Part 1: The Power of Abandonment
Introduction / Family History
The Power of Abandonment is a far-reaching, overly ambitious attempt to describe abandonment syndrome based on personal experiences. I will also share concrete ideas for how to manage and even combat it (note that this is an ongoing process, not a silver bullet).
The goal is to help people begin to heal dysfunctional relationships they may be in, and if it’s not possible, to understand when it’s not working so they can begin to make actionable decisions in the right direction.
This series of blog posts is the raw material for (initially) a PDF and may be cleaned up enough for a book. Any further updates will be in the PDF or book.
I'm going to start with some family history, because this will give context to this series of blog posts. This series is also influenced by Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller.
My parents grew up in the middle of WWII in Taiwan, China and Japan, and my little sister and I grew up in NJ in a controlled and sheltered environment. This may have been our parents’ way of attempting to gain control in adulthood over things they had no control over in their childhood. On top of that, on dad’s side of the family in Taiwan, his father came home one day with a pregnant 18 year old prostitute who became his second wife, which was legal in those days. There was a 1 year tug of war between my grandmother and the second wife, and dad’s youngest full sibling is a year younger than the second wife’s oldest daughter.
Dad’s oldest brother had a diseased hip socket and no one knew about it for years, and when their parents realized this, they sent him to Japan to have surgery. Dad has 7 full siblings and 3 half siblings; the eldest is a brother, then two sisters and then him. He says he was a rascal when he was young, small and weak, often beaten up by grandfather. In fact one time grandmother thought he was going to kill dad, he was so angry.
Grandmother finally left the family in Taiwan and went to Japan to be with her oldest son. Her intent is unclear because she died long ago and WWII may have prevented her return. The steamer she took to Japan tried to return to Taiwan and was bombed by a U-boat, no survivors. But she left in the middle of the night and took only my dad with her (he was age six - possibly to discourage herself from committing suicide by jumping off the boat, and to save him from being killed). A younger brother realized she had bought dad a white coat because it was colder in Japan, and he asked where was his coat? So she bought him a coat, then abandoned him in the middle of the night. She couldn’t take care of 8 kids, only two - dad and his oldest brother. I can’t imagine how the two older girls felt, since this implies gender bias as well. The ones left in Taiwan were not wanted by the stepmother and were put into a factory where they were abused and not given an education.
I’ve learned abandonment is a universal, primal fear. From the Miller book and my personal experiences, those who are eldest in their family have added challenges compared to their younger siblings. On the surface, you would think we’re the oldest and therefore we’re the strongest and the most mature. We’re often supposed to be role models and look after younger siblings. And yet many firstborn suffer from a “firstborn curse”, often acting out symptoms of abandonment syndrome, and that’s certainly true in our family (dad’s oldest brother was dead by age 48 of a massive aneurysm). Why is this?
Here are my theories. Every new parent gets to cut their teeth on their firstborn. All of their generations of family history, their hopes and expectations and fears, get projected onto this infant. You would think infants don’t remember anything, but Miller’s research seemed to imply what happens before a child can speak gets imbued within their subconscious.
Also, when I was born, my dad was 26 and mom was 32. When my sister was born, he was 30 and mom was 36. I don’t know about you, but there was a huge difference in my maturity at age 26 versus 30. Once parents have their first child, they know how to get a lot of things right the second and subsequent times. And, the later siblings won’t experience the level of abandonment syndrome that firstborn children experience because their older siblings are there when they come into the world. They don’t know what it feels like to be truly alone, under normal circumstances.
As a firstborn, I experience abandonment feelings where simple situations can trigger PTSD-like symptoms. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, but the family history and growing up during WWII would certainly explain a lot. When I read the Miller book I realized, not that I’d been suppressing these feelings (although I was unconsciously) but I hadn’t recognized that’s what they were. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it isn’t normal to feel like you’re being assaulted constantly by PTSD symptoms, I just wondered why I was so “intense” compared to other people.
Because so much went wrong in my parents’ lives as children, they tried to make up for it with me. I’ve got tons of baby pictures, my little sister has almost none. She resented me for that probably until recently, but after reading the Miller book I’ve concluded it ended up being better for her because she was free to be who she was. Whereas I suspect my parents, being first-time parents, projected many of their hopes, fears, and expectations on me, and as children dad’s criticisms were unrelenting. According to the book, those who adapt as infants and learn survival skills often find those skills don’t serve them when they reach adulthood, and unconsciously act out the consequences of that programming.
This is why, while my sister is four years younger than me, I always felt since I was a child that in some ways she was always so much smarter than me. When I said this to my dad it triggered an insight for him, because part of his emotional disconnect came from fights he had with his older brother. His brother was always angry with my dad and trying to beat him on the head to make him dumber.
As an adult, because I unconsciously acted out what was projected on me, dad was always pissed at me that I was always reaching for things I didn’t really deserve, like better jobs and job titles, more money. I was greedy and also stressed out because deep down I knew I didn’t really deserve that, but I kept striving for it because of this programming that said I was unlovable unless I achieved: played in Carnegie Recital Hall (9 times as a child), National Honor Society, Gifted and Talented program, went to Notre Dame, went to Juilliard, competed mercilessly (whether a ping pong game, ballroom dancing or card game - it’s why I only play solitaire games - anything competitive stresses me out). Everyone around me saw all of this but me, until I read the Miller book at age 52. Every time something surfaced and I talked to my dad about it, his response was yeah, of course, didn’t you know that? I’ve been telling you that for years. And he was, but while I heard him I wasn’t really listening.
