nor do I know how to fix it.

I can’t really afford the boarding fees–he was a day student, because that’s what I raised money for him to do. But he’s having a hard time living with his relatives, and he feels resented. I don’t know how much this is paranoia and how much this is true. He also doesn’t quite have the discipline, I think, to avoid the distractions of city life, which are all new to him. So, I am sending him, because I think it is better for him, but it’s a worry.

Then, over vacation, The Boy went back to stealing as a coping mechanism. He stole money from me, he stole cards from C, and he stole a watch from The Girl. The major issue is the watch, because this is an expensive and valuable item, and The Girl is vindictive. It is not likely to end well. Having extracted a confession from the Boy last night, I think I will need to go to the principal today and get her advice on the situation. It is not a school matter–it happened in my house, during a school holiday–but this is going to blow up.

I am worried, generally, about the trajectory of my own life. I had thought overall, I am healing. I don’t how events themselves will work out, but I am healing. Now, I don’t know. I feel I have opened up only to form relationships with people who replicate the damage I grew up with.

But it means I woke up feeling ashamed. I associated it with images of being soaked in blood. After a while, I began to think when that happened, I felt ashamed. I know the idea is to go back and “correct” one’s thinking. I have this other idea that it’s helpful just to be able to form these connections–as in, “Oh, that’s shame,” and what this does is connect emotions to experiences rather my being.


This passage reminded me of my father.
In the nonmentalistic teleological mode, behavior of the other is interpreted in terms of its observable consequences, not as being driven by desire. It is only when behavior is construed as intentional, however, that one can conceive of influencing it through changing the other’s state of mind. Talking about it only makes sense if the behavior of the other has been explained in terms of wishes and beliefs. If, on the other hand, it is interpreted solely in terms of its observable consequence, a kind of “mentalistic learned helplessness” sets in. The obvious way to intervene appears to be through physical action. This may include words, which although they sound like an attempt at changing the other person’s intentions, are in fact intimidation: efforts to force the other person into a different course of action. Only a physical endstate is envisioned. This may be represented in terms of the other person’s body; these patients may physically threaten, hit, damage, or even kill; alternatively they may tease, excite, even seduce.
(PDF) Attachment and Borderline Personality…. Available from: [accessed Aug 05 2018].
In a lot of ways, actually.
It is frankly horrifying to consider. I have an image of my father wanting to communicate the sense of deadness inside him–lack of mentalization creates a sense of deadness, because it is the interaction with others and ourselves inside our imaginations which creates a sense of sparkle and aliveness in us as social beings. As a result of the developmental pathway caused by the forestalling in mentalization skills, he could only use psychic equivalence to express this.
What I am getting at is that he wanted an actual corpse to communicate his sense of deadness, as though the corpse retained an ability to understand its own deadness and therefore his. His sense of being fractured inside felt communicated and understood via the dismemberment of the bodies: just as he felt dismembered internally due to his lack of mental coherence, they were literally in pieces. His pathology made him unable to grasp that the dead bodies themselves did not know about their deadness or their dismemberment: he felt understood.
This feeling of being able to communicate was so exciting to him that he felt a sexual attraction to the dead body.
And that’s what I saw.
But I saw other elements to this, and not his sense of being understood–I saw their real deadness and not his mental deadness, although I remember feeling his mental deadness too. When I think of him, I am reminded of a wasteland–a desert empty of life or movement. I didn’t know what it felt like to be inside this wasteland or that the emptiness was something he could feel.
What I felt was a sense of shock that bodies could be dead. If I had seen their death, I think my trauma might have been different–not better, obviously, but different. As it was, I didn’t know how they got to be dead. I didn’t understand the idea of murder. It seemed to be something which might happen spontaneously. Of course, it does happen spontaneously, but then it’s less bloody. Natural deaths may be less peaceful than we imagine them, but it’s still different. I didn’t understand these were not natural deaths and didn’t just happen on their own. I couldn’t imagine how they happened. I didn’t know the ways people could die, or that the things my parents did to me out of anger or sadism could actually lead to the state I saw in front of me. The feeling of shock at their deadness is very deep.
More than that, I think I feel sadness–an urgency and a sadness. Why don’t they wake up? If they don’t wake up then I will really feel sad. It would be unbearably sad if they don’t wake up. Thinking about this, I am able to connect it to other deaths I saw later in other circumstances–the deaths of a bee I found, for example, and put in a flower. Later, the bee was gone. A spider stood in its place.


