This is part one in a three-part series. Part 2 is here: The Sick System
In some ways, I died in a parking lot one night in 1976.
It had been a parking lot for a Woolco back then. Nowadays, new stores and restaurants cover the same area. It’s been redeveloped and smoothed in some ways, but it’s basically just a more refined parking lot. My ghost had dwelled there thirty-five years after the fact.
I had forgotten all about it.
One day over thirty-five years after it happened, I was driving with the woman I considered the love of my life. We approached the corner from the east. Somehow, those two factors gave me a different viewpoint–some fresh perspective I had lacked in the previous few hundred or thousand times I had been past the same area going north or south, and usually alone.
And as it’s sometimes said — that’s when it all came back to me.
It was on some evening in early spring of 1976. I was seven and my sister wasn’t quite three. My mom and dad had just pulled into Phoenix from Central California. We were travelling in a convoy: My mom in the ’68 Cadillac, my dad in the motorhome. Behind the motorhome was a cargo trailer. On the roof was an acoustic stand-up bass. They had been looking lounges to play as a duo: The Corrine and the Professor act. After a few days on the road, they were ready for a break.
That night they fed us a dinner of what was probably Banquet fried chicken and some mac-n-cheese, gave us some candy and grape juice, and told us they were going out for the evening to the dog track. They locked the door of the motorhome and took off in the Cadillac, leaving me to watch my sister.
We were alone, locked in a motorhome, in a parking lot, in a not-that-nice part of a strange town where we knew no one. There was no phone. And mom and dad were out enjoying some couple time at the dog track about 6 miles away.
I don’t remember being upset about it at the time. And that is rather telling. My not making a fuss could only mean one thing: It wasn’t the first time I had been left alone. In fact, the more I reflected on that one evening, the more I realized just how commonplace it had been.
After my parking-lot epiphany as an adult, I went on to recall being left to fend for myself in apartments, motel rooms, hotel lobbies, and cars. When we briefly lived in a house, I was a latchkey kid. My parents could afford a babysitter only rarely, and it was probably for the better that they didn’t use the local talent. It seemed incidents of stupidity and negligence were common results when they did.
Other people I know have varied childhood memories of the help and security (and discipline and sometimes anger and abuse) offered by a dedicated caregiver. I have memories of being left alone in strange motel rooms with snacks and toys and a TV. But as long as it was for my parents’ work, I could tolerate it. I fended for myself and was proud of it.
After my sister’s birth when I was four-and-a-half, I took care of her as well–even changing her diaper one night when she was still in a crib and mom and dad were downstairs playing the lounge at the Van Buren Ramada in Phoenix.
But on that night in ’76, a new wrinkle in the fabric of my childhood appeared: Every instance of being left alone I could remember before was to allow my parents to work. But this time, it was purely for their leisure. They did it just to get away from us kids for a few hours.
Why is this significant? Because it seems every bad decision, every sad and failed relationship, every neurosis, my anxiety, my personal short-selling, my indifference, every character flaw in me either perceived or real, has something to do with that single formerly-repressed memory of that night in 1976.
It was the night I became a thing.
Adult Attachment Disorder
The problem is attachment, or rather lack thereof. My attachment to my parents was already tenuous before that night. I had experienced long periods when I could turn to no one. I was already what they call “avoidant” when it came to my parents. I sensed I couldn’t count on them and my nervous system was adapting itself around that awareness. But when my willingness to accept that oblivion and desolation without complaint turned into an opportunity for mom and dad to party, it became very real neglect and abuse.
At that point, I turned from a child into a thing.
Once a kid starts feeling like a thing, It’s almost certain he’s going to have — at minimum — relationship problems as an adult. Depression will become a constant companion as he doubts his self-worth and is unable to appropriately express his anger. He will feel the need to justify or explain every preference or joy he takes in life, because its not right for things to feel a need to be “happy” nor to deserve anything else outside of themselves. Everything he does will be a tribute to or reaction against that one aspect of his existence that totally undermines him: The belief he’s just a thing to be judged, usually only to be found unworthy.
He’s been introduced to a life of perpetual loss. People grow and thrive, but things just decay.
As extra measures, throw adult responsibilities at him, apply a liberal coat of shame when he inevitably fails at them, and you have a recipe for emotional ruin when he finally matures — if he gets that far.
Now at the tender age of 45, I finally understand why I have been unable to fully open myself to a partner. I realize why I’ve cut people off and kept them at a distance, making myself unloveable before they can reject and disappoint me. The negativity, the impulsiveness, the erratic moves, the clownishness, the insecurity, the desire for control, the resistance to intimate relationships countered by constant, nagging need to be in something like a relationship, the excesses, the emotional eating, and most of all, the constant, nagging din of sad helplessness. It’s helplessness rooted in knowing my parents chose something over me, and that I’m alone and no one is coming to help.
But this is changing. Recognizing the problem is the first step–and a massive one. Rather than just a wallow in self-pity, these blog entries are the means by which I am finally emerging from the hole. Finally, things are looking better for me.
And to judge by what I see in the world around me, I’m not nearly as alone as I thought I was at one time. Attachment disorders seem to be common, and that explains a lot about our society and the sad faces of desperation I frequently see around me.
Here’s an online test that can help you see if attachment issues might weigh on you as well.
Next: Part 2: The Sick System
This is part one of a three-part series. Part 2 is available here: The Sick System