A Spiritual Homecoming
But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply'd, My Lord.
-- George Herbert, "The Collar"
Those of us in twelve-step recovery learn that the most pernicious effect of our addictions and the psychic disorders that come along with them is spiritual isolation. We feel that we have become "terminally unique." Everywhere we turn we find ourselves at the center of a hostile universe against which we must defend ourselves by dishonesty or hostility or withdrawal. We are defiant or abashed, and always we feel shame. This egocentricity makes us feel that "everyone is looking at us" and that we have to do something about it or suffer. We call this "self-centered fear." One of the witticisms of AA describes a person in this state as being "an arrogant doormat" or as "that piece of garbage around which the entire universe revolves."
Rejoining the human race with a proper understanding of our interdependence is the task we work on from the time we attend our first AA meeting. And no better way has been found for us to begin that task of reuniting with our fellow humans than in listening to their stories and in telling our own. I would like to share my story with you. When I was an infant, my father was away at war, and my mother was overwhelmed by being a single parent. She would have breakdowns, during which she would sleep the morning away and leave my sister to play by herself and me to anguish in my crib, unfed and uncared-for, until she got up. Sometime between my third and fourth years I was molested by a gang of boys. These abuses were stamped like fossilized footprints in my soul. I was traumatized at an age so young that I had no language skills to shield me from the immediate, visceral pain. That pain and the memory of my early childhood wounds remained beyond my recall for many years.
When I was approximately seven years old, I realized that my mother was preoccupied with fighting with my father. When I complained to her about him, however, she denied that there was anything wrong with him. My reality was unreliable, she implied -- illusory. As for my father, he could not stand the sound and sight of me, and he told me so, without shame. When he wasn't demeaning me, he ignored me. I felt worthless, hopeless, and frightened. I had trouble sleeping, and I had nightmares.
No longer the passive, blank slate that I was as a three- and four-year-old, I thought up tactics to help me survive in this abusive family system. I now had language and concepts to help me cope. If reality was unacceptably painful for me, I would make up my own.
What I did to survive was to go silent; I "disappeared." I spent time away from the house and told my parents nothing about what I was doing. I didn't want to be noticed. Worse than being a lost child, I became the irrelevant child. My parents knew where I was -- unfortunately for me, I had no place in their plans.
When I was about thirteen, my mother began to relate details about how awful, how sadistic, my father was to her and threatened divorce. The more she began to unburden herself, the more I began to feel afraid for myself and for her. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of responsibility for her and felt as if I had to save her. The more she made me the repository of her complaints, the more she seemed like a helpless child, the victim of my father; and the more childlike she seemed, the more "adult" and "better than" I became. I also felt angry and confused as I remembered my mother's earlier denial of my complaints about my father -- the very same man she was now telling me was so sadistic.
Also, at this time, I was approaching adolescence and having a hard time dealing with teenage boys. I felt frightened and repulsed, not knowing that their sexuality was stirring up the emotional intimations of my childhood molestation. All these wounds and the adaptations I made to tolerate them took up residence within me -- unexamined, untreated, free to twist and distort my soul.
As an adult, when I first began to study the problem of childhood abuse and treatment, I found that a man or woman who was important to me could remind me of either my mother or my father and send me spinning back to those emotions and wounds I had received through infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Real relationships -- I had none. The specific ages at which I had experienced abuse had created ego states, each with its own characteristics. The three-year-old was frightened and helpless; the seven-year-old was extremely depressed, felt shame-filled, worthless, and alone; and the thirteen-year-old was filled with fear, confusion, and anger.
When these wounds were stimulated, each one had a different voice in my head. Each troubled voice came from a part of me that had received a significant wounding. It would take many years of suffering and bewilderment before I could even remember or focus on and accept my trauma history.
But that painful day did come. One day my older sister recounted for me the details of the abuse I had known as a baby. It was the first time ever that I had experienced the reality of that early wounding. The shock to my psyche was tremendous. Before my sister's eyes, I was helplessly plunged back into a very early, prelanguage, wounded-child state. My mind and emotions swirled out of control. I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of spinning apart. I lay down and curled up into a ball in order to stop the spinning ...