January 28, 2008
My Legacy of Shame--Thanks, Mom!
I've really been struggling with my mother's involvement in my childhood abuse. This struggle has been major for me during the last couple of years. Even though my father sexually abused me and my twin in just about every way one could imagine--even though he almost killed me, because he was a psycho, raging maniac--I'm almost tempted to say that his behavior damaged me less than my mother's did.
I've had this prickly, gnawing, suspicious feeling about this for these two years now. Sometimes I can't get my brain around it at all, other times it just seems downright crazy. Then, I started reading about maternal bonding, attachment and attunement. I believe that none of these states were ever achieved between my mother and my infant self. I am absolutely convinced of this. Then, Scaer talks in his book about "the influence of maternal behavior and bonding on the ability of the developing infant to achieve optimal states of self-regulation in the face of arousal in later life."
I was set up! Almost from the moment of my birth, I was groomed to be traumatized and dissociate in the face of my abuse.
One particular book passage really hit me hard. Have you ever heard of the concept of "conservation-withdrawal?" In a healthy family, this is a normal developmental process in which a baby can safely explore, then find a safe place where it can regroup and then go out and explore and gain new experiences again.
Scaer says, "If bonding has been successful, this limit-setting behavior and the infant's withdrawal response will continue to foster the development of the reflex regulatory skills that control the infant's ability to handle arousal and stress in an appropriate, healthy fashion."
Then, there's the classic line, "on the other hand..." There it was on page 121. I had to read it a couple of times. *blink*
When speaking of this concept of conservation-withdrawal, Scaer describes, "During this state, the infant averts its face, hangs its head, and becomes relatively immobile."
Whoa. As I read this, I'm thinking, "I do this now! I always do this!"
Am I an infant? Why do I still do this?
I highlighted this next part, and put a big asterisk next to it. "If maternal/infant misattunement is present, especially in the case of the mother's excessive use of shame-inducing limitations, the infant will begin to retreat more frequently into the state of conservation-withdrawal and may develop lifelong behavioral patterns that mimic this state when stressed."
Oh, I see.
Scaer goes so far as to say, "Conservation-withdrawal is the earliest manifestation of dissociation, which if perpetuated becomes a lifelong tendency in the face of threat or stress." (The emphasis here is mine.) He continues, "In the day-to-day life of the child, repeated retreat into states of shame presents as repetitive dissociative symptoms..."
Yeah. And I would add, in the day-to-day life of the adult abuse survivor, too!
I noticed this happening just the other day. It was over some slight--some slightly disrespectful remark that left me feeling rejected. I immediately looked away, hung my head and slumped away. I don't often allow myself to do this in front of others, but I always, eventually become immobile. I'll go into my bedroom and sit or lie down and then just stare off in a stupor.
I was explaining all this to my T. I remembered a line from a poem I wrote. There was something in there about "my empty, blank stare." I found the poem. Here it is:
Safe in My Pillow
I’m diving into my pillow
It’s the only safe harbor I know
Hidden away in my pillow
The terror and anguish don’t show
I’m becoming a part of my pillow
Like a turtle pulling into its shell
Scratching and clawing for my pillow
You can’t drag me into your hell
And if you take me away from my pillow
You won’t know that I’m really not there
I just send my mind to my pillow
It’s behind my empty, blank stare
I know I can trust in my pillow
How my pillow’s safe comfort warms
Like a soft, warm body, my pillow
I pretend it’s a mother’s loving arms
You’ll never really reach me in my pillow
Though my body you’ll batter and harm
This little girl’s all nestled in her pillow
While outside rages the storm
I’ll just stay here, thank you, in my pillow
You can all just call me insane
It’s my own little world, my pillow
While out in your world a nightmare reigns
Years fly by while I fly in my pillow
It starts to feel lonely and cold
I peek out from under my pillow
How did I get to be so old?
You say I must venture from my pillow
I’ve got to come out and face a new world
How can I let go of my pillow?
Can’t you see I’m still a scared little girl?