I didn’t even learn about our family history until I was 22 and my sister became an adult at age 18. My parents knew I’d never be able to keep a secret. It meant for 22 years I knew something was horribly wrong, but I didn’t know what, and I was angry and scared, because up was down, left was right, forwards was backwards. Then I started hearing the stories and I got calmer and calmer, realizing it wasn’t me.
Kids aren’t stupid, they know when something’s up, and I’ve read that 80% of what we communicate we communicate non-verbally - body language, eye contact, sweat, voice pitch, etc. But the damage was done, and especially when it came to relationships for me, I was pretty damaged. I kept learning with each new person I met, and then things wouldn’t work out because of the two sides of the abandonment coin: abandonment syndrome and unhealthy attachment syndrome. I wore these thick coke bottle glasses from age 14 to 27 when I had RK surgery, then I met a good looking guy but it ended up being an emotionally abusive situation.
This was an eye opener. Prior to that, I didn’t have a lot of friends because not too many could get past the glasses. But when I met this guy, suddenly I didn’t envy the jocks and cheerleaders either, because if anything, I suspect many were exposed to more abusive situations than me. At least I knew who my friends were. I hadn’t realized the glasses served as an asshole filter, and to this day it’s something for which I am still cognizant.
Anyway, after that situation I landed a job working at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo and Hong Kong - and ended up completely lonely and miserable because for the first time in my life, I was part of the majority and I hated that everywhere I looked, all I saw were more Asians. It was like going from color to black and white TV. And, I’d run physically as far as I could on this planet and still my pain didn’t go away, and that was when I realized it had nothing to do with the external world around me, it was me. After five months I came back to the US with a whole new appreciation for the US and even my parents. Prior to the trip I wondered why I couldn’t have nice, normal parents like the rest of my American classmates. After the trip I thought what a miracle that they are what they are, given the environment where they grew up. They’re actually quite amazing.
That brings us to 1997, and in March I landed a contract in Devon, PA doing Java development and met Frank. Four months later we started dating (exactly 1 year after his roommate committed suicide in Miami). Four months after that, after he’d been on a plane ride with two other coworkers and the plane went into free fall for what felt like 30 seconds (people were screaming and crying), he proposed. Two years after we met we got married.
On his side, Frank’s parents also grew up in the middle of WWII in the Netherlands, and Frank was a premie because his mom had pre-eclampsia. He is also the eldest, and had a younger sister who we lost to cancer. His mom was in the hospital bedridden for a month, then had a C section to take him out one month before natural labor. He was 4 pounds and fit in his dad’s hand. His mom would get wheeled in to see him once a day, he was in a warm incubator. Two weeks later she went home, and two or three weeks after that he went home when he reached a normal weight. So per the Miller book Frank has even more serious abandonment issues than me, and the reason we glommed onto each other is because of those abandonment issues and the fact that he basically imprinted on me, and always made me his first priority. Dad was actually pissed when he first met Frank. He immediately groused: great. Now you’ll never learn to compromise. I didn’t understand what that really meant until now, 20 years later.
The other reason we glommed onto each other so quickly is because in previous relationships I had a lot of issues, and any time anyone hooked into something vulnerable it would be like a live wire, the chemistry would be through the roof. It would usually derail because I didn’t get much practice dealing with the situation and because of the abandonment issues I was needy. But Frank didn’t hook into anything vulnerable and that was a huge relief. That meant we both had a stable foundation on which to build, and grow. Unfortunately, mutual abandonment issues aren’t really a good reason to have a relationship, and we lasted as long as we did not because we were healthy but because we both had a lot of dysfunction in our histories.
Humans didn’t evolve around monogamy, and we decided awhile ago trying to adhere to artificial human constraints would be more damaging to our relationship, and not less. This was possible because we’d been fairly stable, and recognizing these truths actually helped strengthen us.
In December 2016 I learned a friend was having a tough year, because his girlfriend had died in the middle of the night that year. I was concerned and in January I started hanging out with him to make sure he was OK, and then he hooked into something vulnerable in me and it turned into a roller coaster ride. We’ve known each other since we were kids. He has an older sibling so he doesn’t have the abandonment issues Frank and I have, and I experienced a lot of PTSD triggers. My triggers triggered issues in him as well, hence the roller coaster ride.
While this has been a tough journey, I also see suppressing all these years didn’t do any of us any good. There’s been a lot of pain but also a lot of honesty and growth, and we’re all learning how not to be tied to any particular outcome.
What I’ve learned from Alice Miller is we’ve gone from being unconscious victims to conscious survivors, and at this late stage of my life i’m trying to learn how to consciously live, and be. As best I can, I choose to live a life of radical transparency and honesty in order to see the world as it is, not as I wish it to be.
The rest of these posts will cover a range of topics including abandonment and commitment issues, Crucial Conversations, relationships, non-ordinary consciousness (STER, if you’re familiar with Stealing Fire and the Flow Genome Project), narcissism, emotional intelligence, coping, antifragility, and more. Because all of these topics are so intertwined, I’d suggest reading this series of blog posts multiple times to get the full effect.
Assuming I get to the end of this series of blog posts, I’ll consolidate them into PDF and epub form, and that will continue to be a living document.