THE CHAOTIC CLIMATE OF CHILDHOOD: "DO YOU LOVE ME?" "ARE YOU MAD AT ME?"
Judy was born into a chaotic environment that did not foster in her a sense that her feelings and needs would be met, recognized, or understood. This sense is essential to the development of healthy attachment, emotion regulation, and a stable sense of self. Generally, a mother’s capacity to be receptive to her infant’s experiences and to reflect them back to him or her in a containing way contributes to the development in the infant of a sense of wholeness, integration, and safety in the world (Kaplan, 1978). This sense of being understood, validated, and connected is essential as the infant develops and slowly begins to move away and explore independence. A strong sense of attachment serves as an encouraging safety net, and it allows the infant to develop an internalized sense of security even when separated from the mother’s warm embrace.
Judy did not grow up in an environment where she was psychologically held. Her feelings and needs were not contained or reflected back to her by a trusted adult in a way that made her feel they were manageable. Instead, she was left always wondering whether her experience of the world made any sense, whether there would be anyone there to protect her and keep her safe, and whether or not her parents actually loved her. Judy asked her parents whether they loved her throughout the course of her childhood, and her description of their response depicts an atmosphere in which urgent questions were left perpetually unanswered:
You know growing up, I always consider myself the black sheep of the family and I always kept on askin’ my parents “Do you love me?” and, and my parents say “Yeah. I’m just tired.” Uhm, “Yeah I’m busy.” Uhm, “Are you mad at me?”
Judy’s questions were not treated as serious concerns but were instead absentmindedly dismissed. Her parents’ responses can be seen as a lack of mirroring (Bateman & Fonagy, 2006; Fonagy & Target, 2000, 2007a) or adequate holding (Kaplan, 1978; Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975; Winnicott, 1971), and the result can be seen as an internalization of absence or deadness or an alien other (Eigen, 1995; Emery, 2002; Green, 1999, 2003). These can lead to feelings of depression, problems in attachment, difficulties in reflective functioning, and obstacles to the development of a stable sense of self. Furthermore, because Judy did not receive any reassurance or clarity to ground her in these interactions, she was often left to draw her own conclusions about the complexities of interpersonal relationships and the feelings they evoked within her.
Judy spoke about her need for “reality testing,” as she felt that her perceptions could at times become distorted without external verification. One of the most important tools for making one’s internal reality known and for coping with intense internal states is the ability to symbolize, to put words into feelings and experiences so that they may be represented and understood. This too provides containment for experiences that could otherwise become overwhelming. However, there had been no one in Judy’s childhood to help her learn to read social cues or to develop a capacity for mentaliza- tion. Mentalization includes the capacity to think about one’s own mental states and the mental states of others as distinct and separate, and this ability helps an individual navigate complex social interactions. Fonagy and Target (2007a) speak about this breach in intersubjective connectedness in terms of depression:
It is the infantile loss of contact with the external world of subjectivities that severe depression recreates experientially. The loss of the underlying experience of shared consciousness makes the whole world appear flat, meaningless and isolating. (p. 921)
It is difficult to say here whether it was the initial absence of this “shared consciousness” that precipitated Judy’s depression, whether the depression was a symptom of an environment that perpetuated emptiness, or whether the depression further exacerbated and contributed to Judy’s sense of disconnection from others. What is clear is that all of these factors reinforced one another in a cyclical fashion.
The climate of Judy’s childhood can also be understood in terms of the transmission of intergenerational trauma. The chaos, instability, and substance abuse that pervaded her family environment are all symptoms of underlying unprocessed pain. They are indications of several layers of people attempting to cope with intolerable experiences. Green’s (2003) conceptualization of “the dead mother complex” is applicable in Judy’s case to describe the overarching emotional unavailability of her primary caregivers. Both Judy’s mother and father present themselves in her memory more as present absences, and absent presences, than they do as attuned parents who are able and ready to meet her needs. The presence of family secrets—which Judy described throughout the interview—makes it difficult to gain an intimate sense of the ghosts that haunted the multiple generations of her family tree. But if we assume that her parents’ drinking and emotional unavailability are symptoms of their own unmourned losses, then the internalized deadness that results from parents who are themselves bereaved and therefore unavailable makes sense in terms of the isolation and loneliness that Judy often felt as a young girl.
In many respects, Judy inherited numerous losses without ever being able to trace them directly to their specific sources. She was emotionally affected by the loss of her parents, who although physically present, were not attuned to her. She inherited her parents’ losses and she personally experienced several losses in the form of actual deaths throughout her life. What further complicated these feelings of loss is that many of them were unnamed.
They were instead integral facets of the environment into which Judy was bom, which made them even more nebulous and nearly impossible to battle directly. As Emery (2002) states, in some cases, unmourned losses that remain unacknowledged become a buried secret. Not only do the specifics of the loss become enshrouded in silence, but also the fact that there is a loss itself becomes a secret that is locked away and never mentioned. This further contributes to the cycle of uncommemorated loss, and it is helpful in understanding the secrecy surrounding death that weighed heavily on Judy’s family and complicated her process of mourning.