An absence tells you there could be something there, like zero in the “decimal” or “denary” system. Zero goes way back, but didn’t always exist. Someone knew it was important and so invented it. One of the earliest recordings of it are from Ancient Egyptian numerals that used a “base 10” system. Zero is the base. The baseline is where all things start. No matter how big a number gets, it can’t claim much without looking back to credit its base. Any zeros trailing the number are significant, those leading are not, because a zero is like a place holder. It holds things up.
It makes sense, things come from somewhere. Origins are not created after, but before. Our going forward means carrying our “backward” with us.
So, what happens when what we carry forward is a nothing? What helpful things can we learn from trauma by noticing what wasn’t there?
Like one of my favorite French philosophers Jean Paul Sartre, sensing that something that was there is no longer, means it is! At least when it comes to consciousness. This is certainly something deeply human about the way our brain/body, mind, and relationships. Could trauma be a distortion of this existential phenomenon where we sense that there really isn’t anyone else there? Not even our self?
What Jean Paul had to say about love and freedom may become important to carry forward with us through life. About the fact that by the nature of our existence we tread on each others freedom to be.
He described “the look”. The expression we give one another when experiencing the fact that that other person over there will never occupy the same space we do and vice versa. You will never occupy my space nor know my experience. At the same time just by existing I impinge on your degrees of freedom to move about an occupy space. He believed that love involves supporting each other to be free knowing we tend to limit each other’s freedom by existing at all.
While we may be left feeling existential angst by Sartre, at the end of the day I think he helps us see just how important maintaining authentic connection and communication are to helping us feel secure that there really are people out there ready to connect with us and work through life’s disturbances.
We can get more mileage out of what we know about trauma by appreciating just how subtly we communicate that were are “not there” for each other when dealing with stressful events. In a non-traumatized philosopher an absence might suggest a presence. In a traumatized child however, an absence can seal a fate of characteristically feeling alone even in the direct presence of another. Worse yet, is when we are left to explain things by blaming ourselves for being alone with our pain.
Philosophy and math aside, where can we go to gain insight on “trauma as absence”?
For real world evidence I turn to 2 of my hard working heroines of psychology and child development. The 2 Marys. Mary Ainsworth and her successor Mary Main set the stage for the rigorous application of insights from Attachment Theory. Mary Ainsworth developed the “Strange Situation” research model which allowed development psychologists to assess the “attachment status” of children. It observed how children responded to the absence of a caregiver and their response to the caregiver’s return after being left with a “strange caregiver”. A child that is used to a parent being there will display secure attachment and those that are not, insecure attachment. This is where we get the idea that all of us need a “secure home base” to look back on while go out into the world to explore. We become a mature adult when we feel our own presence no matter what goes on inside because someone was usually there when we were moved by life’s ups and downs.
The presence of others having been with us helps us avoid being stuck in “defensive” emotional states when processing how things go in life. Mary Main went on to develop the “Adult Attachment Interview” (AAI), an exceptional too used to assess how well we tolerate being in committed, loving relationships as adults. These secure or insecure patterns of relating are shown to persist into adulthood without some intervention like psychotherapy or bonding experience with individuals who are securely attached.
Being present with the range of emotional experiences we humans have, helps us to optimize our degrees freedom while recognizing we get in each other’s way. If meeting my needs are inherently in opposition to you meeting yours we have to work together to figure things out. Anything that contributes to one of us becoming overly anxious, angry, or absent (“3 A’s of abandonment”) in the process can distract us from feeling felt by each other. Repeated memories like these can make us vulnerable to being traumatized.
That’s the way I sum up insecure attachment. We abandon ourselves and therefore, others when we are not able to attune to our own emotional responses to stress. Of course we learn to stay attuned to our own experience by being around caregivers who have learned to do this for themselves. In the best case scenario they have displayed these behaviors to us. So, what’s all this have to do with trauma as absence?
Well, as a young professional working in a psychiatric day program for school aged kids, I learned a lesson about presence vs absence I wouldn’t understand until years later. I’m sure every psychotherapist has the, “client I wanted to take home” experience. Mine was Tyrell (not his real name). He was a boy about 10 years old with the most charming demeanor and sweet way about him. He also had a strange lilt to his walk. No, not a schizophrenic float, something else.
Tyrell had been held under scalding water when he was an 3 to punish him for something. He carried that trauma with him in his walk. While he didn’t remember where he got that walk from, his body did. When I left that position he asked me to send him a picture of me from the new place I’d be living. The sign to the left here, is the sign I stood by showing where I had moved to and that I still existed in another land, far, far away.
I never made it to a point where Tyrell and I were able to sort through what happened and alleviate the burden his body carried. I also didn’t know at the time how vitally important it was for me to be present with him so that his brain could relax and bring up what he needed to process. Somehow though, he was aware of me, even when I wasn’t physically there and that comforted him.
Then there was the time Curtis (not his real name) almost took me out with a cue ball! While quietly playing Legos with this 10 year old on the floor of the recreation room, all proud that I was establishing sustained floor time with a previously violent and dangerous boy who grew up in the midst of domestic violence, he taught me a lesson about the neurobiology of frustration tolerance.