Copyright 2003 Marj McCabe ~ All Rights Reserved
The funny thing is, my stare isn't blank or empty at all. It's full of shame.
I have a legacy of shame. It seems, no matter how much therapy I do, it is always with me. It's the shame of believing to my core that I am not worth existing, not worth being alive. Logic tells me this is not right. But, I don't believe it.
One of the first self-help books I ever read--back before I even knew I was an incest survivor--was John Bradshaw's Healing The Shame That Binds You. Wow. That book was published back in 1988. Maybe I need to go back and read it again.
I hope you find a way to push the shame back to where it belongs - it is your parents shame.
And yeah, it's very hard (especially if we're female) to come to terms with having had a mother who didn't love us or let us feel safe, who maybe actively abused us in some way.
But we can. As we untangle the messages we took in and see that some of them were lies and rewrite them, we can create a new sense of safety and self-worth now, as adults. And give ourselves the love our mothers never could BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN SHAME AND LACK OF SELF-WORTH. Looking back, I now can see that my mother despised herself far more than she ever despised me.
I know that people who abuse kids must have a lot of shame or self-hatred, I know that their actions are about them, not their victims. But I find this fact not one bit helpful when shame washes over me at random moments.
You know what I mean: an unkind remark, some form of rejection, and we're once more back in the rabbit hole where everything is confusing and out of proportion.
The cold hard fact is that being abused as a child produces shame, and the child comes to own that shame as her own identity. She sees herself as shameful, and shameful not only because of the mortifying abuse but also because that abuse screams at her that she is worthless. Doesn't matter if this isn't so, it's how it comes across to the child at the time. And the aftermath is that one goes through life fighting this sense of shame, which contaminates everything.
There are no easy answers. It's all a healing process which I suspect takes an entire lifetime to be anywhere near completion.
Sorry if this comment sounds like a downer. Reading your post made me angry, angry on behalf of every helpless child who is hunchbacked with shame they don't deserve.
My mom wasn't motherly at all. I don't remember being scooped up in her arms and reassured or held. Even when I was hurt or sick or whatever.
Your post is very interesting. My survival tactic when I was young was to retreat into a corner and "disappear" into my own head into fantasyland - making up stories.
Thanks, Denise. I'm glad you liked the poem. And thanks for the youtube link. I'll check it out.
Lynn: I'm so sorry. Talk about blaming the victim! I'm really pissed-off angry for you, too!
Thanks, Enola. I'm glad you like the poem, too. I'm so sorry you also didn't have a real mother. What you did in the corner sounds like this concept to me. I wish I could make up stories, though. When I do it, I'm just totally blank or there's belittling self-talk or I just repeat words and phrases over and over in my head. During a flashback five years ago, I discovered that one of my favorite phrases was: "No one can see me, no one can see me."
Keepers: A baby in the basement??!!!! Did your aunt think this was okay? I'm so sorry. One of my biggest grief/anguish issues is that nobody did anything. I'm still trying to convince parts that, no, nobody is ever coming to save us. But, I'm also trying to convince them that I can be trusted to do the re-parenting now myself.
Wow! This hits home. I've never read this book or any other, but that sounds like me as well. Not so much the infant part because we were fine up until about age 6, but the shame and hiding, yup, know that really well.
Even today, harsh remarks and stress make me go away and be very quiet. The anger that boils up is so strong that I have to be still until it passes.
Love the poem, you should write more as you are very good.
But I cant find the comment here and wonder if it was you at all?
So if it was you, I just want to let you know I have nearly deleted my blog before but thankfully I never actually did. If you do ever think of going off blogland do let us all know. I really value what you write, as do others I am sure, so please don't give up due to low esteem.
Don't worry, if I ever do quit blogging, I'll let everybody know. I won't just disappear.
Fallen Angels: I appreciate that I'm not alone on this. I just hope, when it touched a nerve, my post didn't trigger you too much.
I know that you are struggling with this and I wish I could do something to help. It is so sad to see victims still trapped by childhood abuses.
While abuse will always be a part of our history, it doesn't always have to define us. We really can be the whole people we want to be.
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