Shadowlands: Recognizing Abandonment Trauma

I am once again in a river valley shadowland. Sunlight filters in barely; Internet, not at all. Rather than being able to walk two blocks to check in with family, I would have to drive six or seven miles.

So, I didn’t even unhitch. Not out of laziness, mind you. Hitching and unhitching have become an enjoyable part of the process. They are like the pen and paper prep of writing a letter; not productive but necessary and oddly enjoyable.

No, I didn’t unhitch because my last time in such a place frightened me with how despondent I became in such utter isolation. I had people around me, but the sense of not having family and friends in the glass rectangle in my hands was suffocating. I was disturbed enough by this second round of connectivity blackout, that I thought, “If it gets really bad again, I will just leave. I’ll forfeit the night’s fee and get on the road, in the dark if I have to, and find a Walmart somewhere that allows me to park and reconnect with loved ones.

This isn’t addiction (no doubt, that is an issue for me) but it is dependence. The fear of losing contact with my friends and family has been a recurring nightmare since my thirties — since I began to be isolated from them quite literally.

It’s a common theme in people’s nightmares but for me it became pathological; I would dream of trying to call my mother and not being able to get through despite dozens of attempts and methods. From not being able to get “bars” on my phone to not being able to make the rotary dial turn properly to having an operator tell me no such number existed, my mother was unreachable in these stressful dreams. I would awaken near tears and sometimes raging.

At the time, I blamed my physical distance from her which I considered the fault of my parents and sibling. After her death, of course, I blamed the loss of her and my grief for these nightmares.

Now, I also blame the man I was married to, whose expectations of my behavior and his feelings about family (“family is overrated” was a favorite quip of his) kept me from pushing for travel to see my loved ones.

So this, like so many, frankly pathological, responses I have to what might just be annoyances to others, stems from a sort of slow, death-by-a-thousand-cuts trauma.

I lost decades with loved ones, with potential friends, and with places and things I loved (the Texas Hill Country, swimming). I gave those things up to be the good wife who did everything to keep him happy (translation: to minimize stress level in the home). That loss now means any separation, any risk of “never again,” frightens me.

I am sure this has played into a relationship I had as well—the Wrong man’s breadcrumbs calmed me immeasurably even though they were just that. Just knowing he was “out there” and had not completely abandoned me, gave me peace.

I am sure, in a twisted way, this fear also kept me in the marriage at least ten years longer than was reasonable. My husband was my family and only truly present friend after my daughter left. Who else would have me and how would I survive? I dare not lose my one connection. In other words, by the time I knew things were not right, I was emotionally bonded in a way that transcended the love relationship and became a pathological need for connection.

So, I had nightmares.

In addition to the phone call nightmares, I had nightmares that my husband was leaving me, literally abandoning me in parking lots as he drove off laughing. This was how much damage had been done to my psyche.

In real life, he assured me regularly that he wouldn’t leave. However, I had already been abandoned emotionally as far as my subconscious was concerned. If I didn’t behave as he wished, then he most certainly would abandon me physically. If I tried to be independent, if I insisted on seeing family by myself, if I pursued a career again that put me in contact with other men, if I made friends outside his circle, or if I “peacocked,” as he called it, by wearing or doing anything he deemed attention getting — all these were reasons, he implied, that gave him the right to abandon me.

But by year twenty-eight, I was exhausted. I was tired of wanting to die. I was tired of being apart from my family. I was tired of locking myself in bedrooms when strangers came over. I was tired of wearing virtual sacks and constant gray and brown. I was tired of carrying the weight of his expectations.

I have not dreamed the telephone nightmare or the abandonment nightmare since I left. I dream, instead, that I am with him again and he is “putting his foot down” again and I am so tired—again.

Still, nightmares or not, the anxiety of alone does not spare me in these beautiful but isolated places.

These two days have been easier, if only because it is two days, not five. I have not been careful about my choices for setting down for the night in one park or another. Once I get out of this valley and can look more closely at the coming weeks, I will be more cautious. A week without connection, is five days too long.

Perhaps, it will be slightly easier to have finally come to understand the cause of my fear. If the fear is based in “complex trauma,” that is a rational response, even though the fear itself is irrational. That recognition may allow me further and faster healing.

Just a pretty image on a positive note. Prunus sp.

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