When Curtis was unable to coordinate his efforts to get two Lego bricks to fit together just right, he did what he had internalized from home when collaboration became rough. He burst into an all out rage, leapt to the pool table and began hurling cue balls around. My heart still skips a beat with that one. I went with him all the way to the hospital where a couple of hours later his father showed up and needed to be removed by no less than 4 very large police officers trained to subdue very large people. His father was scared and angry that his son was taken against his will, by white people, to a hospital. Who knows what memories that ignited for him.
I spent the night by Curtis’s bedside in the hospital. Just before falling asleep, being a boy of few words, he looked at me and then at his shoes on the bed table stand and then back at me and then at my feet and then at his shoes. He wanted me to take my shoes off and place them with his. So I did. He didn’t want me to leave.
I never made it to being there with Curtis as he recalled what happened in his life that left him prone to violent outbursts. Perhaps the tradition continued in his family. I wonder if Tyrell and Curtis know I still think about them and if their memory of me being there has supported them to reach out to a therapist who could help them work through their trauma. Can they collaborate with people in their life through times of stress? What kind of fathers did they become? Did they remember what they needed to remember to learn and grow into connected young men.
“Trauma as absence” is about how our brain/body, self, and relationships are shaped by people not being there for us to process painful, scary, shameful things that happen. Sometimes the scary thing is the person there we need to be comforted by. When we grow up in environments where people are not able to be connected within themselves because their feelings get the best of them, we don’t internalize the presence of a curious, open, accepting, and loving person that is always there. While that presence comes from the presence of others, it is me. It supports us to be present. To be connected to what I call the experiencing self.
The me that is aware of my body, the 5 senses of perception, and the 6th sense that visceral feeling about the outside world. This constant awareness/presence allows us to make sense of what is happening now and differentiate the present from the past and future. This awareness is what fails us when others are “there but not there“. In this way we can impinge on each others freedom by what we don’t do (or didn’t do) because it supports a habit of abandoning the present self leaving the mind vulnerable to being traumatized by eruptions inside. Not being there wires in the implosion of the self.
A habit of self implosion can make our lives become very confusing. It also keep us from paying attention to the scars on the inside that need to surface and be sorted out. Sometimes I think of Tyrell and Curtis as grounded in their experiencing selves. Taking in life like we ought to, with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. Other times I wonder what they substituted for attuned people to alleviate their pain?
When we have something to do with someone else’s suffering it can be hard to stay present with our experiencing self. The panic and shame that emerges when we are not there for each other can be intense. It’s not uncommon to blame the people we hurt for having hurt them. The problem is, when we do that, we will spend the rest of our lives supporting a way of thinking that prevents remembering things accurately. If we can’t remember, we can’t learn. If we don’t learn, life seems like a punishment.
Napoleon the pig from Animal Farm was an expert at subtly changing the story about the past by blaming his potential competitors for all of the problems in life on the farm. Rather than connect and communicate about the ways the animals were there or not there for each other, he decided to try and meet his needs through deception and manipulation. In so doing he inadvertently set up the same type of slavery the revolutionaries sought to dismantle. A farm of punishment where remembering what moved them became more and more dangerous to his power and control.
There is a joy and peace that results from learning to collaborate with others to meet our needs. Having lots of Legos or making the best Lego construction was not the issue for Curtis. What he lacked was an internal voice that said, “It’s ok buddy, you’ll figure out how to get those bricks together, take a deep breath, I’m right here with you, I’ll help. You’re parents are having problems learning how to work together. I know it’s scary, even horrific at times, but it will be ok, I will be here.”
Blaming others in a way that impinges their freedom and then proffering from it describes the biopsychosocial dynamics of slavery, not love. Like when the animals of Animal Farm were exercising their newfound independence by building the windmill and the humans tore it down. Napoleon turned his frustration into an opportunity to act out his violence on a friend, Snowball, and make him to blame. Napoleon furthered his solitary pursuit of meeting his needs, Snowball was exiled, and Boxer butchered to be made into glue. Trauma as an absence describes a tradition of leaving each other holding the bag of horror with no friends to sort it out with. The bag becomes our inner justification for violence if we choose to act on it.
Sometimes I wonder if Tyrell and Curtis are in prison. Perhaps today’s version of slavery for African American men. Holding their bag of horror alone. Alone in their mind anyway. Are they told that trauma is “just the horrible stuff that happened you have to sort through to stay out of jail”? Or did someone help them see that the lack of people being there all along the way is exactly the kind of absence that makes the presence of trauma so damn hard to work through?
That being told to deal with your past in a punitive environment where the threat of abandonment is ever present is the same poison that has kept generations of us stuck in self defeating patterns of behavior?
What addictions might have become substitutes for attuned relationships? Did they learn to choose the loving relationships that brought their difficult to look at truths to the surface? Like how their bag of horrors lead them to disconnect with their best selves and cause disconnection in their relationships?
So when it comes to trauma, like a zero, just because something isn’t here now doesn’t mean it’s not present, holding up what is here now. The corollary being that what wasn’t there might be present in a way that dismantles what could be here. Good trauma therapy is an invitation you give me to help you understand what it’s like to be you, “inside there”, over time, no matter how horrific it was, or is.