I had a pretty decent summer, and I came back from it–somewhat surprisingly–feeling secure and confident.

Most of the summer, The Girl was gone. She went home to her parents or stayed with one  of her brothers who is grown up and has his own children. She came back in the afternoon the day before yesterday and kept it together for the rest of the day. Yesterday, she did not.

First, she made a plan with The Boy to hide the lunch boxes in the house and then appeared before me at lunch time asking for the key. She did not seem to register that maybe hatching a clever plan is not such a good idea.

I told her I needed to run an errand in town anyway (which was true) and that I would bring the lunch boxes. I told her she would need to wait at school for them. (The consequence for leaving your lunch box at home is that you will need to wait to eat.)

I found her at home. I asked her why she had come and if she remembered she had been told to stay at school. She wanted to leave her (nearly empty) backpack at home. I told her she would need to carry it back to school, as I had explicitly told her not to do this. (The consequence for coming home when instructed to stay at school is that you get to carry everything back.)

She was very angry about this and did not want to carry her lunch box to school. I told her I woke up at six to prepare it for her. The very least she could do is carry it for herself. She relented, but I had lost my temper a bit.

After school, she ran off to play before washing the lunch boxes. (It happened to be her turn.) So when she came back at study time, I reminded her that she had forgotten to wash the dishes before going out to play (and also mentioned I had forgotten to remind her to wash them before going out) and I sent The Boy to study.

Now, she had in mind that he ought to help her dry them, although it was not dishwashing time–she had forgotten to wash dishes at dishwashing time or perhaps intentionally neglected doing them in order to avoid studying, and the consequence is that The Boy had other work.

She kept calling The Boy to help her until I finally had to raise my voice to tell her that he was studying. It was study time, and that was what he was going to do. Which scared The Boy.

So she put the dishes away wet. When I later saw this, I sent her back to dry them again. All of this took about 20 minutes. It does not take very long to wash and dry lunch boxes, but she spent a great deal of time trying to do something else.

She was again terribly surprised when The Boy’s study time finished but hers hadn’t, she had spent 20 minutes expressing her anger over not being allowed to control things–because, of course, this is really about control. The schedule helps make life predictable and safe for The Boy: there are no surprises. He knows terrible things won’t happen, even if it may be unpleasant to study math (for example), but it’s only for an hour and an hour ends. He knows what’s expected and how to be successful. This may eventually be true for The Girl. But she’s still in the stage of thinking the only way to make life predictable and safe is to control it herself, not realizing she can’t. We never have that kind of control over our lives.

I arrive at school at 8:15, because that is when the bell rings. I teach fourth grade, because this is what worked out for everyone concerned. I did not choose the students in my class. I teach them all, whether I like them or not, whether they are intelligent or not, whether they are well-mannered or little monsters. Math is my choice. Country X is my choice. We get some amount of control over our lives, but control cannot be our go-to method of coping with the unknown or with stress. Especially not here, where the electricity goes out unexpectedly, the stream of water inevitably disappears just when you want it, and where you are caught in a net of family which supports you but also places demands.

The morning was equally difficult and she packed her bags to leave. (She needed to go home to get her toothbrush anyway, but packed as though she did not plan to come back.) Which is what she does.

I used to think The Boy was much more damaged than she is, but I no longer believe that’s the case. They are damaged in different ways, and he has been with me longer and is probably also a bit more like me and so easier for me to understand, but I think the damage may be equal. Her way of coping with life will certainly not allow her to have anything resembling a supportive or helpful relationship. It’s not her fault, but she is old enough to begin to make some conscious decisions about this.

I know, perhaps, what she is doing. Because the internalized voice of the parent is so cruel, so harsh, so punitive and so unforgiving, she is striving to drive out that voice with the voice of a living person. However, her ability to mentalize is impaired both by a developmental delay and by the transferance of malignancy from the punitive voice in her head, and she does not know how to keep her interpretation of the motives of this exterior voice loving and compassionate and kind and present except through controlling their actions: The presumption being if I dictate someone’s actions, then I can also allow myself to believe I know the motives behind those actions.

