Everything I've Learned About Living With Abandonment Issues

I was consistently pondering this emptiness inside me.

I was consistently pondering this emptiness inside me.

My mother says my father nearly passed out when I was born. He was hyperventilating, probably bowled over by the experience of creating a human being who, after years of soft, small clinginess would inevitably have its own ideas and tell ethically dubious stories about its parents. 

Accurate, clearly. 

I grew up knowing my family always had its very own black cloud. Like a backyard pet that comes and goes when it pleases, a room locked but filled with things we weren’t allowed to look at or set free. And it was all passed down to me like some broken heirloom — my ancestors' weaknesses and fears, swirled into DNA’s mad ritual. 

Does the body sometimes take into itself — take from its creators — what it cannot heal from? Sometimes, yes.

And sometimes there are diseases, cancers, and the more nuanced, less-visible sicknesses: loneliness, addiction, lifelong sadness. 

When I was younger, my father — the same person who was elated at my birth — had some issues with drugs and left. Or he couldn’t be there. I still don’t know which. My mother faced issues that meant she couldn’t raise us, so  — again, that black cloud — I was put into foster care. There’s no way to describe the feeling of loss at that age. You’re too young to grasp it, and you’re still so pliable and resilient, so you somehow fall into the loss with all the bounce-back of a child. You seem OK, you seem like you can handle it. You say hello and nod your head and cry when you’re alone but you live.

But it comes back when you’re older.

Psychology Today put it really aptly: “When children are raised with chronic loss, without the psychological or physical protection they need and certainly deserve, it is most natural for them to internalize incredible fear. Not receiving the necessary psychological or physical protection equals abandonment. And, living with repeated abandonment experiences creates toxic shame. Shame arises from the painful message implied in abandonment: 'You are not important. You are not of value.' This is the pain from which people need to heal.”

So when I became a young adult — I’m 31 now — I had my share of impossible, violent, dysfunctional relationships. I operated not from the standpoint of love and generosity, but from the idea that we were diametrically opposed beings: I was the leavable thing and they were the vanishing party. And any sort of love or sex in between was a false moment, a lie, a brink from which I’d fall — because I was unloveable, invisible. I was a bad witch covered in soot and dark waves, accidentally poisoning whatever came near it. 

I was consistently pondering this emptiness inside me. That I’d push back against my early life and get into graduate school and publish books and have incredible friends and travel, and that I was still so empty inside — it eluded me. 

Part of the fight is knowing how your abandonment plays into every life. Is it that you fear your friends will suddenly disappear? Is it that you cannot trust your partner? Is it that you think you ought to be fired — because, my god, if they knew just how completely and stupendously unworthy you actually are, you’d never have a job!

I recall one night in Spain, sitting at the Castle Montjuic with friends looking up at the plum dark sky commenting on how fast the clouds were moving. I had, that day, stepped into the Mediterranean sea, my heritage, for the first time. Life felt appropriately decoded, as though I was finally where I was supposed to be. I was outside of my everyday life and I was fulfilled by and electrified by the opportunity to travel. But I was still so sad, even in moments of fullness. 

I thought: How could I have such incredible experiences and still feel empty? Ennui? No. Blindness? No. I thought I was depressed. I thought I had anxiety. I thought I had borderline personality disorder. All of the therapists said sure, maybe, but really it was PTSD — from abandonment. 

It was like I had learned the ache of sudden, heavy, head-smacking loneliness so many times that my brain was in constant fighting mode — always waiting for someone to go, to leave me. It told me I wasn’t good enough, that I came from shame and would stay shameful. I didn’t deserve trips to the sea or to look up at the sky and actually experience what it’s like to feel alive. To completely be there. To be wholly alive in my body without the damage surfacing and saying, “Count down from 5 and you’ll be at the ground zero of yourself.”

5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And there’d be nothing. 

Now imagine counting down every day. Every time someone was good or kind or real. 

Even today, I experience the feelings (though I’m aware of them now). I run a magazine, have great friends, and would consider myself rich with a wonderful network of completely amazing people who teach me something new each day. I am lucky to have them. And digitally, I’m warm. But there’s already a separation, a wall that keeps it from becoming too real. In person, that’s where the fear kicks in. I tend to keep myself safe, cocooned. I can feel it when my voice doesn’t share the same excited pitch. I can feel it when I don’t answer texts. I can feel it when I want so badly to share my love for you, reader, but something comes out all wrong and I seem stiff and disinterested. It’s the black cloud. It’s on the end of a leash and I pull it, but it’s not listening and eventually I just walk alongside it because it’s part of my DNA now. It’s a vine. 

Learning to live with feelings of abandonment is hard. It’s wiring that was done without your consent, like an alien came and scooped you up and dropped you back off with a new goal: destroy the self with fears of loss. 

Because even when the threat is gone, it’s real.

Part of the fight is knowing how your abandonment plays into every life. Is it that you fear your friends will suddenly disappear? Is it that you cannot trust your partner? Is it that you think you ought to be fired — because, my god, if they knew just how completely and stupendously unworthy you actually are, you’d never have a job!

A lot of people with abandonment issues suffer from codependency, feeling abused, used and unseen. They feel they have to control situations. They are safe feeling like a victim. They try to people-please. They take everything personally. And it’s because they so desperately need to be seen and loved. But because they’ve been wired to react to loss of some sort (whether it’s, say, from watching your mother disappear from drugs or being left by your father), they’ve internalized and turned every relationship into a fight or die scenario. Love is just too foreign, even if you can understand that your mind is wrong. 

Me? I have turned with a lot of luck to Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself  — a classic by Melody Beatty. It allows me to take a step back and say, “I need to flip the switch here. This is me. This isn’t real.” And then I identify the reasons I feel so left, so lost, so invisible — and inevitably there’s a trail leading back to my youth. 

More so, it’s important to know that you’re not to blame. Abandonment is done to a person. Especially when it comes from family during your formative years — due to repeated death or being put in foster care or being left home alone for years by a neglectful parent. It’s hard to explain as an adult. Your adult self knows that it’s in the past and that you’re capable of separating, but your brain will still do what it wants to do. And it wants to react to that pain because it’s either all it knows or it’s just so normalized it’s become default behavior. 

And because we need to function, we all have to take accountability for our own healing — because we can’t ruin our friendships and relationships and working lives. 

Therapy can help. There’s no shame in it. Sometimes just having someone there to listen to us — and to let us know that it’s hurting — can be validating. When you don’t have access to a therapist, though, it can be tricky. In that case, I’ve found that it’s important to do a few specific things — especially if you’re spiraling with worry or convincing yourself that you’re not worthy:

  • Cultivate a group of a few people who will listen and who understand you. Be clear with them when you need them.
  • Understand that you can’t always burden people, so know your boundaries and be mindful of the health of others.
  • Allow yourself time to move through the feelings but know that people do care about you and love you.
  • Find humor in it and gain perspective — whatever that means to you. For me, it’s making a list of all the amazing things that I do have in my life, and laughing at myself when it gets too serious.
  • When you can’t find humor or get perspective, find a place where you can feel safe. Surround yourself with things that remind you of your importance, and take care.

Know that you are so much more than that little voice inside your head.

You are someone with a wound. What do you do with wounds? You mind them, and you work to heal them. Like anyone does.

You’re just going to have to fight a little harder because it’s invisible. 

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