Thus, she wanted help drying dishes not because she actually needs help, but because otherwise she is left with the cruelty of her own mind. Someone must be there to drown out herself, because herself is cruel, critical and hateful.

I do not actually have any idea what to do about this. I know, or think I know, what the underlying problem is, but I don’t know what you do about it. It must be the underlying problem for every abused child, but I don’t know what you do about it. I don’t know what I have done about it. I don’t hear that voice in words, but I know it is there from how I feel. I am working at becoming aware of people generally as intentional beings, including myself, in hopes that reality itself will modify the voice.

I don’t know.



The social worker

Mornings are hard, as I have written about many, many times. Sometimes they are harder than others. This seems to have to do with events in the rest of my life and not anything I am doing. I do not actually know what might make mornings any easier on those mornings that are more painful. I think about what to do and I have no ideas. I can get up and function and get on with life, but I am merely compartmentalizing the pain so that it does not get resolved. When I don’t compartmentalize the pain and I try to deal with it, I am not sure I am able to resolve anything either.

But I did have an idea today. I began to consider that I felt I needed help with my emotions. It’s very difficult to try to do it all alone. And I also began to consider that in the mornings my mind often begins to wander over this well-traveled territory of the helpers I feel have failed me, and I put that together with this recent idea that the pain I feel in the morning is a change reminder: I am still processing the loss of foster parents when I was a toddler. Here I am in a different house. It is not their house. I am still grieving, because the pain has never become manageable enough to do the kind of thinking necessary to resolve it.

I began to think this is about the social worker. The social worker is the helper who did not help me.

Childhood Traumatic Grief

Childhood traumatic grief happens when the traumatic nature of a death prevents a child from successfully navigating the normal grief process. The death can be obviously traumatic or the child may have witnessed some part of the loved one’s death that was frightening to the child, but not especially noticeable to the adults.

Every memory of the person links back to the traumatic way in which they died. This resonates for me, and the child learns to avoid thinking about the person at all in order to avoid the traumatic memories. When I think of Nata, I can’t really avoid thinking about her in a pool of blood. It makes it hard to think about her at all, and the normal process of grief has been disrupted.

My parents were very ill, and one of the byproducts of this was that I needed to turn to others to meet my basic needs, but these attachment figures did not have the power–legal or otherwise–that parents normally do, and I lost them in various ways. I think this happens to children with terrible parents quite frequently.

The other half of this is that your parents aren’t functional enough to support you through these losses. Without support, children can’t grieve.

My childhood was overshadowed by unbearable losses, but I don’t think I knew that. I think it just felt that the sadness would never end. I don’t think I knew it was possible to gain the resources to cope with the traumatic nature of my losses and successfully grieve so that I did not need to be so sad anymore. For children, time is different. But I think this sense that the sadness would never end made it feel a part of my identity, rather than a process–it became a part of my sense of defectiveness.

There are three types of reminders of loss, which children may learn to avoid: trauma reminders (reminders of the death itself), loss reminders (reminders of the person), and change reminders (reminders of the changes that took place because of the loved one’s death). In many cases, these reminders are omnipresent an unavoidable. The only way to deal with them is to become less aware of emotion or to detach from the present moment.

Incidentally, I learned something new recently, which is that there is this other thing called absorption, which is a form of altered state of consciousness in which the attention is focused intently on what is in the mind. It is not just not being here, but being elsewhere. So that’s one way of dealing with unbearable reminders of trauma: mentally change the subject.

I suspect the inescapability of these reminders creates a sense of a hostile or callous world. (Other people keep doing things or expecting me to do things that make me unbearably sad, but they provide no understanding or comfort for my sadness.)

I also suspect this may be a part of the fear C seems to show towards me: my motherlike qualities reminds her of other losses. (She was with her mother as a baby and lived with her mother’s twin sister until two or three, and then her grandmother until she was six or seven. She lived with her mother from about seven to eight and then after after 11 years old.) She wants to be with me, but I make her sad. It’s hard to know what to do when someone both wants to comfort you and seems to hurt you.

It consolidates some of my more vague thoughts about what I am doing: there is the impact of my parents’ mental illness on me and there is also this need to resolve grief. I have been chipping away at the grief for a while, but I think I began to believe perhaps it wasn’t that significant or wasn’t real or didn’t need to be done. It’s still quite significant as a task. It’s still important and necessary.